Thank Goodness, We Aren't Stupid Anymore

December 27, 1994|By RICHARD REEVES

New York -- One of the macabre entertainments of the city in winter is watching the poor shivering souls huddled in doorways along the shopping and business streets of midtown Manhattan. The smokers.

The amazing thing about these lost souls is that so many of them are in shirtsleeves. They don't wear coats or even sweaters.

I can only guess at the reasons. It must be that they do not want to draw attention to themselves upstairs in the office, so they do not make a production of slipping out. They must say something like, ''I have to check something in Purchasing downstairs,'' or, ''I'm going to get some coffee.''

They know that if co-workers saw them smoking, they would think they were stupid. It must be a little hell living like that, although you do get to meet new people, who are also considered stupid.

How could we have been so stupid? That thought invariably strikes me when I see the lonesome cigarette people. (I was one a long time ago before the tobacco life was considered a mental disease.) Why didn't we laugh (or cry) at all those ads with movie stars such as Deborah Kerr and Ronald Reagan puffing Chesterfields or Ted Williams and Stan Musial talking about how Luckies helped them to relax after big games?

The whole idea was insanity. ''Not a cough in a carload!'' -- with all the pictures of doctors. Was that Camels? There were pleasures to smoking. I smoked a pipe for a time and still miss the ritual of the thing. But how could we draw the smoke of burning, tarry leaves into our mouths and throats and lungs, and not know (or believe) what we were doing to ourselves? Stupid!

I thought of all that the other day when I read a full-page story in the New York Times under the headline ''Television Gets Closer Look as a Factor in Real Violence.''

C'mon -- what's to look at more closely? Are there serious people out there who don't get it? Are we that stupid? Probably we are; after all, we are the same people who believed Ted Williams couldn't hit a lick without a couple of quick drags in the dugout.

The piece, by Elizabeth Kolbert, was fine, part of a series called ''When Trouble Starts Young: Examining Causes.'' It was very professional, cool, balanced: ''Anyone who watches television, goes to the movies, or listens to the songs popular with teen-agers knows that violence is a common theme.''

Why, yes. I've noticed that myself. Also, it seems to be in the news now, too. The Times reports that the 6 p.m. hour is among the most violent of the day and night, the only difference being that the victims are really dead. The Times does not mention it, but in the news business that is known as the hour of ''the body-bag news.''

But wait; jump not to conclusions. The Times goes on:

''While a majority of those who have studied the issue have concluded that there is some connection between watching violence and committing it, this connection has proved extremely difficult to quantify. . . . Skeptical voices can also be heard.''

Among the skeptical voices are Brooklyn teen-agers, 16-year-olds convicted of armed robbery and attempted murder. probation, with last names withheld to protect the guilty. According to the Times: ''All scoffed at the notion that what young people see on the screen bore any relation to the crimes they committed.''

One of them said: ''Kids see it on the street before they see it in the movies.'' Then, speaking of his younger sister, he added: ''She don't have to see it on TV. She see it when she play jump rope.''

My daughter, who had her 10th birthday last week, does not see those things on the street where we live -- she sees them only on television and in the movies. Life is unfair, and those kids from Brooklyn, I'm sure, were dealt a lousy hand. But that does not mean all of America's streets must be like that. Unless we are all just plain stupid.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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