Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Where have you gone, Joe Camel?

This morning as I waited on the sidewalk for King County Metro Route 54, I spotted that familiar, well-groomed woman, again walking purposefully toward our bus stop. She abruptly stopped, as usual, roughly fifty feet from where I stood next to the brown shelter. We each spotted the bus on the horizon and removed our passes to prepare to board our ride, but she didn't move an inch closer to the bus' stopping point. It was as if she were straining against an invisible fence. Why?

She hadn't finished her cigarette.

It wasn't always this way. Smokers didn't always cower in the dark corners of the great outdoors, keeping more distance from the masses than Howie Mandel at a handshaking convention.
With today's state of nicotine affairs, I can always tell when someone at work is leaving the building for a butt break—they wear comfortable walking shoes, because in Washington State, smokers have to reside at least twenty feet from buildings (also known as "in the street") or constantly moving. I guess it can't hurt to keep the heart rate going while ingesting those twelve-thousand toxic chemicals, or however many there are.

Smoking used to occupy such a large swath of popular culture. Most people my age remember candy cigarettes or bubble gum cigars. Made sense to me, since most of our parents smoked, and these were simply tactile vehicles to prepare us for big boy and girl cancer sticks. Lighting up was allowed anywhere—in church, in the malls—I can even recall people firing up courtside at a 1969 Seattle SuperSonics basketball contest.

Most mornings in elementary school, I would stop off at the home of my friend, Terry, whose mom was really nice and always gave us a ride. I would enter the kitchen, greeting my friend as he stuffed his face with Eggos, and his mom, as she took massive pulls off her unfiltered Pall Malls. As we waited for Terri to finish his Jimmy Dean patty sausage, the conversation would turn to Richard Nixon or Olivia Newton John or the new Ford Pinto. We'd pile into the car, windows  sealed tightly, as Terry's mom lit another cigarette for the five-minute drive to school. Occasionally, the car got so smoky, she would open her window a good quarter of an inch for maximum ventilation.

Throughout my childhood, smoking was frowned upon, but not that much. Underage smokers at my high school convened on the sidewalk directly in front of the building. In an effort to curb such a public relations nightmare, a brand new, state-of-the-art smoking patio was built behind the school, safely tucked away from the public eye. Nothing but the best for tomorrow's leaders.

Any time our marching band traveled to an overnight destination, a smoking bus was always included in the convoy. As a direct result of this foresight some important bridges of understanding were forged between the smoking youth and their equally inhaling chaperones. Lighters were lent, cigarettes were shared and a general feeling of esprit de corps permeated the foggy vehicle.

I'm not going to elaborate on the ever-increasing exploitation of smokers throughout the ensuing three decades. The current cost of a monthly supply of smokes rivals what this guy on the left probably paid for his Camero. It's probably good that he's not around to see what's happened to this once noble pastime.

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