How I Became… A Smoker

For the record, I don’t endorse smoking. I think it’s one of the most self-destructive habits. It’s why I don’t like smoking around children, especially toddlers. I have this habit of cupping the cigarette in my hand when I walk past children. Regardless, I’ve been smoking for more than 20 years and the other day I thought about how I started smoking.

I remember buying cigars when I was 16 or 17. I’ve always looked a little older than my age so most of the corner stores didn’t really care, and most of them had been seeing me for years so I’m guessing they just assumed I finally came of age. It’s not like I was trying to buy smokes when I was 12 years old and four-foot-six.

I’m not even sure why I decided to start smoking cigars. Probably movies and rap music or something. Neither my mother nor father smoked. However, my father always kept cigarettes at the house for his guests. He even had a water bong for those who preferred smoking their tobacco that way instead of cigarettes. That’s not even a joke. It was a gray PVC cylinder with an angled stem at the bottom. They used to make them out of bamboo back in the old country. Also, don’t ever spill water from one of those bongs onto anything. That’s a permanent stain. My father even let people smoke in our apartment and I would look at him side-eyed. I hated the smell of smoke when I was younger.

Regardless, I started buying these two- and three-dollar cigars; Garcia y Vega, Antonio y Cleopatra, just these cheap cigars you can find at just about any gas station or convenience store. I’d smoke them at these high school parties while I nursed a beer or whiskey coke.

The problem with smoking cigars—regardless of how cheap they are—is they still take a bit of time, so after more than a few instances of me lighting up a cigar and then having to put it out because we found another party or just had to leave, I kind of stopped bringing them around. I hate relighting cigars, especially bad ones. I don’t care what people say, you should smoke a cigar in one sitting. And I wasn’t about to smoke in my Landcruiser; my father checked that car every other day just to make sure I wasn’t doing anything stupid (There are more than a few stories about me being stupid with that Landcruiser.).

I didn’t have a hard time not smoking cigars, especially at parties. But, every once in a while when there was nothing to do and we were at our wit’s end, my friends and I would just drive off to the middle of nowhere so we could drink and they could smoke weed. There’d usually just be a few of us, and whenever they packed a bowl or rolled a joint, my friend Kevin would always offer me a Newport. I wasn’t into weed then nor am I now. More often than not, I’d take him up on it. That was mainly on weekends, so it wasn’t an issue until the summer after my junior year when I stopped playing basketball actively. My previous summers were filled with basketball. Summer league tournaments, open gyms and sunrise visits to the concrete court I called home. But that summer, we basically just hung out every chance we got, and the next thing I knew I had my own little Newport box.

Though I stopped smoking Newport regularly halfway through my freshman year, I smoked all through college, timing my walks and breaks between classes with how far my cigarette burned. It was through smoking that I met some of my best friends. These are the people I met outside the dorm, library or just around campus that I otherwise would have no connection with. Smoking became a daily ritual. I was never one to smoke while still in bed, but the second I left home I lit one. As I walked to the dining hall I lit one. As I left the dining hall I lit one. Even as I walked to the gym I lit one. I’d always leave with enough time to finish the cigarette before I needed to be there.

I used to have three cigarettes on my way to work in the morning when I lived in Elk Grove. One right outside Starbucks when I got my coffee, another after 15 minutes of driving and one last one about 7 minutes from work. I timed it so I could flick the cherry off before disposing the butt into the trash can right as I walked into the building.

I don’t like smoking in enclosed places, but every now and then I don’t mind a bar that allows it. Ideally, the bar has a smoking patio and it’s always 75 degrees outside. I don’t know if they’re still there, but I remember the glass-enclosed smoking rooms in Lambert International Airport, my St. Louis layover because I flew TWA a lot at the time. We were like caged animals. I once had a four-hour layover and got so disgusted at the cloud of smoke above everyone’s heads in the smoking room that I walked out into the winter cold to smoke. The crisp air was delightful, as were the remnants of a recent snowfall.

Now, they don’t allow you to smoke anywhere. You’re a leper. You have to be twenty feet from the door. Don’t even think of smoking on a college campus, unless you’re lucky enough to have a designated area. There are even cities that don’t allow smoking in their downtown areas.

Lately I’ve been thinking about when I will actually quit. Years ago, I didn’t smoke for six months because my then girlfriend’s grandfather died from lung cancer. The guy never had a cigarette his whole life. Regardless, I quit for solidarity. Then one night we got into a fight, and I went out to 7-Eleven for beer and ended up with a pack of cigarettes as well. I’ve smoked regularly ever since, but I’ve also gone days, weeks, even more than a month at times without smoking, but I wasn’t ever trying to quit.

An aside… This same girlfriend also went out and bought cigarettes after another fight we had. She may have smoked three or four before giving up and giving me the leftover Marlboro Lights after we made up.

My father was a smoker from when he was twelve until he married my mother. For the next ten years there wasn’t a day that went by without him thinking about smoking. At least that’s what he told me when he was trying to warn me of cigarette addiction. He used to talk about tobacco being safer in the old country because he grew them himself and there weren’t additives. He also told me, “You’re either a smoker or you’re not. If you are, you either smoke or you have the discipline not to. If you aren’t and you do, you’re just pretending. You can’t change who you are.”

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