Montreal murals in days of old, advertising cigarettes… they used to be everywhere. This was but one factor contributing to the belief (for me and too many others) that it was perfectly okay to smoke. Here’s what else helped to lead me down the tobacco-strewn path.
Her name was Linda*. Not being particularly imaginative, we used to call her Skinny Linny. I was 11, and I think she was 12 at most.
Linny was just… different. It was as though she were beamed down to our block from another planet. Given to sitting stock-still on the back stairs of her cottage, hands resting in her lap, gazing off into the distance, she intimidated us by her aloofness. When not wearing her school uniform, she wore faded flowered-print dresses while we all wore slacks or jeans.
It was rumoured that her older brother had been in jail. And her mother, an odd-looking character, tall and thin with lanky hair, was divorced – a virtually unthinkable fate in the ’50s.
One day Linny spotted me as I was returning home from school. “Hey,” she called out, “could you lend me 35 cents?”
“Well I don’t know…” This was a fortune back then, when my entire weekly allowance was 40 cents.
“Oh please, I need it so I can take the bus to my grandmother’s. She’s expecting me.”
Bingo. I gave her the money. (What can I say. I was always a soft touch!)
She grabbed the change gleefully and skipped into the nearby corner store. She soon emerged holding – horrors! – a package of cigarettes.
Linny fairly crowed as she triumphantly waved the pack at me. “Haha! I really wanted cigarettes! Thanks! Don’t worry, I’ll pay you back.” And with that, she flounced off.
I was shocked. First, because she had lied to me. But more outrageous than that: in the sheltered middle-class cocoon I lived in, only adults smoked. So I perceived the conniving Linny as very sophisticated indeed.
Thus my equation of smoking with savoir faire was confirmed. I was used to seeing cigarettes in this light – all my ‘exotic’ American aunts and uncles smoked, and so did a few local family members whom I considered very chic.
Here was Aunt Pauline, who’d taken cruises from Alaska to Brazil to Egypt; hell, she’d seen the Pyramids! She taught three languages, one of which was dead (and therefore all the more esoteric). And let’s not forget her armoire, chock-full of extravagant designer outfits. Aunt Pauline affected cigarettes extending from bejewelled filters, which I saw as the utmost in elegance.
Uncle Mort, definitely the winner of the American-relative-who-looks-most-like-a-movie-star prize, treated us to smoky Sunday drives. As the poor relations who didn’t own a car, we got to savour rides to the country in Uncle’s latest sleek model – last year a Pontiac, now a Ford. Uncle Mort owned a car, Uncle Mort smoked, ergo, smoking was good.
And as the aunts and uncles played endless rubbers of bridge at family gatherings, a bluish-grey smoky haze curling round their heads and wafting down to the carpet where I (at 4, 5, or 6 years old) erected houses of cards on the carpet… all seemed right with the world.
The Experiment. We decided we’d meet after school at my house, which would be suitably parentless. We were four girlfriends about to embark on a daring rite of passage. Because although cigarette-smoking was generally perceived as harmless in 1960, it was still deemed a sophisticated adult activity. We were only fifteen years old – but we definitely had adult pretensions.
Close your eyes. Picture us sitting around the arborite kitchen table, verboten cigarette package lying in the middle:
“You open it.”
… “Ugh! Aa–aak!”
“Hey, this isn’t so baa…aaaakkkk!”
“I don’t think you’re supposed to hold it in the middle of your lips. It should be sticking out the side of your mouth. Like this.”
“You look like Humphrey Bogart.”
Finally, two of our group, green at the gills, stubbed out their cigarettes after several puffs, vowing “never again.” But the other two stuck with it to the (literally) bitter end. And we are still addicted to this day.
What was the difference between the quitters and the girls who persevered? Lord knows those first nicotine hits made me turn green along with my friends, yet I kept right on puffing. My guess is that they simply didn’t have my mindset: the tendency to associate smoking with maturity and mystery, romance and intrigue. Or perhaps their need to be seen as worldly adults wasn’t as pressing as mine.
In any case, here I sit, decades later, with my 20th cigarette of the day. And I know it won’t be the last. For I am a nicotine addict.
* Names have been changed to protect the innocent and not-so-innocent.
N.B. – I wrote this a few years before managing to quit in 2003 with the help of “The Patch.” Free at last! – Ellie P.