Sunday, 27 December 2015

An ode to smokers, from the girl who adored them

I ambushed my son Nick and took him to the Ottawa Hospital to see Jennette who was recovering from oral cancer surgery, the result of 40 years on the weed. Nick has been smoking since he was in his early teens, and I have been trying to get him to quit since he began that journey.

When I got an inkling he was smoking, I plastered all the screensavers in the house with horrible images of smokers' past. There were pictures of people languishing in hospital beds drooling, others with big gaping maws, others sporting gnarly teeth and nails the color of Cheezies.

Nothing seemed to work. Then the other two kids started smoking. It drove me bananas.

I have been a rabid anti-smoker since my childhood, since I was forced against my will to live with five smokers, the bad kind, the roll-your-own kind. I remember getting out of the shower and taking the first breath which smelled like I was mainlining an ashtray. Whenever there was a family get-to-gether -- usually funerals for smokers felled by heart disease -- it was so, so, much worse, and I was forced to retreat outside. Sometimes I had to visit the outhouse which was significantly worse, as all the people around me smoked where they shit.

Ah, God, it was a nightmare.

Strangely, and inexplicably, I was drawn to smokers. They seemed so much cooler, more interesting, more rebellious than me. Non-smokers read Bibles, and wore pinafores. They were judgy and entitled. Above all, they were boring. So I succumbed to the allure.

I became a second-hand smoker of the first order, a person who gravitated to bars and nightclubs. I loved to drink, and so did all the smokers. I became drawn to the curl of smoke emanating from their painted lips, and by look in their hypnotic, bleary eyes.

Smokers were brave; they stared death in the eye and ate the devil's placenta. I was small, and shy. Being around smokers gave me confidence. I still wouldn't smoke -- still couldn't stand it -- but like a kitten barely weened, I needed to be near the teet.

So I was doomed from the start.

I became a journalist, and man, that industry was full of tobacco-sucking, smelly alcoholics. The desks in newsrooms featured over-flowing ashtrays; the air was acrid and grey. It was awesome.

And then, I discovered the press club, a place where every surface was covered with ashtrays, hoppy lipstick-encrusted, empty glasses, and peanuts on the shell. (To this day, I can't believe that I actually ate peanuts from the bar, but I ate them by the handful. I don't know how many ashes and chemicals I ingested along the way.)

When smoking was banned in Ontario, the press club fought the law. Club members continued to defy the authorities by smoking in the hallways, the bathrooms and the stairwells.

They were, after all, unrepentant elitist contrarians, brought together in delusion like so many high schoolers, lest they be forced outside, having to mingle with the unwashed masses.

In the end, the club actually built a smoking room complete with a fancy ventilation system. They converted the old games room that housed the shuffleboard and the snooker table, and all the cool kids stayed in there getting even stinkier in the process. The door was locked. You needed to be let in, I swear, the secret password was Aqualung.

Non-smokers were allowed in, but only if they agreed to keep their mouths shut about the smoking. Even me, the second-hand smoke Rose couldn't stomach the place, so I became ostracized along with a handful of boring beer drinkers who stood at the bar and silently read the newspapers.

That was the beginning of the end for the National Press Club. The smokers, whose membership included Members of Parliament, half the Press Gallery and nearly the entire lobbying community, crammed themselves into that little room while the rest of us -- all twelve of us -- had the full use of the rest of the facilities. We drank alone, sombre, in what can only described as a bowling alley without the pins and balls.

People cancelled their memberships by the boatload. Non-smokers lived in fear of the smokers who actually sneered at us when they came to the bar to get their drinks. It was like a David Lynch movie that no one would ever want to see.

It was pathetic.

A lot of those weed whackers are dead now, felled by the tobacco they adored. Those who aren't dead, are now either non-smokers or have been severely maimed by cancer, stroke or lung disease. Nobody brags about smoking anymore. Those who still smoke are like the zombies in the Walking Dead, forced to live their lives outside the barricades in penned up areas devoid of food, water and shuffleboard.

It doesn't make me feel good to be right. I miss my smoking friends, I can't deny it. It's like New York without Fran Leibowitz, the Big Lebowski without the Dude, Saturday Night Live! without Lorne Michaels.

Okay, it's a bit like The Leftovers.

I wish that people who smoked could do so while living out their final days in good health. I also wish that I could still drink gallons of hooch, and have it not kill me.

But we all know the gun is loaded. Only the genetically fortunate continue to survive against the odds.

I took my son to see Jennette to give him a wake up call. I wanted him to see what 40 years on a pack a day looks like.

He just shrugged and whipped out one of those "roll-your-owns". Apparently, they are so much better because they are "full of air".

"I know it's not good for me," he said as we got into the car to come home. "I know I'll pay a price in the end."


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