It really wasn’t unusual at all. I smoked cigarettes from ages 15 through 30; from sometime in 1966 through sometime in 1982. I was never a heavy smoker—maybe seven or eight sticks a day—but a dedicated and habitual smoker nonetheless. I smoked through the last half of high school and all through college. I smoked at my wedding and at the birth of my two children. I smoked at work, on vacation, in the house, in the car. Some people didn’t smoke back then, but many, many people did. Everywhere and anywhere. In movie theaters, in elevators, in the doctor’s office. Both my parents smoked. My sister smoked. Both of my in-laws smoked. My college roommate smoked. People just did it. It was cultural.
I began the habit in the usual way: sneaking the occasional smoke whenever I could. My father smoked Camels, non-filtered. My mother went milder with a filter-tipped Marlboro, or a mentholated Bel-Air, but this was long before the days of any sort of “light” cigarette. No matter the brand, each cigarette packed a full wallop of nicotine. And it didn’t take too many to become dependent on that little drug high. A standard pack of twenty cost about a quarter when I started to buy my own. And even I could afford a quarter to keep up the habit.
Even though smoking was all around, there were still constraints in my life which made it difficult to do whenever I wanted to. I was not allowed to smoke at home—in fact the subject was never really brought up. I was officially the only non-smoker in the house. Smoking was not only forbidden at school, but the sight of hundreds of boys dressed in sport coat and tie carrying the identifiable Mount St. Michael Academy school bag lighting up as they streamed through a residential neighborhood was too much for the Marist Brothers to accept. Fifteen minutes before dismissal each day a group of “spotters”—brothers low on the faculty totem pole, I assume—would fan out via the usual routes to bus stops and subway stations to be sure that students didn’t smoke traveling to and from school. Of course, smoking anywhere in school or on the campus was a very serious violation and would result in suspension or expulsion. A rare few tried, but I was never one of them. Although smoking was all around, it was to be an adult activity.
When I was 15, I would often smoke outside my neighborhood for fear of someone recognizing me and reporting my activity to my parents. The focus of a “neighborhood watch” was certainly different back then! It wasn’t easy to be in the neighborhood where many people knew me—and my mother. But there was one spot I used to go and light up without care or worry: The New York Institute for the Blind. This Bronx-based, world famous school was located on Pelham Parkway and not much of a walk at all from my immediate neighborhood. While I could not and did not roam the gated campus, I did walk the sidewalk all around the place thinking to myself how clever I was to be there where literally no one would see me. I now chalk up the insensitivity to a typical teenage mind and the power of cigarette addiction. But I still smile at the image. I used to call it "smoking blind."
But the story I’ve told my children countless times over the years also involves the early days of my smoking career. I had begun in earnest a couple of months after my 15th birthday. It became an open secret in my house—I smoked, but I was still the only one in the house not officially sanctioned to do so. And on the occasion of my 16th birthday I remember the gift. My parents gave me a carton of cigarettes. A carton of Tareyton kings with the charcoal filter. My brand. My parents gave me a carton of cigarettes for my 16th birthday!
This was my parents' way of recognizing the reality of my smoking habit and sanctioning my smoking around them. It was a rite of passage and I received it as such. I was grown up. My children can only shake their heads at this unimaginable event. And the thought of it, the innocence of it, the cultural acceptance of it all underscored just how far we’ve come in forty years. Back then we were all smoking blind.