Screw dogs. Tobacco is man’s best friend. It’s my best friend. I look to it in times of stress, need, worry, and fear. It works well when I’m happy, excited, and contemplative. It’s the first thing I think of when I get up in the morning and the last thing I do before I go to bed. It serves me well in the middle of the day when I’m trying to concentrate on a project or when I’m reading or after I’ve gotten up from a nap.
My history with tobacco started in a basement stairwell at Christ the King Catholic Church when I was 11. The older, cooler kids snuck out of the Boy Scout meeting and I wanted to go along. We poked through the bushes on the side entrance of the church and slinked down between the convent and the main church. Looking both ways, we dove one by one out of the bushes and down the stairwell.
I don’t remember the names of the boys anymore but I remember their faces. Passing the matches, they all lit up. I said I wanted to try.
There were a couple of ranks of cool kids at my school. Popular boys seemed to do well at whatever they undertook. They played baseball better than I did. (I got held back with the littler kids in Cub Scout baseball and sat on the bench in the Boy Scout league.) They got great grades and accolades from the teachers.
Then there were the subversive, juvenile delinquents. They wore cooler clothes and talked about things like fighting and how to conceal knives so that parents wouldn’t find them.
The rest of us floated between the two groups. I was one of them. I lived for the day one of them would notice me.
One of the guys in the stairwell gave me a cigarette. I remember his smile. It was half intrigued and half mean. You’re going to love this, he said. He held a match up to my cigarette. I took a mouthful of smoke, inhaled, and almost passed out.
My head spun and felt so light I thought it might float away. My vision blurred. I could hardly stand up. I begged for help. Something’s wrong, I said. The boys all around me were laughing, guffawing. I stumbled and fell down on the wet leaves sitting on the drain. I groped around and pulled myself up on the bottom step. I held my head in my hands and felt like I was going to throw up. The other boys were finished with their smokes. Slowly, I followed them up the stairs and fell out at the top into a juniper bush.
Despite my distress, I was hooked. When Frank, Scott, and I built a treehouse in the woods behind Frank’s house, it was our smoking spot. I couldn’t buy cigarettes and scrounged butts out of the gutter at the curb. What did I care? A smoke was a smoke, and I was going to smoke. I hid individual cigs in the handle bars of my bicycle. When I could buy my own–and I could always find someone willing to sell to a minor–I stashed my smokes behind a metal door in the basement that opened to the compartment where ash from the fireplace fell.
John Connor and I used to smoke in his mom’s basement. We used the water heater to conceal the evidence. We’d hold the cigarette up under the exhaust vent. We blew out our breath through a length of garden hose pushed up the exhaust.
I hid smoking from my parents for years. They suspected, of course, when I came home smelling of smoke. They’d yell and scream. My dad slapped me around. But they never caught me with the goods.
In high school, I hung out in the parking lot with people older than me smoking in cars before and after school. When I stayed overnight with my uncle, who was only six months older than me and lived up the street from school, we’d dodge down a side street and smoke a couple of butts before and after school.
When I moved out of my house at the age of 20, the gloves were off. It wasn’t but a month or so before I was a pack-a-day smoker. I was also a drunk, and drinking and smoking went together. I couldn’t have a beer or snot without washing it down with a smoke. When I wasn’t drinking, I smoked one or two during the day, and the rest of the pack when I sat down to a twelve pack and a pint of whiskey in the evening.
I smoked until I was almost 30. The nicotine smack got me up in the morning and put me to bed at night. Almost every time I got into my car, I lit a cigarette. At the same time, I cycled a lot. Sometimes 50 miles a day four or five days a week. I couldn’t keep up with the young guys and wheezed my way up hills. I kept thinking what a great thing it would be if I didn’t have cigarettes hindering my progress up. But the thought of quitting never appealed to me.
After I quit drinking, I smoked less but couldn’t do without it. Grad school stressed me and smoking helped me through that. On long drives between Laramie and Kansas City, a smoke kept me awake when my eyes sagged. Smoking braced me for a party or an event. On weekends, I spent a lot of time hiking in the mountains outside of Laramie. I found I had to take my time or stop along the way, short of breath.
When the end finally came, I went for the patch but since I didn’t smoke much, the dosage was too much for me. I drove home from an AA meeting one night and the streetlights were too bright and the car too small. I tried cutting the patches in half for a few days but it was still too much. I gave up the patch after a week, and when I threw away those patches, I was finished with smoking.
Seven years later, I took up smoking cigars. Cigars, as much as I loved them, lead to leaf chewing tobacco. I ran dry one weekend at a newspaper conference. The hotel gift shop didn’t sell Levi Garrett. I opted for Copenhagen. I stuffed a bit in my lip and headed for the pool. My head spun and felt light. I felt a little queasy. But in that natatorium, I found myself home again.
That was 1997. I have “dipped” for almost 20 years. Again, the charge the nicotine gives me helps me through the down times. I wake up thinking about tobacco. The first pull of the day charges my brain. I use it to concentrate, to relax, to get on with my day. Evenings, I sit down in my armchair and stick a wad of snuff in my lip. The world feels fine. And when it doesn’t, tobacco helps me out.
When I first started using snuff, I went through about a can a week. For years, that amount served me well. When I was working iron on a bridge in the summer heat carrying rebar, a dip just felt good. I took some on break and on the way home from work. I’d take a nap and wake up to a pinch of tobacco.
Recently, something broke. I started using more and more tobacco. I keep it in my mouth longer. I go through about a can every two days. My habit increased in cost from about $3 a week to $10 or $12. That’s $600 a year in tobacco.
I have always worried about cancer and gum disease. Gingivitis swelled the gums of a couple of friends of mine. It always took a long time for them to get rid of it. I dreaded getting it myself. People lose their teeth to tobacco. A friend of mine who’s a regular tobacco user just had a pre-cancerous lesion removed from his cheek—from the exact spot where he always stuffed his tobacco.
Giving up is in my future. It’s going to be hard. Tobacco is appropriate in every situation, every moment of the day. A friend of mine calls tobacco “opioids.” I get that. Tobacco has me in its grip, but I invited it in. I gave myself over to it. I worship the snuff.
I have to get free. I don’t have any signs of disease . . . yet.
People in my family die of old age. We don’t get cancer. But I’m playing with fire here. I can’t imagine a life without tobacco right now. I’ve got to start.