Up in Smoke

Once everywhere, cigarettes now give me a strange feeling of nostalgia

Watching someone smoke a cigarette—I mean a real cigarette, not a caramel-flavored e-cigarette—makes me realize how old I am. When I was a little kid, everyone's parents smoked. True story: My own mother smoked a Marlboro Red in the hospital the night I was born.

"Go home and get your books," the nurse told my graduate-student father. "This is a first baby, and it'll take its sweet time getting here."

My mother opens my birth story by saying, "Before I even finished my cigarette, I felt so strange." Mom stubbed out her smoke and went straight to the delivery room: the nicotine had propelled her into transition. My baffled father returned to the hospital where a nurse was waiting to hand him his newborn daughter.

I grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, where I attended a prestigious, old, public high school. The school's original building was constructed in the late 1920s, with a classical stone façade and clock tower. Over time, classical gave way to characterless. Behind the façade lurked the gym: flat-roofed, nearly windowless, with a covered walkway connecting it to the main building.

During my high school years, in the mid-1980s, the section of walkway in front of the gym served as a designated student "smoking lounge." Before and after school, during lunch, and between classes, kids pulled packs of Marlboro Lights and Camels out of their Levi's jackets (the ones with the fleece-lined collars) and Jansport backpacks. They shared disposable lighters or lit up from the ends of their friends' smokes.

Some kids tried to look cool, leaning casually against one of the metal posts that held up the corrugated tin roof of the walkway. They nonchalantly flicked ashes towards the tired dirt. But other kids didn't seem to care how they looked to the rest of us: they smoked like the postal service delivered mail. Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night would keep them from lighting up.

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This seems almost unfathomable now. Getting caught today with any sort of tobacco product at my daughter's high school comes with stiff punishment, ranging from an online education program (first offense) to a "level IV" penalty: an out-of-school suspension of up to 10 days. When I was in school, administrators figured kids were going to smoke—it was still legal to do so—and they might as well keep them on campus so they didn't have to sneak off and succumb to the temptation to cut class.

All this accommodation of smoking was due to addiction, of course, but here in North Carolina—the biggest tobacco producer in the country—it was a demonstration of civic pride. Even in the early 1970s, nearly a decade after the Surgeon General declared the dangers of smoking, our economy remained so dependent on tobacco that cigarettes were marketed via a "Pride in Tobacco" campaign whose logo featured a cartoon "thumbs-up" hand that sprouted bright leaf tobacco from the digits.

I've never been a smoker. I flirted with it during my young adulthood—how could I not? Going to a club or a party meant full immersion in secondhand smoke. I'd often come home, put on my pajamas and take my clothes to the porch to air out, the cigarette stench so strong I couldn't bear to have it in my bedroom.

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I know so many things have effectively disappeared since my young adulthood—typewriters, cassette tapes, the Bush family dynasty—but it's the decline of smoking that seems farthest away and causes a strange nostalgia.

At my daughter's high school, about 30 miles from Raleigh, there are three warning signs posted at the entrance: no weapons, no unauthorized personnel and no tobacco products of any kind. The university hospital where I was born has a tobacco-free policy that extends a hundred feet beyond all public buildings and vehicles. The city of Durham, once known as "The Bull City," thanks to the Duke family and their cigarette empire, changed its slogan to "The City of Medicine."

I remember smoke-filled living rooms where the adults all lit up after supper, lingering over nightcaps while the kids roamed, deliciously unsupervised. I never met either of my paternal grandparents, who died early and smoked so much they passed down a sturdy, oak kitchen table and four chairs with coupons collected from buying Raleigh brand cigarettes. As soon my mother's parents and I walked out of their duplex in downtown Durham, we smelled the cigarette factories; the sweet aroma of cured tobacco wafted around like a gentleman's aftershave.

I try to explain this to my daughter, who is—at least for the time being—outraged at the idea that anyone would ever want to smoke. "I get it," I tell her, "but you have to understand that even after people knew it was bad for them, there were a lot of reasons for them to go on."

The tobacco auctions on the evening news, the Marlboro Man billboards, the sweet smell of bright leaf tobacco and the smoking lounges are gone. If I close my eyes, I can summon a hazy memory of them all. But they seem as shockingly distant as a beautiful and nervous young mother in her hospital bed, shrouded in a cloud of smoke.