I saw one lady smoke when I was about 13 and I thought, “Oh my God. How cool is that? Maybe I should try that.” That lady was Bette Davis and my adventures in nicotine lasted 23 years.
Now I can’t blame Ms. Davis for my cigarette addiction but i have a hunch that I’m not the only little gay boy or wannabe femme fatale who started smoking after seeing her light up on-screen. American Movie Classics was my portal to a more glamorous America and certainly a more fabulous place than Golden, Colorado in the late 1980s. We had moved from our hip Denver neighborhood to a town that had a giant “Howdy Folks! Welcome to Golden!” sign strewn across the main drag. A main drag, which also included a real life Five and Dime and a western apparel shop with a giant white spinning horse on its sign. I thought we had landed in hell. I needed cable television to provide me evidence of otherwise. The films of Bette Davis did just that. And nobody smoked like her. She used a simple cigarette to assert her control, to show that she was bored, to take a moment to plot what to do next. I need an outlet for all of those things too so smoking would be added to my repertoire at precisely the right moment.
My sister, the oldest of the four kids, broke the smoking taboo for the rest of us. Ever the accidental trail blazer, she left a pack of Camel Lights in her jean jacket, the same jacket my mother washed for her. Well, when the entire load was tobacco stained and covered in the soggy remains, the jig was up. She received a harsh talking to that included the history of cancer in our family and addiction and blah blah blah. The point was she didn’t actually get in trouble and by the time I was old enough, no one really noticed that I started smoking. I was introduced in the harshest way possible on the way to junior high by my friend Tanya Setzer who had lifted some Marlboro reds. It was horrible. It gave me a headache. I hated the way they smelled. And I could not wait to do it again. I changed my brand because I was quite sure that no one outside a biker bar should be smoking Reds and I was off and puffing for more than two decades.
I quit smoking on November 15th, 2010. It was the strangest thing too. Being the ever dramatic addict, I usually like to send out a big press release informing everyone I know of the incredible thing I’ve just done so I can be applauded and then when I fail, I can do so in the most public way possible. But this time, I just quit. It was my birthday present to myself. Hindsight being what it is, I should have given myself some jeans or a new coffeemaker because no gift should make you feel as horrible as quitting smoking did. Around my second week, when I couldn’t breathe, had gotten a gum infection and felt like throwing up every time I stood up, I called a friend who is a detox nurse in Los Angeles. She informed me this horrible physical state could last 90 days or more. “Now a warning?” I thought to myself. But it passed and eventually I felt better. But I still miss “the cigarette break” even if I don’t miss smelling like an ashtray and hacking up my lung every morning. I miss the ritual of stepping outside and taking a moment. People told me replace it with a prayer break or a short walk. Bullshit. It isn’t the same thing. The upside is without all of those breaks I have more time back, time that can be put into the nap bank. So it all evens out. It always does. In the end, Bette Davis died of breast cancer and her real life was far from glamorous. The western wear shop became a Starbucks. And I finally stopped trying to be someone else.