Archive for the My 2006 Category

RITA, ARE YOU STILL WAITING?

The Rita referred to in the title is merely an offspeed pitch intended to set you up for an essay about the perception of smoking that has emerged in the last fifty years or so. This story starts in lower Manhattan on a cold blustery day in early March of 1956. I had just returned to work after two days off because of bronchial trouble and was standing with another fellow outside my boss’s office waiting to be called in.

The other man in question offered me a cigarette which I politely declined, saying that I had quit smoking about two days ago. At that point, Rita, who was my boss’s secretary, informed me that before the end of the week, I would be back on cigarettes and she would be waiting to hear of that event. Well, Rita, it has now been more than fifty years and, if you are still alive, I am sorry to keep you waiting longer.

The Rita in question was named Rita Snedicker, who unfortunately was born with one leg shorter than the other one. As a result, she limped. More than anything else, Rita was bitter, bitter, bitter and she was a heavy heavy smoker. She lived with her bachelor brother in New Jersey and even though her brother Jim was a pleasant fellow, I suspect that Rita’s bitterness caused him some anxious moments at the dinner table. By this time, Rita should be around age 95 and I suspect that smoking or some other ailment has long since done her in.

When I grew up, smoking was considered a rite of passage. When male students reached the junior or senior year at high schools, they tended to start smoking and you could see the cigarette packs in their shirt pockets. I succumbed to that rite of passage at about age sixteen, even though my father was dead set against such activity. He considered the wearing of wrist watches and what he called “sucking cigarettes” as effeminate behavior. I had never used wrist watches at that point, but I did start to smoke and for a period of 17½ years, I was indeed a heavy smoker.

At that time, around 1940, there were all sorts of inducements to start smoking and to keep on smoking. For example, perhaps the most popular radio program was the “Lucky Strike Hit Parade.” It was broadcast at about 8 PM on Saturday nights and it featured the latest songs as they progressed toward the top or as they were banished into oblivion. It was always the “Lucky Strike Hit Parade,” not simply the “Hit Parade.” In those days, one of the most popular conductors in American musicology was Fred Waring. Waring had a fifteen-minute program every night of the week at around 7 PM which was sponsored by the Chesterfield brand of cigarettes. Cigarettes at that time cost around 20 cents per package. They could be afforded even by a person such as myself who worked in a filling station at the time and who made $17 per week.

There was a stratification of American society when it came to cigarette smoking. Those lowest on the American scheme of things smoked a cigarette called “Wings” which sold for less than the 20 cents that was mentioned earlier. “Wings” had a high tar content and their only recommendation was that they were cheap.

Moving up the scale, there came “Camels” and a slight bit ahead of “Camels” were “Lucky Strikes.” Camels again, were a fairly harsh blend of cigarette and often were smoked by people who wanted to remind you about how tough they were. Camels had one redeeming feature in that they were recognized around the world. When American troops entered Rome in 1944, an Italian civilian woman noticed that one of the American soldiers was smoking Camels which caused her to announce to all of her friends that “the Americans are here.”

Moving further toward the top in terms of cigarettes would probably come the Chesterfield brand which seemed to appeal to literate types. They were the sponsors, of course, of the Waring program and indeed in the emergency meals offered to soldiers, there was one of their cigarettes. The emergency meals were the forerunner of what the Army today calls the MRE, which is Meals Ready to Eat.

Further toward the top, in my estimation, was the “Phillip Morris” blend, which I smoked. You may recall one of their advertisements which featured a hotel porter with a cap and a short jacket who would announce, “Phillip Morris calling.” Above the American brands were the European brands, headed by firms such as Benson and Hedges. People who smoked European brands were considered sophisticates and they most often threw the pack on the table so that it would be seen by everyone in attendance.

At that time, rooms were filled with blue cigarette smoke and it was breathed by everyone there without our knowing about the effects of second hand smoke. On many occasions when I was involved in bargaining between the union and the AT&T company, the air would be filled with cigarette smoke, particularly when the hours got late. In recent years, I have developed an admiration for bartenders who are forced to work in this atmosphere, serving drinks while all around them the air is blue.

The point here is that cigarettes were cheap and their use was encouraged not only by the tobacco companies but by the United States government. For example, it is my recollection that overseas the Army charged in its PXs only a nickel or a dime for a pack of cigarettes. In addition, there were no “no smoking” signs in the Army, at least away from the flight line, and there was a paucity of things to read. As a result, men often smoked merely to pass the time.

Speaking of the Army, the most successful device anywhere anytime in military service was the Zippo lighter. It was carried by almost everyone. The Zippo I used was given to my grandson and it was quite beat up, which showed its frequent use. The Zippo was a model of simplicity because it involved a wick, a wheel that rubbed against a flint stone stick which produced a spark, and lighter fluid in the cotton below the wick. Later on, Zippo became seduced and started producing silver lighters. I am sure that they were not as successful as the old black ones that were used by servicemen. But in any case, perhaps the most successful military devices that were known to me were the jeep, the Zippo lighter, and the Douglas DC3 air transport plane.

People at home often bought cut-glass cigarette boxes for their coffee tables. There was usually fancy silver lighters made by such companies as Ronson. When the cigarettes remained in the cut-glass boxes for a day or two, they tended to become stale and dry after a few days, and as a result they were not very satisfactorily smoked. In the end, the point is that cigarettes were everywhere. They were carried on the person, and they appeared in bars, on desktops and in residences.

Annually, I usually came down with a heavy chest cold which, it finally dawned on me, may have been related to my smoking. As a result, in March of 1956 I quit smoking and I enjoyed fairly good health since that time, as it relates to heavy chest colds.

During the time when cigarette smoking was popular, advertisers used match covers for their message. They also advertised in bars and hotels. For quite a while, when I returned from a trip I would empty my pockets and find matches with names of hotels and bars and all that sort of thing. Today those matches are probably some sort of collector’s items. At least they bring back memories to me particularly for those enterprises that have long since been out of business.

Sometime in the 1980s or 1990s, people began to come to the belief that cigarettes were the cause of lung cancer. As a result, they banned cigarettes in many public locations. When smoking was banned in New York City, for example, the owners of bars complained that sending people outside to smoke would ruin their businesses. From what I read, business has held up and is often exceeding the days when smoking was permitted inside. The ban on smoking has now spread from bars and often is not permitted anywhere in a building.

From my own personal standpoint, I applaud such measures. I would not want you to come away with the conclusion that I am leading a charge against smoking. If people wish to smoke, I suspect that is their business but I would prefer that they not do it in my car or in my home.

While smoking has been banished in many places, I note that new cars are still delivered with cigarette lighters and ashtrays. The motor companies, particularly the American ones, probably have much more important things to think about in terms of their continued livelihood than cigarette lighters and smoking in their cars.

In any case, I had overlooked the fiftieth anniversary of my own departure from “sucking cigarettes” as my father would have put it. Knowing Rita Snedicker, I am certain that she is still waiting to hear of my fall from grace. I am sorry to have kept Rita waiting for a little bit more than fifty years, but that’s the way it is going to be.

E. E. CARR
May 26, 2006
Essay TBD (Away from my document where I track that, at time of press)
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Kevin’s commentary: There is something to be said for Pop’s quitting strategy. Namely, it seems that he just simply stopped doing it because he realized it was bad for him. There were no patches, no e-cigarettes, no weaning of any kind.

I wonder if Pop would feel qualified to dictate a short essay about marijuana. These days, when you ask someone whether or not they smoke, the answer is often “smoke what?” with the implicit alternative to cigarettes being marijuana. I wonder to what extent that was available or sought out in Pop’s time.