Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The End of an Era

Ground Zero swells before me. 'Ground Zero' is what I'm calling the day I quit smoking. My wife and I have decided to take the plunge. It's time. Smoking is and always has been an absolute indefensible habit. The problem is I really, really, really, really like to smoke.

I started smoking, like most actors, for a role. I had to smoke onstage. And back in those days I fancied myself quite the method actor. So I'm doing this show in a semi-professional summer stock gig called 'Tent Theatre' in southern Missouri. The show was '1940's Radio Hour' and I had been cast as a guy named 'Johnny Cantone.' The character was based on a young Sinatra and called for me to chain-smoke throughout the two hour show, even during the crooning ballads I sang. It was June of 1983. I've been smoking 28 years.

I'd actually dabbled a bit in smoking a couple years earlier. I was 'Black Bart the train robber' at Silver Dollar City in Branson, MO, in 1981 and between robbing trains (it was an elaborate, scripted 20 minute show each time) we sat in 'the train shack,' as it was called, and waited for the next train. There were five or six of us, all 'Black Barts,' all dressed in black with our black hats and pearl-handled six-shooters, all taking our turn robbing the train. This is a blog all by itself, actually, the silliness of that summer, but suffice to say this is when I first tried to be a smoker. I couldn't do it. I hated smoking. All of the other 'Black Barts' smoked cigarettes, so I thought I'd give it a shot. I bought a couple packs of a brand I'm fairly certain no longer exists, a menthol cigarette called 'Arctic Lights.' They were like smoking a Christmas tree.

Incidentally, I nearly got punched in the face once as Black Bart the Train Robber. The script we used left plenty of room to improvise and one of the lines I often trotted out while I was ostensibly robbing people was 'You sure don't sweat much for a fat girl!' I don't know, it seemed funny at the time and always got a big laugh from the customer/victims on the train. But one day (I don't know what I was thinking) I said it to a Muslim woman complete with veil and black robes and her Taliban husband jumped up and took a swing at me. Fortunately my cat-like reflexes got me out of the way, but we (me and Black Bart's 'gang') cut the script short and jumped off the train before he could fly a plane into me.


Like most smokers I've quit a thousand times. My longest stint was about nine months. I was living in New York then and there was a Chinese Restaurant on 46th street in mid-town a bunch of my friends and I would frequent. Mostly because they had ass-kicking but awful saki and also gave dirty fortune cookies to the regulars. And I mean really dirty, nasty fortune cookies. I won't even repeat the ones I remember. Very scatalogical fortune cookies. We loved it.

So we were all sitting around our usual big round table, about ten of us, and I had launched into a long, boring story of some sort (much like this one, I suspect) and the guy sitting next to me (I forget who) had a pack of Marlboro Reds sitting on the table in front of him - my brand. And (this is how strong the addiction is) without even thinking about it (remember, I had been off cigs for nine months) reached down in the middle of my long, boring story and lit up. I smoked half the cigarette before I remembered I had quit. Amazing. The next day I had two. And then three. And inside of a week I was a pack-a-day guy again.

One of the things that helped me quit before was a box of straws. Yes, straws. Plastic straws. I buy a big industrial sized box of straws and everytime I had the urge I pulled one out and chewed on it. Not very attractive but it seems to do the trick. So today I'm off to buy some straws. Talk about your oral fixations.

This whole paradigm shift happened when Angie added up the money we spent on our nasty, little habit. She estimates we spend, together, about $3,700 a year on cigarettes. I recently had a friend, Stephanie, who quit after decades of smoking. She used the same approach, daily reminding herself of the amount of money she was saving by not smoking. She would even post the amounts on Facebook. It got me to thinking.

I need new headshots, I need to join a gym. Just two of the things the $3,700 will facilitate. So my plan of attack is to use this as my impetus. I'm going to post the amounts of money I'm saving every few days on the cork board in my office. I think that might be good for me to glance at every now and then. Plus Angie says she wants fancy underwear. That's what she said - 'fancy underwear.' We also want a new Mercedes station wagon but we'd have to give up eating, drinking and paying rent for that.

I have several friends that smoke a cigarette 'every now and then.' I don't get these people. For me that's like saying 'I only take a lungful of air every now and then.' They're freaks.

Although I have very few, if any, 'regrets' in my life (yes, I'd do things different given the chance, but 'regrets?' That's the road to suicide as far as I'm concerned.)taking a drag of that first cigarette back in 1981 is one.

Incidentally, when I first learned to smoke, during '1940's Radio Hour' in 1983, I bought myself a carton of cigs and a six-pack of beer and I drove out to an old country road outside of Springfield, MO, and I taught myself how to do it. I quite literally 'taught' myself. I didn't want to appear to be a non-smoker onstage, serious young actor that I was. You know, holding the cigarette delicately at the end of two outstretched fingers, taking shallow drags, looking uncomfortable holding it, etc. No, I wanted to come across as a lifetime smoker. In my youthful arrogance my plan, of course, was to quit as soon as the play was over. Needless to say, that didn't happen.

Cigarettes, the ones I bought, were $1.35 the year I started smoking. Today I spend $6.00 a pack (American Spirits - Natural). And that's cheap. In Chicago they're inching towards $10.00 a pack. It's now illegal to smoke in public in both Burbank and Glendale. I abhor this law, but I suppose for non-smokers it's deeply satisfying. Currently under consideration is a new law that would make it illegal to smoke in your car in these two cities. True dat. The only place left to smoke legally would be in the privacy of your own home. Of course, I often flaunt the laws and step outside of restaurants all the time and light up. Not because I need a cigarette so much but rather to say 'fuck you' to the stupid, government- invasion-of-privacy laws. I have a strong Republican streak in me when it comes to that.

In any event, tomorrow is the day. I'm finishing my last can of smokes (I buy a large can of American Spirit - $35.00 - and roll my own with this nifty little roller I bought) and Angie is finishing up her last pack (she smokes the 'American Spirits - Ultra Light). We're terrified.

We have an 'e-cigarette' for emergencies. We've decided to keep that plugged up and ready to use for the first difficult week. My mother-in-law, Rosemary, a very vocal anti-smoker, says she'll buy all the nicarette we can chew if we ever decide to quit. We may take her up on it. I also want 'the patch.' But unless it becomes just too terrible, I probably won't go with that. It'll be cold turkey. My old acting teacher and friend, Michael Moriarty, once told me when he quit he kept a pack of cigarettes by his side all the time and whenever he had the urge to light up he would pick up the pack and say to it, "Who's stronger? You or me?" That always seemed a bit masochistic to me, though. I'd eventually just say, "Oh, okay. You are." And light up.

And finally, I'm hoping to rid myself of the perpetual smugness of other smokers who have successfully quit. My good buddy, John, quit 12 years ago. He reminds me of this approximately once every five minutes.

My wife once quit for a long, long time. She did it through hypnosis. Alas, when she started spending time with me, she started back up. That always makes me feel kind of bad, too. Another buddy of mine did it through weekly acupuncture. Personally, I'd like to take some sedatives that knock me out for about three months and then wake up smoke-free. With my luck I'd miss out on a big audition if I did that, though.

And then, of course, there's the diabetes. That's a whole other cup of danger. Everytime I see my doctor the first thing she asks is, "So how's the smoking coming?" The last time I saw her I said, "Great! I'm down to 28 a day!" She scowled at me.

I remember those Yul Brennar PSA spots when I was a kid. They were creepy as shit. He would appear on the television, filling up the whole screen with his shaved head and Eastern European smirk, and say, "By the time you're watching this, I'll be dead. I smoked four packs of cigarettes a day..." First of all, I never believed him. Four packs? When did he have the time? Because 'The King and I' was two hours long, so the math just didn't add up.

I've had three cigarettes while writing this blog today. Good God, I'm going to miss them.

See you tomorrow.

No comments: