The great man said:
“I don’t sleep well, I’m absent minded,
In fact I hardly sleep at all,
My past has put me on a habit,
Of nicotine and al-kee-hol.”*
I don’t remember exactly the first cigarette that I ever smoked. It may have been the summer that I turned twelve years old, as I was entering the Eighth Grade. I was hanging out with Jackie M. at the time, he lived in one of the old mansions in College Point that had been converted to apartments. His mom smoked king-sized, filterless Chesterfields, and we regularly stole a few and went to the park to smoke them. I distinctly remember thinking, wow, no wonder the adults smoke these things, they’re great, as we smoked them hiding in the bushes, watching the planes at La Guardia.
Within a short time my little friends and I were pooling our nickels and splitting packs when the adults weren’t looking. Sometimes we’d sneak in the back door of the bowling alley and get a pack from the machine. There were plenty of places that would sell them to us, but not everywhere. I recall a nice outing to the Whitestone Pool, enjoying a shared pack of Newports. Smoking in the locker room, my so-called friend Willie S. scolded me, stop exhaling through your nose, we know you inhale. I’d never thought about it.
Later on, I discovered something else to smoke. I liked that too, and smoked my share, and several other people’s shares too, for more than thirty years. Cigars, let’s say, to protect the innocent.
Exposed to drinking, I slid into that vice as easily as I had fallen into smoking. The drinking age was eighteen then in New York, and even before that we all knew older boys, someone’s big brother or our neighbors, who would buy it for us. We’d hang out in front of a deli and wait for someone, ask him nicely, and give him our money to pick us up some beer. It never took long. Then we’d usually stash it in the bushes until the house lights went out, then retrieve it and get a little drunk while the town was sleeping. Lots of guys did worse, with cough syrup mostly, but I was never that daring. They often collapsed in a doorway, or just where they stood, and were left by their friends to be discovered the next morning by adults. I mean, they were alive, but the point is that they got in trouble. I was much too careful for that.
I honestly think that I never did anything just to be cool, and I certainly never needed any prodding from peer pressure. I just liked it, the smoking and drinking, like some laboratory animal in a science experiment somewhere. The monkey’s not trying to be cool, or doing it because the other monkeys are doing it, he’ll just take another Marlboro as soon as you’ll give it to him, and in the cocaine experiments they’ll famously hit the button as fast as they can until they die.
Me and the monkeys, simple creatures enjoying life’s simple pleasures.
I have some measure of self control, so I have a moderate history with all of these things. There were many long periods during which I didn’t smoke cigarettes, same for drinking. When my children were younger I tried to set a good example. In general, I have a good, built-in “Danger! Slow Down!” mechanism. There were very few things that made me say, oh no, I’ll never do that again, but there were lots of things that made me think, ok, but not more than once a week, or once a month. It’s good to keep one’s perspective intact as a family oriented working man. Some things are too expensive, or take up too much time. But I’ll admit that I was always loathe to say flat-out NO to things that I found enjoyable.
So now I still find time for cigarettes. My only goal it to keep it to three or four a day, although I have been failing that for the last few months, by a factor of two. And I still find time to drink refreshing alcoholic beverages, usually in the privacy of my own home, or rented condo as it may be. I almost never start before five o’clock, and I don’t like to go to bed drunk (or late, the most important sleep takes place before midnight, and sober), I endeavor never to even get actually drunk, and I absolutely hate to be hung over, even a little, so the built in danger recognition mechanisms are still functioning. But I drink, and smoke, and I’ll admit it to any doctor who asks me nicely.
My check ups are all fine, and my blood work has always come back “A-Ok.” This may have changed, I’ll be getting the results of this year’s tests later this week, but there’s nothing to indicate to the layman that anything is wrong. No doctor has ever responded to my truthful answers about drinking with the somber condemnation: you are an alcoholic. AA would think so, don’t they say that anybody who takes a drink every day is an alky? They’re just looking for new members, trying to sell some books. My own father, a wildly successful organism at eighty-eight years old, still takes two drinks every day, three if there’s a good football game on, measured carefully as one ounce of bourbon each, over ice, and no one would ever say that he was an alcoholic. There are others in my family who condemn me as such, and it makes problems. More than the drinking, if you ask me. It’s one of the reasons that I’m in Asia.
My favorite joke, from the movie, “The Long Kiss Goodnight,” staring the great Geena Davis:
“I’d like to propose a toast to myself, because after all, I am a really good man. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, and I don’t curse. (Brief pause.) “Oh! Shit! I do smoke and drink!”
*Percy Mayfield, the Poet of the Blues, “Serves Me Right To Suffer.”