Smoking in public in Los Angeles is a shameful experience. It’s politically incorrect, like spanking your child on a street corner. On the rare occasions that I indulge, I can’t help but notice that people walking past seem to glare at me with disgust. Is my fuming treat that big of a deal?
When I was a little girl, smoking didn’t seem like a nasty habit -- it looked more like a nostalgic pastime. My parents quit before I was born, so I never experienced second-hand smoke at home or anywhere else in the Midwestern bubble of a city where I grew up. But black-and-white photos of my then-younger parents smoking made it look so ... regal.
I saw the habit glorified in movies, too. Cyd Charisse dancing around Gene Kelly in "Singing in the Rain," with a cigarette in a fancy holder seductively hanging out of her mouth, or Audrey Hepburn in "Breakfast At Tiffany’s" -- they made chain-smoking look like a beauty pageant.
When I was nine or ten, I pleaded with my babysitter to let me try one of her cigs. She surprised me one Saturday night, took me into the garage, and lit one up for me. I took a shallow puff. “This isn’t so bad -- what’s the big deal?” I said.
“Inhale this time,” she snapped.
I took a deep breath and sucked the smoke into my tiny lungs. I immediately felt a wave rush through my body, like the fumes were touching all my insides. I thought I was going to faint, but I still felt like I’d crossed the threshold into cool.
In eighth grade, three of my friends and I met in my backyard playhouse before the first high-school football game of the season. We got a liter of Popov vodka and a pack of Marlboro Reds; we were chain-smoking and taking shots with grape-juice chasers. We smoked the whole pack, buried the butts in a hole, and I continued to puke off and on for the rest of the night. Needless to say, we never made it to the game, but that experience didn’t deter me from continuing my sporadic habit.
When I moved to New York City at age 19, it seemed like everyone there was an occasional (or former) smoker. I didn't feel like a disgraced outcast when I stood on a street corner, having a cigarette amid the grimy chaos of the city. I never put myself in the “real smoker” category. I saw myself as a social smoker who puffed only when she drank. I avoided buying my own packs, and I profusely denied my off-and-on habit to my doctor.
When I moved to Los Angeles three years ago, my social smoking was confronted by a new issue: There was nowhere to go. Smoking in your car is kind of trashy. So you're left to smoke on street corners or dark alleys because so many bars and restaurants require you to do it from a distance. In a city that's health-conscious to a fault, lighting up in public gives shame a new meaning.
Plus, the shaming anti-smoking ads have been so intense lately, they're making me wonder whether I should give up television. Does my one cigarette per month truly shove me into the same category as the woman lying in a hospital bed, speaking through a tube, talking about how she lost four fingers and her left foot from smoking? I’m not a doctor, but I don’t think so.
There are plenty other toxic pollutants in the world besides the scarlet-lettered nicotine. I thought part of living in the free world was being able to pick your vices -- be they pork rinds, Diet Coke, "Toddlers and Tiaras," or Camel Lights.
I want to occasionally dabble in something I’m not supposed to have -- and be allowed to enjoy it. Like a Parisian! You can have your high-fructose corn syrup and "America’s Next Top Model" marathons, just let me have a stroll around the block with my cigarette a few times per year. I’m sure your car's fumes and my smoke rings will cancel each other out.