In Jenny Joseph’s famed poem "Warning," she says: “When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple with a red hat which doesn’t go and doesn’t suit me.” I don’t want to just wear purple with a red hat when I’m old, though. I'm going balls to the wall, because what better reward is there for a lifetime of family and work obligations, and all of the other things that make life livable and grand, than the freedom to do whatever you damn well please in the end?
When I am an old woman, I shall drink merlot straight from the bottle without caring who sees me. Like Bernice Youngblood, who was in the news recently for enjoying a stripper hired to perform for the elderly at her Long Island nursing home, I shall request to be entertained by male strippers and happily tuck Washingtons into their Hanes Jockeys. I am going to stuff my face with spicy pork rinds, and -- most of all -- I shall smoke cigarettes. And not those electronic things that are supposed to trick you into thinking you’re smoking a cigarette. By that time, I’ll have experienced enough of life’s trickery that I deserve a real toxin, tar, and nicotine-filled vice.
My intimate relationship with cigarettes began with Marlboro reds and lasted over 15 years. I didn’t inhale for the first year, so I don’t count that year as being “in a relationship,” but rather the “it’s complicated” beginning stages. I ended up with and finished out this intense relationship with Newports, which at the time were supposedly the worst cigarette on earth, just in case we want to rank smokers in order of most hardcore or stupid, depending upon how you look at it.
Back then, cigarettes were $1.30 a pack and $10-something a carton. Smoking was permitted in shopping malls and businesses. My high school had a smoking area for students. Cigarettes were the one item you could ask a complete stranger for without feeling like you were begging and without them feeling entirely put out. You could see the empathy in their eyes -- because smokers always knew, fully understood the horrid, hole in your heart that formed when you had no cigarettes.
I remember cigarette machines in Germany that, I believe, cost four Deutsche Marks per pack of awesome. My best friend and I spent many drunken nights gazing at those machines and planning how, if the cigarette gods were to allow us to pry it off the wall, we would take it home, open it, then smoke the gross ones first (usually Camel) and save the greatest ones (some kind of menthol) for last. We had a plan.
Through the years, I quit and started again many times. At one point, I became part of the in-the-closet-smokers group of people who didn’t want anyone to know we were dumb enough to still be smoking. I decided to walk away completely when I could see my teeth were yellowing and I was starting to get those weird smoker lines around my mouth. And also, because I felt like death when I tried to run anywhere. My motto before then had always been: “I ain’t running. If you are chasing me I will just get got.” (Incidentally, I still feel like death when I run.) I actually decided to quit not only for my daughter and my health but out of pure vanity.
I am not, however, one of those ex-smokers who will tell you how much greater life is since I quit. I won’t tell you I feel like a new woman. You won’t hear me wax poetically about how quitting changed my life. I still miss smoking. I miss reaching over for cigarettes when I wake almost as much as I miss “Good morning, baby” text messages. I miss smoking in the cold and wondering whether it was the menthol or the actual Minnesota winter freezing my lungs solid. I miss puffing while driving, after eating, most definitely while drinking, and I will always miss the postcoital, exclamation-on-the-O smoke that only smokers share.
It isn’t the taste and it isn’t the smell. No one misses the grimy taste or smell in your mouth, or the dirty ashtray odor that clings to you when you haven’t showered in a couple days. It’s holding a cigarette between your thumb and forefinger (or forefinger and middle finger), it’s the feeling of satisfaction in the first puff, it’s sharing cigarettes with friends and loved ones, it’s the entire experience from inhaling to exhaling, it’s hot guys in the club doing the scramble to light your cigarette first. For me, it’s a whole hell of a lot of memories. When I am an old woman, I will need those memories.
Jenny Joseph’s poem ends: “But maybe I ought to practice a little now? So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised when suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.”
I can’t practice now and have probably practiced a bit too much in the past. However, when I am an old woman and no longer have any especially spectacular use for my health, when I don’t give a rat’s ass about the lines on my face or my yellow teeth, whether I can run without fear of collapsing after five steps, I shall wear purple with a red hat which doesn’t go and doesn’t suit me.
And I am also going to smoke my brains out. If my next 40 years are anything like the last 40, I dare you to tell me I can’t.