Maybe I started smoking cigarettes when I was 14 because everyone I admired was a smoker. Neither of my parents smoked.
Nana and BaaBaa both smoked. Nana, even though she was an angel disguised as a human being, had smoked cigarettes since she was a teenager. BaaBaa puffed on cigars. He bought brown boxes of Churchill Rejects, which were sold cheaper because maybe the hole was a little off center. All five of us kids used to hide Nana’s cigarettes, because we wanted to protect her health, so I will never understand how all five of us ended up smokers.
BaaBaa was going to retire from Hughes Aircraft when he turned 65 that year. He and Nana wanted to move all of us from Southern California’s Simi Valley to Seattle, where BaaBaa had grown up.
“But I’ll never see the kids if you leave California,” my father complained, even though he seldom came to see us. So, in June of that year, he married ‘The Bitch.’ Everyone agreed that the five of us would be melded with The Bitch’s three boys into the Buena Park Brady Bunch. My grandparents’ sold our Simi Valley home and gave the profit to my father as a down payment on a big place in Buena Park, land of Disneyland. We would all live as one big happy family!
The only thing that saved my sanity during the following 15 months was the sanctuary provided by our neighbors, the Cunningham family. The Cunningham house was at the end curve of the cul-de-sac when we went to live with our father in 1970. Everyone old enough to spell the work “cigarette” smoked them at the Cunningham’s. Renee with some standard filtered brand, while Don was hardcore with his unfiltered Lucky Strikes and the gravel voice to show for it. Renee’s mother, who everyone called Mamaw, lived with them and she smoked. Mamaw was simply an older version of Renee, big-boned with bleached blonde hair and a booming voice and presence. Renee was a housewife and held court all day at the kitchen table with her constant cigarette and cup of joe. Her nicotine habit added to her deep laugh.
I loved Renee because Renee hated my stepmother and was more than happy to do what she could to help my brother Mike, sister Katie and me avoid going home as much as possible. Kevin Cunningham and my brother Mike were the same age and partner in crime, while Katie Cunningham not only shared a name with my sister, but the same interests that led to them being constant companions.
My Cunningham pal was Donna, who was in 7th grade, a year below me. Donna was always laughing just like her mother Renee. Donna had perfect, naturally blonde white straight hair and skin that could tan in two days to a golden hue. She was tall and big-boned, but had the confidence to wear a bikini.
I spent hundreds of hours hanging out with Donna in her upstairs bedroom. Renee let Donna paint her room hot pink and bright orange and the fluorescent walls were hung with psychedelic posters that glowed at night when Donna’s black light was turned on.
Renee provided sanctuary by encouraging the three oldest of us five kids to spend as much time at her home as we needed, away from the stepmother hell. My father’s new wife made my household chores torture. Her three troll sons were all bedwetters and my job was to open the lid of the plastic trash can in the garage where their pissed on bed sheets were held until I laundered them. I used to love helping Nana Windex the windows in Simi, but my father’s wife made me used a horrible product called Glass Wax, a thick pink liquid that I had to wipe all over the glass and let dry to a chalky finish. Then I had to use soft rags to buff the dried on substance.
I gladly pitched in to help Donna do her chores. Around the Cunningham house, the two of us would laugh like crazy as we helped Renee around the house. We would take turns vacuuming the long shag carpeting in their living room, and then use a carpet rake to leave the nap perfectly combed. I loved dusting the things Renee had hanging on her walls, like the giant tiki fork and spoon set that hung in the eat-in kitchen, and the oversized pair of scissors with a strategically draped swatch of cloth between the giant blades that decorated a wall over the sewing machine.
Don Cunningham owned a company that painted the white stripes in parking lots. He didn’t say much, but when he did his rough voice reminded me of those crusty character actors who always played the sidekick in those old black and white sea epics.
Don sounded cantankerous but was a sweetheart. When my brother Mike was playing with some bottle rockets and one shot through another neighbor’s open car window, my father was anything but understanding how scared and guilt-ridden Mike felt about the burned up upholstery. “You’ll have to figure out a way to pay for that new front seat. I’m not paying for it,” my father told Mike and walked away. Mike was in the fifth grade.
Don heard about what happened, how Mike had not slept all night worrying over how he was going to take care of this impossible situation. “Don’t worry kiddo,” Don rasped. “You can come help me stripe a lot I’ve got scheduled for Saturday and I’ll pay the tab for your little mishap.”
Renee and Don had plenty of parenting experience with their huge clan of seven kids panning in age from 2 to 22. Their oldest son and daughter were already out of high school. Cindy was my age but we didn’t hang out together because she had been in a serious relationship since she was 13. Her boyfriend was at least five years older and drove a small import truck with an aluminum camper shell.
That’s why I was surprised when Cindy showed up at our front door after school one day when my evil stepmother had grounded me for forgetting to come home from the Cunningham until after dark one night.
“You wanna learn to smoke?” she asked when we got up to the room I shared with Katie and closed the door.
As a kid, I used to hide Nana’s cigarettes to keep her from smoking and really had no desire to smoke myself, but I was flattered that Cindy wanted to hang out with me. “Sure,” I agreed.
We went into the bathroom down the hall and closed the door. Cindy pulled out a short fat cigarette from the soft cellophane pack of Lucky Strikes. After two tries, she finally got a match to light and held it up to one end of the cigarette as she puffed on the opposite end. The two of us stood on tiptoe on either side of the toilet and passed the lit cigarette back and forth.
I sucked the smoke into my mouth, trying to keep the smoke from curling up and burning my nose and eyes, then quickly blew it out through the metal mesh of the window screen. I caught a quick glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror and marveled at how much older I looked with the white burning cigarette between my fingers; my features looked sophisticated behind the smoldering cloud.
Some of the raw tobacco stuck to my lip from the unfiltered end as it became damp from our lips. When the glowing end of the butt got within an inch of our fingertips, Cindy held it between her thumb and middle finger, and then flicked the burning butt into the toilet, where it extinguished with a hiss. The motion was quick and accurate, and was the coolest move I had ever seen. Even now, decades later, I have given up smoking and hate the nasty habit; but seeing a man toss a cigarette butt with that quick flick of a finger impresses me.
Our neighborhood was comprised of large, two-story homes with professional landscaping and new cars in each driveway. But down the street lived two sisters I met in gym class and I would sometimes go there instead of the Cunningham’s. Instead of a shiny, new car out front, their house had a 1955 two-door Pontiac usually parked at an odd angle. The beat-up car had a huge silver frown of a grill that was flecked with dark green overspray from its last paint job, when the sister’s stepfather had them use up a case of spray cans to give the thing a fresh new color. The freshness did not last long, when three months later someone pelted the car with a dozen eggs. The residue left faded streaks and dried eggshell.
Jackie was the oldest by a year over Judy, but they were both in the 8th grade. That was the only thing the sisters had in common. Jackie was tall with big boobs already and large coarse features she coated with a thick layer of pancake make-up that ended in an obvious dark line of demarcation that outlined her lower jaw from her white throat. Her cheeks were a straight slash of heavy pink rouge that came in a large stick like a giant tube of lipstick. Her pouty lips were kept coated with white, pineapple-scented lip gloss. She lined her eyes with black pencil, the same color of the mascara that clumped alone her lashes.
Younger Judy might have had the more feminine name, but she was anything but feminine. While Jackie was tall and thick, Judy was short and wiry like a high school boy from the junior varsity wrestling team. She even dressed like a boy, in men’s button-up shirts, with the sleeves rolled up just past her wrists, and plain cotton pants. Her dishwater blonde hair was short and wispy, and rarely combed. Judy was tough, and ready to fight anyone who made fun of her sister’s clown-like make-up.
The girls’ father was nowhere to be found but when I knew them, their mother was remarried to a Hispanic man who supposedly taught school somewhere in the barrios of Los Angeles. He made enough so that the girls’ mother did not have to work and could lie on the red velvet couch watching her “shows.” She was very thin and bony and I do not ever remember seeing her off the couch. The sisters did all the housework, but poorly. The entire house was furnished in that Mediterranean-style furniture that was popular then, all dark wood and all the tables had grilled insets lined with dusty red velvet.
Jackie and Judy were also responsible for getting dinner ready each night. Neither could ever remember to thaw anything, so there was always a frozen cellophane package of hamburger floating in the kitchen sink.
They shared a bedroom which was a whirlwind of Jackie’s clothing and the bathroom they used in the hall had drawers jammed full with pots and sticks of cosmetics that Jackie shoplifted by the purse full.
Their mother had a passion for Elvis Presley and even Jackie and Judy would get excited when they told me about the time their mom had taken them with her to see Elvis in Vegas once. Still, the three of us were in their room listening to a 45 record called Whole Lotta Love by a new group called “Led Zeppelin” when their mother hollered from downstairs. “Jackie. Judy. Get down here right now.”
Their mother had run out of cigarettes and her daughters knew just what to do. The girls would plunder the overflowing green glass ashtray of its old butts, carefully pinching and rolling each stubbed out cigarette for that little bit of tobacco left at the end of each dark stained filer. Judy would cut a two by four inch rectangle from a sheet of notebook paper and roll up the threads of old tobacco into a homemade cigarette held together with a lick of spit. The girls’ mother would light the lumpy cigarette, which would only last long enough for her to get a few quick hits of nicotine.
Who knows where Renee, Don and Judy’s mom are now, hopefully not all dead from lung cancer. Unfortunately, my father’s second wife is still alive; it’s a shame she never smoked. I, myself, smoked for thirty years until a bout of pneumonia convinced me I never wanted to feel as if I were suffocating ever again. Anytime I feel the urge for a cigarette, all I have to do is picture Judy’s mom lighting up that homemade notebook paper cigarette and the urge disappears.