Sentient, sensible human beings flee into the bushes when we exhale. When Linda Kunhardt stays with me, I step outside on the porch to smoke. (From cars passing at night I feel the horror and rage of motorists who witness the red tip of my culpability.) It puts off for a moment the agony of deprived addiction. Depraved. Something I haven’t mentioned about the benefit of cigarettes. When I am twisted by a hacking cough—which interrupts me as I read obituaries or Ira Byock on palliative care—guess what stops my coughing.
Linda praises, with reluctance, another result of my smoking. She accompanies me on poetry readings and says my ravaged throat keeps my voice low and resonant. At the end of a reading, people line up for signatures; sometimes, interrupting the customers, I pretend to use the men’s room. When I was offered the poet laureateship I decided I must turn it down because I couldn’t smoke in the laureate’s office; I changed my mind when I learned I could avoid the office. When I visited it once during my tenure, a librarian unscrewed a long window that opened onto a secure balcony. At an AWP convention—a writers’ group—10,000 people were registered at a Chicago hotel. When I walked through the lobby to lumber outside and smoke, I was assailed by 400 emerging poets and fled as soon as I could. If you smoked in your hotel room, the fine was $700. I cracked the window and smoked in the hotel room. The chambermaid did not snitch.
Kendel Currier is my assistant who types my drafts and my letters, who bookkeeps, who solves my technical problems, who explains legal and financial documents and who drives me places. Once she found a cigarette butt in the leather case I’d left for her on my porch. A misplaced cigarette had torched my revisions. “I couldn’t find it. I figured it went out.” Once when the snow melted, she harvested from the garden by the porch a bushel basket of soggy butts that I had hurled all winter into snowdrifts. Another time, she drove me in my car all the way to New York, and I courteously opened the window to smoke. Somewhere around Springfield, Massachusetts she told me I could not smoke in my own car. She parked and I walked up and down a gutter, inhaling relief. Kendel is kind, but Kendel is a hard case.
I came late to cigarettes. When I was young, I smoked cigars in Exeter’s butt rooms. (Prep schools provided smoking retreats in each dormitory.) Later I smoked cigars in lecture halls when I taught and on all social occasions. One friend told me that whenever I smoked Coronas at her cocktail parties she sent her drapes to the cleaners. Of course I didn’t inhale—I didn’t know how—but when I blew out a lungful of cigar smoke, I choked on the murk around me. Everybody did. I even smoked cigars during psychotherapy. Dr. Frohlich was a psychoanalyst, the only one in Ann Arbor who did therapy. Therapy instead of analysis kept the two of us face-to-face—I didn’t lie on a couch—and we met only three times a week, for only four years. While I sat with a smoldering Judges Cave, Dr. Frohlich smoked Camels, sometimes lighting a new one from the butt of the old. He had smoked from early adulthood through four years of medical school, an internship, two years of psychiatric residency, analytic training for five years at an institute and decades of practice. He was 70 and told me that he finished four cartons a week. During a session late in our progress I noticed he was not smoking. I asked him why, and he told me that his elder son had asked him to stop. Dr. Frohlich answered that it would not help him, after all these years. When his son replied that he was thinking of himself and of secondary smoke, Dr. Frohlich stopped smoking. He told me it was easy. He lived to be 93.
Like all smokers I quit from time to time. In New Hampshire once, I stopped for good, as it seemed. Someone told me about a hypnotist in Concord who cured smokers. I’ve always been easy to hypnotize. (If you have an overdeveloped ego, you are not scared of surrender.) The moment I met the doctor, I knew he was a fraud. With a starched white coat, he was as handsome and suave as the model who recommended Old Golds for your health. But what the hell? I decided to go ahead and try. In a small room he spoke to me soothingly, his tone impersonating a hypnotist’s. When I felt sleepy he turned on a tape of his own voice and left the room. When the recording finished, I knew I would never smoke again. I left his office feeling ecstatic. Illicitly, I threw a pack in the gutter. For seven weeks, I continued to feel blissful without nicotine. Then one night at suppertime, before I would fly to Arkansas in the morning, the phone rang. My dearest friend from school and college had dropped dead at the age of 50. Driving to Logan Airport on my way to the reading, I stopped at the first open shop and bought cigarettes. A week later I returned to the hypnotist and told him I had failed. He put me under again, but nothing happened. He told me, “If this doesn’t work, we’ll try psychoanalysis.…”
I was 40 before I smoked a cigarette, about the time the surgeon general issued his fuddy-duddy warning. I was a college teacher, separated from my wife, and had entered a fringe of the counterculture that took over the 1960s. My students’ greatest sport was to turn a professor on. Never did I need to buy a joint, and unlike Bill Clinton I accepted instruction in inhaling, learning to enjoy the pain, which moved from weed to cigarettes. Alas, I had another, deeper reason for seeking humiliation and harm. I endured a volcanic love affair with a beautiful young woman who was not psychotic but whose utterances sounded like surrealism. She had other attractions, of which she was aware, but she felt devastated by one unforgivable flaw: She could not stop smoking Kents. In our assignations the foggy air trembled with erotic joy. She adored the sex but abhorred the fog. Then, viciously, she dumped me. I went crazy; I daydreamed suicide; I took up Kents for revenge. I have not seen her for decades, and at 80-some I am still proclaiming, “Look what you did!”
If my tender father had not smoked so much, by now he would have turned 115. From the late 1960s into the millennium, American living rooms have become smokeless, as well as bars, restaurants, hardware stores, hotel lobbies, cabins, business offices, factory floors, sedans, hospital rooms, pizzerias, sweatshops, town meetings, laboratories, palaces, department stores, supermarkets, barbershops, McDonald’s, beauty parlors, art galleries, bookstores, pharmacies, men’s rooms, corner groceries, women’s rooms, barns except for mine, movie houses, dairies, airports, offices of thoracic surgeons, depots, tearooms, Automats, cafeterias, town halls, Macy’s, gymnasiums, igloos, waiting rooms, museums, newsrooms, classrooms, steel mills, libraries, lecture halls, emergency rooms, auditoriums, parks, Mongolian yurts, beaches and definitely funeral parlors.