Wednesday, July 8, 2015

How I Learned to Smoke

Selfie, 1979-ish

My parents pressed me to learn to drive. I took Driver’s Ed, and was always chose to sit at the broken simulator during class, so I entertained myself when the lights dimmed by screaming the teacher’s name in a high, weird voice and flooring it. With the pedal all the way down in my fake driver’s cockpit, and me in the back of the classroom, I didn’t even steer and it didn’t even matter.  Then, I only just barely passed the driving portion of my test, having completely failed the parallel parking bit. My dad loved to drive and had been letting me do the manual shifter for years (he would tell me when); he took me to the parking lot at Stix to practice, and he seemed calm about it. No way would Mom have done it.

I got my license on my 16th birthday, a hot, humid June afternoon after my final exams. I went to private school, and we got dressed up for exams: I wore a red calico wrap skirt and brown clogs. My legs were already tanned because our pool had been open for a week and I could float in a raft and study in the sun. I liked doing two things at once, like sunbathing and studying.

The car my parents had for me to drive was a silver and white Chevy Blazer. They bought it to replace the ‘72 royal blue Chevy van. I could barely see over the dashboard of the Blazer. The other cars had manual transmissions that I would conquer in later months. The Blazer was my car to drive that first summer with my license. I think we got our first microwave oven as a gift with purchase with the Blazer.

The person who taught me to smoke was the dirty-blond girl—the only other white girl I worked with at Arby’s. There were two night managers, a tired and blunt woman and a surly, bored guy who were never there at the same time, and come to think of it, they were never around anyway. Much of the time it was one of them and me: the only two white people who worked with the whole night shift. It was the first time I’d ever been the only white person anywhere. Arby’s wasn’t normal fast food like hamburgers; it was sliced meat sandwiches, and one night I saw one of the guys who worked in the back making sandwiches almost cut off his thumb when he was cleaning the meat slicer. We had to do extra mopping that night. That whole summer I never learned to be fast enough for the lunch rush, so I only worked the night shift.

I did learn a lot of different shit that summer. I learned how to sweep up every last sesame seed from under the mats. We had to offer potato cakes because we didn’t sell fries, and some customers would just stare and stare, unbelieving. I learned that you throw away sponges like every other day because they get fucking gross. I learned to punch a clock and use a cash register and count change and how you never wanted to be short. Once I was over by like $21 and I just handed off my drawer that way; it did not occur to me until later that I could have pocketed the difference, or that my manager would.  I learned to clean the soft serve ice cream machine and on break I learned to smoke.

I had hit the drive-through teller at the bank with the door of the Blazer. I had, like, the German exchange student Nina in the car with me, and maybe someone else, too, and the damage was well over $300 and that was that. The next week my mother sent me to interview with some creepy old guy she knew and then a few days later I was working the night shift at Arby’s. It was some sort of bargain that I was supposed to work and pay my parents back for the damage I did to the Blazer. I do not remember paying them back. I do remember getting my first paychecks. Before this fast-food job I had only worked as a babysitter, where the parents slipped me a wad of cash that I pocketed uncounted.

I wore a polyester uniform and an Arby’s nametag and I was supposed to pin my hair up under the hat. Sometimes the other people who worked there would speak to me and I would have no idea what they were saying. Before this job I knew there was what we called black St. Louis, where African American people lived, and white St. Louis, which had its areas that I knew, like Clayton or Ladue or even Frontenac where Saks was, and the areas I didn’t, like South St. Louis. We had a maid, Gwen, who came once a week, and the mailman, but outside of them and Billy M. in my elementary school or the three kids in my class in high school, I only knew white people. I had a primitive understanding that African American people lived in a separate and parallel St. Louis to the one where I lived, but I did not realize how things worked in the places where white people and African American people overlapped. It seemed remarkable and stupid to the point of ridiculous to 16 year old me that almost everyone who worked at Arby’s was black but the all managers were white.

Smoking was easy. You put the cigarette in your lips, but you tried to keep it dry. I lit it with a match because if my parents caught me with a lighter they’d know I was smoking. You shook out the match with your one hand and puffed. You dropped the match on the ground and took the cigarette out of your mouth and blew smoke. You could hold it between two fingers, like a tight peace sign, or your thumb and index finger, like a guy. You could tap off your ash or flick at the filter with your thumbnail. Smoking was the perfect thing to do during a ten minute break at Arby’s. You had to stand in the parking lot anyway, because the break room didn’t have a window so taking a break in the break room in it was like taking a break in the bathroom, without the toilet. Also, I had to clean the bathrooms.

I smoked secretly all the time after that. I loved smoking. I loved smoking and driving even more than smoking or driving alone. Lighting up was such a grand and pleasurable gesture. I smoked through college and then grad school, and then quit. My grandparents smoked so much that my 29-year-old wedding dress my grandmother made still smells slightly of smoke; it rests folded in special tissue in an acid-free conservation box. Sometimes, I still smoke in my dreams.


  1. What an amazing memory you have. You recall the tiniest details of events long ago.

    Smoking used to have widespread appeal in our society. Not just the actual inhaling but holding a cigarette, posing with one, and appearing to be an adult. Back then, everything smelled of smoke, as you mention.

  2. Wow. It's like ur me. I'm 17 and work at Arbys and just started smoking last year. A girl I work with taught me. I hated it at first but it just sorta became something to do on break. I started seeing this one older guy who smoked and that's when I learned to inhale and like it more...also when my mom found out. But since she is a closet smoker it wasn't a huge surprise. I'm keeping another secret to myself for now from her. :)