I heard on the radio this morning that it's the 50th anniversary of the Surgeon General's report on smoking. I remember it. I wrote about it in my new book about growing up in East Flatbush, "Brooklyn 3, New York".
Here is that story. "Brooklyn 3, New York" is printed and will be available at Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca soon.In Brooklyn 3 New York, cigarettes weren't bad for you.
Everybody smoked. All adults, and lots of kids.
People smoked indoors and out. In cars with the windows closed. In supermarkets. While pregnant.
The only adults who didn't smoke were sick, frail, or fussy. People smoked on TV. TV had a million cigarette ads, with sayings and songs.
It was the ads that disinterested me in cigarettes. The songs were lousy and the sayings made no sense.
The things I knew were good, like bagels, didn't have ads on TV. So I had the vague idea somebody was kidding with these cigarettes.
Suddenly, they decided cigarettes were bad for you. Just like that. Not just bad like to stunt your growth - which had always been a rumor, but clearly untrue, as many tall people smoked plenty - but like to kill you.
Now on TV, new commercials said that the Surgeon General, who was like the sheriff of health, said that cigarettes could give you lung cancer.
Lungs. I knew what they were. They were disgusting. You didn't want anything to happen to them. You didn't even want to know you had them.
These health commercials didn't have songs. They had pictures of hearts beating slow, slow, slow, then stopping. Announcers talked low and scary.
But they still had the ads telling you to buy cigarettes. So which was it?
I asked my mother and she said cigarettes are rotten and you should never smoke.
So why do you?, I asked.
Because I started young, she said, and it is a very hard habit to break. Maybe I will someday but it is better never to start.
Why did you start?, I asked.
Because my friends smoked, she said. Isn't that stupid?
I could never think of my mother and stupid in the same sentence, so I didn't say anything.
She smoked a lot. She would send me to Mickey and Sarah's luncheonette sometimes to buy her a pack when her carton ran out. It was hard for her to leave the house, with my little brother Paddy and baby sister Maryann.
I would tell Sarah they were for my mother, not me. She would make me hide them and tell me, run home. Don't get caught. She must have laughed as I scrambled. I never liked this errand.
I don't remember the first time I tried one. I must have fairly young, as they were all around. But I don't remember it. My older brother, Eddie, started early - at age 11, about a year after the surgeon general's report. It was a secret I didn't know. He told us when he was 16. He wanted to be able to smoke at home. There was a big argument, maybe the worst ever in our house. He got his way. Sadly.