This friend of mine was someone I’d started hanging out with shortly after moving to New York, during that exploratory period when you’re needy for people to hang out with and social connections and when you’re very open-minded. It didn’t take me long, however, to see what a mess he was. Nowadays, the kids would call him a “hot mess.” I think I stayed friends with him as long as I did because he reminded me of myself in several ways, both positive and negative.
Like me, he was something of a social hub, the kind of person who knows and keeps in touch with hundreds of people in lots of different circles and connects them all to each other, a sort of one-man facebook, in the days before online social networking. And also like me, he was someone who struggled with taking responsibility for many of the details of his life, details which often became unmanageable (the buzz word for what he and I do as defined by the many, many different 12-step programs which would welcome us both).
Well, this particular time when I was almost 25, this friend had been living in Florida for some time and had come to New York for a few days in a limousine and with a prostitute in tow. He had been introducing the boy as his significant other, but confessed to me that his companion, like the limo and the apartment where he was staying, was for rent.
He also confessed to me that he was not allowed back in the State of Florida.
I remember so vividly how I felt during that conversation. I was in previews for a show I was assisting on, and we’d met for lunch at some Irish dive on 8th Avenue – back then, you could still smoke at certain restaurants. I remember I finished whatever I was eating and my friend finished lightheartedly regaling me with the messy saga of his hasty exit from Florida. He got up to go to the bathroom and I lit a cigarette and I got nauseous watching him walk away, thinking, “I don’t want to be like him.”
I hungered for some concrete way to separate myself, some action I could take immediately to viscerally distinguish myself from him. I stubbed out my cigarette and didn’t smoke again for six years.
In retrospect, I guess you could say I was ready to quit. I’d had all the glamorous-to-me smoking experiences I’d always looked forward to. When I first moved into my apartment, I inherited a bunch of furniture and furnishings, including a vintage table lighter. I was thrilled to sit down on my couch in my apartment in New York City and light up like the great ladies of the screen, or to be honest, Joan Collins on Dynasty.
Of course, Joan’s table lighters always lit – or Alexis’ did anyway. When the first big show I assisted on had its opening night party at the Tavern on the Green, I relished smoking with stars under the stars in the courtyard. Somebody pulled out a joint and then we got discreetly ushered back inside, but I’d had my few minutes of glory. And there must have been a thousand nights in smoky bars where I held court, all my accoutrements in place.
One of my favorite memories of the good old days of smoking was when I went backstage to visit my goddess, Patti LuPone, after a concert. I don’t know whether Patti still smokes, but back then, I was convinced when she looked at me, her eyeballs turned into cartoon cigarettes. That night in her dressing room, she barely kissed me hello before sputtering, “Got a butt, Doll?” As I reached into my pocket to whip’em out, I saw Patti’s hand going down the back of her pants. What? The leading lady of Broadway ripped a nicotine patch off her ass and leaned in for me to light her up. I felt I’d seen it all.
After five years of shame, poor health and wasting money, I was committed to quitting, no matter what. I gave myself permission to do ANYTHING else besides smoke. I had always used cigarettes to curb snack cravings and preserve my – fuck me – 25 year old 28” waist, so I allowed myself to indulge in any extreme of gorging fattening food I desired. For a while, I actually carried around in my shoulder bag a box of Entenmann’s donuts to scarf down almost as frequently as I’d been smoking. I thought to myself, “It doesn’t matter if I get fat. My only job is to not smoke.”
At that time in my life, I was a major stoner, smoking weed pretty much everyday and to quell my cigarette cravings while watching TV, I switched from my beloved three foot glass bong to very thinly rolled joints which I would chain smoke for hours, relishing the physical sensation I missed so much in smoking. Of course, I couldn’t bring a pack of joints with me to rehearsal every day.
I became a much heavier drinker because, where hanging out in bars had previously been a two-handed, smoke and drink, activity, I now had nothing to consume, nothing to indulge in, no affectation except the drink in my hand. I would throw back vodka sodas at two, three, four times my previous speed. Eventually, this became a problem in itself.
But I really quit smoking. I knew from the mistakes of my previous failed attempts to quit that there were no exceptions, that I’m not someone who can dabble in cigarettes. And I knew not to permit myself odd little gray area allowances like smoking a cigar or stopping by a Middle Eastern restaurant for a mid-afternoon hookah.
In time, I lost most of the weight I’d gained, went back to smoking from my bong (so much easier and easier on the throat) and even got my drinking back down to a level more functional for me, as a single young(ish) gay in New York City. I no longer craved cigarettes and in fact, they bothered me. I never judged smokers because I had been the worst of the worst, but it made me sick to be in the presence of smoke. I would even let people smoke in my house because I remembered how awful it was to need a cigarette and not be allowed, but I always fumigated the apartment afterwards. I knew I was over the hump, nothing could make me want a cigarette and yet, I also knew that should I ever take even one drag, I would be back to 2+ packs a day instantly.
Two years ago, I was in the midst of the most miserable experience of my life, at least my professional life. I was directing my best friend’s play in a relatively high-profile showcase production (where the actors work free on a limited contract with their union) at a top notch venue with a cast whose resumes outshone my own.
My friend/playwright and I had just returned from workshopping the piece at our alma mater and were extremely enthusiastic and motivated for the future life of the play beyond the initial showcase. We were so focused on the end results that we blinded ourselves to the fact that the play wasn’t ready, a reality of which the actors were all too well aware.
On top of that, we were the lead producers, which caused a real conflict of interests in that the company needed a safe, comfortable rehearsal environment in order to collaborate with us on the difficult task of putting on this perhaps brilliant, but unfinished show, however we were constantly splitting focus with such distractions as press and marketing, building buzz, in our race towards the spectacular pop-cultural event we were convinced we had on our hands.
One night, around the time the entire process of this production came grinding to a halt and mutiny set in along with the shuddering realization that we were working on a disaster, I was out with some friends who asked whether I wanted to get high. I’d already had a few cocktails and smoking a little weed sounded like a great way to further enhance my buzz and take me another step out of the acute trauma that was my mental state.
We congregated outside the bar and I was passed the fattest joint I’d ever seen – this thing was the size of a cigar. I was told that it was a spliff, half pot/half tobacco. Now I’d certainly heard of spliffs before, but had never tried one, even when I was a smoker because I’m more of a finish-the-hamburger-before-starting-the-fries kind of guy. Still though, I was needing to mellow out big time so I took a few hits. It didn’t even occur to me that I was essentially smoking a cigarette for the first time in years. I’d been over the hump for so long, I’d forgotten I was ever a smoker.
Well, the good people of Philip Morris had me vulnerable and primed. I spent the next couple of hours like a high school kid, “Oh my God, you guys. I totally have a nicotine buzz.” “Gimme a drag.” “Can I bum one?” “Can I bum another?” “You and me, outside. Now.” As the night wore on, waves of defeat and depression washed over me like the warm ominous wind before a summer storm. Stumbling towards 9th Avenue to catch a cab, I bought a pack of my good old Parliament 100s.
I was as excited to “pack” the familiar blue and white round-corner box as I was freaked out that I was actually doing it. I was just so sad and despondent about where my life was, about where I felt it could go, that I didn’t have much investment in not smoking.
The show played out its limited run and I was left confused, depressed and defeated, in addition to being unemployed and flat broke. For the next six months, weeks would go by where I barely left the house except to buy cigarettes – or run out to borrow money from a friend or sell clothing, music or books in order to buy cigarettes. I didn’t have money to eat, but smoking made me feel like I was indulging in something, like I wasn’t deprived.
I would sit in front of the TV for hours and days on end, chain-smoking and distracting myself from my unhappiness, which was pointedly symbiotic with my smoking. I had no motivation to quit because I was so miserable, but smoking sapped my energy and made me feel bad about myself, so I was more miserable.
In time, I moved on from that dark phase of my life. For the first time in several years, I got a day job. As I mentioned last week, I’ve struggled with balancing this with the rest of my life, but on the whole, it has been wonderful to have. I’ve worked on a number of directing projects and begun to write. I’ve made new friends and kept the old. I’ve dated.
More importantly, I’ve grown up, learning from the failure in my career two years ago, gleaning not only its lessons about theatre, but learning about myself and how I cope when the going gets rough and where I stumble and why. I’ve been doing so well, but I haven’t stopped smoking.
Yesterday, with my non-smoker friend over, I didn’t miss smoking at all. We had a great time, watched some Patti videos, polished off a couple of bottles of wine, heaven. I was so glad to host our get-together in a smoke-free environment, comfortable for him. And I was so glad not to feel like this new friend might be judging me for smoking. But this too, was a fleeting respite from my reality. The minute he left, I ripped the nicotine patch off my ass and ran out to the “health food” store to buy a pack.