Then there was Rich, who, as I approached, was just lighting up near a planter on the San Diego Civic Center plaza, about 50 feet from the door of the city’s administration building. When he learned what I wanted to talk about, his body seemed to tighten. The subsequent conversation was strained — and short. Rich struck me as hunkering down, readying himself to foil any attempt I might make to trap him into a politically incorrect statement about cigarettes. He denied that he had the slightest complaint about having to step outside to smoke.
Yet despite this circumspection, when I asked Rich, who said he’s been smoking for 60 years, if he’d ever considered quitting, he had this to say: “If my doctor asked me to stop, I’d fire him.”
He appeared to be in good health.
June, whose sandy blonde hair shone in the sun, works in the 27-story Columbia Center building, situated in the square block between A and Ash Streets and Third and Fourth Avenues. She has smoked for 15 years. I asked her how she feels standing on the building’s steps when she takes her smoke breaks. “It’s okay,” she says, “though you definitely feel like an outcast. You can only be in certain places [workers can also smoke on a third-floor deck off the Center], but I know the effects of smoking, and I know people don’t like it. It’s a nasty habit. But you do have that feeling sometimes of being an outcast. Comments are made, you know, like smoking is bad for you or that it smells. That’s why I don’t smoke around people.”
It embarrasses you?
“Of course. Huge,” said June. “It’s an embarrassing habit, although I’m not sure how other smokers feel about it. They mostly seem to feel like it’s their right, that they’re obeying the laws and it’s okay because they’re outside where they’re not affecting anybody around them. I know some smokers get angry and defensive at the comments made toward them. They come right out and say, ‘It’s none of your business’ or ‘It’s my life. I’m not affecting you.’ But me? I’m the opposite. I get embarrassed.”
I asked June if she’d ever tried to stop.
“Never hard enough,” she said. “It wouldn’t last more than a couple of days. But my family and friends still want me to quit.”
What’s their reasoning?
Do you agree with them?
“I agree a hundred percent.”
Are you addicted?
“Yes, it’s the physical withdrawal that’s so difficult.”
Are there any people you won’t smoke near?
“In general, I don’t smoke around people who aren’t smoking. I’ll go off to the side. Do I hide behind buildings or trees? No, I don’t necessarily hide my smoking, just don’t do it in the vicinity of people who aren’t. I never smoke indoors or if I have a passenger in my car. And I’ll typically keep my distance from people that are milling about.”
I’ve often been curious what it’s like to smoke, though not curious enough to start. When I was ten, I picked up the butt of my dad’s cigarette, took one puff, and felt an immediate nausea.
“When you’ve been smoking a long time, like I have, it’s relaxing in a lot of ways,” Wendy Hixson told me outside the Commonwealth Building on A Street, between First Avenue and Front Street. The little area we sat in, with chairs and tables and small trees rising out of faux marble containers, is one of the three nicest smoking reserves I saw at any of San Diego’s high-rise buildings.
“Of course,” continued Hixson, who is 57 and has smoked for 40 years, “the smoking relieves stress, but that’s just habit. You breathe deeper as you smoke. I get away from my desk, my eyes relax, my mind relaxes. I figure out work problems, then I go back and fix them. When I’m out here, my mind doesn’t ever stop, though I don’t consciously think about work. Things just kind of fall into place after I go back inside.”
Hixson has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). She told me her doctor calls it a “moderate” case, though it makes her breathing difficult. “It started coming on about five years ago. The problem includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis, and if I quit smoking, I could probably clear up the bronchitis. But the emphysema means that lots of the little alveoli in my lungs are shot. I used to have asthma too, but that turned out to be caused by a wheat allergy. So I cut the wheat out, and that got better.”
How did you start smoking?
“My parents smoked, which was normal for then. I’m older,” said Hixson, laughing. “But the reason I started smoking? I graduated from high school in 1970 and, by the late 1960s, I had started smoking marijuana. So I started smoking cigarettes for a reason to have matches or a lighter in my purse or other belongings. Then I just took up the cigarettes, too.”
Do you regret that having happened?
“Yes and no. It’s hard to quit, which I did once for three months, but I still enjoy smoking. Some people keep smoking even though they don’t like it anymore. I do enjoy smoking.
“I smoke Maverick’s because they’re relatively inexpensive. I pay $3.75 for a pack. Major brands, depending on where you shop, run anywhere from $5 to $6 or more, depending on the brand and where you get them. Camels, those little short cigarettes, are always a dollar more than Marlboro, which is $5.50, $6 by now. Cartons? You don’t get a break on cartons as a general rule, just a pack times ten. At Costco you can save some money, places like that.
“I do not go to Tijuana, no. Some people do and they save quite a bit because they don’t have to pay tax. And some people go there to buy duty-free cigarettes, so they can sell them on the street. But I heard the ATF [Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms] is bearing down on people like that. You’re not supposed to do that. It’s illegal. But cigarette smuggling still goes on. I used to work for an attorney, and one of our clients was arrested for smuggling.