I am one of those people in whom anger wells up when I see a cigarette butt on the ground. Intense, aggressive anger. There are better places for those. One of my neighbors used to date a slug of a guy that would litter the ground and sidewalk from her unit past mine to his truck every day. Her child plays in that yard. One morning, I started to pick them up and place them on her windshield and in the bed of his truck. They broke up eventually. Best day ever.
I have been surrounded by smokers my entire life and I never held such massive dislike for them until recently. I don’t smoke. I tried in college. I thought how cool that looked on others. It did not feel like it looked cool on me. And I didn’t have the extra cash for that kind of cool.
Everyone in my mother and father’s families smoked. Every time we had company it was my job to make sure that ashtrays were distributed around the living room so that they would be convenient to each smoker. It was an important job. My mother did not smoke and she didn’t like that my father occasionally smoked those cheap little cigars that came six to a box. But she would never prohibit him or any guests from smoking.
We had a collection of those heavy glass ashtrays with notches on the corners to balance the cigarette butt. Round, square, diamond shaped – faceted glass. Clear and colored. Today you can only find those in antique stores and on eBay. I am not sure why I might want one but sometimes in my effort to reclaim memories I go looking for things like that. Things I do remember.
When I was growing up, we use to pop down to the country market to visit with Mildred, the lady that ran the store. It felt special being allowed to go behind the meat counter and into the kitchen at the back where she made the soups, potato salad and put together sandwiches and other things that she sold.
The market was in a really old two story, white clapboard structure. It was located at the intersection of two heavily traveled state routes where it was convenient for people to make a quick stop for coffee and a sandwich, a smoke and some gossip. Here at the intersection of north, south, east and west was a building that had stood watch over the comings and goings of people without comment for many decades. Inside your feet would creak across unfinished wood plank flooring. The lower level was full of fresh produce where the lettuce and corn watched the commuters flowing into Akron each morning and back out each evening. Up five steps was the general store, accessed directly from the porch along the side of the building and the deli area with kitchen behind.
I remember passing a man on the steps once who would years later be my junior high school American History teacher. The gossip was he was waiting for the just out of high school clerk so that they could make out in his car on her smoke break. She wasn’t his wife. It was small town scandalous and, to me, somehow very exciting.
The items on the shelves in the store were generally covered with a thick coating of dust most likely having sifted in through the walls from the street traffic outside. The teenage clerks weren’t really into dusting so it remained untouched except by small fingers spelling the words “dust me” onto the packaging of cake mix and tops of canned soup. Thank goodness, the deli items were in a case that did seem to get wiped down at least once in a while. We never bought anything there. I thought I once heard mom say that the prices were too high.
Sitting around the high worktable in the kitchen on tall stools was a glimpse at the behind the scenes workings. I always liked seeing how things worked, how things were run. I secretly loved those factory tours we took on family vacations. One day we were sitting there chatting with Mildred, the owner. My mother was on one side of the table and I on the other. My father was still outside chatting with Mildred’s daughter at the register.
Mildred was making beef stew that day. Everything in a huge stew pot on the stove steaming away. Mildred leaned against the counter next to it, stirring. Two of the fingers on the hand stirring the pot with a long wooden spoon were cradling a cigarette between them. Her other free hand was gesturing as she spoke. She knew all the gossip about everyone in town. My mother was uncomfortable hearing it but listened politely. Me, I was, fascinated by the cigarette hovering over the stew.
Mildred stirred that soup so slowly I wondered if it really needed stirring at all. As she talked the ash on the end of her cigarette grew, glowing ever so slightly in the breeze it felt as it went around and around. I looked at that ash and began to worry. I looked over at my mother and she returned my gaze, raising an eyebrow. We both had a wonderful ability to raise just one eyebrow. I raised an eyebrow in return and quickly we looked back at the cigarette. The ash was growing. Mildred’s story went on.
How long before the ash falls, I wondered. What will it take? My mother was staring at it as intensely as I was. What if our staring at it so hard made it fall? Would Mildred remember to puff and tap it on the ashtray? Where was her ashtray? I looked around.
My dad appeared in the doorway and said it was time to go. Both my mother and I looked up at him. He’d broken our concentration. When we looked back at Mildred, the cigarette ash fell and was being stirred into the soup. Both my mother’s eyebrows went up. She grabbed her purse and nodded at me.
On our way out the door, she leaned down and whispered, “And that is why we do not buy food here.”
I nodded biting my lip to keep from giggling.
There were far fewer health code standards in the sixties and seventies. There are far fewer smokers now.