This essay (an excerpt from the manuscript), now appearing in the August issue of Pithead Chapel, looks at this through the lens of my father's cigarette habit, which I so often fought against, and never completely understood.
Here's a bit of it:
My father smoked three, four, or sometimes more packs a day by the time I was old enough to understand the differences between addiction and social posturing. He once told me he had his first cigarette at 8 or 10, and was smoking regularly, openly, by age 12. A boy smoking at 12 in 1938, in the Italian immigrant neighborhood where he’d grown up, was nothing shocking, not unexpected. Boys were regarded as young men by that age, already able – expected – to help their fathers with matters of earning money, doing heavy work, using their bodies as a wedge against poverty, homelessness, hunger. Already, at 12, he was working alongside his father after school and on weekends. His father was a junk man, hauling broken down furnaces and other metals from residential basements or old factories, heaving them onto a wagon pulled by a horse.
When my father told me these stories, I tried to picture my elegant father, who liked to neatly turn up the bottoms of the sleeves of short sleeved shirts into a neat, crisp cuff, as a gangly adolescent in torn, dirty pants and too tight shoes and soiled, sweaty shirts, tried to picture the wagon, the horse (old and often lame, he said), the streets, the occasional motor car, housewives holding open their doors for the boy and his panting father, as they maneuvered out hulking, broken down and rusted radiators, boilers, utility sinks, pipes, the housewife pulling from her apron pocket a few pennies or a nickel for a tip, the boy taking puffs between stops.You can read the whole piece here.