May 11, 2018

An Essay by Patrick Dobson: “Nicotine’s This Man’s Best Friend”

I am a writer and college professor living in Kansas City, MO.

The University of Nebraska Press published my second travel memoir, Canoeing the Great Plains: A Missouri River Summer on May 1, 2015. My first, Seldom Seen: A Journey into the Great Plains was published in 2009 and won mentions in several contests, including the 2011 Byron Caldwell Smith Book Award from the Hall Center for Humanities at Kansas University, the 2012 High Plains Book Award, and the Thorpe Menn Literary Excellence Award.
Canoeing the Great Plains: A Missouri River Summer, won the 2016 High Plains Book Award in Creative Nonfiction and the Thorpe Menn Literary Excellence Award.

I earned a doctorate in American History and Literature at the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 2013. From 1996-2004, I worked as a journalist for Kansas City newspapers and online publications, earning national and regional awards for my work. I continue writing opinion/editorial essays for a Kansas City online news site. I edited books for Andrews McMeel Publishing from 2000-2003 and taught journalism at the University of Missouri-Kansas City from 2002-2006. I now teach American History and Western Civilization at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, KS.


Nicotine’s this Man’s Best Friend

Screw dogs. Tobacco is man’s best friend. It’s my best friend. I look to it in times of stress, need, worry, and fear. It works well when I’m happy, excited, and contemplative. It’s the first thing I think of when I get up in the morning and the last thing I do before I go to bed. It serves me well in the middle of the day when I’m trying to concentrate on a project or when I’m reading or after I’ve gotten up from a nap. Until now, it’s always been good to me.
My friendship with tobacco started in a basement stairwell at Christ the King Catholic Church when I was 11. The older, cooler kids snuck out of the Boy Scout meeting and I wanted to go along. We poked through the bushes on the side entrance of the church and slinked down between the convent and the main church. Looking both ways, we dove one by one out of the bushes and down the stairwell.
I don’t remember the names of the boys anymore but I remember their faces. Passing the matches, they all lit their cigarettes, the light from the match illuminating their faces. I said I wanted to try.
There were a couple of ranks of cool kids at my school. Popular boys seemed to do well at whatever they undertook. They played baseball better than I did. They had nicer bikes and could ride them farther and faster than me. They got great grades and accolades from the teachers.
Then there were the subversive, juvenile delinquents. They wore cooler clothes and talked about things like fighting and how to conceal knives so that parents wouldn’t find them.
The rest of us floated between the two groups of people. I was one of them. I lived for the day one of them would notice me. Smoking admitted me to an exclusive club.
One of the guys in the stairwell gave me a cigarette. I remember his smile. It was half intrigued and half mean. You’re going to love this, he said. He held a match up to my cigarette. I took a mouthful of smoke, inhaled, and almost passed out.
My head spun and felt so light I thought it might float away. My vision blurred. I could hardly stand up. I begged for help. Something’s wrong, I said. The boys all around me were laughing, guffawing. I stumbled and fell on the wet leaves sitting on the drain. I groped around the muck and pulled myself up on the bottom step, dirt on my hands and knees and the seat of my pants. I held my head in my hands and felt like I was going to throw up. The other boys were finished with their smokes and left me down there. Slowly, I half stumbled, half crawled up the stairs and fell out at the top into a juniper bush.
Despite my distress, I was hooked. The next smoke was better than the first. And soon, I was puffing away whenever I could. Frank, Scott, and I built a treehouse in the woods behind Frank’s house. It was our smoking spot. At 12, I couldn’t always buy cigarettes and scrounged butts out of the gutter at the curb. What did I care? A smoke was a smoke, and I was going to smoke. I filched packs from the grocery store and hid individual cigs in the handle bars of my bicycle. When I could buy my own — and I could sometimes find someone willing to sell to a minor — I stashed the packs behind a metal door in the basement that opened to the compartment where ash from the fireplace fell.
I used to ride my bike excitedly to my friend John’s, who lived about a mile away. He and I used to smoke in his mom’s basement. We used the water heater to conceal the evidence. We’d hold the cigarette up under the exhaust vent. We blew out our breath through a length of garden hose stuck up the vent.
I hid smoking from my parents for years. They suspected, of course, when I came home smelling of smoke. They’d yell and scream. My dad slapped me around. But they never caught me with the goods.
In grade school, Boy Scout overnights, school dances, and intramural sports all got me away from my parents and into the warm embrace of cigarettes. In high school, I hung out in the parking lot with people older than me smoking in cars before and after school. When I stayed overnight with my uncle, who was only six months older than me and lived up the street from school, we’d dodge down a side street and smoke a couple of butts before and after school.
When I moved out of my house at the age of 20, the gloves were off. It wasn’t but a month before I was a pack-a-day smoker. I was also a drunk and drinking and smoking went together. I couldn’t have a beer or snot without washing it down with a smoke. When I wasn’t drinking, I smoked one or two during the day, and the rest of the pack when I sat down to a twelve pack and a pint of whiskey in the evening.
I sobered up at 27 and my smoking diminished to just five or ten cigarettes a day, often less. I smoked until I was almost 30. The nicotine smack got me up in the morning and put me to bed at night. Almost every time I got into my car, I lit a cigarette. At the same time, I cycled a lot—sometimes 50 miles a day four or five days a week. I couldn’t keep up with the young guys and wheezed my way up hills. I kept thinking what a great thing it would be if I didn’t have cigarettes hindering my progress up the slopes.
Even so, I wasn’t smoking much but I couldn’t do without it. Smoking helped with grad school stress when I was earning a Master’s at the University of Wyoming. On long drives between Kansas City and Laramie, a smoke kept me awake when my eyes sagged and head nodded. Smoking braced me for a party or an event. On weekends, I spent a lot of time hiking in the mountains outside of Laramie. I found I had to take my time or stop along the way, short of breath. When I came out on top with yawning space and peaks all around, it was the perfect time for a smoke.
When the end finally came, I went for the patch but since I didn’t smoke much, the dosage was too much for me. I drove home from an AA meeting one night and the streetlights were too bright and the car too small. I tried cutting the patches in half for a few days but it was still too much. I gave up the patch after a week, and when I threw away those patches, I was finished with smoking.
Or so I thought. Seven years later, I took up smoking cigars. Cigars, as much as I loved them, led to leaf chewing tobacco. I ran dry one weekend at a newspaper conference. The hotel gift shop didn’t sell Levi Garrett. I opted for Copenhagen. I stuffed a bit in my lip and headed for the pool. My head spun and felt light. I felt a little queasy. But in that natatorium, I found myself home again.
That was 1997. I have “dipped” for 20 years. Again, the charge the nicotine gives me helps me through the down times. I wake up thinking about tobacco. The first pull of the day charges my brain. I use it to concentrate, to relax, to get on with my day. I take to it when I am sad, depressed, or angry. Evenings, I sit down in my armchair and stick a wad of snuff in my lip. The world feels fine. And when it doesn’t, tobacco helps me out.
When I first started using snuff, I went through about a can a week. For years, that amount served me well. When I was working iron on a bridge in the summer heat carrying rebar, a dip just felt good. I took some on break and on the way home from work. I’d take a nap and wake up to a pinch of tobacco.
Recently, something broke. I started using more and more tobacco. I keep it in my mouth longer. I go through about a can every two days. My habit increased in cost from about $3 a week to $10 or $12. That’s $600 a year in tobacco. It makes me think about how many semesters of my kid’s college tuition I could have paid had I not used tobacco or smoked all those years.
I have always worried about cancer and gum disease. Gingivitis swelled the gums of a couple of friends of mine. It always took a long time to get rid of it. I dreaded getting it myself. People lose their teeth to tobacco. A friend of mine who’s a regular tobacco user just had a pre-cancerous lesion removed from his cheek — from the exact spot where he always stuffed his tobacco.
Giving up is in my future. It’s going to be hard. Tobacco is appropriate in every situation, every moment of the day. A friend of mine who’s life with nicotine parallels mine calls tobacco “opioids.” I get that. Tobacco has me in its grip, but I invited it in. I gave myself over to it. I worship the snuff.
How do you say goodbye to your best friend? A proper sendoff with cake and festive drinks? Live it up too much for a few days over a weekend? Force him or her out the door without looking out again?
I must get free of a relationship that’s become toxic. It’s tiring always having to find an out, a place to spit out the goods and avoid social opprobrium. I always have to have some water or some kind of drink to rinse off my teeth. I don’t get the satisfaction of a dip well done. I must be careful of my company and I arrange my social and business appointments around a fix. More and more, tobacco is not a pleasure but relief of craving. I don’t have any signs of disease . . . yet.
People in my family die of old age—80s, 90s, 100s—and we die with all our teeth. We don’t get cancer or gum disease. I’m playing with fire here. I can’t imagine a life without tobacco right now. I’ve got to start.

~Patrick Dobson

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