Other kids wanted the coolest toys, the latest sneakers, and the newest video game consoles.
There was only one thing I wanted as a kid. And that was to be an adult.
I wanted it so bad I could taste it, and within my little-kid view of what it meant to be a grown-up, I was ready to do whatever it took to get there.
I insisted on wearing a suit to my first day of Kindergarten. My only request for my 9th birthday was a brief case. It was about that time I got by first job in a used book store.
But man, the two trappings of adulthood that were just out of my reach left me twitchy with anxious anticipation.
As far as I could tell, the final and temporarily unattainable steps to full maturity were growing a mustache and smoking cigarettes. That didn’t mean I wasn’t going to try.
From 1978-1989, I singlehandedly kept the stick-on mustache industry in operation.
I probably wore hundreds of costume mustaches through the years. One time, Grandma took us on the bus to George & Company on Main Street next to Shea’s. There was a real Hollywood fake mustache in the plexiglass case behind the counter, $29. It became a minor obsession.
On TV, Mr. Dressup was always making and then wearing fake mustaches. As soon as the show was over, I would be running around the house looking for black pipe cleaners or black yarn or for a big black marker that would make the same kind of squeaking sounds that Mr. Dressup’s made on tagboard as it squeaked out the outline of a “big moos-taache,” as he’d say with flair.
Once in passing my dad suggested that burnt cork was good for drawing on beards and mustaches. From that point forward, when I wasn’t thinking about the Cadillac of mustaches from George & Co., I was looking everywhere for a cork to set on fire and smear on my face.
Speaking of fire, the only way to make a mustache even more amazing, I thought, is to put some kind of lit tobacco product underneath it. I learned my colors studying the different logos and packages of cigarettes in the vending machine at my ol’man’s bar.
It wasn’t just colors. There was a lot about smoking I studied. The ways different people held their smokes. The different brands people smoked. The different ways they carried around packs. Aunt Peggy had what looked like a coin purse, but it was just the right size for a pack of smokes and a lighter. I was always excited when she’d ask me to go get her cigarettes.
Just like with the mustaches– bubble gum cigars, bubble pipes, and candy cigarettes were all favorites. Candy cigarettes were a frequent treat—they were really cheap, and lasted quite a while. I was always excited to see mom unpack the groceries and to see her draw a “carton” of candy cigarettes out of the brown paper bag.
Back then, the candy cigarette packs were exact replicas of real cigarette brands, except the boxes were cardboard instead of the soft packs that most people I knew smoked.
There were fights about choosing who got which packs. Marlboro was always the first pack gone. Everyone loved Lucky Strikes. We all liked Pall Mall, because it looked like a trick when Uncle Mike “Hooker” Doyle would open his Pall Malls using the only hand he had on the end of his only arm.
I liked Chesterfield, because my dad said his grandpa used to smoke them, so they must have been OK. No one really wanted Lark, but Lark was still better than Viceroy.
There was always hope that I’d come across a pack of Parliament candy cigarettes—that was Dad’s brand. Never did, though.
So not only did candy cigarettes teach us how to smoke, they built multigenerational brand loyalty.
Some kids would suck the little white sticks into a point, just like a candy cane. I’d suck on it a little while, hold in in my fingers, flicking imaginary ash with my thumb. Then I’d loudly crunch down the whole thing with the same satisfaction as mashing a butt into an ashtray. Then I’d grab another one right away. When I had a pack, you know I “chain-smoked” those sons of bitches, just like a real nicotine fiend.
Smoking was so wholly ingrained as some inevitable and desirable part of adulthood, my yearning to pick up the habit hasn’t completely gone away.
In fact, if tomorrow, the Surgeon General said Just kidding about those cigarettes! Smoke ‘em if you’ve got ‘em!, I’d probably start a two-pack-a-day habit.
Maybe then I’d finally feel like a grown up.