Confessions of a 20-Something Smoker

Confessions of a 20-Something Smoker

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Donny Lumpkins, 23, a frequent KMEL Radio commentator on “Street Soldiers” in San Francisco, shares his story about how cigarettes helped him connect with people he could relate to. He also spoke with two young smokers about why they first started to smoke. Lumpkins is a content producer for New America Media’s Richmond Pulse, a youth-led community media platform in Richmond, Calif.

SAN FRANCISCO -- I've been thinking a lot about smoking, and why people do it. To be honest, I'm not even completely sure why I do it.

One of the first impressions I have about smoking is of my father. The first time I saw him smoke, I was 5, and we were living in Sacramento.

My father was parked in the driveway, sitting in the family station wagon in front of the house and listening to oldies on the car radio. I don’t think he saw me watching him. I wanted to run up to the car and greet him as I did whenever he came home. But something looked different about him that night.

In the dark car there was a little red dot floating a few inches from his face. It disappeared for a second, fell out of sight like a shooting star and moments later rose back up to my father’s face.

My father sat there looking straight ahead. I couldn’t imagine what he could have been thinking about. In those few minutes, in his own bubble away from his house and responsibilities, he got to be just a man smoking a cigarette in his car.

It was my first realization that my father did things that I didn’t know about and that he needed time for himself, as much as he loved to spend time with us, his family. I’d always seen my Dad as a dad. But in that moment I saw him as a man, a man with a past, a man with a life beyond me, my mother and my siblings.

I can’t really say what I thought at the age of 5. But I know I imagined him differently for the first time, maybe looking back on his life filled with many things, things I would learn to call triumphs and failures. Thinking of him that night, I recall having a sense of myself as a man, who would look back on many experiences one day. I imagined him reflecting on the guy he was before the eight kids, the wife, the station wagon and the house.

I remember hearing him popping his car door open and running back in the house. As he entered the house, he seemed more mysterious than ever before. I wanted to know everything there was about this man, whom I loved so much.

The first time I smoked a cigarette was years later when I was about 21. It was from someone else’s pack. I didn’t really enjoy it, but I didn’t hate it either. It seemed like the right time to start smoking: I was stressed, and I was looking for a community to be a part of. I had just stopped going to church, and was falling out of touch with the friends I used to see on Sundays. I was actually seeking something or someone to help jumpstart my social life, and smoking turned out to be that thing.

I really never considered smoking before that day. My mother had tuberculosis as a child, and there are very few things she hates more than cigarette smoke. When she was younger she would kick guys bigger than her off of busses she was on, if they were smoking. My mother hated them, and my father secretly found refuge in the thick gray clouds of smoke from time to time. In the end, my fascination with cigarettes won out.
According to a new study by the National Research Council, smoking is down in the United States to about 20 percent of Americans. That’s half of what it was in the ’60s when smoking was in its heyday.

My generation knows the dangers of smoking from countless anti-smoking campaigns on TV and in schools.

I saw all the “Truth” ads while growing up, like most kids my age. I thought they were cool and edgy. But, I have to say, I learned more about vandalism and sticking it to the man than not smoking.

The ads were always filled with counterculture kids like me: good looking youngsters with cut-off gloves and bullhorns: Cool image and campaign, but it never connected with me in the way they intended. None of my TV or movie heroes smoked. I can’t link smoking to any images of cool that defined my childhood or swayed my decision to start.
When I took the smoke in my hand and lit it, it felt natural. I raised my hand to my mouth and let the glorious, lung-filling drag fill my senses. It felt really good. I remember feeling as if I hadn’t taken a deep breath in days.

I let it fill me, and then watched the white smoke blow out into the air. It looked like my soul exiting my body. It was just what I needed—a vacation from myself— and was what my dad needed that night in the car.

That day, I bought a pack of my own Camel Crushes, which are both menthol and regular. I wasn’t sure which I would like more, so having a regular brand you could switch to menthol seemed reasonable.

Within the first few months of smoking and buying packs of my own, my group of friends doubled. I realized the guy at the party with the last pack of smokes is just as valuable as the last few bullets in the gun in a zombie movie.

Drunken kids start fights and claw at each other for friction’s sake, but when you hand them a cigarette, you get to watch the gnarliest of dudes chill out. As in prison, cigarettes become a valued commodity. Just like money on the outside world, there is no difference in the way teens and twentysomethings handle them.

Giving someone your last smoke is a sign of respect; piecing (sharing) it with someone is a sign of good nature and friendship. If someone asks you to pay for one and you decline and give it to him or her anyway, it is a sign of good faith. You can tell a lot about someone by how they treat their smokes and who they share their poison with.

In my early days of smoking, I would buy two packs, one for handing out and one to smoke myself.

Friends were always amazed at how readily I would hand a smoke over to anyone who asked. But I thought of each pack as a harmful, chemical-filled peace offerings I could hand to anyone willing to ask for one.

About 95 percent of my friends smoke. Most have smoked for three years or more, and most are not casual smokers, although some claim only to smoke when they drink. The ones who do admit smoking freely and regularly are hardcore smokers. It’s not unusual to see them go through one or two packs a week, even more if they party and bum them out to “casual smokers,” who don’t buy packs because they “don’t smoke.”

I found a community through smoking. One that’s larger than me. No matter where you are or what you’re doing, if you’re there long enough the smokers will congregate and separate themselves from everyone else. Some of the most meaningful conversations I’ve had, some of the best moments of the last few years, took place while smoking, when the other person is in a smoke silhouette.

Now, I don’t hand cigarettes out as much, because they’ve gotten more expensive. I’ve taken a liking to rolling them myself using shag tobacco, such as Drum or Bollyshag. The ritual of rolling each one has become a welcome and relaxing time out of my day.

I have to settle myself to roll a smoke; I have to handle the paper and tobacco gently and precisely. Sometimes I will just roll them to clear my mind and put them back in the pack, the way some one with anger issues will count to 10 to keep them from losing it.
People who do yoga twist themselves to find inner peace; I twist extra thin Zigzag papers over imported shag to achieve my quantum of solace.

I don’t plan to smoke forever, and I’ve never felt the need to smoke. Sometimes I will go days and forget that I haven’t and either I think good for me, or time to look for a new friend.

We smoke knowing that every single puff could mean chucking a little bit more dirt on our early graves. But for now, it feels right for a lot of us. When you’re young and you find something that actually feels right in the world, well, you stick with it until it doesn’t feel right anymore.

Lumpkins, a content producer for Richmond Pulse, spoke with San Francisco youths Scout Crampton, 17, and Kate Brennan, 20, about why they smoke.

Click to listen to the interview with Kate Brennan.

Click to listen to the interview with Scout Crampton.