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Smoke Signals

In The 70's on September 25, 2013 at 4:29 pm

   There was a snack bar in a small white shack that sold fifty-cent hot dogs, hamburgers for a dollar, and french fries in red-and-white checked cardboard sleeves. Glass bottles of soda were hauled up, glistening wet and freezing, from an ice-filled fishing cooler on the floor. Behind the counter, propped up on a shelf was a display of sweet fare: Hostess cupcakes with their signature white swirl, pink, coconut flecked Sno-Balls, Cracker Jacks and Slim Jims. There were scooter Pies, Devil Dogs, and big, mushy oatmeal cookies that no one ever bought unless  under the thumb of a parent who thought because they LOOKED like oatmeal cookies, they were healthy. The candy section was a sweet-tooth lover’s dream: Candy Necklaces, Pixie Stix, Razzles, Bubblegum Cigars, Sweet Tarts and Necco Wafers. If that wasn’t enough to cause the Surgeon General to catch  a heart attack, there were cartons of cigarettes piled high, ripped open hastily, their jagged cardboard edges hanging forward like tongues, the Marlboros, Newports and Virginia Slims sold at a hefty mark-up. (One dollar, as opposed to fifty-five cents. Scandalous!)

A large gray box- fan oscillated from its precarious perch on a bar stool off to the right, as a matching one blew from the opposite direction. This caused the teenagers on duty to look like were diving for dollars in a wind machine (which they often were, as the wind ripped unsecured dollar bills around like kites) There was no cash register, so the line would be longer or shorter depending on the math skills of said teens handling the money. A long line screamed ‘Fundamental Math’ at best, while a short one bode well for future accountants. I could never figure out why the shack didn’t spring for a ribbon calculator (I’d seen some on sale for under a hundred bucks in the Sears catalog), something I thought passionately about while my feet burned in the scorching sand, standing in a line twelve deep.

The cheap food was a myriad of bad nutritional decisions trumped by good advertising and pretty colors, having all the depth and seriousness of a day at the beach. Treats that were an elbow to the ribs of  common sense were somehow acceptable when imbibed on a stretch of sand by a body of water. (This rule was also in effect at Carnivals, Fairs, Car Races and Amusement Parks) Many of the sun worshiping small children were charged up, running in circles like tops, screeching at the top of their lungs, chasing the tail  of a sugar rush comet, burning through mood swings like fresh kindle as their guardians wished to be anywhere but here.

A cigarette was redundant to most in this kind of heat, it’s orange ember an added burning hotspot, but  it didn’t stop us in the least from smoking them, as they were a very important prop in our quest for cool.. And so we stood there like fools, taking long, bored drags off our illegally procured Newports or Salems, the smoke burning the back of our throats, the taste a leaden, musty mix of arsenic and damp ash. Inhaling was a most unpleasant sensation, like  breathing underwater, our lungs under a heavy, wet blanket after each draw.  

We were fourteen, and out from under the watchful eyes of adults, standing in the concession stand line, wearing day-glow bathing suit tops, faded and ripped denim cutoffs, pukka shell necklaces and brown suede ropes, wrapped twice around our ankles like the girls in low budget Surfer movies. We were desperately trying to conjure up a natural ease we did not possess by mimicking the older teens (as we perceived them, not as they actually were)–lots of exposed, sun-drenched chestnut brown skin and disheveled sun-streaked hair. But we were posers still, counterfeits, three-dollar bills- smoking our brains out-and making a big show of it, in hopes of attracting adventure, something risky but not too- a story we could tell that someone might actually want to hear. Sending out literal smoke signals to the boys with long hair who wore black leather jackets in the Fall, and girls with fake id’s and Tango in their fringed purses- an elusive but often represented group in public, often found in parking lots, the back of the bus, behind buildings. We longed for vague, outlaw places and people who were wide awake and rife with exciting possibilities-an escape from the yawn-inducing, linear patterns of suburbia. 

And so we stood, stiffly, the uncoordinated, jerky motions of newbie smokers giving us away, happy to have something to do with our hands, rather than just stand there as another wave of awkwardness washed over us like the waves on the beach. Secretly abhorring the bitter taste of nicotine, pretending to be something we were not. ‘Look at us’ our shaky smoke rings said, as the foul smoke rushed out of our mouths and nostrils, lungs burning on the inside. ‘ Let us in’ we begged the cool kids, hoping to smoke them out.

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