June 26, 2011

A hard-boiled choice for a school kid

Filed under: Guest Comment — Tags: , , , — Bob Patterson @ 5:28 pm

The new special collectors edition cigarette packs with photos on them came out recently, but since the World’s Laziest Journalist doesn’t smoke, we are not going to be buying them. Their debut did remind us of how a long ago opportunity to get started on the cigarette addiction boiled down to an odd choice: a free pack of cigarettes or a trip to Paris.

Once upon a time, many years ago, there was a young Ernie Pyle wannabe who was attending parochial school. After the lunch hour break, the classes would line up outside the schoolhouse and march in at the sound of the start bell.

On one particular day (was it during seventh grade or eighth? In all the intervening years we kinda lost track of the exact number), a group of adults approached and began handing out small sample packs of cigarettes. Some of the more sophisticated students (the boys were required to wear a suit coat and tie and the red jacket, white t-shirt, blue jeans uniform of the rebels was strictly verboten) snatched up the items with enthusiasm and then turned to the ones who seemed perplexed with the windfall and asked “You gonna use ‘em? If not; can I have yours?”

The columnist aspirant had been exposed to smokes many years previously. When he, at the age of seven, asked his mom about cigarettes; she pulled one out from her pack, told him to put it in his mouth and lit it up. She coached him through a few drags and a vehement coughing spell and continued the lesson in existentialism: “You can learn to overcome that taste and the negative reaction and learn to enjoy it if you so choose.” She added: “In the future your friends may start to try smoking in secret. If you want to smoke, come see me for your next lesson. Don’t let them goad you into sneaking them. You have permission to try again if you want another attempt to learn to like it.”

The free sample packs held no allure of the forbidden for the young Walter Winchell fan. He did, however, venture to ask his aunt why a company would give away a product that they usually sold. She responded with a lesson in marketing saying the product was habit forming and that if they could give away samples and get a customer for life in return it would be cost effective. (She may not have used that exact terminology.) Then she prompted the lad to see if he could use mathematics to figure out what one of his classmates could expect to spend for a life time supply of smokes.

At a quarter a day and seven days a week with 52 weeks in a year, it worked out to $91 a year. Since the US had not become embroiled in Vietnam, it was logical to assume that all his classmates would live to retirement age. (As it turned out some didn’t make it to their 25th birthday.) That would bring the expected cost up to $4,823.00. Then the aunt introduced the concept of inflation and added expected rises in price to the formula.

Can you believe that some conspiracy theory nuts in the fifties thought that a package of cigarettes would eventually go to a dollar a pack?

Five grand would surely cover a deluxe two week vacation in Paris. It was just about then that some guy named Papa Hemingstein coined the marketing slogan “Moveable Feast” for use in reference to trips to the City of Light. (Did he write for Clipper, which was Pan Am’s inflight magazine?) An opinion poll survey at the time said that a majority of high school students listed a trip to Paris as one of their lifetime goals.

Paris was considered the new destination of choice for young folks who yeaned to go on the road.

At one time in his career, wasn’t that Hemingway guy also a columnist? If columnists like Paris, it must be good.

The young non smoker finally made it to Paris much later in life. The first night in Paris, he didn’t expect that a trip on the Subway (to Cactus Charley’s place) would become a memorable part of the vacation. [In Paris they call the subway “le metro;” but what do they call a “Big Mac”?] In New York the subway to New Jersey goes under the Hudson River, but in Paris the subway comes up from under ground and goes over the Sein to get to the other side. When it emerged from below ground and came to a stop, between the rows of buildings adjacent to the subway station he could see a bit further away, a tower that was such an eyeful they actually call it the Eiffel Tower. He thought “Holy cow, batman, we’ve finally made it! We are in Paris!” It was a “lump in the throat” moment. It was time to scratch “Get to Paris” off his bucket list. Who’dda thunk that a subway trip could be such an emotional experience?

Sometime later, when a coworker complained to the boss that the nonsmoker, who was getting paid less than the complainer, could afford a two week vacation in Paris and he couldn’t, the columnist used math to explain why life isn’t fair.

The fellow (Let’s call him “Jim”) smoked a pack a day (which by the late Eighties had broken the buck a pack cost barrier). Jim usually drank a six pack a day. Jim went out to one of Santa Monica’s many fine coffee shops (Alas Zucky’s, the Broken Drum, and the former drive-in at Wilshire and Harvard [?] are history) for lunch, which would chew up (pun alert?) at least five dollars a day with more if he left a tip. The economical minded fellow (Let’s call him WLJ) had made sandwiches and did the brownbag lunch routine during the work week. The extra cost for the cigs, brewskis, and eat-out chow computed out to be almost exactly what it had cost the cheapskate to get to Paris and back.

Some fine minds are paid very well to come up with strong anti-smoking Public Service Announcements (PSA’s) for use on Television. You never see any of them use the “It’s the economy, stupid” approach. Who did the old comedy routine about telling kids they can do anything they want to do except they must not put beans into their ears? Isn’t telling them they could get cancer a lot like saying “we dare you to . . .”?

What would happen if someone did a PSA reductio ad absurdum ad offering kids a free (smaller than normal) sample pack of “coffin nails” or a trip to Paris and included a cost comparison?

Speaking of cigarettes, is it true that CBS radio is looking for a fearless journalist to do a series of live reports titled: “Tripoli calling!”?

Bartlett’s reminds us that it was Rudyard Kipling who wrote: “And a woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke.”

Now the disk jockey will play “Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room,” Smokey Robinson (and the Miracles)’s album “I’ll Try Something New,” and Patsy Cline’s song “Three cigarettes in an ash tray.” We have to go see where we can buy a pack of the Fatima brand of smokes. Have a “memories of the Times Square billboard” type week.

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