Saturday, December 02, 2006

Why I Started Smoking.

At seventeen, having been politicized over the course of being exposed to a number of ideas I decided it was about time I did something. I went to the Peace and Justice Center in Baltimore and asked what they thought I could do. The straight answer was, “Go work in the Soup Kitchen.”

Hmmm. Ok, that was not what I was expecting. After thinking it over I decided to give it a try. I went down one Saturday to a non descript row house on Saint Paul Street and walked into a large front room that had been converted into a dinning room with about twelve tables that would each serve four people. The room was filled with older men and a few women dressed in worn overcoats eating bowls of soup. There was a bustle about the place but it was relaxed. The back room was just as large but it was a kitchen with a serviceable stove, a refrigerator, a deep freeze and a three compartment sink. It was separated from the dinning room by a half door with a platform on it. Soup was served from here and there was no limit until the food was gone.

Some people who came in to eat were drunk. Most were not but many of those who were not had the shakes. They had not yet gotten around to scraping up the money for their first drink of the day.

It was 1973 and I was, to say the least, naïve. I had no idea these people did not have a place to live. In fact I did not realize this for a long time. I assumed everybody had a place to sleep. Homelessness was not on my radar. It was not an issue in this country. Most people took it for granted that if you had a problem the government would take care of you.

I was about 6’3” and weighed about 120 lbs. Not exactly intimidating. I was a teenager and the men who came in there were, for the most part World War II Veterans. Not hard to figure out that although they probably welcomed my efforts their respect for me was somewhat limited. “You’re still a kid! You don’t know anything!”

Indeed I was a kid and I had a lot to learn. So I spent a long time there. Almost two years. I learned a few things along the way. I was going through a lot of personal chaos with my mother at the time. I probably spent more time talking and learning than anything else. I helped cook and clean but I talked more. I also listened.

I had a lot of respect for the people I worked with. John Fogarty ran the place. He was a Johns Hopkins Grad who later went on to be on the executive staff of Congressman Peter Rodino (D) New Jersey, the guy that got the tapes out of Richard Nixon. Mid Town Churches Community Association owned the building and paid John a stipend. If I recall correctly the whole thing was John’s idea and he went to them with it and they approved it.

One day these two young guys came in with what they insisted was their vegetarian dog and had a vegetarian meal. So did the dog. To me these guys were so whacked out they mesmerized me. They were hitch hiking around the country. They were hippies and I am certain they did plenty of drugs whenever they could find them.

One of the guys was in desperate need of a pair of pants. His were badly torn. He was John’s size. John traded pants with him right there in the kitchen in such a low key and nonchalant way that even though I was standing right there I almost missed it. The respect I had for John was enormous. He had an easy laugh and listened to me. No matter how long I prattled on he had time for me. We spent a lot of time together and he had me to his house often for dinner with him and his two roommates.

John smoked. He smoked Pall Malls. He smoked a pipe. He really seemed to enjoy it. I had been on my mother for years to stop. After a few months I began to wonder what he got out of it. That background noise of the cigarette companies trying to get me to smoke was without a doubt a contributing factor. So I started smoking. I still do. I still enjoy it. I just wish I never started.

The thing is after I started it was much easier to get into a conversation with the guys who came into the kitchen. They would ask me for a cigarette and talk to me. If someone on the street asked me for a quarter, I could offer them a cigarette and they would be happy I offered. In a way it was part of my becoming an adult. It will also have plenty do with me becoming one of the dearly departed as well.

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