Our very existence used to be so perilous...teetering on the brink of disaster. We flirted with danger daily, laughed in its face, then hoped for the best.
Take the playgrounds from generations past, for example. There were no brightly colored plastic apparatuses and no smaller, age-appropriate options for the youngest, smallest kids. Whether you were 3 years old or 12, it was all you had. There were wooden jungle gyms that punctured you with slivers the size of 16-penny nails, and merry-go-rounds that left you dizzy...stumbling, staggering and falling as you tried not to projectile vomit...not onto soft, cushiony wood chips, but straight-up, hardcore gravel. There was the giant metal slide that seemed to reach 50 feet in the air, its silver steel glaring under the relentless sun. There had to have been 40 steps to climb to get to the top, where a microscopic platform awaited you as you tried to go from being upright to sitting so you could slide down. If falling off didn’t send you to the ER, the molten-hot, 800-degree metal melted your skin as you slid down.
How about when kids rode in the back seats of giant rectangle cars with a government-approved car seat or seat belt law still years away from even being considered as things that might be a good idea?
But, for me, the obvious danger from my youth was cigarette smoking. I knew immediately as a child when I gave it a try that I lacked the proper skills to be a fully-functional smoker. We’d play street hockey, then head behind my friend’s garage or down behind the dike by the river. We’d light up a couple cigarettes and talk about girls we hated or girls we had crushes on. But I couldn’t inhale. As my more skilled friends mocked me, I’d ramp up my efforts. But full-body wretch-coughing until I upchucked a lung into the snow was not my idea of a swell time with the guys.
But, obviously, non-smokers a generation ago were frequently exposed to toxic clouds courtesy of smokers. I think of all those Christmas gatherings at grandma and grandpa’s house as a kid, pulling up a chair at the corner of the big dining room table so I could watch my parents, aunts and uncles and my grandparents drink adult beverages and play cards. Constantly hovering among, around and above was the gray-blue haze.
At the Times, colleagues chain-smoked every day. After a while, I had a difficult time determining which was worse, the smoke itself, or that charred, ruined death-stench that constantly emanates from an ash tray overflowing with ash piles and squished cigarette butts.
Those days seem alien today. Smoking essentially anywhere in public, at least inside buildings, has long-been banished. The reality of how much secondhand smoke I sucked in back in those days has slowly faded into the background. The air is clear and wonderful.
Then we went to a casino. Holy hell. It was a step back in time…such a slap-to-the-face time warp that I thought I might cross paths with Marshall, Will and Holly running for their lives from an angry t-rex.
My wife and I were there to see a concert. We were getting our hotel room keys at the front desk a couple hours before the show when the smell hit me. I wasn’t alone in making my grim discovery. My eyes met my wife’s as we simultaneously wondered to each other, “You can smoke here?”
Oh, god, can they ever.
We strolled into one of the lounges in the casino and there were ash trays everywhere. I started breathing with added exuberance for some unexplained reason, probably to gauge my panic level due to the smoky death march we’d just walked into. I almost willed myself into getting a headache. There were probably 40 people in the lounge, and more than half of them were puffing away.
We got our drinks and took a walk around the casino. An unreal experience down every aisle lined by video poker and slot machines. People pressing buttons and watching the results, hoping to win. And smoking. Here, there and everywhere. Almost subconsciously, I had a biological reaction, triggered possibly just by what I was seeing and not actually feeling. My throat was dry. There was a scratchy feeling in my lungs. I coughed a couple times. My contact lenses, drying and shriveling up by the second, fused to my eyeballs.
We found another lounge. The air looked clearer. Was it a smoke-free oasis tucked amid the smoking frenzy? We made the mistake, apparently, of wondering this out loud, because we’re convinced one particular woman heard us. With unmistakable purpose, she walked about 10 feet in our direction while, purportedly, answering a call on her phone. I think she was faking the whole thing. I think she came toward us not to talk on her phone, but to deliver a most unambiguous answer to the silly question we’d posed. As she stood behind me and, I surmised, fake-talked to absolutely no one on her phone, she took a world-record drag from her heater and blew with particular enthusiasm something like 10,000 foot-pounds of smoke into my left ear. Conveniently, her call ended at that moment and she walked back to the bar, a sly grin on her face.
The concert was about to start in the casino’s events center. Thankfully, smoking was prohibited there.
Then, walking toward the casino exit, my eyes stumbled across a message on a video board: Due to recent findings regarding the health risks associated with e-cigarettes/vaping, the alert read, e-cigs were prohibited in the casino.
You can’t make it up.