Lawrence Garfinkel, home respiratory therapy, and how I used to steal cigarettes from my parents

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01/27/2010

While skimming The New York Times this morning, I learned that Lawrence Garfinkled died last Thursday. That wouldn’t have meant anything to me except that the headline caught my attention: “Lawrence Garfinkel, Dies at 88; Fought Smoking.”

Because the HME industry is so heavily invested in respiratory therapy, any thing related to smoking—the cause of most respiratory ailments—interests me.

Garfinkel’s obit got me thinking about my own experiences with smoking.

I never smoked regularly, but as a kid I used to every now and then steal a cigarette or two from my mother’s or father’s pack. Stealing from my father was easy. He left his cigarettes on the counter with a pile of change and his keys. When no one was in the room, I’d tap out a couple of butts from his pack and quickly exit the house, meet up with a friend or two, and go smoke them in the woods that bordered our neighborhood. To steal from my mother required a little more stealth, and created much more anxiety. She kept her cigarettes in her pocketbook, and it required a little more time to open the snap, pull out the pack, snag a few butts, put the pack back, snap the snap closed and then get the hell out of Dodge.

Whether stealing cigarettes from my mother or my father, the trick was to estimate how many I could take and not be caught (I never was). I would not steal from a pack that was nearly full or empty. I felt most secure stealing from a pack with 13 or 14 cigarettes left because a missing butt or two would not be conspicuous.

Sometimes, instead of stealing from a pack of cigarettes, I would sneak into my father’s jeep or my mother’s station wagon, and fish out some stubbed out butts from the ashtray. Neither of my parents smoked their butts down to the filter, but they didn’t leave too much tobacco either. So finding a half-smoked cigarette felt like hitting the motherload. My friends and I much preferred my father’s butts, which unlike my mother’s, were not tattooed with lipstick.

Occasionally, our neighborhood bully, Neil Booth, his hulking figure only a few feet away, would terrorize me into walking the neighborhood in search of smoke-able butts on the ground. Neil was a regular smoker by the time he was 10. He and a bunch of older kids often bought cigarettes at 3 cents apiece from Bud Stoddard, an old man on our street who could get away with this kind of commerce back in the late 1960s. As I think back on it now, Bud probably had COPD. His chest wheezed and rattled with every breath, and he regularly spit yellow, gooey phlegm balls out over his porch railing. Sometimes one would hit the railing, and like a banana slug, slide down a post to the porch floor.

For whatever reason, while I dabbled with smoking, it never hooked me. In part, I think, that’s  because I looked up to my father, who gave up the habit when he was about 30. Unfortunately, a few years later he developed terminal skin cancer and, with nothing to lose, began lighting up again.

My mother smoked until she was 55, but has been tobacco free for 15 years. She is a little on the nervous side and cigarettes helped bring her some peace. It took a lot of courage for her to quit—she wanted to set a good example for her grand kids—and I admire her for doing so.

THE END

— Mike Moran