Remember when people used to smoke EVERYWHERE? I was bold enough to light a cigarette on a public bus once. The look I got from the bus driver prompted me to toss it out the window unfinished but what made me think I could get away with that? It was 1991. Much more of the world smelled of cigarette smoke in those days. Our inconsiderately deadly habit was justified and supported because there were special snowflake sections in restaurants made just for us poison cloud makers. Bars? Forget it. If you came to a bar to complain about cigarette smoke, you may as well grab a six pack and drink at home because nobody was gonna give up their cigarette chaser because you weren't savvy enough to realize that smoking and drinking were inseparable. I'll put my cigarette out on a Southwest flight but I'll never concede the bar!
I was in Newburgh, New York in September 2004 for my grandmother's funeral. I was in a bar down the street from my mother's apartment, waiting for my brother to show up and join me for some drinks. I asked the bartender for an ashtray.
"Why do you need an ashtray? Just flick the ashes on the ground."
HUH? I'm not flicking ashes on the bar floor. That's just rude. It's LITTERING for christsake!
The kind, elderly bartender looked at me with pity because he realized what I didn't know.
"Oh. You don't know that New York banned smoking in bars. Hahaha! It's okay, honey. What would you like to drink?"
Fucking California! They started this shit and now it's gonna spread to OHIO. WTF am I supposed to do at a bar with no fucking cigarette? Every bar is ruined now. Thanks a lot, America! I can't wait to go home. I'm not even going straight to the house. I'm gonna stop at a bar, have a vodka and a fucking cigarette like the Founding Fathers intended!
Next thing I knew, Ohio had banned smoking in bars. Fuck my life. I'm drinking at home from now on.
Fast forward to 2012.
I worked as a bartender for a few weeks recently. There's one asshole who tries to get away with smoking in the bathroom everyday. I'm about to kill this fucker. What kind of fiend can't go stand outside and smoke for a few minutes? Take the glass with you and GTFO this bar with that contraband!
Because times change.
Why did the times change? How did we adjust so quickly when we were pushed, kicking and screaming to the edge of our wits because the world closed in on us business by business and brick by brick until we weren't welcome anywhere anymore with our cancer sticks?
Because our convictions about being free to kill others with our clouds of death fell on the deaf ears of people who wanted to LIVE. They presented a better case and a stronger argument. And they were right. Me screaming to the heavens; "You can't even smoke on EARTH anymore WTF?!?" seemed silly when the surgeon general made it clear that I was killing myself and other people as well. And they had data that proved their case.
Case closed. Matter of fact, I'm gonna quit smoking. The world has left me behind. I don't want to be left behind. I am a PROGRESSIVE. (and I don't wanna die)
I vaguely remember a world of highways littered with paper, playgrounds strewn with Styrofoam Big Mac boxes and people who left huge piles of used cigarette butts anywhere they felt like it because the ashtray in their car was overflowing. Keep America Beautiful worked overtime since 1953 to bring awareness and action to the issue of pollution and littering but they still had a ways to go.
Around that time (1981), newly inaugurated President Reagan stepped up to endorse the Clean Community System started by the Keep America Beautiful campaign in 1975. With the endorsement of the president, things seemed to move relatively quickly. At least it seemed that way to me as a child of about 7 or 8.
One sunny, warm afternoon in elementary school, we were all rounded up by the teachers who gave us each a trash bag. Like everyone else, I was super psyched to spend the rest of the school day outside doing whatever but what I didn't realize right away is that I was participating in an exercise designed to brainwash me...but in a good way.
We giggled and chased each other around the school grounds, happy to be outside, even if we were doing nothing but picking up stupid papers and old discarded paper cups and sticky food wrappers. We ran after each other with candy wrappers covered in ants, we called each other "litterbugs" and summoned invisible forcefields to protect us from whoever was the current possessor of The Touch. For those of you who aren't familiar with The Touch, it's a horrifying state of infection that occurs when a kid touches something gross. Miraculously, the contagion disappears when the current possessor of The Touch passes it to another kid by the magic of touching their arm, leg or clothing. The newly infected now has the obligation to rid themselves from The Touch by passing it to another kid. Yelling "FORCEFIELD!!!" in time, before the infected kid touches you is your only vaccination against it.
For some reason, my older, more worldly 4th grade friend came up with a plot to snatch a comb from the back pocket of a tall, blonde 6th grader she liked. Operation Take Mike's Comb was promptly aborted when he turned around and chased us with something gross.
So, we spent the day, filling up our bags with litter, wishing everyday was clean-up day. Doing chores at home is never that fun.
At the end of the day, our teachers and our principal gathered us on the kickball blacktop where we, the entire school, joined hands in a circle. There were some words said by grownups that I can't remember and I think we sang a song.
Looking back on that day and all the details I can remember, I get a little misty-eyed. It didn't feel sentimental at the time. I didn't have the capacity for sentimental for something like that, not at that age. It was just a good time and a day we got to spend outside instead of in the stuffy classroom.
We weren't the only kids who would be permanently enlightened by one sunny afternoon having fun and cleaning up our school. This happened at many other schools across the nation.
And the world looks so much better now. I'll carry around a bag of dog poop for blocks until I find a garbage can. People don't generally throw things on the ground anymore. Not much anyway. They get "looks". Fuckin Litterbugs. Did they grow up in the Dark Ages or what?
They get the same looks and fines (if they get caught) I would get if I tried to light a cigarette in a bar in 2013.
I said all that to say this;
The lessons we learn from one day in the afternoon of a child's life should never be taken lightly. I'm turning 40 this year and I'm here to tell the story of that afternoon in my childhood that changed me forever, even if it did lead to the hilarious hypocrisy of me being appalled at a bartender that I thought was suggesting to me that I LITTER the floor with cigarette ashes 23 years later.
I'm here to tell you that I witnessed the world change in at least two major ways that I can name off the top of my head. I'm here to tell you that I remember the world when it was dirty and smoky and littered and nobody gave a crap about things that are normal to give a crap about today.
I'm here to tell you that I'm HERE.
You know who isn't here?
My 14 year old friend, Sonya Crane aka Punkin who died of a gunshot wound to the neck, accidentally discharged by her 13 year old friend who was showing off his parents' gun to a group of kids who cut school to hang out at his house while his parents were working. I don't remember people talking about how fucked up it was that there were so many guns for kids to find. I remember everybody focusing on Sonya doing something "bad" like cutting school. This is why you don't cut school, kids. You could get shot and then you'll all be busted for truancy.
Also not here are 20 kids who died at school a few weeks ago on a peaceful afternoon. They can't come back from the dead when they're 40 years old and describe to us how it feels to be shot and then die. They can't make a PSA about being an innocent victim of an assault weapon. They won't show up in a few decades and write a diary about the bad old days when people roamed the streets with guns that could kill an army of elephants within 60 seconds.
That afternoon in the lives of those 20 children were not spent playing paintball and simulating gun deaths, they actually died. They learned that day to be scared of guns. Millions of other kids and adults who met the same fate learned that, too.
If we will never hear their voices describe the fear and the terror then we have to be their voices. We have to make sure that afternoon in their lives is never forgotten or misinterpreted or made light of. Let's not deny them a chance to change the world just because their voices have been silenced.
If we do that, we will be able to look back on a time when the world was different. The children who grow up in this time may not understand what we've done but at least they'll grow up.
Please. Let's not fight today. Let's dream about a better, safer future like the one we live in. It's not perfect but every new generation makes it better. None of us should have to die for it.
That's all. Have a great day, y'all. :-)