Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Stress of Quitting

I'm getting tired of being a social leper. I've sort of decided to quit - smoking that is.

Well, I HAD decided, and I'd always promised myself if I ever did decide to quit, I'd tell nobody. Not a soul. So already I've gone back on my word. This does not augur well!

I used to find militant non-smokers amusing. Such as the bike-hire person who informed the Australian film director Paul Cox, that he could not hire a bike at the beach in Los Angeles. These are "no smoking bikes", Mr. Cox was told.

People standing on a curb, next to a bus exhaust idling toxic gas fumes, and at the same time waving histrionically at a wisp of smoke emanating from my cigarette twelve feet away. Or when I was very young and sharing a house in Carlton, Melbourne, with two young men who thought that loud farts were extremely funny. I could barely breath from their smelly farts. Yet they asked me to not smoke around them. Sure, I told them, when you stop farting, I'll stop smoking. They couldn't. I couldn't. And I smoke to this day.

I think that non-smokers do not understand that we smokers would love to be non-smokers like them. When I took up smoking you could smoke in hospitals, on airplanes and in the UK in theaters. You could smoke on Melbourne trams. In university staff meetings. I can't think of anywhere you couldn't smoke. So heaps of us took it up, not knowing that one day we'd be social lepers.

The more people would rant, the more I wouldn't even think of quitting. Drunk SUV living-in-the-suburb people at dinner parties scorning the few of us left, who would politely go outside for our fix.

Then it really started. Some time in the eighties. Before it was forbidden by law to smoke in public buildings, a number of non-smokers started putting up signs up in their offices, "No Smoking". A friend of mine put up a sign, "Only people smoking allowed to enter".

Yes we KNOW that it's bad for you. It's disgusting actually. It stinks out one's home, clothes, hair, lungs, and costs a heap. You think we LIKE it? No way. We are addicts and every smoker I know freely admits this.

So it was an unexpected moment two weeks ago, when I decided to decide to quit. The date for actually quitting - 9/9/2008. I chose that date as I don't have to remember whether to write the month first (American) or second (rest of the world). I'd read about Chantix - a medication that supposedly takes away the urge to smoke. It's prescription only.

My first step was to make a doctor's appointment. I had to wait two weeks, so needless to say, my enthusiasm had somewhat wilted by the time of the appointment arrived. But I turned up, nevertheless.

I explained my need to my doctor. She was keen and started to write the prescription, then hesitated. "There's been reports of this making some people suicidal", she murmured. She was clearly torn by thoughts of a law suit and upholding her Hippocratic oath. She handed me the script.

Next to the pharmacy. Rite Aid. Corner 96th and Second, Manhattan. DO NOT GO THERE UNLESS YOU HAVE TIME ON YOUR HANDS!

I waited and waited to hand in my script. The attendant was packing boxes and made it quite clear that the customers should wait till she'd finished. Which she eventually did. "That'll be ready in two hours where's your health insurance card write your name address, phone number, date of birth, social security number and health insurance number on the back of the prescription", she said without drawing a breath. Clearly she was not a smoker.

I did as she required, and asked could they deliver as I was busy and didn't want to go back in two hours. "Yeah", she replied and blew a gum bubble, "where do you live?" I showed her what I'd just written.

"Credit card number", she retorted. I obliged. And off I went to work.

Four hours later. No delivery. I phoned the pharmacy (did I tell you NOT TO GO THERE?)

"Name?" I told them. "Please hold." I did. Four minutes later, "What did you say your name was?" I repeated it. On hold for five minutes. "Oh the prescription is here. You must have told one of our young people; they never remember", he said as if it was I who was at fault.

No worries, I'll come now, I said and dutifully turned up at Rite Aid. Corner 96th and Second, Manhattan. There was a line (queue). When it was my turn I gave my name and was greeted with a blank look. So I said it again. "Do you have a prescription?" said the helpful Rite Aid attendant. It occurred to me he was nothing like the friendly pharmacist in Rite Aid's TV ads. I explained, and to cut a long story short as I wish no one the horror of my ordeal, I got to the stage of him finding the packages of Chantix.

All over? No such luck. "The computer can't read your health card". "Why not?" "You have the wrong date of birth." "Do not." "Do so." On and on.

So there I was, arguing and stressed, trying to convince my friendly pharmacist that I was not born seven years later than my own daughter. Another customer, a big-bossomed woman with long-flowing hair, was also having trouble. They thought her birthday was wrong too. "They think I'm 29", I told her. She shrugged. They thought she was her own son. At one stage they asked her for her sex. I kid you not.

In the end it was all sorted out, if you call paying out $240 being sorted out. After all the fuss about when I was born, I was told it wasn't covered by my insurance anyway.

But wait, I couldn't take the package. The labels had to be re-done. "Why?" I asked. "My birthday isn't on them". "But they are wrong", I was told. It being late in the day I accepted that. I wasn't up to arguing any more. I was exhausted.

And of course I was dying to get away from the place. To step outside. And smoke a cigarette.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

How Could Anyone NOT Love New York?

"What a wonderful thing, to be conscious! I wonder what the people in New Jersey do."
Woody Allen "No Kaddish for Weinstein" 1975
"These little town blues, are melting away
I'll make a brand new start of it - in old New York
Frank Sinatra (born New Jersey) "New York, New York"

I have a friend who truly believes there is no culture in America. He's not otherwise an unintelligent man, but there's nothing on earth that will convince him otherwise. He lives in a small city in Europe which I am sure thinks is the center of civilization.

I've given up arguing with him, as there's no point. But every workday I wake up in an apartment within walking distance of the Guggenheim. Andy Warhol had his town house not far from here. I walk past the Serendipity Café where Warhol sold his drawings in the sixties. And then over the Fifty Ninth Street Bridge of "Feeling Groovy" Simon and Garfunkel fame. Crosby, Stills and Nash played in Central Park last month. And tonight there's a revival of "Hair" in Central Park. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's works are featuring at the Museum of Modern Art this month ...

New York, home of Woody Allen, Bob Dylan, Tennessee Williams, Edgar Allan Poe, George Washington, Paul Newman, Jacqueline Onassis,Humphrey Bogart, Lauran Bacall, Robert De Niro, Jane Fonda, Art Garfunkel, Whoopi Goldberg, Stanley Kubrick, Carly Simon, Robert Strassburg, Lou Reed, Al Pacino, Eugene O'Neill, Bob Dylan, Neil Simon, Chris Rock, Meryl Streep, Andy Warhol, Denzel Washington, Frank Sinatra, Peter Carey and John Lennon.

But it's not the sheer number of cultural events, or the hundreds of famous citizens that New York can call its own, that I love about New York. It's the people, the buzz of the place, and the fact that any time, day or night that I can emerge from my comfortable cocoon that is our apartment, onto a street full of activity and life.

There's a history to the place, not the far-away history of old Europe with is gray cobblestones and medieval churches, but the history of my own culture. John Lennon, pop art, Dylan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Blondie, Michelle Shocked and CBGBs. Al Pacino in "Dog Day Afternoon". Peter Cary and his recent novel, "Theft". Woody Allen's "Manhattan".

Yes we live in tiny apartments, but the city is our playground. The boundaries of our lives are not merely the office and "home". The city of New York is our home. Our apartments are where we eat, sleep and recover from the hectic life in our playground.

And it's not all ghosts of the past haunts of Dylan, Bogart and Warhol. It isn't just the feeling of what WAS here - that awe-inspiring feeling that you get when walking in Shakespeare's footsteps down Southwark Street in London, or visiting Stonehenge, the Colosseum or Carthage. New York is about NOW.

It's not about ruins, although our gap-toothed skyline has its own. It's been only seven years since we lost out Twin Towers - the city sprang back into action, within days. It is about the vibrancy that is the city, the humor, the people, the diversity, the wealth and the run-down subways. The contradictions that that exist everywhere but are blatant in New York; not hidden under the carpet as if things of shame.

We are what we are. We don't have heaps of friends, we don't have dinner parties and picnics and drinks after work. We don't have "friends". But we do talk to the person sitting next to us on the bus. We chat to the doorman, the janitor, the people on the subway platform, other patrons after a movie, our fellow customers at Bloomingdales and bodegas. There's a democracy of strangers which is human contact nevertheless.

New Yorkers speak up. They don't avert their eyes like people on a London tube; they confront. We have our "New York moments".

The last one I had was on Thursday, on a bus going up Third Avenue. A very elderly black man got on the bus round Sixtieth Street. He sat down on one of the few remaining seats. For the next ten stops he gave up his seat ten times - for a pregnant woman, elderly ladies, a very fat forty year old, a boy on crutches ... anyone slightly not quite up to standing. Eventually he sat down next to me, only to give his seat up yet again, to a man with a cane. "I'm getting off soon", said a woman two seats away, "You take my seat". No sooner had she stood up than a young woman slipped into her seat and the elderly black man remained standing. "It's OK", he said. "No it isn't", said the woman who was about to get off. She spoke to the seat-taker. "This man has give his seat ten times. Stand up and give him that seat!" The young person hesitated, glued to her IPod. "Give him the seat!" chorused about six nearby passengers!" And eventually she did.

Reluctantly the elderly man sat down, and there were tears in his eyes. "I get sad when people are kind", he explained. "But you deserve it," a man opposite called out. The elderly man was wearing an Akubra hat. "I like your hat", I said to lighten things up and to distract him from his tears. "It's Australian", he told me, "like Crocodile's". "Where did you get it?" I asked. "In New York of course", he answered. "You can get everything here. I love this city".

So do I.