Kenny's Last Puff


Brad Krevor isn't sure when the last cigarettes will be smoked in the United States. "No one has a clear image of where this is all going," says the executive director of the Tobacco Divestment Project.

' -- News report

Boston, March 1, 2006 -- Kenny asked me to meet him behinthe high school, where we used to smoke as kids.

We had been best friends, but life sorted us out: I quit smoking, went to college, studied law. Kenny drifted, always with the Camel on his back. He dropped out of high school in '97, signed up for one of those Clinton apprenticeship programs and learned how to fix TV's. Only thing was, by the time he left the program, TV sets didn't exist. The Japanese had perfected flat-screen wall projection. Kind of a bad break, I guess.

With taxes pushing cigarette costs to a dollar a stick, Kenny couldn't make the nut on his two-pack-a-day habit. Soon he was doing some breaking and entering in the old neighborhood, stealing VCR (Virtual Conscious Reality) discs, nothing heavy. I bailed him out more than once, and he promised me he'd stop. But of course he never did.

Next thing I knew, he was on the evening news, lighting up a non-filter Kool with a small group of protesters on the steps of the Supreme Court, the day they handed down U.S. v. RJR. I felt a pang of envy; Kenny had seen history in the making. He saw Dershowitz, the lion in winter, ducking, bobbing, juking in front of the justices, trying every trick in the book to pull off a von Bulow for America's last tobacco manufacturer.

But the deck was stacked. Chief Justice Baird kept interrupting in that spoiled-girl voice of hers. Thomas snored out loud -- it was a travesty. They ruled from the bench, 8-1, banning cigs forever. Scalia, the lone dissenter, threw down his cigar and wept like a baby.

Prohibition was rough. The cops stationed nic-sniffing dogs on every street corner. One bark and they'd pat you down. The microwave smoke detectors were everywhere, indoors and out. The minute you lit up -- in bed, in your car, sailing in the harbor -- sirens screamed and lawmen materialized out of nowhere. Possession only cost you $50, but selling to minors or distribution could land you in jail.

That's when Kenny started to deal. Small stuff at first -- Gauloises and Gitanes out of Martinique. But $200 was a lot to pay for a pack of foul-smelling foreign coffin nails, so he decided to go Mex, using illegal immigrants to haul Conquistadores into Arizona and New Mexico.

It was darned scary, with Customs, DEA, Alcohol and Tobacco and the FBI breathing down your neck, not to mention the intimidating Italian gentlemen who handled the downstream marketing.

The state sent Kenny to Walpole on possession with intent, then the Feds slapped on five more years. They offered him the Witness Protection Program if he talked about his Mexican associates, but Kenny clammed up and served out his nickel at Danbury. He turned tough, jail tough. They'd slip the Nicoderm patch on at night, and he'd tear it off in the morning. I paid for a lawyer, I paid for counseling. There wasn't much else I could do.

Yesterday, Kenny called, breathless. "Jake," he said. "Meet me behind the old baseball backstop. Tonight, at midnight." When I showed up, he pulled two long, white cylinders from his pocket. "Winston 100s" he whispered, his voice rasping. "The last two cigarettes in America."

We both knew the risks, but I knew I couldn't desert him. We lit up, inhaled a few times -- and then the sirens howled. I panicked when I saw the police flashers, but Kenny just smiled and pulled a shiny aluminum can from his windbreaker. Beer! A Budweiser, from the legendary final batch of 1998, just before the government spiked the taps at Anheuser-Busch! "I'm going down," he said. "But I'm going down happy."

As I bolted to my car, I heard sharp popping sounds, like firecrackers. And that was the last I ever saw of Kenny.

6* Alex Beam is a Boston Globe columnist.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad