Tobacco was king, and many were his subjects Ashes: In the 1950s, only the odd adult abstained from smoking.


A PROVEN WAY to make an extra few cents in my childhood PTC was to offer to run personal errands for the adults.

Our family home, near the southeast intersection of Guilford Avenue and 29th street, stood at the point of a triangle loosely equidistant from two stores. The Guilford Pharmacy was one block away. Ernest E. Bentz's Snack 'n Chat Shop was 400 feet the other direction.

In the 1950s, it seemed that almost every adult I knew, with the exception of the cloistered nuns who taught me, smoked tobacco. Some, like my grandfather. E. J. Monaghan, chewed it too when he wasn't smoking a cigar.

Only my grandmother Lily Rose, who was also a tee-totaler, abstained totally from the weed. She also lived the longest.

The rest -- my mother, her brother and great aunt Cora -- were nicotine addicts and offered no apologies. They smoked so much that they usually bought their supply by the 20-pack carton, but even then, they ran out.

That's when I piped up and offered to take off to the drugstore or Bentz's, in hopes of a small tip.

At an early age, I learned the nuances of the nicotine trade. My clients were real smokers and never, never was I to bring home anything with a filter. I learned complicated cigar names, especially those with a Spanish ring and fancy lithographed pictures on the boxes. I knew what Brown's Mule (Pop's pick) and Dan Patch (a poor second) were.

My grandfather had no use for cigarettes, which he often disparagingly called Piedmonts, a brand name that dropped out of sight decades before he ever stopped using the term. I think he directed his scorn into his own tobacco use, which, if nothing else, was messy.

By his reading chair and radio was a wrought iron ash receiver (his terminology) -- really an ash bucket that sat about three feet off the floor. There was also a place to hold matchboxes -- the kind made of thin wood with very sulphuric-smelling Lucifers (also his name).

Pop's spittoon -- which he called a cuspidor -- was also there. When the local tobacco wars were going, this object was often the subject of cross-fire.

Tobacco use was much debated in that household, but not in the way the Surgeon General would like. Pop ridiculed the women for their cigarette puffing, and they worked him over for his tobacco chewing. Both sides accused the other of engaging in a filthy habit.

Grandmother Lily Rose remained silent in these debates. She was a wise woman.

Pop's favorite cuspidor was an enameled tin model, white on the inside and a light blue exterior. My mother, whose middle name should have been Lucky Strike, found it in a Gay Street junk shop and gave it to him one birthday.

None of the puffers ever burned the house down. But my mother once added richly to the catalog of family tales while holding court at Marconi's restaurant on Saratoga Street. A number of us had assembled there for a delightful Saturday lunch. The waiter produced bowls of vanilla ice cream; then he served the restaurant's signature chocolate sauce and left the very precious leftover topping on the table.

The converation grew animated. My mother's fingers, holding a burning Lucky, raced over the table top. Bull's eye. An ash dropped in the sauce, a desecration of good chocolate. My sister Nan, ever the wit, handled the situation with her usual style. No problem, she said, Mom just created a new dish, the Lucky butt sundae.

Pub Date: 5/23/98

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