It’s hard to believe there was a time when smoking was considered cool.

But oh, there were such times.

Think James Dean leaning against that 1949 Mercury Coupe, a mile of street cred dangling from his lips.

Think Clint Eastwood in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” scowling around that hand-rolled smoke so blazingly, he probably didn’t need a match to light it.

Think of angry smoking Brad Pitt in “The Fight Club.” Or Matt Dillon with his cigarette and upturned collar in “The Outsiders,” or Robert De Niro alternating between puffing and breaking legs in every gangster flick he’s ever been in.

We’re talking cool here. Bogart cool. The kind of cool that made the tobacco guys a billion dollars even as it blackened a billion lungs.

But I’m not talking about movie cool — I’m talking about schoolyard cool.

Back in the day, a kid could soar his reputation from nerd to punk rock star just by lighting up a Pall Mall in the school parking lot. It didn’t matter if you coughed and wheezed and vomited on your shoes while doing it, the very act of smoking was enough. Smoking was defiance. Rebellion. Protest against the authoritarian hand that was forever trying to hold you back when all you wanted to do was make that leap into adulthood.

Smoking cigarettes meant you were bold enough to make that leap even if it wasn’t time. And other kids responded to that boldness.

Kid 1: “Did you hear about Tommy? He smokes now.”

Kid 2: “For reals? I didn’t think Tommy was that cool.”

Kid 1: “Well, he must be. He smokes!”

Ah, the image-boosting power of smoking. There was glamour in it and best of all, it was dark glamour. Daaangerous glamour. If a kid was daring enough to light up a Marlboro, after all, it could be assumed that he also carried a switchblade, went all the way with girls and hung out in pool halls and other dangerous places.

I knew kids back in the day who couldn’t be bothered to spend an hour studying for an exam, but who would devote entire weekends to perfecting their smoke-craft.

Learning to light a smoke with a flourish so smooth, it was almost like a magic trick; mastering the art of holding a cigarette between the fingers so it looked like you’d been doing it for years; perfecting the art of the cigarette lip dangle and squinting away the smoke in your eyes, no matter how much it hurt.

Cool, man. 

Until it wasn’t anymore.

The kid who smoked at 15 either quit at 20 or he became a 45-year-old with yellow fingers who choked on every drag and wished like hell he could give them up. That was a real bitch, too, because by then, the glamour that cigarettes had once offered was gone. Long gone.

Worldwide publicity campaigns effectively demonized the habit to the point where Joe Camel had to go into hiding and Matt Dillon himself (“We do it for Johnny!”) replaced his cigarettes with celery stalks.

It happened fast. Smoking was cool one day, then a direct road to cancer, heart disease and bad breath the next. By the ’90s, smoking was still taboo, but now it was the wrong kind of taboo. Even the dullest kid in the schoolyard could recognize the lack of cool in the habit. Kids still do some pretty stupid stuff to bolster their reputations, I’ll betcha — but by and large, smoking isn’t one of them.

These days, when you happen upon somebody with a cigarette dangling from their lips or clamped between the fingers, you don’t think, “How cool!” You think, “The poor addicted sap. He’s paying eight bucks for a pack of cigarettes he’s not allowed to smoke anywhere. His insurance premiums are through the roof and his lungs rattle like a tin can full of BBs. We should get him some help.”

Me, I tried to hang on to that link to coolness as long as I could. For many years on the cop beat, the pack of smokes forever tucked into my pocket was every bit as useful as the notebook and pen — people who didn’t have a word to say about nothin’ a moment ago suddenly found their voices when I pulled out a smoke and lit it up.

Smoking may have lost its mojo, but there was still something tribal about it. 

I’ve been off cigarettes two or three years now, thanks to vape, a strange technology that proved to be just the kind of miracle that millions of us needed. I don’t know how cool vape is — your average vape device tends to look like something that would be used to call birds or measure electromagnetic frequencies. That’s sort of in nerd territory, but whatever. When you give up cigarettes, you give up a couple thousand toxic chemicals all in one shot, and that’s plenty cool enough.

Not Bogart cool, mind you — but cool nonetheless.

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