In October 2000, after twenty-six years of smoking, I quit cold turkey when Heather and I moved in to the row house we rented on Harvard Street in Old Town Alexandria. It was on the first night we spent in the house when, at about nine in the evening, I walked down to the corner of Harvard and King, turned left, then walked about six blocks until I got to the first convenience store I saw. There, I bought the last pack of cigarettes I would ever buy, a pack of Camel Lights, from a shop keeper who had no idea how momentous an occasion this was for me. As for me, I had no idea either, because I didn’t mean for this pack of Camel Lights to be my last—I had intended to continue smoking.
I thanked the shop keeper and walked out the door thinking I had found the place where I would regularly be buying my cigarettes from then on. When I got back to our house, Heather was busy unpacking a few more things. I went out the French doors at the end of the dining room and walked onto the back deck to smoke—Heather and I had decided there would be no smoking indoors at this house—then looked above the fence at the edge of the back yard. All I could see was darkness.
There, during daylight hours, you could see the back of the office building that housed, among other things, the National Stone, Sand, and Gravel Association. Looking out the second floor on the other side of the house I could see, above the row houses directly across from us, another office building. This building was home to the Snack Food Association of America, the president and CEO of which had graduated with me from high school twenty-five years ago. Robbie was something of a fuckup in high school. It was rumored that, at our graduation ceremony, he was one of two students who’d received a diploma which, when you opened it, was blank inside. This, we thought, signified how kind-hearted our school’s administrators were: they didn’t want to embarrass a student by forbidding his attendance at graduation, but they still needed to make it clear to him that they knew he was a fuckup. Hence, the blank diploma.
That night, as I smoked a cigarette behind our newly rented house, wedged, as it were, between the National Stone, Sand, and Gravel Association and the Snack Food Association of America, I felt as if I had indeed travelled into the suburban equivalent of the heart of darkness. Not the mean and dirty, life-is-cheap sort of darkness, but the polite and clean, life-is-cheap sort of darkness. The sort of darkness where my classmate Robbie, once perpetually stoned and innocent but now armed with a law degree, helps run that big con game called the “straight and narrow” by some or—by the people in the world I hate most—”commerce.”
Even though it was only about ten miles away from the part of the city I’d called home for so many years, Alexandria was not a place I’d ever imagined myself living. Little did I know that years later I would end up much farther away from the city. But one thing I was aware of was that this moment, in this place, was as close to conventional as I’d ever been in my life. After all, Heather and I had just bought a car. Not a used car, not a junker that was just good enough to take us on some errands here and there, but a new car bought through an actual car loan. Which of course meant that we didn’t actually own it yet—the bank owned it—but the bank, through the straight and narrow kindness of its heart, was letting us call it our own.
I was also, at the time, working a straight nine to five job. A job where I actually—My God! What have I done?—had to wear a coat and tie. A job where I kept getting raises, kept getting praised for my hard work, my initiative, my creativity. A job I fucking hated more than any other job I’d had. Hell, I even liked it better when I was working for that costume jewelry company when I lived in New York, selling crappy necklaces and earrings that Arlene Dahl, the actress who was somewhat big in the 50s and 60s, had lent her name to. Hell, I even liked Arlene Dahl—her snotty attitude and acres of makeup—the one time I met her at the office and she asked to speak to Charlie, my boss, then literally turned her nose up at me.
Because oh my fucking god—that’s what I loved about New York: the assholes, dickwads, pricks, sons-of-bitches, floozies, and corporate turdlickers you came across there were the greatest in the world. And no matter how slimy and evil they could be, you knew they were the best at what they did. There was a part of me that couldn’t help but admire them, take a deep breath, and say to myself, “Man, even if I used every bit of Filipino-American-possibly-descended-from-headhunters muscle in my body and made a superhuman effort, I could never be as much of an asshole as that fucking piece of shit.” I’d shake my head in amazement, and make a mental note to myself to stay the fuck away from that person.
Of course, now that I have kids, people like that just scare me. And if I had to choose, I would go back to that job I had and hated when Heather and I moved down to Old Town. There what was killing me were the insane levels of self-congratulatory fervor that were an integral part of the way they conducted their business. Because back then, when I was living between the Snack Food and the National Stone, Sand, and Gravel associations, I was working for an association myself. As far as I could tell, the association I was working for was doing about as much to make it a better world as the associations I lived near.
And the purpose of the association I was employed by was pretty much to help the obscenely wealthy find the best way to donate the least amount of money and get the best tax break and best publicity possible. My job, and pretty much everyone’s job at the association, was to pat them vigorously on the back for this. In return I got the best salary I’d ever had in my life, the best benefits of any job I’d ever had, free lunches and dinners at fancy restaurants, the best hotels rooms when I travelled for the job, and scores of CEOs from various foundations patting me on the back in return for my cheerleading activities on their behalf.
I’m not saying that nothing good comes out of this—but the good that comes out of it is that little bit that trickles down to the needy while the rich keep getting richer and keep getting the bigger breaks. Breaks they don’t fucking need. And after all the hoopla and the raising of glasses in celebration it’s still basically crumbs, spare change, and a condescending smile that you get back down at street level. I had to get out of there before I got corrupted.
I think that if I hadn’t looked out into that darkness behind our rented house that night, took in a deep painful breath of tobacco smoke, and decided I had to stop, that I could have gone on dealing with the self-congratulatory fervor and accepted what little trickled down. I could have gone on being, as they say, one of those people who try to make changes within the system. But as I saw it, the system, and any belief I might put into it, would just end up killing me, sucking my soul out of me as easily as I was taking a drag from my cigarette.
Because when I was young they were just cigarettes, and smoking was something the edgier kids seemed to do. But as I got older I thought of them less as “cigarettes”—as some cool though somewhat risky diversion—and more for what they really are: just another weapon used by the goons of corporate America and part of the bullshit lifestyle they’re trying to sell me. They could have that—along with their wall-sized televisions, massive sport utility vehicles, the glorification of war and violence, and those superficial concepts of love, beauty, and pretty much everything else.
So I quit smoking. And, nine months later, I quit that job. Yeah, it took me a little bit of time because, as it turned out, I had been corrupted a little bit. I told them I was quitting to go back to freelance writing, when, although I had done freelance writing, it was never enough to pay the bills. Still, my time writing was, above everything else, time to consider, ponder, and think. Time, beyond all that, to be human. And time spent being human is never, no matter what the corporate pricks and assholes say, a luxury. And it’s part of what separates us from those pricks and assholes.
It was a little over a year later when I finally got another job. This one wasn’t so bad. It actually seemed to do some good in the world. At any rate, it was something I could live with.
Soon, Heather was pregnant with Maggie, and although I didn’t have to wear a coat and tie to work, I was still living a pretty conventional life. Driving into the office every morning, waiting in traffic, working, taking a break at lunch, working some more, then heading back into the traffic on the way back home. This time we actually bought a house, even farther from the city. We’d been at that house for two and a half years when I found out I was being laid off (anything that does some good in the world is never going to get the sort of funding the stuff that helps destroy the world is going to get). That’s how Heather, Maggie, and I ended up in Front Royal. That’s how this valley became our home. And, after we’d been there for three years, Julien was born. We’re now a few months into our eighth year of living in the valley, and I think I’m beginning to get used to it. Maybe I’m even beginning to love it. Well, actually I’m not sure if I’m ready for that kind of commitment. Not yet. But maybe soon.
This is a photo of Maggie, surfing in our back yard using a boogie board and a kiddie pool. Our children—who we are trying to raise as we have been raised, and to learn as we have learned, and to create and improvise with an awareness of the real world and all the injustice it sustains, and to take the necessary steps to change it—are another thing that separates us from the pricks and assholes.