The Story Of Your First Cigarette

How old were you? Why did you do it?

Photo: James Alby/Flickr.

Matt Moore, at age 25
I was “straight edge” until I was over 21, but hadn’t dabbled in smoking, mainly because I was a former college runner and smoking was such a big no-no for that. At this time, I was two years into living in Los Angeles, and my best friend was a recruiter for an MTV reality show. So, I started meeting a bunch of “cool” young professionals. There was a certain group who had ultra-hip parties in Los Feliz, and over time, I became smitten with a girl there. She was beautiful, and hip, and smoked, at least when she partied. As she started taking a liking to me, I felt my anti-smoking grip ease. One night, this girl breaks open a pack of cigarettes and I asked if I could have one. But man, I am not good at smoking. I didn’t — and still don’t — really know how to inhale. I did that thing where you take it into your mouth, hold it for a few seconds, and blow it back out. I decided to keep doing it as a habit, in hopes of remaining cool, but never got the hang of it. I became a cigarette mule for the “cool guys” who knew I always had cigarettes, since I didn’t really try to smoke unless I was around the girl. This lasted two weeks. During that time, the girl and I finally had a moment and we passionately kissed. Then I didn’t see her for a week, and when I asked her friend what happened, she said, “Oh yeah, she’s gay now.” I quit smoking after that.

Leigh, at age 4
My sister and I must have expressed some sort of intrigue around the little cancer sticks, since both our parents were smokers. My dad would smoke American Spirits in the car with us, and I can’t tell you how many times his ash would fly back onto me in the back seat. Memories with cigs run deep in my family. So, one afternoon, not long after my parents divorced, my mom was annoyed by us asking about cigarettes, so she said, “Fine! You want one, here.” And she lit up a cigarette for us to share. We both took one drag and coughed horribly, both right on the verge of puking. It tasted so nasty, and I’ve never touched one again. I guess this was one of those parenting gambles that probably doesn’t happen too much nowadays, but flew by in late-80s Chicago.

Photo: peagreengirl/Flickr.

Michelle Novak, at age 17
I want to say I was at Nitro, a weird 17-and-over dance club. Maybe not inside, since I don’t know if that was possible, so probably in the parking lot. I was out with some girls and being “rebellious.” In all other respects, I was the antithesis of rebellious. A “good kid,” as they’d say. Smoking wasn’t foreign to me, I had several family members that smoked. I remember society not stigmatized at the time, but turning. I think I’m the last generation that can remember walking to the corner store at age 10 and buying grandma a pack because I had a note. So, we were at Nitro and Missy Sanderson gave me the cigarette, a Newport Light. She was a friend of my friend, I want to say an inner city South Side of Chicago, Catholic school girl. I don’t recall coughing, although I’m pretty positive I didn’t completely inhale. The next morning, due to spending the night at Missy’s house, I tried again and this time I inhaled.

Ryan, at age 16
My friends and I would smoke a cigar at band practice — Swisher Sweet, Black and Mild, stuff like that. We moved onto clove cigarettes, but cigarettes felt like the final taboo. The line you toe, but that, to cross, would be disastrous. I was as prone to anti-smoking propaganda as anyone else my age at the time, but like any teenager, it also seemed cool. Rebellious, counter-culture. I was a punk gradually phasing into a greaser, so it suited the aesthetic. I got the cigarette from my younger cousin, who was openly a smoker, much to the chagrin of his immediate family. He’d already had issues around drinking, drugs, and the law, and was, as such, cooler than I was. It was probably the day after Christmas, and it was on the Mission Beach Boardwalk in San Diego. He and I were close and would usually break from the rest of our family to hang out. I have no memory of what prompted me to ask for a drag. I never planned to smoke or was trying to get past a fear or anything. Maybe it was just opportunistic. I only had a few drags, but it felt like I was doing the worst possible thing, and thought I instantly was addicted and had cancer.

Andrea Martinez, at age 15
Traci and I went to Joey’s and asked him to buy us weed, although we’d never smoked it, and didn’t even know if we really wanted it. He left on his moped and left us waiting outside, so we decided to break in and steal a pack of cigarettes. They were Basics that his mom bought him. We stole them and ran back to our friend Lisa’s, and we lit them up in the loft above her parents garage. The whole place filled with smoke. We spent the afternoon walking to the mall — via the woods, the back way — and chain-smoking and singing Beastie Boys songs. For a while after that, we had our friends buy us cigarettes until we found the stores that’d sell to us. This was in Michigan.

Photo: James Alby/Flickr.

Alexandra, at age 14
I was totally sober, alone, and at my house in Venezuela. I’d been very curious about it for a while. I didn’t want to be around other people because I knew I would underperform, so I had to practice. My dad, who doesn’t smoke, had a shelf where he put souvenir cigarette packs. It happened to be too big, so there was a Marlboro Red pack there as filler. It was already open — my sister was always raiding it — so I grabbed one. I was way too scared to smoke indoors, so I took a candle, lit it on the stove, and headed to the backyard. It was windy, and the candle went out, so I had to go back to the kitchen to light it again. I’d read the book and seen the film Submarine not long before, and the main character says you cannot cough in front of other people while smoking because you’d look weak, so I remember being extra focused on that. I coughed, obviously. I only took like two drags before freaking out and running to the bathroom to take a shower and brush my teeth. I thought the taste was kind of nasty, but I didn’t actually inhale because I didn’t know how.

Kit Friday, at age 14
I went to high school in Maui, and I did a lot of work with the drama department. After school we were having a rehearsal, painting the sets, putting together whatever rickety costumes. And there was this guy, oh my god, in retrospect he looked like a foot. Like, not very attractive. He was a very bad boy. There was this little area, like this clearing in a thicket of trees. They called it the “living room,” and it was where people would smoke weed. We went back there and I was like, we’re going to make out, this is gonna be awesome. But instead he pulls out two cigarettes. I was like, “I don’t know if I should do that, I have really bad allergies.” He’s like, “Come on. Don’t be a weiner.” So we shared one. It was a clove, which in retrospect is the gnarliest thing to start on. It was like, I didn’t know cigarettes were so sweet and delicious! Prior to that, I’d only smoked weed, so I was smoking like it was a joint, ripping on it hard and fast, and I got a little ill. Sick to my stomach, palms a little sweaty, dizziness. I know now, it was totally just a tobacco high.

Photo: bunky’s pickle/Flickr.

Edith Zimmerman, at age 14
It was 1997, in Cambridge. I was with a friend and we were walking along the train tracks on the way to see the re-release of The Little Mermaid. She had the cigarettes, but I don’t remember how she got them. I smoked two in a row and felt stoned out of my mind. Shortly after the previews, I got up and barfed twice — I made it to the bathroom but not quite the toilet. Then, instead of going back into the theater, I called my mom from a pay phone to see if she could come get us. My friend, who helped me clean up and never complained about any of this, sprayed me with peach perfume. I think I claimed food poisoning.

Diana Stojković, at age 13
It was a warm summer night in Bloomfield Hills, at my cousin’s dad’s house. I was hanging out with my older cousin, who was fifteen. Her dad was fast asleep — we waited until we heard him snoring — then we quietly opened a window in the living room. It was this old window, so we had to be careful it didn’t make noise. We snuck out onto their deck. It was very dark, so we were keeping quiet, whispering. She pulled two out of a pack, handed me one. I couldn’t see anything. She lit it for me, then lit hers, and said, “this is how.” I followed her lead and started coughing immediately, and tried to stifle it, and she said, “Shhh! He’ll wake up!” After a couple more puffs, I felt something in my mouth, little pieces of stuff. She brought her lighter close to see, and we’d lit my cigarette the wrong way, filter first. I’d been smoking it backwards.

Peter Sullivan, at age 13
I can’t really remember my motivations. I think it was part of the angsty teenage rebellion deal. There wasn’t as much of a stigma to cigarette smoking in ’94, but it was definitely frowned upon. But I think I was more interested in doing something new than something bad. So one day, my friend stole some cigarettes from his grandpa, I think More brand. And we were in my basement, which had a door open to outside, but was also next to the furnace, so when we smoked, it filled the house. Of course my parents were home, so my dad came down and, instead of telling us to stop or punishing us, he proceeded to list all the relatives I had that died of cancer. I remember him laughing, I assume at how terrible we were at not getting caught. I also got caught the first time I smoked pot, because I left the burnt marijuana out in the open in my room. Real genius here.

Photo: Finn Mac Ginty/Flickr.

Mary H.K. Choi, at age 10
My friend Susana and I were latchkey kids growing up in Hong Kong. Our parents hung out together. She was affluent and had access to her dad’s duty-free Davidoffs. They’re jiggy — not Nat Sherman level or whatever — but I remember thinking there was a fanciness to the box. One day we were hanging out and she busted out the cigarettes. She grabbed a lighter, Fa spray deodorant — this was back when there were CFCs still in the shit — and we slinked into the stairwell to get away from her maid. She took a puff, and looked pretty good and then took a puff. I was cool enough that I inhaled properly and was completely chilling, but then Susana panicked and sprayed the deodorant to cover the smell and it hit my mouth. I barfed. It was all about Marlboro light 100s after that. They made my fingers look so skinny.

Matt Dorsey, at age 9
This was late 70s. I was enjoying a summer day at the pool at my uncle’s house when my dad — who’d continue to smoke two packs of Marlboro Reds a day until his last years — had finished a cigarette, threw the butt into the grass, and walked away. Curious, I snuck to the still-smoking butt, picked it up, and put it in my mouth. Before I could make any sense of it, my mother screamed from the porch and ran to me, grabbed my arm, and dragged me inside where she pulled a pack from her purse. She sat me down, put a cigarette in my mouth, and lit it. She was furious. Scared, I began to blow through the cigarette. She said, “No! Suck in, like a straw!” which I did, and immediately choked and coughed all the way to the bathroom, where I drank water from the sink like my throat was on fire. It worked. I didn’t smoke another cigarette until college.

Rick Paulas smoked his first cigarette in college because his dorm mates would always go outside late in the night, and he was bored, didn’t want to miss out on good conversation, and it felt narc-ey in some vague way to go out there into the magic of the smoker’s circle without being also being one.