Marlboro Woman

Agnes smoked Marlboros. I can’t separate the ubiquitous red and white box from any memory of my mother. Her hands were never far from that flip-top pack. Like shrimp between two chopsticks, a cigarette dangling casually between the joints of two fingers is a practiced dexterity, one she learned long before I was born.

The broad flatback of her hands extending from wide wrists guided her muscled fingers. They looked like they worked hard and long. But they didn’t. Her young hands held rackets, bridles, hair brushes and probably cigarettes. Her maternal hands chopped, sliced and scrubbed until motherhood bored her.

Freckles splattered over raised veins tunnelling through the back of her hands. When the freckles blended together into “liver spots”, I was ashamed, embarassed. Later on, those liver spots scared me, until I learned prolonged beach time was the cause, not alcohol or tobacco-related diseases. 

To paint her nails, Agnes would sit in her arm chair next to the mahogany table, a cold beer on a coaster and a cigarette in a flowery ceramic ashtray. She never smudged them, never blotched her cuticles, never spilled the polish, never needed to mop up after herself.  She’d unscrew the top of Revlon’s Fire and Ice and pull out the dark-bristled brush coated in toxic red lacquer. With one hand flattened on the table, and the other one holding the grooved white plastic top, she’d drag the brush along the lip of the bottle to get the exact amount of polish. Pulling the brush from the bottom of the nail to the top in perfect form, nail after nail, she’d quietly finish the job, then blow on the tips of her fingers to dry them. She was never hurried, but finished before the cigarette was burned to the halfway mark. Lifting the cigarette to her lips without smudging her half-dried nails, she’d take a long rewarding drag.

At the mirror, she’d further glamorize her ensemble with matching lipstick. Gripping a short, thin-handled lipstick brush in her right hand, she’d cradle the unopened lipstick in her left, slide the top up with her left fingers, and let the top drop into the crook where the palm meets the thumb. Holding both parts steady, she’d flick the curved tapered bristles of the brush back and forth on the creamy substance with her right fingers. She’d outline the edges of her top and bottom lips, then brush the bare flesh inside the lip lines with vertical strokes. After blotting her freshly-colored lips with a folded Kleenex, she’d lift a lit Marlboro from the ashtray and gently mouth the filter tip.

In the 1960s Philip Morris secretly started using chemicals in Marlboros to free base the nicotine and increase its addictiveness. Smokers said the cigarettes calmed their nerves. By the 1970s Marlboros were the best-selling cigarette in the world.

My mother carried a small leather purse until the day she died. The only contents: lipsticks and Marlboros.

Shutdown Week 8: What Would Agnes do?

What would Agnes do (WWAD) during the coronavirus pandemic? Agnes had an uneasy way of placing wedge occurrences in her life, like being married, onto the long arc of outputhistory. Her pastimes, smoking and drinking, fit nicely into an imaginative destiny all her own. She believed she was meant to smoke, meant to drink, that they were a sign of the times and not to be missed because of some pollyannaish medical or social admonition about motherhood. Nothing would have stood in the way of her scotch, beer and Marlboros. She was destined to have them.

Along side the subliminal moral compass WWJD (What Would Jesus Do), I act and react from a Pavlovian response to my mother’s teaching, character and personality. WWJD helped replace a lot of the bad stuff with certain social mores, like not stealing and staying sober. Stealing and drinking came so naturally to Agnes that by the time it occurred to me my mother might be setting a bad WWAD example, she’d already shut the door on self-reckoning. And I had to suffer through reckoning of my own.

She would have loved being in the midst of a pandemic, entering the shutdown as if it were a fun house full of reasons to drink jumping out at every turn. If I had said we must social distance ourselves, she would have said, “Don’t be ridiculous. You don’t know what you’re talking about.” No earthly situation of hers held destiny captive. She would have known the virus and all that went with it were temporary disruptions to help justify consuming more alcohol, smoking more cigarettes.

It’s not that Agnes was a rule-breaker. It’s that the rules didn’t apply to her in the first place. She would not have adhered to mask wearing, six-foot distancing and certainly not staying in her lane at the grocery store. She would have swallowed up the news, argued over every tidbit, insisting she was right and driven everyone in the house to their corners.

Medical appointments cancelled? School conferences shut down? What a relief! Except for clothes shopping, motherly obligations drove her nuts. Curling up on the couch with her beer, cigarettes, a mystery novel or the New Yorker were her destiny. She raged against anyone who tried interrupting her routine or attempted to rearrange her destined spot in the universe. Being told to stay home would have been the only rule she’d have upheld and savored.

WWAD hasn’t left me completely. Cozying up to the couch reading mysteries and the New Yorker is fine with me for as long as it takes. I love her for that hard-wired legacy.

But thank God I’ve ditched the booze and the cigarettes.

So Fly Mother

There’s no North Star to navigate me through today’s rapidly expanding and changing vernacular. I’ll bet my parents felt this and probably theirs before them. In my early teens I used the word “cool” in a conversation with my mother. I forget everything about that conversation except she snapped.

“Stop using that word. You sound like a degenerate beatnik.”

Oh. My. GoD. That’s exactly what I wanted to be. I’ve used cool ever since to describe things I like, assuming whatever I like falls into the universal “cool” column.

“Awesome” took the place of cool in the public square when I wasn’t looking. I’m mildly annoyed at the overuse of awesome but at least people use it close to its true meaning, unlike cool which confounds us with all its meanings: aloof, care-free, chill, funky, and in the case of Barack Obama—sophisticated, elegant and unflappable.

The Webopedia has a comprehensive list of texting language. ROFL means rolling on floor laughing. LMK means let me know. And my favorite, STFU means shut the fuck up which is teetering on the cliff of overuse in the aftermath of the painful November 2016 election and the reign of the twittering emperor.

Nothing stumps me more than hip hop language. Until recently I thought hip hop and its musical sister, rap, glorified pimps, whores, violence, drug dealing and guns. But I’ve met writers in the hip hop world who are neither gangsters nor malevolent. I see a world of hip hop creatives whose first thought every morning is to write. it. down. Like rock ’n’ roll before it, hip hop is a creative outlet for young people who are on to us, who use poetry, music, fashion, video and street art to proclaim their intolerance of our white privilege.

The words though are tough. I get the word homie, meaning a good friend as if from the neighborhood or home. “Hoe” a diminutive form of whore is used as a general insult, much like bitch. But, it’s elevated to a type of red badge of courage for poet Britteney Black Rose Kapri who titled her book Black Queer Hoe. I like it but as a former barfly who sold herself for Rolling Rock, I can’t bring myself to use it—yet. For that matter as a former drug addict I bristle at the use of the word dope as a substitute for cool, as in the HBO series, Two Dope Queens.

Recently I participated in an intergenerational poetry workshop taught by Kevin Coval, Chicago’s Hip Hop Chronicler. Kevin MC’d a performance of us workshoppers and our poems at Lookingglass Theater. He introduced me as “so fly”, and I immediately thought of Super Fly. The slang “fly” dates back farther than the 1971 movie though. In my teens I heard “fly” in 1920’s African American Fast Talkin’ Blues on old scratchy 78 RPM records. It was someone like Blind Lemon Jefferson or Lead Belly who used the word fly to describe a stylish, snappy, sophisticated woman. My 1960’s beatnik-wannabe friends and I never adopted fly in place of cool because it sounded too black.

BOCn5vf4SLqbLC+5R+QVewThey all called my mother cool behind her back not because she dressed in black turtlenecks like a degenerate beatnik but because with her acid tongue and casual elegance she let them drink beer in her living room and laughed at all their jokes.

I accept Kevin’s compliment with gratitude, but I will never be as fly as my mother was.