Me and Moe
Moe Axelrod. Say the name out loud, and then tell me. Tell me you can’t see this guy right now, know what he looks like, how he stands, what he says and how he says it. Tell me you can’t see the cigarette.
He was born at the turn of the 20th century, poor, Jewish, tribal, tough. He became a gangster of sorts because that’s the kind of path life leaves you when you’re Moe Axelrod and you are, again, tough. It’s just business, not personal.
Moe is important to me, although of course he’s fictional, conceived by playwright Clifford Odets for his 1935 play, “Awake and Sing!” I played Moe in a production, one of my favorite roles.
The man was a flashy dresser, a confident character, an astute observer of the human condition. I mean, the man had a wooden leg; it was written in the script. If you’re an actor, you dream about playing somebody like Moe.
The cigarette was also in the script, but that bit of business was a given if you were at all interested in verisimilitude. Of course Moe smoked. It was 1935; everybody smoked.
Not so much in 1981, when I played Moe, although more than today. In 1981, as I recall, you could still smoke in most public places, including university hallways, where I first tried a cigarette, aiming to capture Moe’s constant bad habit.
It was a filter-less Lucky Strike, a realistic choice for Moe, and I ended up losing my lunch. I just wanted it to look real. I’d never smoked, never had the slightest interest. I was just acting.
By the end of the play, I had become Moe in one very significant way, then. I’d latched onto his cigarette, seeing immediately what many actors do: A constant prop, a focus, a beat generator, a manufactured pause while you puff and draw and think about your next sentence.
It was the closing punctuation to a lot of routine events, a meal, a drink, a night’s sleep, a tense moment. There was always time for a cigarette, and there was always a cigarette.
I smoked them fairly regularly for a few years before quitting, because you’re supposed to quit, I mean come on, geez. Everybody knows.
I always came back, though. Even when smoke-less months would pass, I’d rarely pass up a moment to have a secret cigarette, swiped from a friend who still smoked. Or a long weekend by myself, or a solo road trip, or any chance I could get, really.
I became a collector of surreptitious smokers, whom I spotted in parking lots and sneaking behind stores, grown men and women, puffing quickly, out of sight of fingers ready to wag. I was sometimes like that.
In the medical profession, there’s a simple equation known as a pack-year. It refers to smoking history, and it’s easy to calculate: If you smoke a pack a day, and you did that for five years, you have a smoking history of five pack-years.
If you smoked four packs a day for 50 years, you have a 200 pack-year history, and so on. In theory you can accumulate as many pack-years as you want, although there are no prizes.
I can’t tell you my history, then. There were a few years there when I might have averaged a cigarette every three days, who knows? And then there were more consistent times. All I know is that over 31 years, I smoked a few, that’s for sure.
And I exercised, and sometimes a lot, and often intensely. I seemed to be in good shape, breathing-wise, even when sprinting on the stationary bike or taking long, fast walks or runs. My blood pressure was good and my pulse rate was low, and if those few cigarettes a day slowed me down at all it was hard to tell.
But they would. A small fraction of smokers develop lung cancer, but everybody gets emphysema. That’s a pretty straight line. It will happen.
It will. Whatever the pack-years, it will happen. It’s only a matter of degree for me, how bad it will be, when it will start, what effect it will have. I can only do what I can do, which is to breathe deeply, exercise hard and not smoke. And then hope for the best.
I don’t know when I smoked my last cigarette, or if I have. I just stopped one day, with a few tricks, and haven’t gone back. I notice very little change, except occasionally the sensation that I breathe better during exercise.
That could be just my imagination. A couple of other, small things, but mostly I’m the same person. I spend a few dollars less.
I will keep paying, though, as I said. Something else may kill me sooner, but if I live long enough my lungs will probably rebel against years of abuse. I know this, so I wait for whatever.
But at least I get to wait. And maybe I’ll have a little longer to do that than I might have otherwise. There is no virtue in not doing what you shouldn’t be doing anyway, it seems to me, but then I’m not particularly interested in virtue, or congratulations, or marking days or being smug or regretting the past.
Mostly I’d like to keep breathing for a while longer, and to stop being Moe now, forever.