The brand-new New York Easyway center for smoking cessation is two flights up an ordinary building in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The stark white room couldn’t have less personality—25 office chairs are arranged before a podium, ashtrays next to them. The ashtrays have the look of curious artifacts from another time, which they are. Fourteen autographed celebrity photographs crowd the wall: Johnny Cash, Kate Hudson, and Jerry Hall stare down at us. For every celebrity who might have made smoking seem gorgeous, there’s one who’s been through Easyway: Anthony Hopkins is on the cover of the brochure, and Richard Branson introduces the video. Damian O’Hara, the man charged with spreading Easyway throughout North America, tells me, “We did all the Stones’ wives.” “What about Keith?” I ask. “Oh, he’s a hopeless case,” says O’Hara.
Though its four-month-old Brooklyn center and another in L.A. are the first two in the States, Easyway has been a fixture in Britain for more than twenty years, and Allen Carr is something of a folk hero there: His Easy Way to Stop Smoking has now sold over 7 million copies and been translated into twenty languages. There are 71 centers in 30 countries treating some 50,000 smokers a year—most of whom are nonsmokers now.
O’Hara used to work in tobacco marketing, running the RJ Reynolds account in Asia and the Rothmans account in the Middle East. “Makes this kind of work karma cleansing,” he says pleasantly. He’s well suited to his calling—in a single sentence, he’s able to both flatter me about my habit and offer a tangible hope that I might quit: “We’re particularly strong with the no-hopers. The draconian no-smoking rules in New York have weeded out the wimps and left the hard-core—and that’s who we’re for.”
I hope he’s right, because I’ve tried to quit before, and I’ve brought a friend who is even more desperate to stop than I am. Anthony Perullo, another lapsed nonsmoker, recently tried to fight his urges by scratching his stomach with keys, and before the seminar starts he lifts up his shirt to show me an impressive-looking scar.
Then the room is called to order. “Your first instruction is to smoke,” O’Hara says. “Smoke your face off.”
I realized, for the umpteenth time, that my smoking had gotten out of hand on my wedding day. Still enjoying the plumpness of having quit in the first place, I was smoking out of the side door of the church on 73rd Street with my best man when I realized I hadn’t mentioned my recidivism to the wife-to-be, and was expected to kiss her in front of some 250 of our nearest and dearest, with smoke fresh on my lips. Of course she knew, but that wasn’t the point. After the ceremony, bagpipers led us down Madison Avenue to the reception, with our guests trailing behind. There are photographs of the event, everyone happy, but I know what I was thinking, especially when I saw the band chain-smoking outside the reception hall—When can I ditch this broad and light up?
That was in June. I had started up again in April, after visiting my father in the cancer ward of a hospital in Athens, Greece. (He survived and is happily back to smoking.) The hallways were alive with cigarettes, and my fifteen months of healthiness disappeared in a puff. Within days, I was walking the dog at three in the morning, smoking three cigarettes in as many minutes.
The plan was to stop after the next big event, but a lot of them occurred in rapid succession: I moved apartments, got married, started a new job, and had a child. The day my wife and I brought our daughter home, my body was swaddled in patches, my jaws had a wad of gum clenched in them, and I lasted fourteen hours before bursting out of the house and into the bodega across the street. Relief.
So here I am, on the cusp of 40, with a newborn in the house, a new wife, a new life, and an old habit. I’ve smoked, more on than off, for 25 years. I grew up smoking on airplanes and in movie theaters, on the subway and in any home I visited. Twenty to 40 nails in the coffin every day, that many little moments of self-hatred or blessed relief. From the ages of 14 to 39, it’s been the one consistency.
The trouble with starting after you’ve quit is that you’re not so much enjoying smoking again as putting off the horror of stopping all over again. Almost as consistent as my smoking addiction, to use the modern parlance for everything pleasant, is my addiction to quitting. I’ve tried the lozenges, the gum, the patch, and the hypnotist; I’ve flown to Boston to meet with Yefim Shubenstov, “the Mad Russian”; tried the acupuncturist’s needle behind the ear; dealt with the side effects of a Zyban prescription; and sat through a ten-day silent-meditation retreat. I’ve tried the homeopathic remedies, have a lifetime supply of toothpicks, and every evening, like clockwork, I throw out a half-pack and a new Bic lighter. Prayers, promises, recriminations, and lots of teeth-brushing follow.