Every book on the history of television has a chapter (or more) on sports. Mine doesn’t. The reason is simple: I can’t watch a sports event without smelling my father’s cigar.
I don’t mean remembering; I mean smelling. Acrid, soggy chewed end in a large glass ashtray, my father’s cigars live in the DNA of my senses, ready to assault me with nausea at the mere sound of cheering fans at a football game.
My husband, who doesn’t smoke, is only allowed to watch sports when I’m not in the room. I am a tyrant about this and feel absolutely justified in bossing him around.
“Do we have to have that on?”
“I thought you were working.”
“Well I’m here now.”
He’s happy to change the channel, but it’s too late. It’s an afront to me that I had to endure even two minutes of it, and my mind is already counting all the injustices I’ve suffered at the hands of men who were oblivious to my needs.
“And when are you going to empty the dishwasher? Or is that always my job?”
“Hey, I said I’d change the channel.”
“Oh, forget it. I’ll just go back in my office. It’s the only place around here that isn’t cluttered with your junk anyway.”
My husband has every right to feel abused. He’s nothing like my father. But he didn’t grow up with him either. And just as he doesn’t smell his cigar smoke, he doesn’t see the nervous woman on the couch, silently smoking Kents. She has red hair, like me. She doesn’t know how to drive a car, and she will never live in a home like Betty Draper’s. My father doesn’t see any need to save for a house. He’s a travelling salesman “on the road” most of the time. The apartment they live in, near the airport, is ugly and isolated, and far from her old friends in the Weequahic section and relatives in Brooklyn. She is rarely allowed to visit them because my father doesn’t like my mother’s relatives, he considers them peasants.
As a child, I was scared of school, for a hundred different reasons, and staying home with my mother and the soaps was a refuge that lasted for me into adulthood. In my memory, it’s always raining outside and that makes it feel ok to be at home. Sunny days remind me of my difference from the regular kids, who’d be playing sports while I read a book. Here, in the cave of our living room, the familiar characters on the soaps root me in a sense of normalcy, continuity and community. Odd, isn’t it, that an unreal world would make me feel solid and safe? Or maybe not so odd, when you think of the thousands of “Fox and Friends” viewers—including Donald Trump—who, every day, are comforted by lies.
So when I broke down after my first marriage, I went home—to my mother and to the television. We spent our days depressed together, chain-smoking Kents and watching “General Hospital” on what passed in those days as a color set. I don’t think this is actually the case, but in my memory I’m curled up against her. Her plump body is warm and although I know she is worried about me and my fast-dissolving marriage, I feel she is glad to have me there, sharing the trials and tribulations of Luke, Laura and the rest. Port Charles was so welcoming to us, anxiety-ridden in this barren New Jersey highway land. Unlike our actual neighbors in Fords, we knew everyone who lived in Port Charles, and they were always there, day after day. They were our community. And not just ours: the 1981 wedding of Laura and Luke (her former rapist!) drew 30 million viewers
My father’s big chair is empty—he’s on the road—and the smell of cigarette smoke now rules the house.