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Down Tobacco Road

[whitespace] tobacco
Robert Scheer

Ground Control to Major Pain: With all the anti-smoking propaganda and tobacco bad vibes, what's a gardener to do when she wants to buy a can of chew to sprinkle in her dirt?

A quick quest in search of the evil weed leads slowly back to the garden

By Amy Stewart

I BOUGHT MY FIRST TOBACCO product recently. Not because Joe Camel's allure finally overpowered me, and not because I gave in to the Generation X cigar craze. And I wasn't trying to give Philip Morris a last-minute sales boost before the lawsuits settled and my blue-chip stock funds took a nose dive. Actually, I was buying tobacco for the garden.

It all started when my mother sent me a little booklet of homespun garden wisdom called Jerry Baker's Garden Magic: Hundreds of Motions, Potions, and Lotions For Your Lawn and Garden. Baker has created a cottage industry out of gardening tips such as "Roll up a newspaper and whack the heck out of your peach tree's trunk as the buds open. This will stimulate sap flow." He also has conjured some magic gardening recipes out of ordinary household products such as beer, corn syrup and baby shampoo.

I decided to try the folklorist's "All Season Clean-Up Tonic." He claims that it will take care of fungus, aphids and a host of other pests and problems. This is where the tobacco purchase came in: The recipe called for, among other things, a sort of tea made from chewing tobacco.

I sent my better half out to Long's for toothpaste and a few other necessities. "Oh, and pick me up a can of Skoal while you're at it," I added casually.

He stared. "Uh ... a can of what?" Scott knows how much I hate the tobacco industry. If it were up to me, smoking would be banned altogether. Still, I was enjoying this little game.

"You know, dip. Chewing tobacco." He stared at me with that horrified "Who-are-you-and-what-have-you-done-with-Amy?" expression. I gave up.

"Oh, never mind, it's for the garden. Here, look," and I showed him the recipe. He left for town, a little uncertain of his moral obligation. He sounded relieved when he called from a pay phone and announced self-righteously, "Long's doesn't carry tobacco products of any kind."

No tobacco products? At a drugstore? Have I missed something? I worked at a drugstore like Long's in high school, and we devoted an entire row of the store to cigarette cartons, chewing tobacco and other smoking "accessories." When the regulars came in to pick up their asthma inhalers, I could reach for their pack of Salem without even glancing at the cigarette rack above the register. Where does one buy a can of chewing tobacco in PC Santa Cruz, anyway?

I tried Rick's Cigar Asylum. When I asked for chewing tobacco, the store clerk sniffed. "We only carry cigars and specialty cigarettes," she told me primly. I wanted to stay and ask her about the difference between a "specialty" cigarette and a Marlboro, figuring it probably had something to do with the difference between a microbrew and a Bud, but I was on a mission.

Finally, I went to Safeway. I remember running into Safeway late at night when I was a kid to buy a pack of cigarettes and a carton of milk for my mom. She always waited outside in the car, wearing her nightgown and smoking her last cig. The clerks knew me--they didn't even bother looking through the store's window to make sure my mother was actually out there. I knew Safeway wouldn't let me down.

The Tofu Defense

SURE ENOUGH, I FOUND the cigarette cartons and chewing tobacco in a glass case near the cash registers. To my relief, the case was already unlocked. I had been a little worried that I'd have to ask someone to open the tobacco case for me, and I wasn't sure what the procedure was. I could just hear the page over the loudspeaker: "Tobacco keys to the front. Repeat: Need the tobacco keys at the front." I imagined every customer in the store pausing to turn and look at me as I stood nervously at the case, waiting for the tobacco key to arrive.

I had hoped to just grab a can and run before anybody I knew saw me buying the stuff, but I was surprised to learn that I had a number of choices to make: wintergreen, spearmint, long cut, Skoal or Copenhagen, can or pouch. I chose a plain-looking can of Skoal long cut and headed to the register, grabbing a carton of milk along the way so it wouldn't look like I had come in just to buy a chew.

Standing in line, I kept the Skoal can turned face-down on the conveyor belt, hoping that it looked more like a small cake of tofu that way, or perhaps a jar of organic baby food. I was sure that someone would confront me about buying a tobacco product. "What's a young girl like you doing buying chewing tobacco? Don't you know that trash causes cancer of the mouth?"

I started getting defensive. I started to mentally defend my right to buy what is, after all, still a legal product. I actually felt disappointed that no one tried to do an intervention so I could take them on.

When I got to the register to pay, the clerk looked at me carefully, made, I suppose, a quick decision about my age, and counted out my change.

And that's how, on a sunny August afternoon in Santa Cruz, I got out of Safeway with an actual cancer-causing tobacco product in my hand. No one tried to stop me, no one lectured me, no bolt of lightning came out of the sky to strike me down.

"This is kind of cool," I thought. I gave the little round can a couple of hard shakes, the way I remember football players doing back in high school. I wondered how long I'd have to carry it around in my back pocket to get that white circle on my jeans.

Back home, I followed Jerry Baker's instructions and dropped three pinches of tobacco into the toe of an old pair of
nylon pantyhose, then immersed it in a bucket of hot water. "By the way," he notes in his booklet, "this mixture never dies. It just smells like it did!" I mixed the rest of the "Clean-Up Tonic" ingredients and hid the can of tobacco under the kitchen sink, behind the bug spray and the WD-40, so I could claim that it had been left there by the previous renter.

I'm still waiting to see what kinds of results the "All Season Clean-Up Tonic" will have in my garden. Meanwhile, as I watch the news at night, I cheer as the evil tobacco empire is brought to its knees. But now I also find myself thinking, "Hey--wait a minute. How am I gonna get my dip?"

Better get down to Safeway and stock up before it's too late.

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From the January 15-21, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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