I’ve cleaned up after smokers for most of my life. My Uncle David and Uncle Gene filled up the paths and gutters in front of Nana’s house with cigarette butts. My mother and father contributed to the accumulation of paper and tobacco when they came to visit me or take Nana shopping. On those days when I was supposed to push the manual mower across the lawn until all the dandelions turned to dust, I was supposed sweep up all those brown and white cylinders flicked from family member’s hands like the final stage of a rocket to the moon.
Uncle David had one of those contraptions used to roll your own cigarettes in those days before rolling your own only required tobacco, paper, and spit. He showed me how to use it and explained that it saved him money, but he soon tired of the work and went back to buying packs and cartons when he could afford them.
Sometimes I would help an older boy, who wasn’t supposed to be smoking, collect butts from the gutter so that he could make his own cigarettes. I offered to get Uncle David’s device, but he showed me that just the cigarette paper, spit, and a match was all that he needed and offered me one of his handmade Frankensmokes. Considering all the mouths that salivated and sucked smoke through the secondhand tobacco found in the gutter, and the possibility that tiny bugs might already be living in it, I wasn’t too keen on putting one of those things in my mouth.
The cigarette machine would eventually find its way into the backroom. The backroom was filled with stuff that wasn’t being used anymore, but might someday be useful again. The backroom was the basement and the attic for a house that had neither. There was an old dresser in the backroom with a mirror attached. David had covered the mirror with small decals of Vargas girls from Esquire magazine.
I found things like a wood burnishing kit, leatherwork, and a Boy Scout Manual in the dresser. I also found charms, the kind girls would add to a necklace or a bracelet, and I found old trading cards with comic sayings and funny illustrations that reminded me of the artwork in Mad magazine. I also found an old printing device that I was never able to figure out. I wanted to print my own magazine, but there were no instructions. I could only pretend.
Nana was afraid that I would get ink all over the carpet, but she did let me play with the printer on the front lawn. Looking back, I think the stuff in the backroom was a conglomeration of things left behind by Uncle Gene, Uncle David, and my mother. I loved poking around and discovering interesting artifacts. When I was young, there were treasures everywhere: The photos and postcards under Grandma’s bed; the Shirley Temple doll, the Mexican marionette, and the ukulele in Grandma’s closet; and the old movies in the drawer in the dining room. I’m still looking for treasures in the backroom, but now they only exist in my head. There are only a few artifacts from that time left. Mostly photos, but I still have my favorite chimpanzee and the sock monkey that Grandma gave me.
Growing up at Nana’s house, I seldom made it past the linen closet. At the end of the hall, the door on the left lead to Uncle David’s room and that was off limits. The linen closet, on the right, contained some scary things on the top shelf. The door to the backroom was at the far end of the hall. It took a lot of courage to get past the linen closet and into the backroom and explore its many treasures, but I was a brave little archaeologist.