Leaders of the Pack

"What are you rebelling against, Johnnie?"

"Whaddaya got?"

--"The Wild One," 1954.


It is 7:30 in the morning, drop-off time at the high school. The sun is happy-face yellow. The bell hasn't yet rung. Just enough time for the rebels to huddle in their usual spot on the sidewalk across from campus. It's the designated rebel spot. Their dads and moms probably stood here, rebelling, when they were young.

There are maybe a half-dozen. Not much of a showing, but then their rebellion is of a particularly unpopular sort. These kids are smokers, and like smokers everywhere, they are an increasingly singled-out minority. Sometimes teachers stand across the street and yell at them: "Don't you know what you're doing to your lungs?"

Yeah, they know. And what of it? Actually, just saying those words, "Yeah, what of it," brings a little half-smile to their lips. How often can a kid say that anymore? Not often. Rebellion, like so many fun things, has been ruined by their parents. Everything a kid could rebel against already has been done.

So they smoke. What of it? That this has fueled a juggernaut of public policy is just hunky-dory with them. High time they got some public policy. They were starting to worry. Try making your mark as a generation when all the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll are being hogged by the White House and the most revolutionary thing your peers can come up with is a pierced tongue.


Is there anything more stressful than adolescence? Any battle more grueling than the one between that urge to define yourself and that urge to fit in? And then, after all that, you turn into your parents. There's no justice. Especially not now, in this confusing time of been-there-done-that and zero tolerance.

All the wide-open territory that was once the province of youth, theirs to explore and corrupt, is now settled, tepid. Strange that, of all the vices a kid could be drawn to, the mundane cigarette, of all things, should remain.

Remember when cigarettes were just accessories? When your brand was just your statement--the soignee Dunhill, the manly man's Camel, the hep-cat's Kool? Now smoking is its own statement, something that, to the nonsmoking majority, generally says, "I'm stupid." Or stubborn. Or both.

Unless you are still formative--like, say, that kid there. The one in the black bomber jacket. The 14-year-old hunched on the curb with her hand cupped around the Marlboro Red. Then smoking is something you do because--well, actually, there's some controversy over why you do it. Billboards? Peer pressure? Flaky 7-Eleven clerks who sell to minors? Insufficiently taxed cigarettes?

The 14-year-old, who gives her name as Sara, frankly isn't quite sure quite why she does it. She has to think a minute. This isn't easy, because on this particular morning, two fellow rebels are screaming at each other over what one allegedly said to someone named Ricky behind the other's back.

She runs a hand through her hair, which she bleached this year from dark blond to peroxide. It is said that in middle school, Sara was exceptionally strait-laced. "Dude! Omygod! Dude!" the fellow rebel shrieks in the background. "I f---ing didn't f---ing even see Ricky till today!" Clearly, middle school is over. Now Sara dresses exclusively in festive black and decorates her backpack with the names of mean-sounding punk bands.

"This band is my favorite," she offers, stalling, fondling a decal for those once-thrashing icons of '70s L.A. Mohawk-rock, the Germs. Talk about your mother's mosh pit. The Germs were around when I was a kid. The lead singer was a junkie who died on the same day as John Lennon. Poor Sara. Not even two chords to call her own.

Finally, she puts forth a couple of half-hearted behavioral theories. They range from "smoking calms my nerves" to "my mother smokes, and my grandmother, and I had a stepdad who did it, too." Then she perks up suddenly as she remembers something--something that might even befit a Germs fan.

"I'm addicted!" She suppresses a half-smile and stubs out her Marlboro.

Her girlfriend giggles.

"Omygod!" she laughs. "You sound like your mom."

Which perhaps speaks volumes about the reasons behind the reasons why 3,000 teenagers take their first puff of demon tobacco each day. If so, though, please don't anyone tell young Sara. When she finds out where most kids get their taste for rebellion, it might be so traumatic that she'll never smoke again.


Shawn Hubler's e-mail address is shawn.hubler@latimes.com

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World