The first weekend in December every holiday season, I kick off my “holiday tour of malls”, exploring three different malls in central Iowa and southern Minnesota during the three biggest Christmas shopping weekends where mall traffic–and tobacco use among female shoppers–runs highest. Many of my best mall sightings have transpired over this holiday season tour in years past but in recent years they’ve been disappointing. That streak ended on my December 3, 2016, visit to central Iowa’s most upscale mall. In terms of sheer numbers of attractive young ladies smoking, it provided me the most sightings of any single mall visit in 2016, although with few genuine stunners among them. There was one 17ish blond cutie passing a cigar back and forth with her boyfriend, but she was the only sighting that had genuinely stood out during my 3 1/2 hours of exploring on foot. I was gonna spend another 45 minutes driving laps around the mall from there, and as all too often happens, that move triggered a sighting that still has me reeling for how surreal it was…..
I had turned near a fairly remote southwest corner of the mall encircling the department store anchor Younkers when I spotted a mother and daughter sitting on an only somewhat obscure employee entrance step, both smoking cigarettes. The mother was a decently attractive early-to-mid-30s brunette with a decent body and face but an overall utilitarian look. As for the daughter, upon first inspection I figured she was 11. Seeing her sitting next to mom with a cigarette in hand, smoking in a location where there were almost some passersby besides myself who spotted them, rocked me to my core. I had to swing through a column of cars in the parking lot and double back to get a better and prolonged look at this, and doing so I was able to catch the last 30 seconds or so of the performance. My eyes had not failed me, although a closer look indicated this cute little blond daughter with hair not even down to her shoulders was probably 12 or 13, but she wasn’t a day older than that, puffing away on a cigarette and doing so in a way that suggested this middle-schooler had been consuming cigarettes regularly since before she was even in middle-school. There were no bells and whistles to her style, at least not visible from 15 yards away as I was, but she dragged adeptly and produced solid exhales. I was only able to catch the last two drags before she crushed out the cigarette on the pavement and stood up, revealing her petite frame draped in a sweatshirt and light blue jeans that were completely presexualized. Mom and daughter had risen to their feet because of an approaching white pick-up truck, a junky old beater that unfortunately fit the stereotype of the kind of downscale “white trash” family one would fathom most likely to be the demographic responsible for whatever microscopic number of families would still allow a preteen daughter to smoke openly with mom in the year 2016.
I drove the other direction certain they were leaving the mall and that I had seen the last of them, positively beside myself with excitement that families like this still existed as I drove my next lap around the mall, but wishing I had seen more or gotten additional context of any kind. As I approached this side of the parking lot on my next lap, I figured I’d find a parking spot and identify the brand of the girl’s discarded cigarette butt. I took the first parking spot I could find on that southwest side of the lot and as I got out of my car I took note of a vaguely familiar beat-up white truck only two vehicles to my right in the lot. Oh my God…it was them! A very redneck-looking 30-something father was behind the wheel with his window rolled down but the brunette mother was in the passenger seat and the blond 12-ish daughter was seated in between them. How on Earth could I have gotten so lucky?!? I made a quick jaunt to ID her cigarette as a Marlboro Black but then returned to my car to see what else I could glean from this family. It turns out quite a bit!!!
First of all, the license plates on the truck showed they were from Appanoose County in southern Iowa near the Missouri border, undoubtedly coming to “the big city” for their Christmas shopping. In 2015, I drove through the town of Centerville, the county seat of Appanoose County and was treated to two public sightings of TEEN smoker girls in less than an hour in town on a random weekday afternoon in June, a sighting that made my top-10 random sightings for 2015. This family only enhanced my takeaway that Centerville is a hotbed of smoker-friendly demographics and perhaps a throwback to the 1990s in terms of teen smoking acceptance. I cracked my passenger side window when I got back inside my car to be able to hear at least some of their conversation, and within a couple of minutes, doing so allowed me to hear the collective flicks of three lighters and considerable streams of cigarette smoke rising inside the truck. I had a huge logistical challenge though. There was a blue car in between my car and the truck and the top of the car blocked me from having a direct view, forcing me to sit way up in my car seat in a highly conspicuous way in order to see anything. Meanwhile, dad was behind the wheel and closest to me, so I had to be extremely careful to avoid his spotting me…and to quickly turn away any time he started looking my way. And the daughter was the smallest person in the truck and sitting between the parents, so it was almost impossible to see even a glimpse of her. On only a couple of instances was I even able to see the mother take a drag or exhale from her cigarette, and then ash it out the open passenger window. The best I could do with the daughter was spot an occasional burst of smoke expelled in the center of the vehicle that clearly wasn’t coming from the mother or father. The father’s voice was the only one I was able to regularly hear as I listened in, and his commentary seemed consistent with his decidedly downscale profile. Some occasional giggling from the daughter was audible, but key dialogue about smoking never materialized.
Unfortunately, it started raining right in the middle of this epic event and the family put their windows up, signaling to me that the smoking show was likely over, yet I continued to sit there just in case something else would come of it. I had figured since the father had picked the mother and daughter up only 15 minutes or so earlier that their day of shopping was over, but when I saw the doors open and the occupants get out, it was clear they were going back into the mall. That was indeed the case and now I was about to get my first close-up look at mother and daughter, and it was an extended and stunning look at that. The girl was no longer smoking and was now wearing a neon yellow hoodie to avoid the rain, but as she stood outside next to mom for a good two minutes while dad drug his feet getting ready to go inside, I was treated to no fewer than four top-shelf smoker’s coughs from the daughter complete with follow-up lugie spits. This was just unreal….and suggested that this girl has been doing chronic damage to her still-developing lungs for years and was likely just as heavy of a smoker as her parents. Every 20 seconds or so, a fierce cough erupted from her deep black lungs, and I couldn’t imagine how this girl was able to get through a school day with this kind of an addiction and obvious side effects. And there was absolutely no doubt that she was about 12 years old or 13 at the very earliest, with a decently pretty face that had that slight bit of weathering you can expect to see even in the youngest of smokers. The interaction with the parents was also stunning. Mom was standing to her right and the daughter repeatedly smacked mom in the ass while standing there. Mom mildly protested, but the daughter continued doing it. It was clear this was a young girl given absolutely no behavioral boundaries and while that would undoubtedly serve her badly in the future, it was just magical to see her knowing the context that she was a heavy smoker whose parents indulged her significant addiction.
The family went into the mall and dad hung back briefly to finish another cigarette he was smoking. Normally this would have been my cue to leave, but when confronted with these increasingly rare event sightings, I hunker down. In this case, I sat in my car for 2 1/2 hours until long after dark waiting for their return hoping for one more visual reward. Sitting there all that time gave me plenty of time to ponder if this family was really as big of an aberration as it seemed. Both with my own sightings in the last several years of young girls smoking with the family and with the early-to-mid-20s girls I’ve dated who’ve talked about their “smoking families” and how they picked up the habit when they were in the 12-14 range, it seems as though there remains a small but significant culture in the modern era where tobacco use among all ages and in all settings is as accepted as it was a generation ago. Every time I see something like this, my instinct is to say that I’m not likely to ever see this sort of thing again….but then a year or so later I do see it again.
Anyway, it was a very long sit waiting for their departure from the mall but I would have stayed at my post till midnight if I had to. When I saw them approaching the truck, there wasn’t a cigarette to be found just yet which disappointed me given the challenging logistics inside the truck once they got inside. I was now parked in a spot where I was overlooking the passenger seat from an angle where I’d be slightly more likely to see the daughter seated in the middle, but by now it was dark which presented its own challenge. They started the engine of the truck and after a minute or so I was able to see the mother in the passenger seat with a cigarette. Through the darkness I was unable to see the daughter at all in the middle and figured I’d stayed all this time for nothing. But for whatever reason, just before leaving, the mother and father got out of the truck to check the contents in the truck bed. Their absence provided just the faintest hint of illumination inside the truck cab that allowed me to spot the daughter…and just before mom got back in the truck, I saw a cigarette approach the daughter’s lips followed by a glowing cherry as she took a drag, seconds before the truck pulled out of the parking lot. I’m not sure it was worth a 2 1/2-hour wait, but for a family this iconic in December 2016, I’d have done the same thing again.