The Smoking Room

by Bill Brenner on August 17, 2010

In the early 1990s, as my addictions and OCD started taking on a life of their own, there was a place I could escape to and feel normal for a few hours. This is the story of the smoking room at North Shore Community College (NSCC).

Mood music:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6YyDg9tT0Vw&fs=1&hl=en_US]

I’ve been thinking a lot about this place, especially after talking to one of my best friends, Mike Trans, who I happened to meet in that room. I also met a brilliant writer named Peter Bebergal and Al McLeod, another close friend who is godfather to my son, Sean.

Things were stormy at home during this period (1989-1992). I wasn’t getting along with my parents, though in hindsight that was more my fault than theirs. My sister was in the throes of a serious depression and was suicidal much of the time.

The world was a stormy place, with an imminent war with Iraq on the horizon (the first Gulf War). Back then, my fear and anxiety was wrapped tightly around current events I had no control over. I was convinced we were all getting drafted into the army and I wanted to live life to the fullest first.

I spent a lot of my time in high school fucking around, so I had to go to NSCC to shore up the academic side of my brain. I managed to do that somewhere in those years. But mostly, I hung out in that smoking room.

Getting there was easy, because NSCC’s Lynn campus was only five minutes from my house. Back then, I either hid in the basement of the Revere house or in the smoking room at the opposite end of the Lynnway. These were intervals of bliss between the painful periods. The Faith Between Us

There, I seemed to get along with everyone. I met Mike and Peter (you should read the book Peter co-authored with Scott Korb called “The Faith Between Us,” by the way. It’s a life-changing read I’ll blog about in a future post).

I met people who were in the Student Government Association and Program Council, so I joined those groups, making new friends like Ann Ball, Michelle Lesnever, Trish Bean and Samantha Lewis. Peter led a poetry group, so I joined that. My band Skeptic Slang was coming together, so we used poetry readings in the cafeteria as a place to jam.

These people were a first for me. I didn’t feel the need to put on my armor around them. I felt like I could be myself in a world where everything else was awkward. Being myself meant binging a lot in private and getting my fill of pot and alcohol, but I did most of that stuff in private, anyway. Around these new friends, my normal side — what came closest to normal for me, anyway — could come out for fresh air. I wrote a lot of bad poetry and song lyrics to share in the poetry group and dove into student government activities as if it were the United States Senate. Looking back, we all had some growing up to do. But I think we were still smarter than the real senators of the day.

That smoking room — NSCC in general — was a happy place for me. Salem State topped it because that’s where I met Erin, but without the comfort of that cloudy little room, I might have lost whatever grip I had on sanity at the time.

A couple more side notes: In this room, Peter Bebergal said something that I would understand all too well later in life: “You can’t turn toast back into bread.”

I also remember sitting at a table with Al, talking about Revere, home to us both. We started talking about the Paul Revere School when it dawned on both of us that we had known each other before, during those middle school years. As I often like to remind him, I hated his guts back in Revere.  

But it’s all good now.

By the way, I recently visited the Lynn campus of NSCC. It’s not as bright and shiny as it used to be. Back when I was there it was still a fairly new building, constructed on a site where buildings burned in the Great Lynn Fire of 1981.

The floors are a lot more worn out now.

The smoking room no longer exists.

But it lives on in a happier side of my mind.

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