There are two kinds of conversations about Johnny Carson. One kind is the one most of you are having. It is light and interesting, about showbiz, TV, popular culture.
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Then there is the other conversation many of us have been avoiding.
You can see us outside office buildings in the cold, avoiding, not having this conversation, as we puff away, isolated and shunned, foolish, as we don"t talk about Carson dying of emphysema.
The showbiz conversation is the one most of us have, about Carson"s influence over American entertainment, his giving young comics--like David Letterman and Jay Leno--a break on his "Tonight Show." Carson as an icon for a common culture, when there was a common culture.
Then there is that other Carson conversation.
A part of it landed on my desk with a little thump. It was a package, about the size of your palm, with a brown camel on it, two pyramids and three palm trees.
"You can have them," said a friend who tossed them, casual in voice, though there was no missing the symbolism of it, his casting away of the Camels.
"I"m done with them," he said. "I quit."
Is this about Johnny Carson?
"No," he said. "But I quit anyway."
I called the American Lung Association in Chicago, which put me in touch with a doctor whose primary interest has been the study of what killed Carson.
His name is Dr. Nicholas Gross, 70, a former president of the Chicago Thoracic Society and currently a professor at Stritch School of Medicine at Loyola University.
The disease starts slowly. Patients don"t know they have it. Unaware, they reduce their physical activity so as not to get short of breath. The body degenerates, and still they grab that smoke.
He has seen people on oxygen, on the tubes, burning cigarettes. "You think, my God, don"t they understand?"
I asked about Carson and the science of what happened to him.
"He was a heavy smoker," Dr. Gross told me. "I read somewhere in the papers that in his last 15 years or so, he sat home and smoked. That"s what happened to him."
There was one of those awkward pauses on the phone. Then Dr. Gross, a gentleman, said:
"And I understand you"re a smoker."
I told him yes, but that this interview wasn"t about me (even though I guess it was), but more about Carson and how he died.
But I did ask him why, hypothetically, it seems that writers who smoke and drink coffee and feed on the adrenaline of the newspaper deadline are such weaklings.
And that a writer who quits smoking seems so unfocused, hypothetically speaking, and that hypothetically, readers and editors can see the difference, and the writer is, hypothetically, afraid.
"It"s unfortunate, but it does improve cognition, a cigarette makes it easier for a smoker to concentrate. It"s part of the whole gestalt, and then you"re working against a newspaper deadline," he said.
"But you can quit. I did. It"s not easy. But you can do it."
I wanted to get back on the science, to listen to him explain it in precise terms, to concentrate on something terrible.
"One of the most striking things about the disease is the loss of skeletal muscle," he said. "They lose it in the voluntary muscles in the arms, legs, shoulder. They atrophy. They lose body strength, muscle bulk. Most people with emphysema die of cardiac disease or malignancy, which are the two leading causes of death."
What about respiratory failure?
"They don"t have enough functioning lung to pull them through. That"s when you really do have a problem with oxygen, and getting rid of the carbon dioxide in the bloodstream. Blood gas goes haywire, the kidneys, the wheels start falling off the wagon, things go downhill pretty rapidly," he said.
I suggested that such respiratory failure must involve a general physical decline, then at the end a casual drifting off, a lightness of the brain without the oxygen. This is how I explained it to the man who has studied the disease for his career.
It"s not as if someone put a pillow over the person"s head at the end, I said.
"Well, no, not exactly," he said. "It is a gradual slowing down, and at the end, the very end, for the last matter of days, it is the pillow over the head."
Carson"s death could have been due to pneumonia, to infection, or it could have been respiratory failure. Either way it was private, and ugly.
I thought of him suffering amidst tubes.
Then happy, earlier, waving away the wafting smoke when the director cut back to him after commercial breaks, so witty and quick; and all of us out there on the sidewalks of office buildings, and what could be in our futures, if we don"t stop.
"You can quit," Dr. Gross said. "You can have a life. You can quit."
I"ve failed before. And I"m afraid of failing. But Johnny Carson convinced me.
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If you"re interested in doing the same, you can call the American Lung Association at 312-243-2000.