Gone in a Puff of Smoke

Carol Mercadantr steps carefully around the hospital room and stops at the head of the bed. She leans over and, with all the delicacy of a mother and her newborn, gently combs David Trippy's hair back into a pompadour. Her movements are slow and kind of hypnotic, a grace born of resignation to the fact that her lover of 10 years will soon be dead. He could go tonight, tomorrow, next week perhaps, or even later. Her smile is weak, little more than an insincere formality saved for Trippy's visitors. She is tired, and appears beaten down, the look of a woman who for weeks has been living in a small hospital room taking care of her man.

Cancer has ravaged Trippy's 48-year-old body. His head, when juxtaposed against his bony frame, appears Elephant Man huge, a medicine ball atop a broomstick figure. Tubes snake in and out of his abdomen, arms and throat. The IVs feed nutrition, antibiotics and morphine to kill the pain. A scabbed-over incision on the right side of his neck where a fist-size tumor was once rooted reveals a small X, the entrance point for the futile zaps of radiation. Trippy's voice is but an eerie rattle that only Mercadantr can decipher, and he can no longer write. Eyes are the key to communication with Trippy. His are dark, shadowed with confusion and distance. At this point they say so very little.

The doctors tell Mercadantr that the cancer should have killed her boyfriend by now. They tell her that he is a fighter. But she already knew he was a fighter. In the years since they have been together, she says they've been to hell and back.

When David Trippy is gone, the Arizona blues scene will see a marked drop in value. A charismatic iconoclast, his charm was as much an asset as his talent was in his basic survival. Trippy is well-known in these parts not only as an ace harmonica player but as an entertainer.

Doctors at Mesa's Desert Samaritan Hospital believe secondhand cigarette smoke caused Trippy's lung and throat cancer. For nearly 20 years, Trippy made a living sucking smoky bar air, first blowing harmonica in Texas Red and the Heartbreakers and later as front crooner with the Hoodoo Kings.

When Trippy first arrived at the hospital, doctors asked him how many packs of cigarettes he smoked in a day. None, he said. It's true, he never smoked, not intentionally, anyway.

But Trippy has lived hard. Some say as hard as Keith Moon did. His drinking was renowned, and he did his share of drugs.

"You got to realize, Dave's lifestyle was a thing of legend in this town," explains Paul Thomas, on-again, off-again Hoodoo Kings bassist. "This is a guy who not only battled alcoholism, drug addiction and divorce. I've seen the guy homeless."

Mike Leach, a best friend to Trippy since the early 1980s, has resolved in his mind the fact that his friend is on his way out. His is sadness tinged with anger.

"I'm looking at this guy," he says, shaking his head, "one of my best friends, and he's withering away in the hospital. And it could have been totally avoided. All the doctors that have seen him agreed that secondhand smoke caused this cancer. One death by secondhand smoke is one too many. Musicians and bar employees have to work in hazardous areas. It's like they are second-class citizens. Something should be done. Other workplaces have been made safe. And you know, when was the last time you could smoke on an airline?"

Last month a Florida jury told a flight attendant that the tobacco industry was not liable for her lung cancer. The woman is awaiting a new lung. This after the testimony of radiologists suggested that secondhand smoke caused the disease in the otherwise healthy nonsmoker. The woman even coughed up blood on the witness stand.

David Feuerherd, the vice president of programs at the Arizona chapter of the American Lung Association, says environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) is a "serious, serious, serious occupational hazard," particularly for those who work in bars. He cites California as an example of a state that has reacted to an alarming number of cancer cases attributed to secondhand smoke.

"[In California] you are not allowed to smoke in bars," he says. "And the history behind that is interesting. Because it was done for occupational health reasons, it was not done for the benefit of the customer . . ."

Earlier this month an Australian court ruled that a social club is responsible for the throat cancer suffered by a 63-year-old barmaid exposed to secondhand smoke. The woman was awarded nearly a quarter-million U.S. dollars in damages. The ruling is expected to open the floodgates for similar claims.