NORTHERN New Jersey doesn't get much worse. It's raining and chilly, and the rush-hour traffic is inching past a tractor-trailer wreck. And Dave Goerlitz is late. He left his house near Atlantic City, N.J., at a little after 7 a.m. Plenty of time, he thought, to make the school assembly in Westchester County, N.Y., at 10:30. Hundreds of kids are going to be waiting. Now he can't find the approach to the Garden State Parkway. Can't they mark these roads?
``That may be my next crusade,'' Mr. Goerlitz says.
It's one that will have to wait. Goerlitz is the former Winston Man. For much of the '80s, his face appeared on thousands of magazine ads and billboards. Jaws clenched around a cigarette, he braved imaginary perils on mountain tops and ravines, mainlining Winstons into the fantasy lives of young Americans.
Called ``Search and Rescue,'' the ad campaign helped make the brand the nation's No. 2 seller, right behind Marlboro. Goerlitz himself was a believer, a three-pack-a-day man. Now he's on a rescue mission of his own, trying to undo some of the damage.
It started when he visited his brother in a Boston cancer hospital. ``There is not a whole lot of applause'' there for a Winston Man, he recalls. He stopped smoking soon thereafter. His Winston contract banned him from saying anything negative about cigarettes - even from doing commercials for toothpaste or mouthwash - for two years. When it finally ran out, he decided to go public. (See The Christian Science Monitor, Dec. 28, 1988.)
As a defector, Goerlitz became a hot property in the antismoking camp. Put off by the established groups that vied to enlist him for publicity and fundraising, he set out on his own. ``It's fun, but not on mornings like this,'' he says, finally on the Garden State Parkway. ``I'm late. I'm nervous.''
He just got back from Vermont, where he had 16 speaking engagements and media appearances in two days. After his talk today, he drives out to Allentown, Pa., to tape a cable show. Then he's off to D.C. His appointment book, which is the size of a road atlas, shows a daily clutter of names and numbers. Now he's standing in the rain at a pay telephone, trying to reach the high school to tell them he'll be late.
``Tell me that's not aimed at young people,'' he says when he's underway again, pointing to a Camel cigarette billboard with the brand's fanciful new cartoon figure in flight gear and shades.
Riding with the former Winston Man, one becomes aware of how such images pervade the American landscape. The sports pages this day include previews for an upcoming Virginia Slims tennis tournament, with nary a mention of the incongruity between sponsor and event.
For Goerlitz, the billboards and sports events are prodding reminders of a former life. They also make it very hard to get through to kids. ``How can they tell me to be drug free when people in government are lining their pockets with tobacco money?''is how he decribes the attitude.
The news media don't help much, he says. Local papers often run stories after his engagements. But big national publications - the ones that rely heavily on tobacco advertising - have been reticent. Newsweek magazine sent three separate reporters, who interviewed him for more than six hours. A story has yet to appear.
Goerlitz has been at this for almost a year now, but he still has the intensity of a convert. It hasn't always been easy.
THE money problem, for example. Cynics said he was just an over-the hill-model trying to make a few bucks on the other side of the street. So he decided to take only expenses for his speaking appearances; today he'll get $100. (There's not much money on the antismoking side - nothing approaching the $100,000 or so he used to get for promoting Winstons.)
Goerlitz thought that somebody would want to help his efforts. As he is quick to remind people, smoking kills far more Americans each year than have succumbed to AIDS. Nicotine is the ``gateway'' drug to other kinds.
But until now, possible sponsors have all fallen through. He's cashed in his last CD. His wife has gone to work to help support the three kids. His weight was another problem, a distressing one for a former model who is still very conscious of his appearance.
Pressures like these used to make him crave a cigarette. They still do. He's slipped six or seven times - ``just for a drag or two,'' he says. ``It's very easy to quit. It's notoriously difficult not to go back.''
It's past 11 by the time Goerlitz pulls his Camaro into the parking lot of Byram Hills High School in Armonk, New York. A few teenagers, more desultory than tough, stand smoking under a shelter. They stare as Goerlitz hurries by. In tight jeans, running shoes and nylon bombadier jacket, sleeves pushed to the elbows, he has a hip, ``L.A. Law'' swagger that puts him on the sunlit side of the adolescent divide.
After some hasty deliberations, school officials decide that Goerlitz will address the two lunch shifts in the school cafeteria. Hardly ideal, but a happy rescue of what appeared a lost day.
``Over seven years I lied to you guys,'' he begins, talking above the clatter of trays and chairs. ``The guy you see hanging off the mountain in this ad is not the guy you see today.''
He was fat in high school, a bed wetter until he was 16. ``I got sick and tired of people making fun of me,'' he says, trying to connect to their own insecurities. ``I was going to do something [smoke] to take control of my life.''
The smoking took a physical toll the ads didn't show - loss of taste, loss of feeling in one leg. He was so oblivious that he'd sit smoking while he cuddled his baby.
``I was paid a lot of money to be a contract hit man for the tobacco industry,'' he adds. ``I'm not really proud of who I am.''
There's a confessional quality to all this, like an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. The lunchroom bustle has settled down, but Goerlitz is going fast. It's not clear how much the kids are taking in.
How many smokers are there, he asks. A couple hands go up. ``You think the Winston Man is stupid, just because he put so much nicotine into his brain?'' One faculty member had estimated earlier that only about 12 students use the smoking area; a student put the number at double that. Goerlitz thinks most probably don't go out there because they don't want teachers and parents to know.
When it's over, the kids file out, more immediate matters on their minds. Some girls want to see his portfolio (which suggests that the macho ads are aimed equally at them). Ryan Ward, a thoughtful young man who runs a volunteer safe-ride program on week-ends, says he tried to get through a day without a smoke recently. ``But on the way to work I had to stop for a pack.''
Why did he start? ``Stupid, I guess.''
For Dave Goerlitz, the picture is looking brighter. The National Education Association is on the verge of making him spokesman for a national antismoking effort. There are prospects for classroom videos, a book contract, even movie scripts. Goerlitz seems a bit uneasy about the careerist look of this, but his agent at the Robert P. Walker Agency isn't. ``Most celebrities work hard in the industry before taking on causes,'' says Gary LaForest, the agent there. With Goerlitz, by contrast, ``We are building an audience first.''
As Goerlitz leaves the school, a young man approaches from the smoking area. ``I just want you to know that I'm quitting because of you,'' he says. It could be a put-on.
But Goerlitz chooses to believe he's sincere. ``He'll do it two or three times, `` he says, perhaps with himself in mind. ``But at least he's thinking about it.''