Ray Blowers was a curious teen the last time a cigarette touched his lips.
As a high school teacher, he found the habit so vile he once burned tar paper in the faculty lounge to give his smoking co-workers a dose of their own choking medicine.
So how does such a rabid anti-puffer end up with enough ashtrays to start a motel chain?
That’s a question even Ray has trouble answering.
His wife of 42 years, Shirley, has an idea. “He’s lost it,” she says with a laugh from the kitchen of their Spokane Valley home. “I just want the things out of my dining room.”
I became acquainted with Ray and Shirley thanks to an ad he had placed in the newspaper:
Taking bids on entire collection of 700-plus ashtrays, including 14 tires, eight OJs, numerous crystals, art deco, advertising, ceramic, etc.
After years of observing people in varying degrees of strangeness, I’ve concluded that if anything exists on Earth, some compulsive souls will want to horde it.
Thimbles, matchbooks, pencils, animal hairballs … I once interviewed a sad case who had amassed more than 100 different brands of potato mashers.
Ray’s weakness is ashtrays. Gobs and gobs of them from hotels, gambling joints, radio stations, tourist attractions and cafes.
There’s one from the 1947 Tournament of Roses. Another that says, “We had a tub of fun in California,” and my personal favorite, “Souvenir of Spokene, Wash.”
“I think that one was made in Japan,” says Ray.
This man’s addiction began after he retired in 1991 from Central Valley High School, where he had taught for 33 years.
Perhaps he suddenly found himself with too much time on his hands and needed something - anything - to do. Or maybe this ashtray binge was a way to release the internal pressures from three decades of dealing with smart-mouthed kids.
Ray says he once walked into his classroom to find that some high-tech hoodlum had reprogrammed all the computers to flash “The Teacher Sucks” over and over again.
That just might push a guy off the sanity wagon.
Whatever the reason, Ray paid an antique dealer 25 bucks for a Firestone tire ashtray commemorating the 1939 New York world’s fair. The next thing Ray knew, he was as hooked as a nicotine fiend.
In a quest to feed his ashtray hunger, Ray drove from Oregon to Canada, stopping at every antique store along the way.
But now, as the advertisement indicates, Ray wants to stop the madness. Cold turkey. The problem is that Ray is discovering the horrible truth about collecting ashtrays:
It’s a lonely, lonely endeavor.
The public isn’t exactly beating down Ray’s door. After a week, Ray’s ad had produced telephone calls from one guy who said he might call back, snoopy old me and two kids who wanted the O.J. Simpson ashtrays mentioned in the ad.
Ray hated to tell them the truth, that the “OJ” in his ad stands for post-World War II ashtrays made in “occupied Japan.”
“I wish I did have some O.J. Simpson ashtrays,” Ray muses glumly.
But here’s one nice thing about collecting ashtrays: It doesn’t cost you an arm and a leg to get started.
Back in the choking, smoking heydays, ashtrays routinely were stolen out of hotel rooms and bars. Seeing the wholesale thievery, canny business owners stamped advertising on them.
“Our Homemade Pies Makes Friends” reads the message on Ray’s GM Coffee Shop ashtray. (I hope the pies were better than the cafe’s grammar.)
So whataya say? Anyone in the market for a little knickknack honoring the 1963 Spokane Country Club Invitational golf tournament?
Ray says you can have the entire mess for $500.
Do I hear $450? OK, 400 bucks and he does a little dance and throws in delivery.
Ray, have you ever thought of collecting stamps?
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.