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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Thoughts When Smoking Was Banned

Note: I'm away from computers this week, and so I'm re-posting some of the more interesting pieces from past years. On January 1, 2009, Oregon banned cigarettes in bars. I posted this reminiscence. 18 months on and I find I have less nostalgia than I expected.
The first time I ever inhaled the dense, smoky air of a bar, it was my father's. It was a little place called GJ's or G and J's below the sidewalk level--like a speakeasy--in the basement of Boise's venerable Idanha Hotel. In a long life in which my father earned a living with his hands, this was the brief period in which his his true calling came to flower. The bar didn't last more than a few months, as I recall (and I recall it dimly and perhaps improperly) because while Dad was great with people and knew how to fill a joint, he sucked with money. It was the early-mid 1970s and I was maybe six or seven years old.

Bars occupy physical space, obviously, but we go there for their psychic terrain. Bars are simultaneously refuges from reality and monuments to it. You could get a beer at a restaurant, but you go to a bar for the intimacy, the darkness, the camaraderie, the viscous air. This was imprinted on me as a boy in GJ's. I never visited during the evening; I was there playing on the floor while sun slanted in through the open door, Dad's Winston curling lazily amid the motes. I don't know if Jim Croce was playing in a loop the times I visited, but somehow the world of Leroy Brown intersected perfectly with GJ's.

A very decent part of my late youth (not all of it post-21) was mispent in bars like the Yukon and the Bear Claw. Friends and I learned how to play adequate bar 8-ball and we drank bottomless pitchers of whatever was most cheaply pouring: Biltz, Hamm's, Rainier, whatever. It was like pretend-adulthood, where big men might knock your teeth out and older women might go home with you at the end of the night, even though none of that ever really happened. You woke up in the morning with a coating of scum in your mouth, your hair stinking of cigarettes, and you felt older somehow. And alive.

As I got older, bars were less like pretend-adulthood than a touchstone. Microbrew replaced Hamm's, and flat screens replaced mounted TVs, but the other ornaments of bardom stayed the same. The essential nature of bars haven't changed a whole lot--you go to a place like the Yukon and it looks like it did in 1988 or 1968. Things change, but not bars. Or not until now, anyway.

Of course, a different kind of bar emerged in the 1980s. With brewpubs came windows and light and children. And fresh, smoke-free air. This has been a natural evolution. In my own lifetime, I've seen restaurants go from all-smoking to having a runty, non-prime, non-smoking section (as if currents of air respected symbolic borders) to having a runty, non-prime smoking section to, finally, non-smoking restaurants. You used to be able to smoke inside office buildings, stores, even airplanes (which in retrospect seems like madness). Now I can go weeks without ever encountering the scent of burning tobacco.

Tomorrow all bars will be smoke-free. When I ran my poll asking who supported this new law, most everyone did, smokers and non-smokers alike. Yet a sizeable minority of non-smokers, about 30% of you, weren't so excited by the idea of the ban. No doubt they'll enjoy going to a place like the Horse Brass and actually smelling their beer rather than the air, but still they oppose banning cigarettes. Why?

If I may speculate, I think what they'll miss is the aspect of the psychic terrain cigarettes contribute. It's fine for a brewpub to go smoke-free. The mood at a place like that is different. But take smokers out of the Yukon, and what happens to the atmosphere? The debate over the ban tends to revolve around drier issues of public policy, but to me the real loss is something more emotional. It's not actually the end of the world for smokers to step outside a bar for a smoke--if that were the only consideration, I think we'd all agree it wasn't much of an imposition. But the real effect will be the permanent loss of that psychic space we all grew to love. We're losing that touchstone bars have offered our whole lives.

Things change. We'll survive the transition to smokeless bars. But those of us old enough to remember will miss them nonetheless. It's a moment to acknowledge and, perhaps, lament.


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