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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The End of an Era

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.


  1. Nostalgia is powerful, but tobacco kills half a million Americans every year, so I'm fine with my memories.
    The youngsters will hardly know what they missed.

  2. Non-smokers who oppose the ban are stone cold libertarians, 'nuff said.

  3. I won't miss it at all. I can't wait till tomorrow, all sorts of places I avoid will become viable places to hang out.

  4. Psychic terrain? Give me a break. I appreciate what you're trying to say, but this is something that should have changed long ago, if only because it's so clearly wrong. Would you be nostalgic if you had lived at the time when health laws were imposed to prevent restaurants from serving hamburger tainted with e-coli? Ah for the old days, when you could get cheap meat that might kill you. Damn gummint anyway.

  5. I'm one of the non-smokers who opposes the ban, but not because I romanticize its "atmosphere" - truthfully I loathe the stuff and won't miss it a bit (though I won't be not-missing it long; my father smokes at least 4 cigars a day).

    The first anon hit it on the head… while I don't outright call myself a libertarian (I very well may largely be; I just don't like being reduced to a word), in this case I'm wholeheartedly of the opinion that the public - in this case an establishment's ownership, employees and patrons - should have the right to choose to what they subject themselves, without having to worry about those who might be offended at its existence - much less that they might be subjected to it in passing - as they too have a choice to avoid such establishments but are unwilling to exercise their right or let others exercise theirs. It breaks my heart that Don Younger won't be able to frequent his own pub because some self-rightous asshole with a stick up his… self… (yeah, that works) can't stand the thought that he - or anyone else - might inhale toxic fumes with the ingestion of toxic liquids.

    The tainted hamburger that the second anon mentioned is another prime example; for years after e.coli became the media's go-to gotcha-headline, I couldn't find a decent burger (fast food flapjacks don't apply) that wasn't bone-dry and didn't require a swig of water just to wash a bite down; it wasn't until Beaches started offering "Blank Angus" beef toward the beginning of this decade that I could order a medium burger again. I still can't get raw milk or unpasteurized apple cider for the same reason… what're the chances of a bad batch of bottle/cask conditioned beer making it to market? How quickly will that ban come?

    Then there're lychee jellies… some kid chokes on one, then overnight the FDA bans them. I loved the fucking things, ate 'em by the dozen, but now I'm no longer allowed because a 5 year old might choke… I guess they just haven't gotten around to banning steak.

    This is strictly about the supposed-majority imposing their will under the guise of "public health," now that morality (assisted suicide, public sex shows - wherever those may be) and crime prevention (decriminalization of marijuana) have proven largely ineffective.

    Eddie Izzard put it best: "Yes, no smoking in bars now, and soon there'll be no drinking and no talking!" No joke… wouldn't want to be subjected to someone's bad breath.


  6. Anon 3, Let me sum it up as quickly as the first anon did:

    Non-smokers who support the ban are self-righteous fascists posing as populists.

  7. You libertarians are a rather touchy lot. I guess all that's left is having a beer together and celebrating what we do agree about.


  8. Amen. I'll miss smokey bars.

    And I'll miss places where self-responsible adults can get away from a caretaker society. Caretaking is appropriate for children and vulnerable folks who need it, and therefore it is appropriate in public places.

    But on private property? In bars, which are specifically, legally carved out as places for adults to do what is legal for adults to do? (Smoking is legal.)

    Bars are private property. There's been a lot of talk in this post and the last about some sort of entitlement to visit the Horse Brass and have it be just the way you want it. No such entitlement exists. The owner of that private business has (had) the right to have his bar the way that he wants it.

    I just find the whole thing disappionting. I think it gets to me because it reflects a change that's taken place in my home state here, and in Portland in particular.

    It's increasingly filled with a bunch of progressive moralists and it turns out that the morals they're most interested in are mine, not theirs.

    People have moved here thinking that its "liberal" and has always been "liberal." In fact, the term "libertarian" much more closely fits the historical character of Oregon.

    Just disappointing. But I guess all you Californians might as well enjoy my state if I can't.

  9. I'm going to start up an initiative to ban stripping in strip clubs, because it offends me and I have a right to drink there without being offended, damn it!

    See you all at the Horse Brass for some warm milk, Nancies!

  10. Not so fast. As a vegan, your milk drinking offends me.

  11. My eyes have burned after many a night at what is now the 10th Street Station in the basement of the old Idanha. I quit smoking before I moved here, but found that after quitting, I started drinking at home more often, and going out was always a PITA when trying to find a non-smoking or at least less-smoky bar to enjoy. I am so very excited about the ban - I can go out and patronize my local watering hole again without feeling like I have to plan the night around how I'm going to smell or feel after having a couple of beers. Good riddance, indoor smoking.