My Bar-Stool Blues: How Can a Saloon Be Smoke-Free?

The setting is the bar at McHale’s in Hell’s Kitchen, just after dark, where a woman beside me is taking desultory drags on a cigarette-one of those overlong, ultra-something brands-while reading a paperback edition of Kerouac’s On the Road , and, jeez, I’m annoyed. I’ve never approved of reading Kerouac in a barroom (or any of the Beats, for that matter, or Bukowski, or certain other hopped-up authors I can’t recall just now for reasons related to the empty pint glass before me); such reading strikes me as staged, too self-consciously libertine and willfully bohemian, and, well, I don’t approve and that’s that. A few stools down the bar, a roundish young man with a salesman’s swagger is gesturing with the lit Marlboro between his fingers while talking on a cell phone. He seems to be calling all of his friends and relations to apprise them, loudly, of his present location and activity, and I’m tempted to suggest that a G.P.S.-equipped ankle bracelet might be a solid goddam investment for him. But no, no, scratch that idea. Saloons, as some of us understand, are always rife with nuisances: Kerouac-readers, cell-phone bellowers, lechers, disconsolate drunks, boors, skanky bathrooms, “Brown-Eyed Girl” on the jukebox. Sublimity, we must remember, requires a ragged edge.

But the sublimity of New York’s bars-one of the great stanzas in the poem that is this city-seems imperiled as I write this. I’m speaking of Mayor Bloomberg’s crusade to ban smoking in bars, the prospect of which has nudged me, in recent weeks, into the nuisance category of disconsolate drunk. (Allow me to pause to light a Camel straight, and to get hold of my smoky self. There now. All better.) I’m not going to contest the dangers of smoking here. Bad stuff, hoo boy, killya like a runaway train. Nor am I going to be stubborn and argue against the Mayor’s concurrent desire to see smokers booted from restaurants. Whatever, Mayor Mike; eat your goddamn strip steak in peace. Nor-last nor-am I going to dip into the economic back-and-forth that has heretofore framed this debate: the plight of bar-owners, fearing dismal receipts, versus the Mayor’s nitwit contention that less smoking equals more drinking. (As if New Yorkers visit saloons just to keep their hands busy; were that so, glam knitting circles would have already gleaned a Vanessa Grigoriadis–bylined New York cover story.) No, my sulky fear is that the Mayor’s crusade, if successful, will raze the aesthetic of New York City’s saloons-the scent and scene that has made the city irresistible to poets, models, bon vivants , Bowery bums, pizza-makers, Eurotrash, painters, con men, newspapermen, torch singers, aspiring actors, and all those skinny kids from the hinterlands wanting to be one or two or all of the above. Banning saloon-smoking in New York is like banning lunch in Paris. You’re taking a bite out of its soul.

Oh now, the ninnies amongst you will say, poor boy, you’re getting sappy and pretentious. You and your silly, stinky cigarettes. But I’m not defending smoking culture here. I’m defending saloon culture. Bars, I shouldn’t have to remind anyone (though I do), are not designed for healthful living; they are designed for people who want to do bad things to their bodies in return for love or solitude or camaraderie or sex or cable-television or decent music or drama or personal annihilation. In short, masochists, because rarely does a saloon supply any of those things besides cable television (duh) and the grim means for self-annihilation (duh squared). Since 1641, when the Stadt Herberg, or City Tavern, first sold beer and wine to the citizens of New Amsterdam, saloons have provided New Yorkers with places in which they could be happily and willingly poisoned. With ale, with wine, with gin, with coal smoke, with tobacco smoke, with punk rock, with bathroom cocaine, with all the things that conspire to make a New Yorker feel that he’s not only part of the starry universe, but somehow above it. No one who enters a New York City bar expects, or should expect, anything but poisoning. Life is short, and saloons tend to shorten it that much further. We drink, we smoke, we yearn to die in the saddle.

Or something like that. I’ve just lit another Camel, and the Kerouac-reader has abandoned her book. She’s smoking another ultra-something and staring at the mirror behind the bar. Maybe she’s waiting for someone, or maybe she’s wishing she was waiting for someone. Or maybe she’s just mulling that whiz-bang novel she’s got on the bar. Yet whatever she’s doing, the cigarette is a necessity; it allows her to elongate time, provides her the illusion of purpose or action, and creates a private sphere in this very public space for just her and her bluish haze of thoughts. (Is it any wonder that the thought balloons in comics are shaped like clouds of smoke?) Without that cigarette, she’d have nothing to do but stare uncomfortably at her glass while her surroundings-the game on the TV, the lout on the cell phone, the silent creep beside her writing all this down-tightened around her psyche. She would not stay here long, and I wouldn’t blame her. “Life without cigarettes,” Sartre once said, “is a little less worth living.” And a bar without cigarettes? Just call it a fucking Starbucks and be done with it.

Those of us who spend time in the city’s bars do so for many reasons, but our health is not one of them-unless you’re talking about mental health, and then, by all means, yes. As a Bellevue intern once told Joseph Mitchell: “For some mental states the smell in McSorley’s would be a lot more beneficial than psychoanalysis or sedative pills or prayer.” And mental health-well, friends, there things get tricky. There you get into those vaporous matters of romance and spirituality and aesthetics. Not so long ago, I found myself at the bar at Fez on Lafayette, listening to a downtown singer and accordionist named Rachelle Garniez. I had just stubbed out a Camel when her pianist slipped into the opening notes of “Broken Nose,” a slow, whispery, melt-you-down ballad, and immediately I lit another. Why? Not because I was hearing the siren song of stupid nicotine; don’t even start with me on that. No, rather because the aesthetic of the moment-the song, the bluesy mood, the dim basement setting-all but required it from me, in a way I might classify as filmic, if not culturally instinctual. Because sitting at a bar and listening to a song like that, with the clatter of the No. 6 train rumbling through in mid-verse, conjures a vision of New York that is incomplete, and insufficient, without the slow, resonant drift of cigarette smoke-mine or someone else’s. When I think of Duluth, do I envision such moments? Or Santa Barbara? New York is New York, Mr. Mayor; I’m sorry, but it is. It’s a place of danger and incivility, and it will always smell in the summers, and it will always, I hope, attract people who want more out of life than mere time. To abolish the smoke is to abolish the neon, the grime, the melancholy, the stories, the dirty jokes, the dark, the leers, the brawls, the boors, the spilled drinks, the buybacks, the too-loud laughter, all the nuisances and toxins and charms that get mixed into that cocktail we proudly, even lovingly, call a New York saloon.