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The Semiotics of Smoking

April 30th, 2003 · No Comments

Sasha Castel-Dodge links to this Sunday Telegraph story on the fallout from Nurse Bloomberg’s campaign to make you a better person. The Boston Globe comes to similar conclusions. Long story short: New York ain’t California, where the bronzed, toned, and cap-toothed eunuchs don’t mind if their social sphere is as sterile as their screenplay plots. Those poor bar and restaurant workers, who couldn’t possibly be expected to consent (or not) to working in a smoky environment, are finding their tips drying up. But hey, no skin of billionaire Bloomy’s ass, right? To be honest, though, what bothers me most about this isn’t just the callous infliction of economic harm on bar owners, or even the imperious abrogation of people’s right to freely associate on mutually acceptable terms. No, it’s the attitude revealed here:

Deaf to the complaints from Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx, Mr Bloomberg is confident that by the summer, the controversy will be forgotten. “A few years ago,” said the mayor, “you could smoke in movie theatres, you could smoke in Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium, and you could smoke in Madison Square Garden. We stopped that. After a week, the stories went away and so did the smoking. In the end, people will look back and say, ‘You mean they did allow smoking back then? How archaic.’ “

Now, first of all, that’s bollocks. The rules against smoking in MSG are enforced or not depending pretty much on the character of the show. They were not terribly heavily enforced when, say, Phish was in town. And banning smoking in movie theatres isn’t quite the same as banning it in bars, is it? But that’s just trivia. What really fires me up about this quotation is, oddly, a certain communitarian impulse.

Back when I was in high school, my friends and I used to drive a good half hour to 45 minutes from the Jersey suburbs to the town of New City, New York, which was home to our favorite coffee shop: Caffeine Jones.

You’ve probably got a place like this near you unless you live way out in the sticks. All sorts of different folks would hang out there for hours, lounging in the big plush chares and comfy couches, chatting, slugging cappucinos, playing chess, and even, with surprising frequency, breaking into song to some stranger’s guitar strumming. And, of course, smoking. Not that everyone smoked, of course, but it was part of the atmosphere.

One day, New York State law changed: Caffeine Jones couldn’t afford to install all sorts of ventilation to create separate smoking and non-smoking sections, so it went non-smoking. I stopped by a few times after the change, and it was an utterly different place. It might as well have been Starbucks: a quick place for J-Crew clad young professionals to grab a latte-to-go on the way to or from some other, more important destination. Within a year, it had shut down.

After high school, I lived in New York for 5 years. My hours-on-end, late-night caffeine depot there was a joint called Esperanto about a block from my aparment, over on Macdougal between West 3rd and Bleecker.I It was aptly named—you met a lot of folks from other countries passing through. There were also regulars, folks you could count on finding there at 1 in the morning working on a cup and a pack of Kamel Reds while reading some trendy French theorist or scribbling in a little notebook. The waitresses all smoked too, by the way.

I haven’t been back there since the smoking ban went into effect. I’m not sure I’d want to. And it’s not just the loss of that one place that bothers me either. Because New York isn’t California, and it shouldn’t be.

New York has a lot of faces—you might say it’s a dozen cities squeezed into the same small island, an impossible physical manifestation of a liberal, pluralist ideal. One of those faces—one of the most fertile and fascinating—was Lou Reed’s New York, boho New York, young and stupid and gritty and even self-destructive New York. And silly as this may sound, cigarettes played a big part in that.

To someone like Bloomberg, a cigarette is just a nicotine delivery device, a foul drug for irrational junkies. Why countenance it when, in the end, the children will thank their wise father-mayor for having helped them break their silly habit?

People like that miss the myriad other functions of the cigarette: social signaller, shared activity, miniature hourglass, conversational prop. The clove-scented cafe and the smoke-filled bar aren’t just places to get a quick nicotine fix: they are separate places, different in kind from the same physical space purged of all those impurities. But as I said, New York has many faces. And some people didn’t like that face, or those kinds of spaces. Little matter that they had plenty of their own, that there was no shortage of places to get a bite to eat or a cup of coffee or a drink where you didn’t have to wade through the haze. When the law’s on your side, you don’t have to share.

I wonder whether, perhaps, this fact about smoking and smoky places didn’t have more to do with the ban than all the prattle about forcing us to be healthier citizens, or making sure employees who didn’t mind smoke didn’t have any advantage over their smoke-averse competitors. Could this be, in part, at least, another skirmish in the culture wars dressed in the crisp orderly’s uniform of a public health rationale? I bet Mike Bloomberg wouldn’t get along with Lou Reed. I bet he wouldn’t much appreciate hangouts like Caffeine Jones or Esperanto. If you take away their atmosphere, their little customer communities, isn’t that just one more little aesthetic perk? The hookers pushed off 42nd Street to make room for the Disney store? Sure, why not? You won’t miss Esperanto in another year or two; we promise. You’ll learn to love the Starbucks even better.

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