She's fuming, and bars will suffer

For a committed chain-smoker, ban means never having to say 'Martini'

Observations

April 06, 2003|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,Special to the Sun

NEW YORK -- The day the smoking died, I was caught by surprise.

Chain-smoking barfly that I am, I had nervously anticipated the city's new ban on smoking in "workplaces," including bars and nightclubs, for months. I anxiously scanned every bar I entered for ashtrays, and asked waitresses timidly if I could still light up.

But the actual date the law went into effect -- a week ago today -- never stuck in my mind. Somewhere deep in my tar-stained soul, I think, I couldn't believe it would really happen. I thought it might be delayed when someone wised up and realized that war, bad weather and no smoking just don't mix. I told myself it was just a big pre-April Fool's joke.

I know smoking is putrid. I accept that other bar-goers have the right not to be slowly slain in public. But the thought of the new ban annoyed me nonetheless, because I really didn't want to spend the rest of my nightlife in an eternal nicotine fit. And if it really were going to happen, shouldn't there already be some underground nicotine network spreading the word about covert "smoke-easys" for people like me? At least I could get in on some new glamorous, dangerous era of prohibition.

The reality was a future of ashtray-less tables and huddled masses stealing away for smokes out in the cold. But I was in serious denial.

On Sunday, March 30, at 12:02 a.m., my friend James and I arrived at Vintage, a neighborhood martini bar at Ninth Avenue and 51st street in Hells Kitchen. As we entered, the curiously clear air gave me a sinking feeling immediately.

"Can you still smoke in here?" I asked the waitress desperately.

"As of two minutes ago," she replied, "no."

I turned to James in shock. But he didn't share my outrage; he just wanted a drink. So I quickly declared the bar far too loud and filled with obnoxious people to endure without a nicotine crutch.

I could tell James was annoyed at my refusal to try going smoke-free for even one drink. But I wasn't being petulant. The truth is, I just wasn't prepared. I'd never been in a bar where I couldn't smoke. Would alcohol be a different experience when I wasn't sucking down 10 cigarettes an hour? Would I get more drunk or less drunk? So many questions.

There was only one answer, I decided. As long as this crazy law was in effect, I would never set foot in a bar again.

The next night, I ended up at Otis, a bar across the street from Vintage. It felt particularly oppressive not to be able to light up there. Over the past few years, I had shelled out for enough Stella Artois to put at least one of the bartenders' kids through college. Shouldn't that buy me some kind of special treatment?

Ah, if only I were Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, who was spotted Monday happily puffing away at Rao's in East Harlem. No one bothered him.

Instead, I felt like a peasant as I stood among the other exiles outside the bar. Fellow smokers, people who may never have made contact in the confines of the bar, were striking up conversations and matches simultaneously. Such nice people, I thought. Such injustice.

My path was clear: I could not support bars anymore. No more bars. Ever.

So the next evening, around 7, I was sitting with my roommate in TaCocina, right across the street from our apartment. (I know I said I was never going to a bar again, and TaCocina is not a bar, it is a restaurant with a bar.) The hot Greek bartender, who is a smoker, lamented about being trapped behind the bar all night.

He's so cute when he complains, I thought. But it's hard to flirt without a cigarette. He got a cell phone call from his girlfriend. I went outside for a smoke.

I am never going to a bar again.

For a committed chain-smoker, ban means never having to say 'Martini'

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