Up In Smoke

The smoke-filled bar -- mysterious, inspirational and, yes, unhealthy -- is about to be snuffed out in Maryland


January 30, 2008|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,Sun reporter

Tomorrow at midnight the last smoldering cigarettes will be snuffed out in barroom ashtrays across Maryland.

Seconds later - whether you're patronizing Dizzy Issie's, One-Eyed Mike's, Dead Freddie's or any of the other 5,000 bars in Maryland that have served as the last indoor refuge for smokers - the crushed embers will lose their orange glow and the final wisps of smoke will climb toward the ceiling and, more or less, disappear.

The smoke-filled bar - here, and everywhere, really - is fading into history.

Good riddance, you say. And, of course, you are right - for smoking is an unhealthy and unpleasant habit. And while it may have provided inspiration to artists, musicians and writers; lent mystery and intrigue to movies like Casablanca; adorned with a rebellious aura actors like James Dean and Humphrey Bogart; and given oafs like me something to do with their hands - any further glamorization, in these times, would be foolhardy.

Nevertheless, you must remember this: For hundreds of years, the smoky tavern/pub/cocktail lounge/jazz club/blues bar have been part of our culture, and to erase the memory of it would be wrong, on numerous levels. So, too, would be failing to acknowledge its demise.

Hence, this homage to the smoke-filled bar - an ode to an odor most foul, a paean to a pain in the neck. For in losing the smoke-filled bar, we are losing a layer of society's texture - granted, an unhealthy, lung-irritating, certifiably toxic texture - but texture all the same. It's another vanishing icon, like the milkman, the typewriter, 8-track tapes and the rotary phone.

It's another tool lost for writers and movie directors, who have used it as symbol and mood-maker, as character developer and provider of pregnant pause. In years ahead, any bar scene with smokers in it will be an anachronism, like those bread-loaf-sized cell phones you see in 1980s movies.

Doing away with second-hand smoke in bars is a triumph for public health. It's also, darn it, a victory for political correctness - another in a series of steps to sweep human flaws under the carpet, sanitizing not just our present and future (which is one thing), but our past (which is quite another).

The smoking ban, like gentrification - and maybe the two are linked - brings us the semblance of a safer, more predictable existence. The trade-off is a less nuanced, spontaneous and diverse way of life: You can be unique as long as you're like me. It cloaks us, shields us or incarcerates us (depending on your point of view) in a new, grit-free, all-encompassing, mandatory sameness.

When a piece of popular culture bites the dust - even as unpopular a piece as the smoky bar - it rates an obit ...

Smoky Bar, the illegitimate son of Sir Walter Raleigh whose roots stretch back to Colonial times, died today after a long illness. Smoky Bar served as a source of inspiration and hangout for countless writers and artists. It enjoyed its heyday in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, working with such stars as Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis and James Dean. Known for its mysterious aura, rebellious spirit and persistent hacking cough, Smoky Bar left a mark on millions, some of whom are still trying to wash it out of their sweaters.

The smoke-filled bar spoke to me, and this is what it said: Come on in. Bring your faults with you. We have all manner of characters inside. Relax. Be yourself, all at your own risk, of course, because there's no telling what might happen here.

It never ordered nonsmokers to leave, but understood if they - not wanting to corrode liver and lungs in one fell swoop - chose to take their business elsewhere. We're sorry, the smoking bar said. We know we're setting a bad example. This is just how we are. Feel sorry for us if you like. There's a nice place with ferns down the block.

And yet, even some people who didn't partake of tobacco, first-hand anyway, still enjoyed what your smokiness represented.

Listen to Michael Downs, professor of creative writing at Towson University. He doesn't smoke and finds the smoky bar a bit of a cliche. Still, it holds a certain allure.

"I appreciate a now-and-then stop in a place where people can smoke. I suppose in part it's memory that pulls me in, memory which is a vital tool for any writer. The people in a certain kind of smoky bar, what a friend calls `old man bars' ... are from that older generation that smoked and drank instead of taking Xanax. As such, the bars where they kill time are touchstones to eras I'd like to visit, but which, like the smoky bars themselves, grow rarer day by day."

Downs added, "Maybe it's in part the writer in me looking for stories. Are smokers better storytellers? ... Inhale. Exhale. Reveal the next detail. I suppose the same would be true of drinkers. `And when her husband opened the door ...' Sip. Swallow ...

"Maybe the smoky bar draws us, too, because we are attracted to contradiction, and smokers so clearly embody the paradox of joy in self-destruction," Downs said.

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