Taverns shouldn’t tell patrons to pack it in

You’re in a bar, your favorite bar.

Order a beer, strike a match, take a sip.

A burst of flame, a collar of foam, a cloud of smoke.

The smell of tobacco, the taste of hops, the glorious haze.

Drinking and smoking may not be inseparable, but for many inhabitants of neighborhood taverns, inhaling a puff is as much a part of the barroom experience as the sound of the jukebox or the touch of one’s darts.

That’s why the recent decision by two well-regarded local bars to ban smoking is such a troubling development. We are meddling with the intangible nature of a sacred place.

My passion on this topic, I’m certain, offends many nonsmokers – especially those who feel unwelcome in smoke-filled joints. It’s unfortunate that these clear-lungs are unable to rub elbows at the bar because they find smoke distasteful or unhealthy.

But I won’t apologize, dammit. Not when zealots are threatening to eliminate one of my lasting pleasures. It’s as if a stranger burst into my home and told me to change the channel on my TV. Mind your own business!

Yes, I know my smoke may be your business – the whole secondhand thing. I had no objection when they cleared the air in my office; no-smoking rules are perfectly fine in many places.

Bars, however, are not one of those places.

Banning butts from bars because some customers are concerned about their lungs is like installing mufflers on Formula 1 cars because some race fans are worried about their eardrums. It goes with the territory, friends. A bar is a place of relaxation, not aerobic fitness. I suggest that anybody who’s that worried about his health shouldn’t be hanging out in a taproom in the first place. If the smoke doesn’t get ya, the booze will – so, scram!

Chris Ryan, the owner of the recently smokeless Bridgid’s (24th and Meredith streets, Fairmount), told Joe Sixpack he was worried about that very attitude when he issued the clean-air edict last month.

“My employees told me I was crazy,” Ryan said. “They said everybody at this bar smokes. I was afraid the regulars were going to boo me. Instead, the bar actually cheered me, twice, on evenings when I walked in.”

Remarkably, business is up. The same goes for H&J McNally’s (8634 Germantown Ave., Chestnut Hill), which went nonsmoking last autumn. No surprise there. Smoke-free bars are a rarity here; wait for the novelty to wear off, and these places may be wondering what happened to their reg’lars.

Both taverns say smokers aren’t putting up much of a fuss. No surprise there, either; smokers are quite accustomed to being bullied.

“People – including my staff – step outside to have a cigarette, then come back in,” said Ryan. “I would like to see them, for their own health, just quit. But I’m not going to be messianic.”

Ryan said he had been thinking of going smoke-free after three close friends died of lung cancer. “I wanted to do something positive,” he said.

He deserves credit for taking the risk. Few business owners are willing to act on their personal principle if they fear it will hurt the bottom line.

I also think he’s wrong. He’s helping stoke an evil, prohibitionist attitude that could end up biting him in the backside.

Consider that others, including the White Dog (3420 Sansom St., University City), are thinking of going smoke-free. One or two smoke-free bars in a neighborhood may seem like a reasonable compromise, but how long before we see legislation to ban barroom smoking across the entire city? It’s already happened in California and New York City. It would probably pass here, too, because most voters don’t smoke.

This isn’t just about secondhand smoke, though. If it were, bar owners could simply install air cleaners.

It’s really about self-professed do-gooders telling us sinners how to live our lives.

And does anyone really believe they’ll stop with our smokes? How long before they take our booze? I imagine that’ll put a dent in the ol’ bottom line.

I told Ryan that I’ll continue to patronize his place – it has great, cheap eats and a terrific selection of Belgians. His staff is knowledgeable and friendly, and the atmosphere is always warm.

But it won’t be the same.

A pint of cask-conditioned ale from Bridgid’s curious, ceiling-hung tap went down just fine with a well-stoked robusto. For me, the old horseshoe bar was a comfortable spot, where neighborhood friends traded gossip as freely as a pack of matches.

A collar of foam, a cloud of smoke . . .

Once, it was my favorite bar.

Joe Sixpack (written this week with a Hechos a Mano Selecto) appears every other Friday.


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