Autumn Phillips: Capitalism in action
June 16, 2005
Once upon a time, in my adopted hometown of Portland, Maine, the City Council passed a smoking ban. Smokers were forced to stand on the sidewalk to puff away at their cigarettes. It turned the nightlife of that town into a kind of outdoor market.
Each club was turned inside out, its regulars put onto the sidewalk for display.
A good cross-section of the crowd stood there posing, like certain Amsterdam women, for your consideration. Before paying a cover or checking your coat, you could examine the smokers casually and decide, risk free, whether your kind of people were inside.
You did not judge them for being smokers alone, because smoking is a perfectly acceptable urban activity in the black-clad, rainy Northeast.
But times have changed, and my global position has with it.
As I drink my second cup of coffee, I think about the evils of smoking. I think about how it wrecks your body and clings to the walls and, in general, transforms you into a social pariah.
With the July 1 smoking ban rushing toward us, a friend and I sat on the patio at Braun’s Bar & Grill, enjoying the first warm summer night of June trying to measure how far from the building the smokers would have to go to partake in their filthy drug. And we tried to measure when things had gotten to the point where smoking bans are the norm in New York City and San Francisco, and slowly, in all the small towns in between.
For me: I was never a real smoker, but I was, at one time, a sympathy smoker. If I was in Croatia and someone threw a pack on the table for everyone to share with their coffee, I took one. If it was midnight, and the party had wandered out onto the stoop, I accepted the cigarette that was offered. If we were in the smoking section of a diner and the momentum from rolling our own cigarettes kept the great conversation going, I was in.
But all this fresh air and sunlight has cleaned my lungs. And, frankly, this town, with everyone Mootsing by in their Spandex shorts, seems like an inappropriate place to buy a pack of filterless Pall Malls.
Smoking is something you do in dark places where it rains all the time or where the buildings are covered in soot already. Smoke in Pittsburgh. Smoke in Europe. Don’t smoke in Steamboat Springs. It looks as out of place as graffiti on the side of our Western-faÃ§ade buildings.
That said, I was surprised to hear smoking was to be banned in local clubs and bars in our tiny, Wild West tourist town.
In the land of capitalism, it seems those decisions are naturally made by customer demand, not by “outside market forces.”
Since I stopped accepting the occasional cigarette and, even worse, stopped believing all the questions in the universe could be answered by studying a packet of Camels, I have stopped enjoying the smoky bar scene.
When you don’t smoke yourself, you realize how hard it is to be around. The next morning, your eyes itch and your mouth feels like it was cleaned out with a mechanic’s shammy.
And so, I frequent places where I don’t need to change my clothes and clean out my pores when I leave. Only if the band is really, really good do I venture in.
I am capitalism in action. I create my own smoking ban.
But the land of the free is now a land of rules, and if a smoking ban can work in New York City (if ever there was a dark, dirty place to chain smoke, it’s New York), then it can work anywhere. Even here.