Column 179: Smoke ’em if you got ’em…

Category: Blog — @ 5:43 pm June 25, 2008

Up until I got the Brothers angle on this, I was thinking of skipping writing about the smoking ban altogether. What’s the point in delving into it? It’s a law. There’s no stopping it. We all knew it was coming and would get here eventually. How it does or doesn’t impact bars and venues is a moot point because it’s not going away. Those pro-and-con discussions have been going on for years leading up to the ban. Smokers can grumble and non-smokers can cheer but it won’t make a difference.

My only comment is directed to the evangelical non-smokers, the ones who think they’re doing everyone a favor by voicing their stern opposition to smoking. Everyone knows that smoking is bad for you. Just like everyone knows that drinking is bad for you, too. Forget about the whole one-glass-of-wine-per-day-is-good-for-your-heart argument — people don’t go to O’Leaver’s to have their one glass of wine per day. Here’s my point: You can live the healthiest life imaginable — not smoke, not drink, work out daily, cut out the red meat and sugar and eat a lean diet of grains and hand-blended protein shakes. It doesn’t matter. In the end, when your time is up, it’s up. All the clean living in the world isn’t going to stop it. My mom is a perfect example: didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, no history of disease in her family, played competitive tennis three days a week, lived on a diet consisting mostly of home-grown vegetables. She had regular check ups. Didn’t matter. She died at a relatively young age of 73 due to a fluke heart-related malady. There was nothing she or anyone could have done to prevent it. I remember when my friend Dan, who lives in Santa Monica, quit smoking years ago. Dan loved to smoke — he loved everything about it — the smell, the activity, the look. But he was smart enough to know that it wasn’t doing him or anyone else any good. So he quit. Dan always told me his greatest fear was being killed in a car accident. His reasoning: He could have been smoking the whole time.

I now await the torrents of non-smokers who have been patiently avoiding going to shows until the ban is in place. They should be here any moment now…

Column 179: Smell Ya Later
The first week of the smoking ban.

Forget about The Waiting Room or Slowdown or The 49’r. Everyone knows that Omaha’s most famous rock lounge doesn’t even feature live music. The Brothers on 38th and Farnam is recognized as the ultimate musicians hang-out, the Shangri-La of our music scene where on any given night you’ll find a sizable contingent of the city’s most talented rock musicians drinking, talking and smoking.

Smoking was as central to The Brothers’ vibe as booze and the punk rock on its jukebox. The dark, mid-sized club was always enveloped in a haze that hung over the pleather booths like a layer of smog over an LA freeway. Patrons were bent over their stools like little self-contained factories; smoke billowing from thin white stacks held in their yellowed paws. When you got home (or wherever you ended up) after a night at The Brothers, you stripped and tossed your clothes into the hamper (or trash). There was no way to wear those togs again after every fiber of cotton had been permeated in highly condensed tobacco stench.

I couldn’t imagine The Brothers without smoke. The thought seemed strange and alien. So when the smoking ban went into effect seemingly overnight last Tuesday, I had to find out what a smoke-free version of the bar would smell like.

I dropped in on Monday evening along with a handful of people who drank pints and shots, ignoring the College World Series playing on the TV over their shoulders. The ashtrays were gone, but the legacy of years and years of smoking remained. The bar smelled like a hotel room that recently went non-smoking — a strange musk of detergent, mildew, nicotine and dirty orange peels.

Owner Trey Lalley, who is as much a fixture of the Omaha music scene as The Brothers itself, was on the phone with his wife, who was out shopping for ashtrays to place out on the sidewalk. Lalley said even after the law supposedly went into effect, The Brothers continued to allow smoking. Why not? Local bar owners hadn’t received notification from the city that anything had changed. The only thing they knew is what they read in the Omaha World-Herald — hardly an official city document.

So the ashtrays stayed until last Friday night, when a disgruntled customer who’d had a run-in with the bar earlier in the week called the cops. Johnny Law rolled up outside, explained the situation, and shortly thereafter the ashtrays disappeared along with any lit cigarettes (The Brothers still sells smokes behind the bar).

Lalley said police won’t be out monitoring the smoking status of bars. Instead they’ll react to 911 calls placed from coughing citizens. If the cops show up and catch someone smoking, the person will be cited and fined, along with the venue. Lalley, who isn’t a smoker, said he was willing to pay any fines, but said that the repeated recorded offenses eventually would come back to haunt him when it came time to review his liquor license. It wasn’t worth the risk.

He’s not worried about the ban’s effect on his business. The Brothers has a clientele that’s willing and able to get up and go outside to smoke. Smaller bars that depend on elderly smoking regulars, however, won’t be so lucky. They’ll feel the biggest brunt of the new law, he said, along with bars like his that don’t have the luxury of a beer garden.

Lalley’s biggest complaint: Bars have always been places where people go to smoke as well as drink. Everyone knows this. Now with the ban, where will people go to get their tobacco fix? Well, they’re going to stay home and light up around their family, their kids and in places where no one ever smoked before.

Trey said the ban was designed to protect employees who, advocates say, have a right to work in a smoke-free environment. But the idea that the people who work at The Brothers have no other options for income is insulting to Lalley. He knows better. So do the employees who work there.

The smoke-free Waiting Room had that same lingering old hotel-room stench Friday night. But the first thing I noticed about the ban had nothing to do with my nose. As I walked through Benson on my way to the club, I could hear voices and laughter coming from every direction, as if there was a street festival going on. Looking down Maple St. and the cross-street that runs by Jake’s lounge — people were standing along the sidewalks, enjoying the camaraderie of being in a segregated group probably for the first time in their lives. Smokers are a jolly bunch, but then again, the weather was terrific. How jolly will they be in February?

The ban didn’t seem to impact the venue’s draw — The Waiting Room was crushed with people to see Satchel Grande. Outside on the sidewalk, everyone debated the ban. A guy who had lived in NYC when that city’s smoking ban went into effect five years ago said the biggest impact wasn’t on stand-alone clubs like The Brothers, but on music venues who he said suffered a noticeable drop-off in patronage.

But somehow, New York’s club scene survived without smoking. Something tells me Omaha’s will, too.

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