February 13, 2011

That Canary’s About Dead


There was a time not too long ago when Morgan and I took weekly morning meanders through Prospect Park. Do this often enough, and you start to recognize a few regulars. There was one fellow in his mid-fifties we saw there a few times, and he’s stuck with me. He was always alone, and always ambling slowly and contemplatively along some of the back paths through the trees, smoking a cigar.

            We got to speculating about this man. From his demeanor, we figured maybe he wasn’t allowed to smoke in the house, and so was trying to make the cigar last. The house he was escaping briefly was probably loud and crowded and tense, filled with monstrous children and a harridan of a wife. His job didn’t make things any better. These solo early morning strolls through the park represented his only opportunity to get away, to ponder things, to enjoy a decent cigar in peace before returning to the hell that was the rest of his life.

            Well, on February third the New York city council voted to extend the city’s existing smoking ban to include parks, beaches, boardwalks, and pedestrian walkways (like the one in Times Square).

            From the moment he took office, our present mayor (now somehow in his third term) has been much more concerned with the individual, personal choices we make—whether we want to smoke or eat foods that aren’t necessarily “good for us”—than he has been with things like, oh, the schools, the transit system, or a middle class that simply can’t afford to live here anymore.

            So he jacked cigarette taxes up to Jesus and cracked down on people who tried to buy them elsewhere. He banned smoking in bars and restaurants, Then he jacked up the taxes a few more times, making cigarettes more expensive here than in Canada, which is saying something.

            As a result of his whiny, nagging strong-arm measures, tens of thousands of people quit smoking, mostly because they couldn’t afford it anymore. A few of us more stubborn souls, clinging desperately to what we still considered a right, a freedom, and a symbol of a New York that once was—or perhaps simply out of spite—rearranged our budgets or went underground and continued smoking. So now here he is again, determined to steal things away bit by bit.

            There were two reasons given for widening the ban. The first was that old “second-hand smoke” chestnut. Second-hand smoke, they say, is what’s responsible for the unheralded spike in cases of childhood asthma.

            Because of that they’re banning smoking in Times Square and Central Park? We have schools that stay open despite the fact that the classrooms are dripping with PCBs. The Gowanus Canal has been labeled one of the most dangerously polluted waterways in the country. Layers of ancient lead paint are being sandblasted off the city’s bridges and the dust is drifting into nearby residential neighborhoods. But it’s those insidious, shifty-eyed smokers, see, who are responsible for all those wheezy fat kids. Jesus Christ, take a walk through Times Square or Central Park sometime—how many people do you see smoking these days? Okay, now stop a second and take a look around. How many cars, and trucks, and idling buses do you see belching exhaust fumes?

            But the city can’t go after cars or industrial dumping—that would be difficult and expensive. So who’s left? Us. Citizens are much easier to crush than corporations. And nobody likes those dirty smokers anyway (even though there are only eight of us left).

            Yes, well, so much for argument number one. The second argument cited for the ban was that it was an effort to “improve New York’s image.”

            Improve it to what? As things stand the fucking city’s already little more than Toledo with a pituitary problem—what are they aiming for, Salt Lake City? The Deuce is gone, Coney’s gone, according to the cops there’s no more crime. Now they want to make tourists believe that we’re healthy on top of it? A bunch of Jack LaLannes? Well I got news for you pal—Jack LaLanne is dead! If that’s the argument they’re using, you know full well that in his fourth term the mayor’s going to be targeting bars. That booze, see, it’s bad for you and for our image as well. I mean, what must all those Slovenian tourists think when they come here and see all those dirty, dirty taverns everywhere? They must be mortified!

            My friend Bill is a lawyer, a staunch defender of personal freedoms, and a non-smoker. On more than one occasion he’s told me that even though he doesn’t smoke himself, he considers the right to smoke to be the canary in the mineshaft. Once that canary dies, we’re screwed, because it won’t take much to go after the next thing, or the thing after that, or the thing after that.

            You don’t like smokers? You’re all hippy-skippy for the ban? You wish they’d extend it to include sidewalks, or better yet ban smoking completely? Don’t worry, that time is coming. But take a break from your sanctimony for a second and consider your own little vices—porn, sugar, a nice glass of wine, S&M, plastic surgery, chewing gum, gambling, art collecting, reading. Now imagine how you’ll react to being bullied into giving up what you considered a personal choice. What will you do when a government body decides that gum chewing not only litters our streets, but also increases sass-back in our children and is bad for your teeth? Or that cat ownership should be outlawed because so many people are allergic and so many others just plain don’t like cats?

            Never happen, right? Foofatilla, you say. Poppycock. Well, try going back to the 1950s, walking into a bar, and telling everyone that the time will come when they won’t be allowed to smoke in any bar in New York. They’d tell you the same thing.

            Of course when these other things are banned you won’t do anything about it. Whine about it a little then dummy up and expose your neck. The other day I ran into an old man at the post office who was talking mostly to himself about the would-be revolution in Egypt.

            “It won’t be long before the people here are doin’ the same thing,” he said. “I’m serious about that, too.” He was mostly upset about the long lines at the post office, but still, I think he knew as well as I did that no such thing would ever happen here. We’re sheep in a slaughterhouse, too scared to do anything but nod and say yazzah, yazzah, no matter how angry we might be. If you aren’t a multi-billion dollar corporation in this city, then you simply don’t matter. You’re not a citizen, you’re a nuisance. Sad thing is, most don’t seem to care. The freedom to make personal choices (good or bad) doesn’t seem to matter, not so long as they’re told they’re “safe” and can still buy the things they see advertised on the tee-vee. You got that, well, who needs trifles like freedom?

            Not long ago, my friend Genghis posted an essay on his website about personal freedom. Genghis is a biker from way, way back (and several other things to boot), and wrote quite eloquently about his Harley-Davidson “Mabel” and biker culture in general as symbols of personal freedom. He brought in several other things as well, like the events in Egypt, and concluded quite simply that we must always come down on the side of freedom. I’m with him there, but it seems we’re in a minority. Maybe that’s why bikers have such a dangerous reputation—because they have the balls to take freedom seriously.

            On the surface, cigarettes and motorcycles may seem two very different things. But as symbols of our right to choose, and choose things for ourselves that other muffinheaded types may not care for, they represent the core of what life here is supposed to be. I know quite well what cigarettes might potentially do to me, yet I smoke anyway, and enjoy it. If they kill me, at least they kill me on my watch. As the saying goes, I’d rather be wrong on my own terms than right on somebody else’s say-so. Out of courtesy I no longer light up on elevators or on buses. I step outside when I’m at a bar so as not to get the bartender in trouble. I try not to be an asshole about it. Truth be told, in my time I’ve encountered far more self-righteous asshole non-smokers than asshole smokers, what with their fake coughs and waving hands. Few gestures make me want to smoke more than an asshole non-smoker.

            If the city—and most of the country, it seems—wants to take the right to smoke away from me, they should come up with some better goddamned excuses first. The ones they’re using are pretty slim.

            Weak arguments or not, when the extended ban goes into effect in April I will continue smoking as ever, perhaps enjoying it even more as the screws tighten. But that poor fucker in the park in search of a few peaceful moments of solitary relaxed contemplation will smoke his last cigar, then return home and slaughter his family.


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