There’s a lot to think about this week—the rise of Nancy Pelosi, the meaning of the Republican triumph—but my thoughts keep tugging toward a group of people who are abused, ostracized and facing a cold winter. It’s not right what we do to them, and we should pay attention.
I saw them again the other day, shivering in the cold, in the rain, without jackets or coats. The looked out, expressionless, as the great world, busy and purposeful, hurried by on the street. They were lined up along the wall of a business office. At their feet were a small mountain of cigarette butts and litter.
They are the punished, the shamed. They are the Smokers. As they stood there—I imagined a wreath of smoke curling round their shoulders like the wooden collar of the stocks of the 17th century—I thought: Why don’t we stop this?
* * *
For a decade now we have been throwing them out of our offices and homes and public spaces. We have told them they are unclean. We treat them the way India used to treat the untouchables.
We have removed them from our midst because they take small tubes of soft white paper with flecks of tobacco stuffed inside, light them on fire and suck on them. This creates smoke, which pollutes the air.
“Second hand smoke kills.” But—how to put it?—we all know that’s just politically correct propaganda invented by the prohibitionists, don’t we? If you spend 24 hours a day in a 4-by-4-foot room with a chain smoker you’ll feel it, and you’ll be harmed by it. But are you damaged by the guy down the hall who smokes in the office at work? No, you’re not, and you know it. You just don’t like it. Your nostrils are dainty little organs, and your nostrils trump his rights.
But you definitely wouldn’t be harmed if the handful of smokers in your office were allowed to smoke only in a common room with good ventilation. Why wouldn’t that be a civilized and acceptable compromise?
And why is it smoking that is the object of such fierce disdain?
* * *
Within blocks of where the smokers stood in front of the office building on Madison Avenue the other day, there were people who last night bought five rocks of crack cocaine. There were people who watch child porn. There were people who drive by with the sound up so you can hear the lyrics of the song they’re listening to, which is about how women are ho’s who should be shot. Talk about air pollution. There were people who gorge on food, people who drink too much, people who perform abortions in the eighth month of pregnancy—the eighth month, so late that the child could almost come out and shake his little fist and say “I wish you had not killed me!”
Within blocks of where the smokers stood there were thousands of purveyors of and sharers in all the mutations and permutations of human woe, sin, malfeasance, messiness and degradation.
And they all get to stay inside. They all get to sit at their desks.
It’s the smokers we ostracize.
It’s odd, isn’t it?
Actually it’s crazy.
* * *
I think it is an insufficiently commented-upon irony that cigarette prohibition and the public shaming it entails is the work of modern liberals. They’re supposed to be the ones who are nonjudgmental, who live and let live, but they approach smoking like Carry Nation with her ax. Conservatives on the other hand let you smoke. They acknowledge sin and accept imperfection. Also most of them are culturally inclined toward courtesy of the old-fashioned sort.
If you tried to light up near a left-wing big-city attorney, she would cut off your hand the way Christopher chopped off Ralphie’s the other night on “The Sopranos.” But if you are a smoker and you go visit a nice little unsophisticated Baptist lady in a suburb of Tuscaloosa, she will not only allow you to smoke, she will scurry into the dining room to find the china ashtray she put away 10 years ago under the folded table cloths. She would do this so you could have a nice place to put your ashes. She wouldn’t dream of making you uncomfortable. That would be impolite and inhospitable.
Modern liberals are not culturally inclined toward courtesy. They are inclined toward knowing what’s good for you and passing ordinances to make sure you get the picture. The first Thank You For Not Smoking sign I ever saw was in 1976, on the desk of Massachusetts governor Mike Dukakis. I thought: I have seen the future, and it is puritanical.
* * *
Why do liberals punish smokers? Could we discuss this? Is it that it makes them feel clean? Some parts of our culture in which liberals largely call the shots—Hollywood, for instance—are fairly low and degraded. Maybe liberals can’t face this, and make themselves feel clean if they ban unclean air? Or maybe banning smokers makes them feel safe, like they’ll never die.
Maybe it makes them feel in control. Maybe it makes them feel superior.
Or maybe they just want to bully someone.
Which gets me to Michael Bloomberg. New York is still suffering from 9/11, threatened by huge budget deficits, struggling with Wall Street’s downturn, facing draconian tax increases including a brand new commuter tax—that’ll certainly encourage new businesses to come here!—and trying to come to contract agreement with big unions. Our realistic and no-nonsense mayor has surveyed the scene, pondered the landscape, and come up with his answer: Ban all smoking in bars.
In bars, where the people we force out of our business offices seek refuge! In bars, where half of us plan to spend our last hours after Osama tries to take out Times Square. In bars, the last public place you can go to be a dropout, a nonconformist, refusenik, a time waster, a bohemian, a hider from reality, a bum, a rebel, a bore, a heathen. The last public place in which you can really wallow in your own and others’ human messiness. The last place where you can still take part in that great American tradition, leaving the teeming marching soldiers of capitalism outside to go inside, quit the race, retreat and have a drink and fire up a Marlboro and . . . think, fantasize, daydream, listen to Steely Dan or Sinatra, revel in your loser-tude, play the Drunken Misery Scene in the movie of your life, meet a girl, meet a guy, meet a girl who’s a guy. The last public place you could go to turn on, tune in, drop out and light up.
No more, says our mayor. Unclean! In this Bloomberg exhibits for the first time a bad case of mayoral mental illness. Something about being mayor of New York makes you, ultimately, nuts. In David Dinkins it manifested itself this way: Facing deep recession, rising crime and union strife he would contemplate our problems and then call an emergency press conference to announce his answer. The city of New York, he would say, will no longer do business with the racist government of South Africa. In Rudy Giuliani’s case it was government by non sequitur—government by someone who needed an event as dramatic as 9/11 to provide a foe as big as his aggression.
For Mr. Bloomberg now, it is Bloomberg Has Decreed. Mr. Bloomberg doesn’t allow smoking in his east side townhouse, Mr. Bloomberg will not allow it anywhere in New York. Those nasty working-class folk who still suck on cancer sticks while swilling Buds will be put down. Bloomberg Decrees.
What an idiot. What a billionaire snob bullyboy.
* * *
A short word on smokers. They are people who’ve made a deal. They are old-fashioned, and it’s an old-fashioned deal. Their sense of life is essentially conservative: They know it is short, they know part of how you say thank you for it is to really feel it and enjoy it, and they know this life isn’t the most transcendent and important one you’ll be living. Smokers are disproportionately Catholic, did you know that? They know that eventually something will kill them. They accept death and illness as part of the equation. They love smoking so much, it so enhances their enjoyment of each day, that they’ll gamble. Some of them, they know, will die in a car accident next year, so it won’t matter if they smoked; some will die of old age at 97; some will get emphysema or lung cancer at 50 and pay the price. Fine. You buys your smokes and takes your chances.
This is a hardy and, as I said, old=fashioned approach to life. It is not modern. Modern people think that if they’re tidy, floss and eat fennel they’ll never die, and if they get sick they’ll clone themselves and go get reborn. Smokers are more stoic and sacramental. They don’t want to be cloned, they want to go to heaven and see grandma. I made up the part about how they’re disproportionately Catholic but I bet it’s true and in any case why shouldn’t I assert phony facts? The other side does.
No, I don’t smoke. I used to. I still have some feeling for my old messier, more anarchic self, but now I don’t like the smell of smoke and don’t think I’ll ever go back to it. But that doesn’t mean no one else can. And it doesn’t mean I won’t let you light up.
We should let the smokers back inside and treat them as if they’re human, because they are. Until then I hope the smokers huddled together in the cold realize they’re outside because of the modern liberals’ war against being human. I hope they organize building to building and raise money to fight the prissy prohibitionists of politics, the Bloombergs and their ilk, who can’t keep you safe from muggings or suitcase nukes but make believe they’re being effective by keeping you safe from a Merit Ultralight.