I waited at the bar at Coop's for the fettuccini Alfredo with paneed chicken and an order of red beans and rice. The food came pretty fast, in 10-15 minutes, and I took it home, feeling vaguely that something was out of place. For one thing, I could breathe. Then it hit me: no smoke. In the old days, 10 minutes at Coop's would start me coughing like an old engine. The air used to be so thick with smoke that people looked like ghosts. No more.
A few years ago, not many, I'd have laughed at the idea of a smoke-free bar in New Orleans. I scoffed when they made San Francisco smoke-free, but that was to be expected. I never thought they'd get away with it in New York, the city of nervous people who used to communicate with smoke signals and used cigarettes (and coffee) to calm down. And then it happened. New York's public rooms went smoke-free overnight and there were no riots. True, the streets started stinking like the bars used to. People huddled in below-zero temps to suck on a butt. New friendships were made among addicts. But the ban held. The end of smoking inside bars and clubs also signaled the end of dives. Every dark, smoke-blackened hellhole in New York started going upscale. The price of drinks doubled. Avocado sandwiches made their appearance. A more affluent brand of people showed up. A younger crowd. The crusty old men disappeared. Maybe they died. Maybe they ran off to Jersey. Nobody knows.
The next bastion of die-hards to go down was Dublin. If somebody'd asked me to name the last place where smokers would rather face a firing squad than surrender, I'd have said Dublin. The Irish are big talkers and big whiskey drinkers. Those things I'd have thought inconceivable without cigarettes. The history of modern Ireland, with all its literature and terrorists, would have disappeared without cigarettes. Without cigarettes, Ireland would have been Holland. But down they went, the Dubliners, followed into health and the 21st century by the ironic and wistful gaze of Mr. Joyce.
What could possibly be next, methought, Paris? Sure enough. Paris fell next, to the cheers of health freaks. The Gauloise-steeped Parisian with the skin texture of a lizard belly squirmed out of a century of philosophy with his smoke missing. The corner of the Parisian mouth where the phlegmatic cigarette had hung prior to the lightning-fast delivery of witty shrapnel was now turned down sadly like the lid of an empty sardine can. A French cafe, once the motherly womb where an adolescent was received with a cigarette into the world of adults, became sad like a gas station.
After Paris fell, I was certain that New Orleans was going to remain untouched by the winds of sanitary change. New Orleans rested on a bedrock of smoke-bred bar life like a timeless barge moored in Mississippi mud. Here in New Orleans, Mark Twain's pipe smoke met the pirate's rum-soaked stogie. Here, the dandy's cigar mingled indelicately with the curlicues at the end of the floozy's cigarette holder. Here, the puffing Old World met the smoke-ringed bravado of the American riverboat gambler.
But why go on? We all knew it would happen.
Personally, I'm relieved. Culturally, I can't say I'm thrilled.