Where there’s fire, nobody gets burned

by Brian Clarey

I am sitting here puffing on a big, fat cigar in the middle of downtown Greensboro just one week after the statewide ban on smoking in bars and restaurants went into effect.

I’m sitting at the bar blowing billows of secondhand smoke into the air; there is music and dancing; the bartenders shake and hustle.

It’s like being in a speakeasy during the first days of prohibition, giddy and rebellious, and everyone is having a great time. And it’s totally legal… I think.

But if this is what a smoke-free North Carolina looks like, I’ll take it.

I took an afternoon moment last week to visit my tobacconist, Larry Christopher over at the Pipe & Pint. I had a Christmas gift certificate to burn through and I wanted to pick out the kind of high-dollar cigar I’d normally feel guilty for setting afire and reducing to ashes.

If I had the time, I figured, I might even smoke it right there.

But the scene was somber as I jingled through the front door. Just a couple guys sat in the chairs framing the front of the house where, at this hour of the day, there would usually be a dozen or so old farts like me puffing away and leveling criticism at all manner of low-hanging fruit.

Even stranger: Nobody was smoking, though the place still smelled like your grandfather’s favorite armchair.

“What’s the deal?” I wanted to know, after I had chosen a Churchill with a band bearing the name Brick House and one of those cheapie maduros of which I’ve become fond. “I thought cigar stores were grandfathered in?” Christopher shook his head and the guys in the chairs slumped their shoulders. The store was eligible for grandfather status, he told me, but because he was part of a strip mall, it hinged on his neighbors who could make a complaint and shut it down — at least, the prospect of on-premises enjoyment of his No. 1 product.

And as it turns out, a neighbor did complain about the smell of cigar smoke, which apparently not everybody likes.

“They were within their rights,” Christopher said. But he calculates his losses as at least a 20-count box of cigars a day bought for in-house consumption, cigars which range in price from roughly $3 to about $12. As an unintended consequence, he notes the $1,500 or so a year that comes in from on-site soft-drink sales, money he used to donate to charity.

So I paid for my cigars and left the aficionados to their laments, thinking to myself, Where the hell am I going to smoke these things?

Because the new law not only affects guys like my tobacconist, who have made their living off the sale of a substance that is now effectively banned, but also the withering crowd of smokers who have nowhere left to practice their art.

Bars and some restaurants were the last vestiges of the smoke-filled nation we once were. Anti-smoking legislation is not a new phenomenon — the first recorded instance, according to my friends at Wikipedia, was in 1575 in Mexico, and the first official nationwide ban was instituted in… wait for it… Nazi Germany in 1941.

No comment. But believe it or not, there was once a time in this country when just about every indoor space reeked of smoke — not too long ago every office, restaurant, grocery store, movie theater, airplane, taxicab, hotel room, AA meeting and concert hall smelled like Frank Sinatra’s dressing room. I think they even smoked on rocketships.

Now smoking is relegated to garages, the great outdoors and maybe — maybe — private vehicles. Most of us haven’t smoked in anybody’s house in a long, long time.

And right now it’s just too damn cold to even suck down a quick cigarette outside, let alone enjoy a nice cigar.

So on Friday night I’m sitting in a pleasant, smoke-free establishment catching up on my correspondence and pretty much astounded by the lack of ashtrays and barroom nicotine haze. I’ve got my cigars in my pocket and I get the itch to smoke.

I placed a call to Churchill’s in downtown Greensboro — that’s a cigar bar, right? — and ask if they’ll let me smoke in there.

“Come on down,” bartender Chuck Lopp says to me. I’m there in 10, and I can smell the glorious smoke before I enter the room.

A few groups have settled at the cocktail tables, ashtrays fuming, and along the front wall a group of about a dozen men contribute to a great cigar-smoke nimbus forming above their heads. A couple at the bar, Lopp tells me, came from Winston-Salem just so they could smoke cigarettes while they had cocktails.

“We’ve been getting some calls,” Lopp says. “I bet you have,” I say, touching fire to the tip of my Brick House and giving it a pull. “I think you’re the only game in town.”

He considers this notion as the smoke trails hazy blue ribbons up to the ceiling and the bar crowd gets a little bit more boisterous. He smiles. It seems there are winners in losers in the anti-smoking law, as with everything else.

It’s not a bad place to be sitting, secondhand smoke and all.