Letter from the Editor

Thursday, May 22, 2008

RIP, the smoky Iowa bar scene

By DANA LARSEN, Pilot-Tribune Editor

I've never been a smoker, and never will be, so the looming end to the smoky bar tradition isn't going to have much direct impact on me. It occurs to me, though, that a long tradition will suddenly disappear as of July 1, assuming Iowa's new smoke-free law is actually enforced.

It's worth a smile to think that the state figured to make bars, clubs and taverns into healthy places.

In fact, bars exist for precisely the opposite reason.

If Iowans wanted more health, they'd be watching the ball game from the treadmills down at the gym, or hydrading at home while snacking on tofu and granola bars in a declining dog yoga position. Bars are about escaping the well-behaved lifestyle people live the rest of the time.

So now people can throw up on their shoes in a strange bathroom, hook up for a soon-to-be-regrettable one-nighter encounter with some other inebriated patron, gorge on starchy snacks, get in a nasty fight over the cell phone with their significant other over why they are always in the bar in the first place, trip over the curb they don't remember being there and try to remember the next day where those bruises came from - maybe even stumble into a risky throw-down brawl in the parking lot or attempt to drive home dangerously after too much endulging.

But their shirts won't smell smoky when they get home, thank goodness, and their lungs will be nice and pink.

I'm thrilled with the smoking ban in restaurants, where lighting up is just plain rude, and businesspeople shouldn't have to have a law to deal with it. Almost all the other public places should be smoke-free too.

Casinos, too, though the legislators don't seem to have the gumption to bite that cash cow in the proverbial rump roast.

But bars with no smoke? That's like expecting Bill Clinton to suddenly become a priest.

I doubt if people would kick too much over a compromise - say allowing smoking after 10 p.m. There shouldn't be any underage people about that late, and the employees who are concerned about second-hand smoke can take the lunch shift.

Bars do serve a social purpose for some, and for most patrons, their visits are harmless exercises in blowing off a little steam.

Now that the smoking is taken away, what's next? Will we ban drinking in bars? We will have to ban telling your troubles to the bartender, which can no doubt result in second-hand depression. And of course, those pre-marital hook-ups will have to go. And no Cubs games on the big screen (more depression.)

The big city clubs will survive alright, as long as they don't ban foolish metrosexual fashion statements, bad techno music and cutesy colorful little drinks with names that sound like high school cheerleading routines.

But what about the thousands of little Joe's Bar and Grills in Everytown, America? The ones with the cigarette scarred bartop, beer stained pool table and the little model of the Budweiser Clydesdale hitches, and George Straight or Steve Miller Band on the jukebox? Are they all supposed to suddenly be as antiseptic as "Cheers"?

Suddenly the veteran rummies will be sitting with hands folded neatly in their laps, delicately sniffing nice fresh oxygen like they pump into the mall. Yes, it's going to be cleaner and clearer in there, and that may take away part of the whole idea.

You can't hardly swear in a clean, clear tavern. You can't wear a sweaty t-shirt if people will actually be able to see you clearly, so they will need to shop for sports jackets. And beer with a chaser is too harsh for such a controlled environment, so they will probably have to switch to wine spritzers.

You can't have the rauncy local classic rock cover band playing on the weekend in a clean-air bar; perhaps a nice string quartet and Beethoven.

And what is Old Joe supposed to do to make up for the loss of smoking as an attraction? Put in an organic salad bar? A bidet perhaps? Serve nickle night designer vitamin waters?

I suspect the Iowa birth rate will go down, and possibly the number of engagement announcements as well. That tends to happen when you can see your date in clear detail.

Eventually, the barflies will become so healthy that they will start going out for jogs between drinks, and finally, they will probably just stay home and watch Gray's Anatomy entire seasons on DVD while their ThighMasters squeak away.

Will Iowa be healthier for the smoking ban? Probably so. Some may even venture out into the nightlife who had been driven away by the toxic clouds, the way garlic makes Dracula slink back to his coffin.

Others, no doubt, will find it less fun to get out - suddenly bars have more behavioral regulations than their spouse does.

One Des Moines barkeep has an idea. He put up a hand-lettered sign declaring his little tavern to be a "casino" and thus exempt from the state ban. A Minnesota blogger proposes a rule requiring bar patrons to completely disrobe with their clothing stored in a "clean room" until they leave the premesis, as fabric gives off dangerous textile chemicals into the air.

So this is really it... in a few weeks, the smoky bar will be no more - a tradition that dates to the first local smoky pioneer saloon that was probably established before your town was.

Imagine - telling The Duke, James Dean, Bogie and Bacall, Sinatra, FDR, Castro, The Babe... or even Keith Richards that it's illegal to light up in their favorite bar (though some of those people might have lived longer if somewhat less happily if someone had.) I think Keith is alive, though it's hard to tell.

Rest in Peace, smoky Iowa bar. You were our last bastion of adulthood vice freedoms in a politically correct world.

Barkeep, bring a pitcher - no, not beer, make it hand sanitizers, and be quick about it. The times, they are a changin.