Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Eulogy For A Culture: The Last Legal Smoke

When Frank Sinatra, America’s most famous smoker, died (at age 82 baby), one tribute observed that thousands of men on thousands of bar stools would no longer be able to ask, “What would Frank do?”

Sinatra died in 1998, and we’ve made it a decade with the philosopher-king of love and loss, the crooner with spot-on instincts in the world of handling a punch in the gut and make it to work the next day.

Now, thanks to Mother Culver and the lawmaking picknoses in Des Moines, today we’re mourning the passing of Sinatra’s defiant prop, the cigarette, as a statewide smoking
ban faces its first night.

“What would Frank do?”

I think we know.

An under-appreciated part of our culture died last night. Small-town bars are supposed to be a bit irreverent, dimly lit places to escape the bully boss, pending divorce, or the drudgery of a working Joe life. Smoking is an essential part of this for many Iowans — 15 out of the 19 people I counted in Kerp’s Tavern just before 6 p.m. Monday.

At one time, but not so much anymore, the rural Iowa bar took our social ranks, our vanities and high-hatting of others, and crushed them like so much ice in a blender.
The farmer with his Pall Malls eased up to the bar with the banker and his Camels — and argued with the newspaperman who smokes American Spirits. They wondered about things like why Magic Johnson hasn’t died of AIDS yet or what’s the deal with the city council on the parks building or is it a fair bet on the golf tournament to take Tiger Woods against the field.

We are in increasingly cocooned lives, an Internet-connected self-isolation, in which differences, someone’s bad habit or annoying trait, are to be treated as nothing short of bubonic.

That considered, you may not have been to one of west-central Iowa’s homespun haunts for a while.

But in your mind’s eye you can picture the bartender, a 50-something weary wise woman who dishes salty comments as naturally as she ladles gravy from the crock pot in the back on your chicken fried steak. She smokes and has for 30 or 40 years.

It’s just what she does. No real explanation. Shouldn’t do it. Tried to quit, once or twice. Just didn’t take. Maybe it was the divorce.

She’s seen it all, heard tales in her tiny town taller than the scrapers of the cities she planned to visit, someday, when she can get someone to cover the bar. Yes, she’ll still be there today. But she’s not the same without those Marlboro Menthol 100s. And don’t try to tell her she’s better sans smokes because she’s not looking to turn 95. She just wants to get through the day.

And she knows that’s the mindset of the customer in what until today had been a last refuge for the convivial smoker.

What she understands that the Nanny Staters at the Iowa Department of Public Health, and the Johnny Hall Monitors in the Iowa Senate don’t is that life isn’t supposed to be fair, that clean living isn’t a sure ticket to longevity and plenty of sinners outlive their Puritan friends.

In the mid-1970s, when I was around 7 years old, my parents, not understanding the depth of my sports obsession, imposed a Monday Night Football rule of epic cruelty. I could watch the games only until halftime — about 9:30.

Did I ever miss some endings. I remember thinking then that when I was all grown up one of the best things about life surely would be the privilege of watching Monday Night Football all the way to the end, and even into overtime.

I smoked a few cigarettes after work Monday at Kerp’s — my last legal cigarette in an Iowa bar, I guess you could say.

But at some point in the night I heard my name.

It must be halftime.

And Mother Culver is calling with his condescending new law in hand.

Put out the cigarette, Doug. You are 7 years old again, he says.
(Photo: The author enjoys a final American Spirit cigarette in Kerp's Tavern in Carroll,a place next door the newspaper that he's frequented for 20 years.)

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