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DaVinci Coders
March 27th, 2007 at 9:18 pm

Return of the ‘Speakeasies’

Despite the smoking ban – because of it, actually – Philadelphia now has "smoke-easies," a play on "speakeasies" that came to us with the Prohibition of alcohol. Prohibition was enacted in 1920, repealed in 1933 and largely ignored in between.

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I’m sipping a Blue Moon ale in a Philadelphia bar, Janis Joplin is wailing about Bobby McGee and I’m thinking a smoke would go great about now.

I take out one of Baby Cakes’ Parliament Lights and fire it up.

I’m smoking in a bar in Philadelphia and nobody says, "Boo!"

There are 20 other people, smokers and nonsmokers, hanging out, enjoying themselves, not doing any harm to anyone (except maybe themselves). The bar is spacious, the NCAA is on the TV screens, beer pennants hang from the ceiling, and through the large windows I see rain falling.

The owner is sitting at the bar chewing nicotine gum. He’s a former smoker.

Also a former cop.

"I’m an irresponsible bar-owner," he says with a smile.

Despite the smoking ban – because of it, actually – Philadelphia now has "smoke-easies," a play on "speakeasies" that came to us with the Prohibition of alcohol. Prohibition was enacted in 1920, repealed in 1933 and largely ignored in between. I’m surprised at how many Americans meekly obey smoking bans.

This is about Philadelphians who don’t.

For reasons even the dimmest Nicotine Nazi would understand, I’m not naming names or giving locations of the "smoke-easies" I found.

Why do the owners risk fines?

I’ll call the proprietor Joe Friday, to honor his former trade. His smoke-easy is within walking distance of one of Philadelphia’s universities.

"It’s my bar, it’s my four walls, cigarettes are legal," he says. "Why can’t I allow my customers to smoke?"

Six months before he opened, "a beautiful-looking restaurant, [he names it, I won't], opened a few blocks from here. They never allowed smoking. That is their right," he says, leaving unspoken his belief that it’s his right to permit it.

A Health Department inspector dropped in not long ago. No one was smoking, but he asked why Friday had ashtrays on the bar. Friday told him they were heirlooms, something like that.

The law requires bar managers to enforce the ban by telling patrons they can’t smoke, but they are cautioned not to take any action other than to call the Health Department to report smokers.

The Health Department has a hotline to report smoking in bars. (If you want the number, look it up yourself, snitch.)

Friday says no patron ever complained to him, "but we did have a complaint to a barmaid."

He tells his employees to say, "We don’t condone it," but tells me: "We can’t enforce [the ban]. It’s not our job."
Just 1.91 MapQuested miles away is another bar, smaller, more Irish, catering more to neighborhood residents. The owner – I’ll call him Seamus – is a smoker.

As in the first, NCAA is on the TV, but no jukebox is playing. The dozen customers are singing Broadway show tunes beneath a ceiling glowing with Christmas lights.

It’s that kind of a place.

Unlike Friday, he’s been written up by Health.

Who ratted him out?

Health inspectors won’t ever say, but Seamus says, "It’s either a neighbor, a competitor or sometimes a customer, but it’s usually your competitors."

Seamus tries "to adhere to the letter of the law" and tells customers, "You cannot smoke in here." If they do, "there’s nothing within my legal authority to tell you not to smoke," he says.

Seamus’ father was a cop for 35 years, but "I’m not in that business. I’m in the entertainment business," he says.

"I have military men come in here, they’re just back from Iraq. If anyone, they have the right to smoke, you know," Seamus says.

He wouldn’t stop them, even if he could.
I’m sure there are other smoke-easys around town where owners don’t enforce the law, due to philosophy or maybe lethargy.

Some owners will apply for a waiver to the ban available to bars that do 80 percent or more of their gross in alcohol, 20 percent or less in food.

Anti-ban activist Michael J. McFadden estimates that 500 Philly bars might squeeze through the loophole "for the sake of their smoking staff and customers" and also to avoid complaints from neighbors when smokers are forced to stand outside and smoke late at night.

(Local "free-choice" activists coordinate through McFadden’s linked Web sites at www.antibrains.com.)

Joe Friday will file for a waiver. "If there’s a legal way out, I’ll go that way. I don’t like being vulnerable," he says. Seamus serves too much food to qualify.

Once these waivers come through, Philly will have Smoking Ban Lite.

Smokers will have some bars, nonsmokers will have many bars and everyone will be happy – except for the Nicotine Nazis who can’t stand reasonable compromise.

Via Philly.com

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