What No Smoking has done to San Diego bars

Smokey Joe's ain't what it used to be

— A darkened barroom with rows of men in snap-brim hats, women posed on stools checking out their reflections in the back bar mirror. A blue-white haze swirls in eddies overhead every time someone opens the door to the joint: tobacco smoke.

Thanks to the California State Assembly, we can kiss that gritty, romantic image good-bye, not unlike the image of the motorcyclist tearing up the Sunrise Highway, helmetless with a hot desert wind in his hair. Both images are intriguing and romantic because of their elements of danger. But Big Brother, the body Nazis and health fascists, the überführers of lifestyle in the Golden State know what's best for you.

Since Assembly Bill 13 went into effect on January 1, almost a month has passed. I thought I would see how things are going in a few of San Diego's venerable old-timer shot-and-beer joints.

The Alibi Club has already been shown on the local news. The Alibi is complying, all right. I hardly recognize the place as I enter the gloom around 2:30 on a weekday. The bar is polished, the air smells like beer and furniture wax -- everything seems way too clean, but that's not the most remarkable feature.

For years the afternoon bar at the Alibi has been well filled with regulars, mostly over 40 and 50 years old, some 60 and 70, a lot of veterans from three wars, all of them sucking on pipes, cigars, and cigarettes, leaning into the smoke and conversation as if it were the same thing. Today, there is only Bob Simmons, a long-time feature at the north end of the bar with his cigar and crossword puzzle and trademark wit. You can always gauge the level of conversation in the afternoons by the degree of completion on Simmons's New York Times puzzle. If things are interesting, the puzzle goes neglected; if he's surrounded by fools or bores whom he does not suffer gladly, you'll find his puzzle nearing completion by late afternoon. Today, Bob's puzzle is moving along, and he's chomping on an unlit cigar.

Down the bar is Phil. I once had a conversation with him about Egyptology and scholar Wallis Budge. I was amazed at his knowledge. But other than Phil and Bob there's only an elderly couple I do not know. The sparsely populated day bar is unusual for the Alibi. The other thing that registers, but only subliminally: no ashtrays on the bar.

"The ABC [Bureau of Alcoholic Beverage Control] was just here, actually," says David, a relatively new bartender. "They were checking out the back patio area we're installing. People can go out there for a cigarette, but they can't take a drink out there."

The no-smoking area of the Alibi has traditionally been the old-fashioned phone booth in the corner by the door. A good-sized sign announces No Smoking Area, and in the past, when anyone complained about second-hand death vapors they were referred to the cubicle. The joke has been stepped on now by the majority of the people of this great state, 80-some percent. "Though only 20 percent of the population smokes," Simmons points out, "those statistics don't hold up in barrooms. I'd say, among people who go to bars, the percentage of smokers is much higher."

I order a short beer and Simmons continues, "If any employee in a bar is offended by smoking, they should get a job in Nordstrom's." Simmons is referring to the law's intent, which is to protect nonsmokers in the workplace. Meanwhile, Alibi bartender Charlie Brown and a guy I know only as John, an English writer who also works behind the stick, are standing on University Avenue and smoking around a five-gallon plastic paint can full of dirt that serves as the establishment's collective ashtray.

"Daytime business has been affected quite a bit," says 62-year-old Brown. "People are not comin' in here. They go someplace where there's smoking."

"Somewhere in the proximity," says Simmons and jerks his head in a westerly direction. At first I can't think of any bars nearby except gay bars and I cannot for the life of me imagine the Alibi crowd in, for example, Flick's, Andrew Cunanan's old hangout.

"Our daytime business," resumes Brown, "has fallen off 30 percent. Nighttime business has picked up 25 to 35 percent. Why? I don't know. It's a much younger crowd at night. When I come to work in the morning, I look outside and there's, like, 20, 30,000 cigarette butts out front on the street and sidewalk."

"So," I venture, "it's not because young people smoke less." Brown shakes his head. "During the day I have the older clientele who enjoy smoking and they shy away and go somewhere where they can."

Bob Simmons and Phil seem to be making a show of loyalty to their longtime neighborhood bar even if it means Simmons has to chomp an unlit stogie and Phil has to make his way to the patio or front door with his walker in order to light up. How long can this law last? How enforceable is it?

"I'm an employee," says Brown, a bartender for 35 years. "I make minimum wage, basically. If I don't make tips, I can't live. People who would come in here for a drink in the morning and to smoke a cigarette don't come in here anymore. What else can I say?" Brown seems to be saying that it is less a matter of how long this law can hold out than it is a question of how long he can hold out.

"Under working conditions, I actually love the law," he says. "I like going home not smelling like an ashtray. But as a customer, coming in, having a cocktail and wanting a cigarette, I hate it. A couple of times over the past couple of weeks I've come in here, ordered a drink, and lit up a cigarette."

Simmons chuckles in a baritone. "He was the first guy to get 86'd in here because of the new law." When he stops laughing, Simmons makes another ironic but less funny observation. "Think of how many people, employees -- and this law was made for the benefit of employees -- may be out of employment because of this thing that's supposed to be saving their lives."

"[Owner] Jerry Petrone," says Brown, "does not agree with the law but will abide by it 100 percent." Already, Petrone has sprung for sidewalk cafe-type umbrellas for the new patio area under construction so that smokers do not have to stand in the rain on University Avenue.

When asked again, Brown says he thinks the law will last. Simmons agrees, "because the politicians know that 80 percent of the people in California are nonsmokers."

"This place really smells different," I say, sniffing around. I no longer smoke as much as I used to, but because I am forbidden to, I suddenly want a cigarette.

"Yeah," Simmons says, "now you can smell the B.O.; you can tell who hasn't bathed."

David, the bartender on duty, leans over the bar and says, "I think it's interesting that no one is enforcing this law right now. I bet they don't until the Super Bowl is over."

I notice a new fixture over the back bar. It's a large sign that reads: "My customers are my business. Repeal the smoking ban." It has clearly been done by hand.

I head over to Club Kensington on Adams Avenue. A bar that was established over 60 years ago, if not longer, is all but deserted on this afternoon. An elderly guy is drinking tea. Another man is sipping a slow beer. There is no one else in the place except for me. I order a drink and notice two ashtrays, both at opposite ends of the bar. The only person in the room who is smoking is the young bartender who sits by the front door with an ashtray and stares up at the TV. He is watching the movie Happy Gilmore. It occurs to me which bar Bob Simmons might be referring to, where Alibi regulars, like refugees, have silted up. A half block away, they wreathe their conversations in the soft-focus corona of burnt nicotine.

The San Diego Sports Club is a few yards west of the Alibi but set back against the street so it's easy to miss. As I approach, the door swings open and roiling clouds of incinerated cigars, Marlboros, and Virginia Slims envelope me. This is the place.

I recognize a half-dozen regulars from the Alibi. I sit next to "Cigar Don," the only name I've ever known him by. He calls me the wrong name and misremembers our last conversation, but that's okay. I order a scotch and bum a cigarette. I am smoking in self defense. Everyone seems to be puffing away more than they would normally. I am the youngest guy in the room except for the bartender, and neither of us is a kid.

He introduces himself as Billy Martin. Billy's smoking too, ashes falling away onto God knows what behind the bar (glasses? ice?). We shake hands. "Welcome to the Sports Club," he says.

"So, you guys are just flouting the law? A civil disobedience kind of thing?"

"No," he informs me. "We have no employees. It's a family-owned business, so the law doesn't apply to us."

He introduces me to another Sports Club bartender, Tony V. Must be an in-law or something; I look more related to Tony than Billy does. A bank of TV sets above the back bar offer three different sports no one seems to be paying attention to, and a few customers wave to me or come over and shake my hand in a hail-fellow-well-met exuberance that seems appropriate after 11 drinks before 4:00 p.m.

The bar is much smaller than the Alibi's and everyone is smoking as if it might be their last fag. I choke down half a cigarette, leave my drink, and breathe deeply outside. I discover my inner addict has mixed feelings about AB13. I don't much like being told I cannot do something so harmless though I know it isn't harmless. On the other hand, I might get conversations with Bob and Phil at the Alibi pretty much to myself on rainy Wednesday afternoons.

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