[Editor’s note: It’s been a decade since smoking cigarettes was permitted in Duluth bars. The Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act was expanded by the 2007 state legislature to include “Freedom to Breathe” amendments intended “to protect employees and the public from the health hazards of secondhand smoke.”
For this week’s essay we’ve once again pulled out a relic from the archive of Slim Goodbuzz, who served as Duluth’s “booze connoisseur” from 1999 to 2009. Ten years ago he went out on the first smoke-free night at Duluth bars and published this report for Duluth’s weekly Transistor.]
There’s something strange in the air tonight at R.T. Quinlan’s Saloon. It’s called oxygen. Minnesota’s statewide ban on smoking in workplaces took effect on Oct. 1, and now people like me, who indeed consider bars to be “workplaces,” can breathe easier. As a result, I intend to work even harder now, starting with this gin and tonic.
Although I’m likely to live longer and need to spend less money on laundry thanks to the smoking ban — both of which will allow me to drink more — there are a few negative side effects. For one, the air is now so clear in here that’s it’s possible to see all the way across the room, increasing the odds that my landlord will find me.
What has surprised me the most about the smoking ban is that no one is flagrantly lighting up in protest. I expected a few smoke-ins and legal wranglings to keep me entertained at least until the holidays. Everywhere I go, however, the smokers are submissively standing outside, nursing their habit in the cold, windy night. Poor fuckers.
In the middle of the room tonight, a group of three is loudly talking about how they love the smoking ban, and they actually go so far as to raise a toast to it. Then they suddenly all scurry away from the bar and begin gagging in a corner. Someone has unleashed a silent but gut-wrenching fart.
“This is when a little nicotine in the air would help,” I tell them. They reluctantly agree, but also decide that I am now their number one suspect. The only thing that can save my reputation is fart DNA, if such a thing exists. My other option, of course, is to just go to Curly’s.
Although most bars I’ve been to seem to be doing the same amount of business, Curly’s is clearly suffering from the smoking ban. All the creeps and perverts who normally make this place fun seem to have been driven off. Even the mermaid with big tits is a little depressed tonight. I have one drink and head to West Duluth.
Outside the Rustic, there’s a guy complaining about how someone has parked in the smoking section. Inside, however, it’s nearly as bad as the scene at Curly’s. Heads are hanging low and no one is talking. Everyone’s just peeling the labels off their beer bottles and wishing they could blaze up.
I suck down a draught beer in the near silence before I decide to head over to the Gopher. But as I turn for the door I notice there is a guy at the bar smoking. At last, I think I’ve found the defiance I’ve been looking for. The smoking lasts less than a minute, however, before the bartender notices and points him to the door. He slumps his shoulders and exits. Clearly, he’s too shitfaced to realize that there’s a smoking ban going on. He accepts this as another routine 86ing, which, according to the bartender, he’s been practically begging for all day.
“He’s been in here since four,” she says, then mumbles something about cutting him off and him stealing other people’s drinks. From the context, I gather that he wasn’t stealing them on purpose; he was just too drunk to understand they weren’t his. If my experience is worth anything, and I think it is, he’s going to wake up in the alley behind Applewood West apartments tomorrow with a burrito in his hand and his pockets turned out.
Across the street, the Gopher has a good crowd and karaoke is ruling the night. Despite the clean indoor air, everyone seems to be festive and having a good time. When I take my first sip of my whiskey Coke, I realize why. This might be a whiskey Coke, or it might be a tumbler full of paint thinner. There is a slight tinge of Coca-Cola flavor, like maybe the bartender rinsed the glass out with it before filling it entirely with Thompson’s Water Seal. Whatever I’m drinking, it only takes about three seconds for me to become chemically happy, and the dirtbag up on stage singing that “I’m a bitch, I’m a lover” song does his part to help out as well.
Suddenly, I feel a hand on my shoulder. A strange old man leans in and says to me, “See that kid in the hooded sweatshirt over there? Doesn’t he look like a booger?”
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