Forecasts of doom and gloom followed New York City’s 2003 smoking ban.
Bars would close up shop, owners said. No one would come to a restaurant if they couldn’t smoke in peace after a belly-filling meal. Sure, the world would be safe for the pink-lunged, white-toothed and long-of-breathed. But what about the smokers — this author included — who wanted to blacken our lungs inside, at the bar, while pickling our livers, too?
Rumors of the death of New York City nightlife were, one can safely say, greatly exaggerated. Smokers learned to simply step outside, where the elements drew them together into ever tighter, more defiant knots.
But when the ban was still being contemplated, the authorities made a concession to allay the fears some business owners had. Any bar able to demonstrate that, as of the end of 2002, more than 10 percent of its gross revenue came from the sale of tobacco products could get a special waiver from the law. As long as they didn’t significantly expand or change locations, they would be little oases of smoke in a nauseatingly fresh-smelling city.
It’s been nearly twelve years since the ban went into effect, but eight of those officially sanctioned smoking bars still exist, according to the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. They are glorious throwbacks to an earlier time, one with considerably more mucus and nasty brown boogers. Often unknown, even to smokers, the places carry a whiff of the illicit and the underground. Smoke-easies, if you will.
On a recent Saturday, one of those bars, Karma Lounge, on Second Avenue in the East Village, hosted a few smokers, bellied up at the bar. As snow fell outside, they puffed happily away.
The majority of the smoking bars remaining in New York are pretty smoking-forward. They’re cigar bars, for the most part, with fancy humidors and the like, the kind of place you might expect to see Michael Bloomberg puffing a stogie and sipping a neat scotch that costs as much as your rent. Karma, however, is not that kind of place. It is a dive bar of the most lovable variety, with reasonably priced drinks, a friendly crowd, and ample burn marks on most available surfaces.
As one might imagine, Karma attracts its share of regulars, like Jarlath Mullahy, 40, a Dublin native and carpenter. He’s here about once a week, he says. He didn’t seek out the bar because of its smoking policy — he used to live around the corner and it was a regular haunt for him years ago. But he does make the trip pretty regularly, even now that he lives in Bushwick. Why does he come here, one might ask, knowing full well the answer?
“I don’t know why, because I hate the fucking smell of it in my clothes,” Mullahy says, with a chuckle. At home, he and his wife both smoke outside, and non-smoking bars, he says, keep him from smoking too much in one sitting. But, he says conspiratorially, “I’ll tell you when it’s nice — after a hard day’s work, when you need a cigarette and a drink?” He claps his hands together and gestures at the bar. “Bob’s your uncle.”
A former Indian restaurant, Karma has the décor to match, with fringed fabric covering the doorways and dreamy red lighting. (It also has a formidable air filtration system, so it’s not nearly as smoky as one might expect.) Late-Nineties-era Blackalicious is on the radio. Small tables host hookah pipes, an alternative smoke that a significant portion of the clientele prefers.
Todd McGovern, 53, a freelance writer and radio producer nursing a cigar and a drink, says he happened upon Karma just a few weeks ago. The bar doesn’t do much to let people know that smoking is permitted, and he was wandering the neighborhood with a friend when they discovered the place. He says he enjoys smoking cigars here, partly because he thinks people find cigar smoke particularly objectionable, even outdoors. It’s a bit of a haven; people won’t bug him here.
Bartender David Machado, 35, a smoker himself, says most of the time the smoke doesn’t bother him. If he’s being honest, the sickly-sweet hookah fumes — he often lights them for patrons — are even less appealing than the tobacco. And while the bar puts a note on its outdoor sandwich board letting potential customers know that smoking is permitted, Machado doesn’t think their unusual privilege is a huge draw, except for regulars who are in the know.
“A lot of people come in, and they’re like, wait, you can smoke in here?” Machado says. “And I do know for a fact that it turns some people off.” He occasionally sees parties do a U-turn at the door.
You might expect the denizens of a bar like Karma to be fiercely against the smoking ban, plotting some kind of insurrection. But while McGovern says he was wary of the ban at first — “I kind of felt like, well, if you can’t smoke in a bar, where can you smoke?” — he has come around in the years since. It’s no fun, he says, hanging out in a hazy bar all night.
“It’s nice going to places and not having your clothes reeking of cigarette smoke,” McGovern says. “People seem to have adjusted to it pretty quickly.”
Machado also supports the ban, which he believes was justified, in large part, as a worker protection measure. In the old days, bartenders, servers, and other employees were forced to inhale secondhand smoke for hours on end, with all the attendant health risks that came with it. Machado says those protections were a good idea. And today, especially with a dwindling number of smoking-permitted bars, he feels like he’s making an informed choice.
“I know what I’m getting into when I smoke,” Machado says. “But other people who were around smoke, that’s something they didn’t sign up for.” And besides, the ban has come with ancillary benefits. If he’s out at other bars, stepping out for a cigarette can be a handy thing. “It’s a good excuse to get out of awkward conversations,” he says.
Mullahy feels the same way. “I’ve met more people because of the ban,” he says. There’s a certain camaraderie when you’re huddled with a group of strangers, in the cold, for the sake of a habit that was never wise, and seems particularly ill-advised in the dead of winter.
“You stand outside having a cigarette and it becomes a common field,” Mullahy says. “You’re all in the same rut.”