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Up in Smoke

City Hall and the Greater Houston Restaurant Association once again threaten the right to light up in bars

 Health nuts are gonna feel pretty stupid someday, lying in hospitals, dyin' o' nothin'. -- Redd Foxx

Here we go again...City Hall is a-rumble once more with talk of a smoking ban in bars. And no, they aren't responding to a groundswell of popular support -- they are acting at the behest of the Greater Houston Restaurant Association, which has now officially flip-flopped from its partial-ban position from last year.

You'll recall that sensible, live-and-let-live legislation -- it banned smoking in the dining areas of restaurants but allowed it in bars and the bar areas of eateries. But evidently, to paraphrase Paul Wall and Chamillionaire, the restaurant owners' money gets jealous. As Carl Walker, president of the GHRA and the owner of Brennan's told the Houston Chronicle, "We want to make sure that [the ban] is fair across the board. Let's just don't focus on restaurants only."

Translation: "Wanh. People want to go where they can eat, drink and smoke. Let's take that option from them."

And this about-face has Rudyard's owner Lelia Rodgers hopping mad. "I'm furious with the restaurant association," she says. "They pressure bars to join up with them, and then they screw us all the time. This new thing: 'Oh, we're behind the ban, as long as bars are included.' Man, they're such jerks."

Mike Bell, the proprietor of both the bar The Next Door and the restaurant Late Nite Pie, agrees with Rodgers about the proposed ban. He believes that bars already have enough crap to deal with, without having to worry about whether customers are lighting up. "So now they want it so people can't smoke?" he asks. "They've already gotta worry about getting a DWI if they have two beers. Would going out be worth it?"

I called Rodgers because no club is more bitched about by nonsmokers than Rudyard's. On a typical night, the performance area combines a few dozen of the most dedicated nicotine fiends the Montrose has to offer with one of the lowest ceilings in town, and the result is a perfect storm you could probably spot on Doppler radar if it were outside. While these toxic clouds add to the visual ambience, the air does get a wee bit close in there. (Full disclosure: Racket is a social smoker, meaning I only light up when I drink. Insert the "Well, he must smoke two packs a day" jokes here.)

But Rodgers is in a bind. She can't raise the roof, and she is forbidden by the city to open the windows upstairs. She's thought about drastically ramping up the air circulation with some attic fans, but she says that her summer electric bills are already running close to $5,000 a month.

A couple of years back, she and Bell, whose bar is adjacent to Rudyard's (hence the name) built sidewalk patios so the abstainers would have somewhere to go, but if present trends continue, that's where all the smokers will be. Rodgers doesn't really relish that prospect. "I hate the idea of Rudz being empty while the patios are flooded with all these smokers hanging off the edge smoking, but I think it's gonna come to that."

More important, Rodgers believes that the proposed ban violates some pretty basic rights of hers. "On the one hand, there's this law that says I have the right to serve whoever I choose," she says. "So why can't I choose to serve smokers? If nonsmokers don't like it, they can go somewhere else, because I choose not to serve them. I don't understand why everyone has to comply with this nonsmoking world, especially when there's lots of nonsmoking options."

And indeed, in Houston McGonigel's Mucky Duck, Anderson Fair and Ovations all offer smoke-free live music options. If you want to live forever, you can go to those places. But if you want to smoke, Rodgers says, you should have the option of going somewhere like Rudyard's, where the clientele has other priorities besides immortality and prosperous golden years. "I think that the Montrose is still a bastion of smoking as opposed to the upwardly mobile 'I wanna live a good retirement' places," says Rodgers. "Everybody down here isn't looking toward their retirement, right? They're looking toward the moment. If you have a lot of money and you wanna live a clean life, then you move to somewhere from the Galleria out to the eastern burbs of San Antonio, but I'm thinking the Montrose is still given over to smoking."

Indeed. These are the city's free spirits. The Montrose is the Montrose because many of the people who live there do so because it's where the bars are, and the regulars at those bars like to drink, sometimes to excess. And they like to be close to home when they do, so they can either walk, bike or, yes, even drive the shortest distance home. And the biggest drinkers also tend to be smokers. So now a bunch of people who aren't regularly going to these bars want to tell them they have to go outside so they can come in? That's just not right.

The anti-smoking crowd likes to think of itself as some kind of sleeping giant -- that if the ban is enacted, the bars would be crawling with people like them who shun the places now because they don't like the smell or fear the health risks. They also love to point out that cities like Austin, San Francisco and New York that have bans in place also have much livelier music scenes than Houston, and imply that a ban here is all that it would take to transform H-town into the next Seattle.

These are nice theories, but in a recent interview with Austin radio station KUT, country guitarist Redd Volkaert and steel guitarist Cindy Cashdollar both said it most decidedly wasn't the case in Austin. "All the lyin' nonsmokers said they would come to the clubs if they passed the law," Volkaert said. "None of 'em have ever showed up." Cashdollar added that several Austin venues have started cutting pay to musicians because their booze sales had dropped because of smokers staying home. And bands had responded by downsizing from quintets and quartets to trios and duos.

In the same KUT story, reporter David Brown noted that many of the clubs on Sixth Street and the Red River strip in Austin were now shuttered early in the week. For bars everywhere, Sundays through Wednesdays have always been a razor's edge profit-wise, but if you take the smoker out of the mix, the owners say, it's not worth it to open. And without these graveyard shifts at the clubs, I might add, where are beginning bands supposed to learn their live chops and earn their followings?

If the effects have been that bad in the (self-described) Live Music Capital of the World, how bad would it get here? Sure, some clubs could build outdoor smoking areas, but what about those that don't have the option? And what about the joints that are in sketchy 'hoods -- I'm a big guy, but I don't know how comfortable I'd be smoking after midnight outside the Meridian or the Proletariat.

So let's try to find some middle ground, people. If you truly love live music but hate smoke, you are free to patronize the venues that already offer that experience. Or you could start booking some of your own shows and stipulate that they are nonsmoking. Or you could go so far as to open your own smoke-free club. Hell, you could get rich: If you listen to all the nonsmokers who say they're just waiting -- hands poised over wallets -- until the glorious, smoke-free dawn, you've got to think that such a club would be a gold mine. Or maybe Volkaert is right and those people are liars who would rather punish smokers at the ballot box than actually go out and hear live music. That's your call to make.

Or, as Mike Bell points out, you could help encourage City Hall to enact legislation similar to that in Dallas. "Up there, they have a ban on smoking completely, everywhere, but the liability goes on the customer, not the bar. So if someone is sitting at your bar and they wanna smoke a cigarette, you have to hand them an ashtray and tell them, 'Look, if an officer comes in here, it's a $500 fine.' And the customer goes, 'Okay, do I wanna take that risk or not?' And if he gets caught, the smoker gets a $500 ticket and the bar gets nothing. Leave it up to the customers -- if they want to take the $500 gamble, more power to 'em. Don't threaten the bar on it. We're already threatened enough. We've got to watch our back everywhere we look."

Indeed we do -- all of us, not just bar owners. Rodgers chuckles at the weird, quasi-illegal status of the cigarette now and the shenanigans of the increasingly bothersome nanny state, of which this is just another burdensome manifestation. "It's like we've all gone back to sneaking cigarettes from your parents when you were a teenager," she says. "And I think that the whole idea of telling people they can drink alcohol and not smoke cigarettes is just wrong at the core."

As Charles Bukowski once put it, "a drink without a smoke is like a cock without a pussy." "Indeed!" Rodgers says with a laugh. "Charles had a nice way of summing things up -- right there, the heart of it. That's the gist of it."

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