The hours were numbered for the regulars at the All State Cafe. Lyle, Jan, Kerin, John and the others knew this as they sipped their cocktails, smoked, and maneuvered between conversations around the bar at this quintessential New York pub. By midnight Saturday, they would have to give up one important component of this happy scene.
The city's ban on smoking in bars takes effect today. Fines that start at $200 and go as high as $1,000 will be issued in May, allowing bar owners a monthlong grace period to get used to business without ashtrays.
Smoking, in fact, has been outlawed in New York restaurants since 1995 but allowed in their bar areas and in small bars. But the mayor, an ex-smoker himself, pushed through this tougher legislation in December; it prohibits smoking in all 14,000 city bars, restaurants, nightclubs and other public facilities with few exceptions. In the meantime, the governor signed a similar law last week that takes effect 115 days from today and will essentially outlaw smoking in almost all public places statewide.
"Now we're being shut out of our smoky little joints," lamented Lyle Greenfield, a music producer who comes to the All State four nights a week. "What leper colony will we be sent to next?"
There is no doubt that the regulars, mostly professionals in their late 40s and 50s, believe the new ban will put a crimp in the social life of the All State. And the biggest smoker in the crowd, bartender Steve Early, a Steve McQueenish character, was the least prepared for the change. Asked whether he would enforce the ban which, in fact, was intended to protect bar employees from secondhand smoke, Early grimaced: "I can't answer that because I won't be behind the bar as much. I'll be down in the basement smoking."
Only Kerin Griffith, a magazine copy editor who gave up smoking five years ago, is relieved. She lives four blocks away and comes to the All State with her boyfriend, John Volin, a couple of times a month. Since she quit, she has had to endure a thick fog of smoke with her white wine and this nearly drove her back to a pack a day. "It takes forever to be able to have a drink without a cigarette because they go so well together," she said.
The All State is a subterranean pub with a past that includes having actor Kevin Bacon, an Upper West Sider, working there as a bartender. The hamburgers are great and the fried chicken, according to the Village Voice, is the best in the city. It is also easy to miss this bar from the street -- something the regulars like and hope will help when the nicotine police go on the warpath come May.
"Maybe the enforcers won't find us," says Jan Walker, an environmental lawyer who was talking with Lyle Greenfield and smoking Marlboro Lights. They found it ironic that the city is trying to enforce a smoking ban when its law enforcement agencies are already stretched and spending an extra $5 million a week on fighting terrorism.
"It's got to take more people to enforce this ban than we have already assigned to homeland security across the country," Walker said with a smoky laugh.
When California banned smoking in restaurants and bars, it took awhile for the smoke to clear -- but five years later, it is the exception to find a place where patrons light up.
Bloomberg has said he considers the ban a lifesaving technique, noting that 10,000 New Yorkers die every year from tobacco-related causes. He also has said residents would be able to measure the bill's success in terms of the decrease in deaths and illnesses.
There is no convincing research whether such a ban influences smokers to quit. But Columbia Presbyterian Hospital's smoking cessation clinic has seen many new patients in the last few months who mention the new law.
Friday night at the All State, the jukebox blaring, the regulars started popping ideas for what Steve Early could do with a bunch of useless, sparkling clean, glass ashtrays. Greenfield's concept was the best-received: attach stems to the glass bowls and use them as martini glasses.