Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Smoke gets in your eyes

Last night I walked into my favorite bar in the world, the inimitable Charlie O's in Montpelier, after many months out of Vermont. I had heard some people bitching about it at a hippie bonfire party in Maple Corner, and I wanted to see for myself. Out front a lone man with a scraggly ponytail sucked on a Marlboro Red, next to a couple of new benches and ashcans. The screen door slammed behind me, and I saw that the ashtrays had been removed from the slab of pitted, ancient bar. So it was true. There was no smoking in Charlie O's.

It's hard to explain the great sorrow I feel about this, especially as someone who no longer smokes. Charlie O's was always very, very smoky. Fuck-you-and-your-fancy ventilation-systems smoky. On entering the dive you were enveloped in a miasma of tobacco smoke so thick and powerful that it could block out the sun. After a night there, your eyes burned, and your clothes and hair reeked of it. This smoke kept many of my friends away, friends I always felt a little sorry for. And during the legislative session it often proved to be the one place in town where you were safe from suits in various stages of drunkenness. A bar for whiskey drinkers, tough broads and unpredictable men. That's how I like to think of it.

Actually, it's more like a bar for tipsy rednecks, leering weirdos, trustafarians and people you went to high school with that you hoped you'd never see again. The kind of place you might go for an aperitif before dining on Oxycontin and pork rinds. In its defense, though, it is the kind of bar where people actually talk to each other, and once in a while you will have a great conversation with a stranger over a couple of beers. The live music is a real pleasure, especially if it's the Starline Rhythm Boys and the old-timers are dancing. And if they see you in there a few times the bartenders, always women, will be marginally less unfriendly to you.

But a Charlie O's without smoking is just all wrong - it's like eating a creemee with a spoon.

They still haven't taken down the sign that says "Charlie O's Cafe Tabac - Now Smokier Than Ever!," or the boxes of Swisher Sweets lined up behind the bar (The owner, self-described anarchist Jeff Jacobs, started billing the joint as a "cigar bar" when the legislature first looked at banning smoking in bars back in 2003.) It still smells like smoke in there, but it's just the ghost of cigarettes past. And with the smokescreen gone some worrying new smells are emerging, chiefly a sour, slightly rotten smell that might be years of accumulated swill and spillage. Maybe the smell will be enough to keep the squares away.


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