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Manhattan Lights

(Semi-)unrepentant smoker Jay McInerney on why New York should remain brightly lit.

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Forget about Greenpoint and Dumbo, let alone Nolita -- it's time to start scouting Cleveland and Nashville and Iowa City. Because the contrarian, libertarian Bronx-cheer sensibility -- the city's most enduring and exportable commodity -- is under attack once again.

Not content to have made cigarettes a luxury item accessible only to rock stars, supermodels, and Condé Nast editors, Mayor Bloomberg wants to ban smoking from its natural environment -- in bars and in those few downtown restaurants where the subversive custom survives and is quietly cherished by its adherents.

New York itself is a nasty habit that some of us can't seem to break -- one reason that smoking seems to be far more ingrained in the city's culture than it is elsewhere in the country. It's nerve-racking here in . . . oops, I was about to say "Sin City." Health clubs, I'm told, provide stress reduction for some city dwellers, and smoking is sensibly banned from such places. But bars? The Odeon? Café Lebowitz?

Is it a coincidence that this sneak attack on our civil liberties comes when Silvano and Batali and the brothers McNally may be assumed to be bronzing on beaches? (Keith and Brian, phone home!) The city's restaurant industry was largely united against Giuliani's 1995 anti-smoking initiatives, although they failed to organize effectively to block them. Now, in the midst of a recession, a year after a tragedy that devastated tourism and restaurant revenues, the mayor seems determined to enact legislation that will further depress the local economy. Just when our European friends thought it was safe to come back to New York. If Bloomberg wants to encourage cocooning and home entertainment, he's on the right track. But then, what's the point of living in New York?

Some would say there's less and less of one, unless you're a nonsmoking investment banker who likes to go to bed about the same time as the Powerpuff Girls. (Note to self -- see if they allow smoking in bars in the city of Townsville.) Even home smoking seems to be under threat now that certain co-ops have started banning smokers.

Former mayor Rudy, that famous killjoy, gave the impression that he would like to rid the city of the poor and the culture-producing classes, two groups that, come to think of it, smoke heavily. Perhaps that was the secret agenda behind his anti-smoking campaign. Certainly, an inordinate number of journalists, artists, musicians, novelists, and fashion folk smoke cigarettes. And the bars and restaurants that seek their patronage, most of them downtown, try to accommodate their habit without totally flouting the existing laws. This system has worked well enough for most of us. Those of us who live south of 14th Street seldom venture north with our hard packs of Marlboro Lights. And we're very tolerant of nonsmokers, as long as they know how to dress.

I'm not terribly proud of my habit. Yup, I know it's bad for me. I hope to give it up in the near future. Honest, I do. But that doesn't mean I ever want to live in a city that denies to anyone the pleasure of lighting up a smoke in a saloon.

If Mayor Bloomberg is concerned about our lungs, then perhaps he should ban private automobiles from Manhattan -- a move that would have a far more profound effect on public health than the criminalization of cigarette smoking.

Hey, I hear there's an opening for governor in Sacramento. Me, I'm on the Internet, looking at real estate in Paris.


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