Smoke Signals

Photo: Zohar Lazar

Smokers are the first to tell you they’re the city’s newest persecuted minority, but get them talking after a few beers, and they’ll admit that the recent smoking ban has created a new kind of pickup scene—on the sidewalk. “I was on the Lower East Side two weeks ago,” says Sparks, a 37-year-old art dealer with Buddy Holly glasses, smoking a Marlboro Red in front of Luna Lounge on a recent Thursday night, “and I ended up making out with this girl under an awning during a rainstorm. It wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t have to smoke outside. It was great. I slept with her that very evening.”

Back in snowy April, it took real stamina to smoke outside, but with the onset of summer, some of the smokers are actually enjoying the excuse to get some air. “It’s daunting for any guy to barrel up to a girl in a bar who’s surrounded by friends,” says Sparks. “But now, lo and behold, that girl’s going to get up and have a smoke outside, and she’s standing around with no one to talk to.” And the negative side? “You can’t sit in the bar and look cool anymore. What the hell do I do? Put my finger in my nose?”

In front of Arlene’s Grocery around the corner, Matt, a slender twentysomething, is smoking with two of his buddies. “People who wouldn’t necessarily speak to each other are talking,” he says, “because they’re all grouped together. You start to recognize the same faces—the outside crowd at different Lower East Side bars. I think the ban will probably enhance the dating game. It’s so much easier to talk when you can actually hear each other.” Has he had any dates? “Not yet, but I’m optimistic.”

With the social scene hotter outside than it is inside, are nonsmokers pretending to be smokers just to get a piece of action? Heather, 27, a cute brunette who’s smoking Parliament Lights nearby, shakes her head grimly. “It’s not worth the effort,” she says. “You have to finish your drink first, which costs money, or get a friend to watch it, or hope no one’s going to slip something in it.”

I walk over to 2A, where the doorman, Derin Thorpe, is standing outside checking I.D.’s. He’s a 26-year-old photographer, and he tells me he’s seen a lot of hookups start over a cigarette. “Usually what happens is the guy asks the girl for a light,” he says, “trying to be all smooth and sharkin’ about it.” The first topic of conversation, naturally, is the ban. “They say, ‘Oh, this sucks, we have to go outside.’ Everyone’s down on Bloomberg.”

The hookup, he says, “happens over no more than three cigarettes, or else they’re going to get smoky breath and not want to make out, even though they’re smokers. The make-out usually starts in the bar because it’s darker. Then I’ll see them get in a cab together.”

The guys who do manage to score outside are hardy souls—hardier than the ones flirting in the relative safety of the bar. “Outside, you’re open to the elements. You got homeless people, and crazy people coming from other bars who are already drunk. Cute girls are always getting harassed, so that could interrupt something if some guy’s trying to put his mack down.”

The bartender, a shaggy-haired hottie in a Nashville Pussy cap, comes outside to weigh in, though he doesn’t want to give his name. “I’ve got this theory,” he opines, “that the only reason people ever start smoking in the first place is to be a hotshot or a rebel. So they like smoking outside, especially here”—the bar has wide windows on the front and side—“because everyone can see them doing it. Now everyone knows they’re badasses.”

“If I saw a really cute girl and she was smoking and she was alone,” says Derin, nodding, “I’d probably go talk to her. It’s an excuse.”

“Is that why you’re talking to me right now?” I ask.

“You got a cigarette?” he says, with a lascivious grin. “You want to smoke?”

I run away, to Welcome to the Johnsons, the suburban-living-room bar on Rivington Street. Jeff Stewart, 32, a short rockish guy in a baggy T-shirt, is smoking an American Spirit and chatting with his buddy Peter Ingram, the manager of a family business. I ask them how the ban’s changed the pickup scene. “If you live in this neighborhood,” Jeff says, “and you have an apartment upstairs, then you have a bunch of drunk fucks smoking outside the bars, interrupting you when you’re trying to neck with your girl.”

As for Peter (Marlboro Reds), 30, the toughest part of the ban has been the shuttling—trying to keep a bird in the hand while slipping out for a butt. “You’re inside talking to a girl,” he says, “and then you have to smoke, and all of a sudden you’re outside getting clocked”—watched—“by females, and you’ve got to interact with them instead of being inside. You’re praying the girl inside won’t see you with some other crazy girl out here smoking.”

In front of Max Fish, perhaps the most iconic smoker’s bar in the neighborhood, there are about a dozen twentysomethings on the sidewalk. A rosy-cheeked woman in a peasant blouse, her hair piled on top of her head, tells me she hit on a guy outside earlier that night. “He was good-looking,” she says. “And it just so happened he was smoking.” So what happened? “He turned out to be the door guy.”

A cute guy in a red T-shirt that says hustler walks out and lights a cigarette with one hand while holding a cell phone in the other. She eyes him and takes a deep breath. “Do you have a cigarette?” she asks. Busy on the phone, he shakes his head no and turns his back. She tries again. “Come on.” He spins around with a scowl. “I don’t have any more! You want to be my bitch? I don’t have any more!”

“Screw you,” she says, and walks back into the bar with her friend. Even in Bloomberg’s New York, some things never change.

Smoke Signals