With the clock ticking toward the start of the citywide smoking ban, it’s a wonder Mayor Michael Bloomberg didn’t require the Fire Department to put out his burning ears, as punters smoked and fumed and cursed the imminent end of their vice.
“I just saw them gathering up the ashtrays,” one ashen-faced man croaked at about 11:45 p.m., sucking on a cigarette in Rocky Sullivan’s.
The Mexican bar back Sergio Hernande went from bar to table and back again, collecting ash trays with an impish grin on his face and stowing them behind the bar.
Smokers looked around at each other nervously. Was it really happening? they seemed to ask with their eyes. When midnight struck, was everyone really going to stop smoking?
It was enough stress to make you reach for another Marlboro.
“Twelve o’clock, I can’t believe it,” said barman Frankie McCabe. “Yeah, I can’t believe it. Can’t believe it’s here.”
At the bar, a raucous argument went on. The other barman played devil’s advocate and a smoker got all twisted up about the perfidious mayor. Bloomberg had turned himself into the ultimate barfly, managing to make his presence felt in all of the city’s 14,000 bars in one evening.
Midnight struck, gone were the ashtrays. The bar staff ordered everyone once again to stop smoking. A rueful smoker ground his cigarette out on the floor. The Paddy McGuire band lurked at the bar between sets. Compliance, it seemed, had set in.
Scenes like this played out all across the city, although some punters reported that compliance in some parts of Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx was negligible to non-existent.
Des O’Brien, manager of Langan’s on 47th Street just off Times Square, was not there for the midnight deadline but left things in the hands of his staff, the ashtrays stowed in the basement.
“We went with full compliance,” O’Brien said. “It’s the law.”
O’Brien, along with many industry colleagues, has been a fierce opponent of the ban since Bloomberg announced it last year.
“It’s hard to make a call on the effect on business yet,” he said. “Last night, Monday, is a quiet night anyway. The smokers didn’t linger as they normally would. They had a drink and then they left.”
For O’Brien, the fact that the ban came into effect on Saturday at midnight was annoyance enough — but that it came with a month’s easement — a month in which health inspectors said they would issue warnings but not fines, was more confusion and hassle.
“The issue of a month’s easement is nonsense,” O’Brien said. “It confuses people. It’s a gray area for another 30 days.”
Asked what he thought about the sudden appearance in law last week of a statewide ban on smoking signed by Gov. Pataki which trumps the Bloomberg ban, O’Brien said, “one foot doesn’t know what the other is doing.”
The ban signed by Pataki applies to the city and the state, leading some to ask why Bloomberg pushed his own ban for the city so strongly, if a statewide ban was coming a few months later.
At O’Neill’s bar on Third Avenue, it was a similar story.
Owner Kieran Staunton said dryly: “We threw away all the ashtrays. I don’t know of anyone who’s skirting the law now.”
“It’s only the second day. Monday is traditionally a quiet day. It’s hard to say yet how business has been affected.”
Back in Rocky Sullivan’s on Saturday evening, the Paddy McGuire guys went back to making music and Frankie McCabe went outside, lighting up and rolling his eyes as he left the bar.
Patron Brian McCabe entered, having discarded his cigar butt outside.
“If I light up,” he said, “it will be a personal protest. I am not going to be co-opted by the crowd.”
But as the clock ground toward 1 a.m., two 20-something guys came in and ordered drinks, and, unnoticed it seemed, one lit a cigarette. Within about five minutes, everyone was smoking once again.
“I guess you can smoke until the end of the session tonight,” one smoker said with a shrug.