The Pristine Chapel

This calls for a toast!

Baltimore, home of Typecast Press, tomorrow — Feb. 1, 2008 — becomes part of the latest ban on smoking in restaurants and bars, following other states and communities that soon after enacting the ban have realized the obvious: People like to drink. You have a bar. People are going to drink in your bar. Unless it’s really, really, really sketchy.

OK, maybe even then.

There’s a little bar around the corner from Mary and Shop Boy called the Mount Royal Tavern. A dive’s dive, with a bathroom’s bathroom. Its clientele runs from bikers to bums to Baltimore ladies and gentlemen. (The bar discriminates against only one group, as my buddy Dave Schmickel and I learned when we showed up in tennis whites one day. They were required, OK?) Many customers are students of the nearby Maryland Institute College of Art, where some are taking courses in letterpress and apparently all are learning how to smoke. The Mount Royal is their study hall.

Not anymore.

Gone soon — a few days, maybe a couple of weeks — will be the unholy cloud that greets a beer or gin worshiper at the door. And on that day, from the ceiling, a reproduction of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel masterwork (Rome? Whatever …), God will smile down, no longer taking his own name in vain for creating such a dumb species. (Really, you’ve got to see the ceiling.)

Now, don’t get us wrong. Mary and Shop Boy do not smoke. We also don’t think it’s very bright, given the cost of cigarettes and the proven health risks of inhaling. But we’re not here to judge. Shop Boy was a two-pack-a-day guy in his late teens. Still gets cravings once in a while. And Mary and Shop Boy came of age in newspapers — in newsrooms and composing rooms where it seemed everybody smoked. Heck, you know some of these old-timers can remember fellow printers who’d clean the press with a gasoline-soaked rag while a burning ember dangled at the end of their lips. Might have even been drinking at the time. Crazy, but kind of Humphrey Bogart crazy, no?

Once, Shop Boy was called on the carpet during his first few weeks at the Rocky Mountain News in Denver over a headline he’d written about a set of sleazy women-in-prison TV movies about to hit prime time. The headline: “T&A Behind Bars.” (We’d come from a New York tabloid, albeit the “tabloid in a tutu” as Newsday was once sneeringly dubbed by a competitor. Didn’t feel racy to me.)

Nancy Murray, my boss, was a potty-mouthed beauty, a 6-footer with big, blonde hair and a low, sexy voice. Smoking … literally. But she was also steaming mad. Her office seemed to get smaller and more oxygen-depleted as she ran down a list of my offenses, expelling smoke to emphasize each point.

“Do you know what ‘T&A’ stands for?” (I was silent, paralyzed. Nancy was offended?) “Tits (phoo!) … and (phoo!) … ass (phoo!),” she hissed. “It is no language for a family newspaper (phoo!) and it will not be accepted at this newspaper, mister. Now (phoo!) get back to work.”

We’d moved across the country for this? Truly, Shop Boy was shaken.

Later, when I’d won her over, Nancy would explain her earlier anger away, saying she was under way too much pressure and had been existing on coffee (phoo!), cigarettes (phoo!) and diet cola (phoo!).

Then there was Vida Roberts, fabled Baltimore Sun fashion editor. What style! Lord, but she was a tough old broad. Said so proudly. Vida could kill you with a quip. Or turn on the charm. Wow! Smoked like a chimney. And she held court many an afternoon at the Mount Royal.

So, Mary and Shop Boy have known some really cool smokers. Still do.

But we’re just bottom-line about some things. When you can make things better for everybody but the tobacco companies without really inconveniencing anybody, we think you ought to do it. And, doggone it, having to bury your clothes in the backyard after happy hour to quell the stench has gotten a bit old.

So, we’ll hold your place — and promise not to let the barkeep dump your drink — while you (phoo!) get a breath of (phoo!) fresh air (phoo!).

Thanks, Baltimore.

***

Oh, what the heck? Let’s do a Bonus Letterpress List. Not a full hour of music, but a good extended smoke break’s worth of songs that fit the moment. Most should be available in the usual places.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes — the Platters (Visine sales plummet.)
Tobacco Roadthe Animals (Blow it up, start all over again.)
Gettin’ Jiggy With ItWill Smith (“Just for the look … I don’t light it.” Shop Boy can’t help loving this stupid song.)
Ashtray Heart — Captain Beefheart (Heard this late one night long ago, and have never been the same.)
If You’re GoneMatchbox Twenty (Wimpy, but nice.)
Warm Beer and Cold WomenTom Waits (“The drinks are on me tonight.”)
Look SharpJoe Jackson (Go ahead. Bogart my cigarettes and beer, smart guy. I’ll help myself to your watch and wallet.)
Smoke Detector Rilo Kiley (In the, ahem, movie version of Shop Boy’s life, this will be playing in Nancy Murray’s office.)

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