It’s Tuesday, just after quitting time, and the bar at Jamo’s (1800 N. Arlington Pl.) is lined with regulars. Beers are poured and cigarettes lit, but all eyes are locked on the big TV screen, hanging on Alex Trebek’s every word, most patrons speaking only to yell out answers.
“Byzantium!” calls a friendly-looking dude with long white ringlets and a Jerry Garcia-esque beard.
“That was easy,” derides his stool neighbor. Clearly, “Jeopardy” is a daily ritual. No matter how tough the questions, at least one person knows the answer. This is not an exaggeration.
“What are protons and photons?” is the final question. As the credits roll, Jamo switches to the Brewers game, muting the sound. Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” sets a new mood within the space of a breath.
As he mixes up something refreshing with vodka for me and my pal Sonya, I ask him how he feels about the upcoming ban. “I’m depressed, of course.” Though a very sweet guy in general, his tone’s a little snappish. “I smoke two packs a day myself. Everybody in here smokes. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Sonya asks if he has any outdoor smoking area options, and as soon as he’s done freshening drinks and emptying ashtrays he leads us through a narrow door I’ve never noticed before. I wouldn’t call myself a Jamo’s regular, but when I need vintage Sinatra décor, excellent music on the stereo and a game of cribbage (sticky cards no extra charge), Jamo’s is definitely my go-to.
“Watch your step,” he calls behind his shoulder as we pass through a short, narrow hall and out into the skeleton of a charming patio space.
“I’ve got to move this stuff out of the way,” he says, waving his cigarette in the direction of a large, tarp-covered lump in the middle of the space. “Over here I might put a fire pit. I don’t know.”
When I suggest that open fire without staff supervision might not be the way to go, Jamo agrees. “Yeah, it’s going to be great, though, once the furniture’s here and we finish up the last of the carpentry.”
We head back inside, and in short order we’re joined by Sonya’s husband and our mutual friend, Alex. We drink and talk all over each other, solving the world’s problems, some of us cheating on our cigarette quit. We’re all journalists or former journalists, so it’s easy to write this off to story research. Eventually we’re starving – where did those four hours go? Jamo says it’s cool to order Pizza Shuttle and have it delivered, so we do.
Seated in our gold vinyl booth, Beck’s Guerolito lending dimension to the already quirky, somehow perfect ambiance, we ponder the future of corner bars like Jamo’s. Sure, the customers might still attend faithfully, but what will become of the communal bull sessions born of long sits in one place, surrounded by people grown familiar over time? If every conversation is interrupted by frequent frigid smoke breaks that take one or more players off the field of dialectic play, what becomes of the sport itself?
For these folks, at least, the trade-off for better health isn’t worth it in the least.
“If I cared about being in a smoke-free environment, I could find a million of them,” summarizes one regular, a man who looks to be in his fifties and who himself is sporting one of those e-cigarettes. “It’s really nobody’s business but mine. If you don’t like smoke, don’t work in a smoky place or patronize it.” His voice raises as his speech gains momentum.
“How long do we let the government take away our basic freedoms, one by one, in the name of the Greater Good, before we can’t even pretend we’re a democracy?” The regulars murmur agreement.
“Not very damn long!” affirms another.
“Shut up, Tom (name changed). This country has never even been a true democracy. It’s been about avoiding taxation from the very first second of its existence!”
The small room grows suddenly lively as a heated new debate begins. Several of the men at the bar are still going at it as we head out into the summer night, gulping the fresh air like water in the desert. Today my lungs burn a little, but I get it. Sometimes there’s just no fire without a little smoke. And that pun’s intended. We’ll see soon what happens to the art of bar room conversation after the ban, and whether it can survive the loving arms of state-sponsored paternalism.