Smoke ’em while you got ’em

Linneman’s Riverwest Inn

By - Jun 28th, 2010 04:00 am
Sign-up for the Urban Milwaukee daily email

Photos by Nicole Braunsdorf

Life changes. The habits and relationships that seem the most fixed are always subject to change. Any day now, the bottom is going to drop out from under the feet of many thousands of Wisconsin bar patrons: the old affair that each smoker has with his smoke of choice is about to be strained by the statewide smoking ban.

By this time you’ve most certainly heard all about it. Maybe you’re freaking out. Maybe the thought of such a drop-off makes you want to smoke one right now. Maybe you’re in denial and won’t think about it until it happens. Maybe you’re wondering where you’ll be when that nicotine craze really hits you.

Cravings started really hitting me a few months ago. It happened when I was Linneman’s Riverwest Inn. Walking in for the first time, I remember being socked by the intense scent of cigarettes, which I hated at the time, but now I barely notice. Prior to January, I had gone through only a few packs during my last college finals or lit up a couple of times over celebratory PBRs, but it always was with a degree of levity and a healthy dose of self-deprecation.

My smoking habit was a fling, you see — until I moved to Milwaukee. I found out that cigarettes aren’t considered evil in Milwaukee. Furthermore, they go oh so well with booze, music and conversation.

You may know of Linneman’s as a neighborhood bar, or you may think of it more as a concert venue, where makers and lovers of music gather to kick back beers and American Spirits. The owners are Jim and Marty. Jim is the in-house sound man, who expertly and attentively runs the sound at open mic and for the bands who cycle through. Marty is the lady of the house, a rare live music DVD collector, who also serves as the primary bartender, herself gracefully burning down several cigarettes a night. This couple has operated the place for almost twenty years.

When I asked Marty what she thought of the impending ban, she was calm and cool. “ It’s just fine. It’ll be healthier for everyone. I’m glad that it’s statewide, though” she conceded. Though she admits that business might experience a hiccup in the immediate wake of the ban, she’s confident that “things will shake out.”

Marty and Jim are not your typical bar owners, and Linneman’s is not your typical bar. The reason why Marty is confident that business will continue to come is that the establishment is a music venue first, and a neighborhood bar second.

“The people who come to Linneman’s are mostly really nice people who love music.” Marty asserts. And it’s true. I make a point of getting out to the open mic on Wednesday nights because the sound quality attracts discerning musicians, and the quality of performance often follows suit.

The reverence for music is evident to anyone who wanders in. Right off the bat, flanking the bar are two large TVs streaming DVDs of old concerts of rock and folk legends (the one playing when I first went in was Joni Mitchell — a warm welcome, indeed). Around the place are personal pieces of art that Jim an Marty have collected, ranging from a portrait of Bob Dylan to photos of Janis Joplin,  a night-light in the shape of an acoustic guitar to the fixture of Sigmund Snopeck, perched at the bar.

Ultimately, the energy of Linneman’s will have to shift, but it won’t suffer a lack of music: it’s the life-blood of the place. The changes will have to take place on an individual level. Musicians will have to find something else to do about nerves and boredom. A Marlboro butt on the floor of the restroom gave away the fact that some of the patrons here are going to have a harder time than others in dealing with the ban.

When I asked Marty what, if anything, she is worried about in terms of her own habit (neither she or Jim drink, but they both smoke), she laughed and said “I’m just a little worried that I’ll be bored.”

Obviously the changing terms of our relations with nicotine and oral fixatives will mean that one might just reconsider the whole thing. One can all look at this transition as a new beginning in a few ways: weaning oneself from a fix can bring about new awareness and acuity.

For instance, if you quit smoking, you might live longer, but more immediately, you’ll definitely be able to bike farther! Also, things will begin to taste much more potent. Including beer. Maybe the other senses will be augmented as well.

And maybe, just maybe, music sounds better when singers don’t have to struggle against the haze of a bar full of smoke.

But, for the die-hards out there, there is another exciting thing to come out of this ban: the phenomenon of smoker’s circles. You’ll see. Cigarettes become a deviant social lubricant; a mode of seduction. In New York (where I come from) the ban has been around since I was entering middle school, and so we have always been forced to put intention into the act of smoking. In other words, friends and lovers are quickly made among the shadowy army of smoker’s with whom we sate our cravings.

Here’s the gist: crawl away from the world and the party, and take your favorite person and pack with you.

Welcome to the world of smoker’s circles, Milwaukee. If you can’t or won’t move on from the fix you need, in a few months’ time you’ll find yourself standing (cursing like a sailor) in the freezing wind with someone or a group of someones, hopefully laughing about your unsavory addiction.

How and who you choose to share that discomfort with is an opportunity for intimacy that you won’t understand until you have to work it.

0 thoughts on “Smoke ’em while you got ’em: Linneman’s Riverwest Inn”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I have visited many taverns in my search for votes and listened to many patrons, frustrated that they won’t be able to light up at their favorite spot, as they have done for years or decades. I have little to offer them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *