Smoke ’em while you got ’em

The Cactus Club

By - Jun 29th, 2010 04:00 am
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Photos by Nicole Braunsdorf

The Cactus club must be one of the most notoriously smokey bars in this hemisphere. After spending a grip of time there, my eyes adapted to the point where I now use Lysol for contact solution, just to keep my tolerance up.

There is no doubt that the upcoming mass extinguish will alter the personality of the place, but it is also certain to be a relief to employees and smoke-sensitive concert goers.

Cactus is no stranger to drastic change and I assume they will continue to fare well after Milwaukee has kicked its nasty habit.

I talked briefly with bar manager Chris Schulist about what will or won’t happen to the place after July 5th. “It’s a good thing,” he said, “I’m sick of breathing it all the time.”

He said he was unsure how business would be affected on nights without live music and offered no insight on how hard the famously fumed vibe of the club will die.

When I think of seeing bands in dark, smokey rooms, I understand the smoke bit as a part of the whole — an almost necessary component of many of the performances a place like Cactus hosts. Chris disagreed shortly.

I looked around and noticed that all 7 or so people sitting at the bar on this Wednesday evening were smoking, including myself. I was reminded that in a few short days, each person sitting here would be shuffling back and forth, up and down, alone and in pairs and groups, small-talking about the smoking ban, the weather and people they commonly know, making a Ladies Room of Outside.

I asked Chris if they had any plans for outdoor accommodations for their smoker-heavy clientele. “No,” he replied, “we’re going to have extra door people on show nights.” He added, “People are going to have to realize that they’re in a residential area.” Cactus has had trouble with neighborhood complaints in the past, and having a large percentage of their attendees stepping outside frequently might prove to be a problem.

However, once we’re back in the clutch of that unmentionable and dark season between October and April, only those with inspired dedication will be seen outdoors, bonded by their chapped fingers and frost-bitten lungs, wasting little to none of their visibly frigid breath on the trivialities of spring and summer.

The main attraction at The Cactus Club is music, and as long as they continue to book quality bands, people will continue to show up. As Chris put it, “We will be fine.” I think he’s right on that. Cactus will be just fine.

I’ve heard the phrase “level playing field” used several times while talking with people about the new law. Simply refusing every bar the ability to permit smoking doesn’t level the field any more than having a uniform drinking age or closing time.

People will still go to places based on familiarity and entertainment options that interest them. Places with stages have an advantage in this department as things that happen on stages are generally more interesting than things that don’t. Music lovers, haters and fashionable decoys; both smoking and non, will continue to go shows, and people who go to Dave & Buster’s will keep stackin’ tickets.

The fast approaching ban does allude to an air of neutrality, but I think it’s much more boring than I had previously anticipated. It’s just another inevitable rule. There will be more, and they too will be totally boring. For the entirety of my mentionable life I have been going to rock shows in dark, smokey rooms. These rooms have a striking and distinct personality that permeates every impression making moment you have there, and every minute detail is a necessary component.

Fortunately, romantic disillusionment concerning the poetry of personality is off the map of public policy. The dark and smokey rooms I have fallen in love with and in will no longer exist, but the future feels clear and fragrant, albeit boring… and increasingly totalitarian.

By nature, I am a chain smoker. I will continue to be a chain smoker regardless of where I am allowed to exist. Over the course of a vast epoch spanning billions of Bics, Philip Morris, Winston Salem, R. J. Reynolds and myself have woven an intricate symbiosis, a covalent bond so fundamental that time itself would stretch and snap should our chemical coalescence suddenly cease.

Cigarettes depend on me to smoke them. I depend on cigarettes to help facilitate, accentuate and punctuate the daily roller-coaster of triumph and tragedy. It is a natural selection.

In a world where industrial and vehicular emissions crudely collude with Strontium-90 and a nebula of PCB’s to produce a cornucopia of cancers, I will remain a chain smoker. Like a religious fanatic, I disregard the labors of science and the stances of those wiser to preserve my perverse deviance from logic. Smoking is a prime example of twisted ignorance acting as a cultural unifier. A global, language-less salute to the efficiency and cold-blooded-ness of marketing and advertising.

This winter I will be lurking outside in the dark with chapped fingers and frost-bitten lungs, chasing the Tobacco Dragon to the ends of Earth in a never-ending adventure of tragic heroism in a cold, deceptive space while the population of purgatory soars with the surge of newly non-smokers who don’t know what to do with their hands now.

Theirs is a windowless world of ambiguous limbo, but it’s warm in there.

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