Erin Petersen
Smoke ’em while you got ’em

The Polish Falcon

By - Jul 2nd, 2010 04:00 am
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Photos by Erin Petersen

About a month ago, after a long day in the first rush of summer heat I popped into a corner bar for a drink, my weathered “going out” pack of rolling tobacco in hand. As I wiped the sweat from my bottle of beer and went to light up, I tried to imagine what that particular bar might be like sans the hefty cloud that normally hangs somewhere between the ceiling and the top of my head.

For that matter, what would most bars be like? A few places decided to extinguish preemptively and are doing just fine.

But then there are those places where it just seems to be part of the architecture; homey bars that are always peppered with a cast of familiar faces, places where you can sit for hours on end, talking shit and sharing laughs with the regular crowd. In these places, lighting up is all apart of the ritual that takes place during weekday happy hours and in the dusky time before bar close.

The Polish Falcon is one of those places. It’s a neighborhood hub, hosting art fairs, birthday parties, zine festivals, weddings, bowling leagues and spaghetti dinners. During Packer games, regulars put out a spread on the bar and share drinks while watching the home team.

In the heart of hip-to-death Riverwest, The Falcon isn’t trying to be a hot spot or appease any particular tastes. Everyone is welcome, always, but don’t go there expecting low lights and thumping dance beats. The lights are always up, the T.V. is always on and there’s a an old jukebox near the pool table. Have at.

I’m there on a Saturday night, in the strange twilight between the happy hour crowd and the weekend ragers. No one is thrilled about the ban, but most of the people I talk to seem indifferent. Beyond the inconvenience of having to walk a few feet outdoors, these folks don’t really care. They’re either smoking because it’s an addiction or because they need something to do with their hands.

They’re at the Falcon because they like the atmosphere and the people, and a smoking ban won’t keep them from that.

There are people like Jim, who pops in for a few rounds of bar dice and a six pack most days of the week. Jim smokes long, off-brand menthol cigs.

“I think it makes sense for restaurants and places that mostly serve food, but not in bars,” he says, lighting his grit and offering one to me, which I politely refuse. Jim’s a little tipsy at that point and insists on holding my hand while we talk, but he’s harmless and happy to meet new people.

The bartender  tells me that he doesn’t agree with the ban, but he’s looking forward to it  since it will force him to cut down on his own habit. “It’ll be interesting, that’s for sure,” he says.

Looking around the long, oval shaped bar that night, about 75 percent of patrons are smoking. They vary in age from twentysomethings to baby boomers, but they all know each other by name and everyone gets a friendly word on their way in or out the door.

The owners live above the bar and keep a close eye on the neighborhood. A huge floodlight detracts would-be burglars from breaking into cars on that block of Fratney Street and most mornings you’ll find Lynn out on the front stoop, chatting with passersby and taking stock of the day. Once, she noticed that my car was parked on the wrong side of the street. The parking checker ticketed the car, and then placed a marker on it for the tow truck. It was 8 a.m. on a Sunday and Lynn banged on my front door until I woke up, saving me about $150 and a trip to the city tow lot.

She didn’t have to do that, but she did. It was just the neighborly thing to do.

It’s for reasons like this that I absolutely love the Polish Falcon and the people who are regularly perched at its bar. It is what it is. It hasn’t gone through any major face-lifts in an attempt to attract a different crowd, like a middle-aged divorcée with a bottle of Grecian Formula and a sports car. People gather there for cheap drinks, good conversation and most of all, a sense of community that will outlast this ban and other changes that the future may bring.

Personally, I hate smoking. Wait, scratch that — I sort of love smoking.  The taste, the smell of a freshly-opened pack  and the way that a good, hard drag pinches at my chest and seems to make my blood run thin; these are the romantic whimsies that keep me puffing away.

But later,once that’s worn off, I hate that I know it’s bad and do it anyway, and in the meantime got to be “that person” who is constantly bumming smokes from friends and strangers. I’ve awoken many a Saturday morning cursing my Friday night self, who threw caution and responsible choices to the wind and decided to have a few cigarettes. Saturday morning Erin has a stuffy nose and a sick belly, and needs to wash the stink out of her hair, clothes and bed linens.

But in Milwaukee, even non-smokers light up at the bar — for no other reason than because they can, because it’s just one of the behind-the-times anomalies of this town that we all appreciate in an ironic sense. It’s one of the things that make Milwaukee a real salt-of-the-earth sort of place.

But now the time has come for our culture to shift, and for the better. The last safe place for Erin The Smoker is within the dark and ash-tinged walls of my regular bars, and I’m looking forward to losing that safety net.

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