O TEMPORA, O MORES!

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As long-ago radio news anchor Gabriel Heatter used to begin his (usually dolorous) wartime broadcasts to a waiting nation, "Ah, there's bad news tonight."

I feel sort of like Mr. Heatter at the moment, being a drinker and, though not currently a smoker, one who enjoys the pungent scent of someone else's cigar or cigarette. Or like actor Ned Sparks, a sourpuss who at least once in each of his movies would be asked by a small urchin, "But don't you ever smile, Mr. Sparks?" and Sparks would reply, "I'm smiling now, Sonny."

Well, at the moment, I am both sourpussed and dolorous. There is bad news and no way around it.

At the 21 Club, the owner fired the man who's been running the joint, Ken Aretsky. And on this very day, April 10, a no-smoking ordinance goes into effect for restaurants and gin mills all over New York city.

First to the more precisely defined subject of the 21 Club (as opposed to the cosmological matter of whether Americans are to be allowed to purchase tobacco, pay enormous taxes, and then not be permitted to light up the stuff).

When I read in The New York Observer and on Page Six of the New York Post, that the owner of 21, Marshall Cogan, had sacked Kenny Aretsky, the manager, on grounds Mr. Aretsky was making too much money (a reported $400,000 a year) and liked to sit around the place evenings dining with his pals enjoying himself, I figured I'd better get right over there and cover the story.

It was a pleasant Monday afternoon, sunny and springlike, and when I got to West 52nd Street there was no sign of combat, no bullet holes in the historic old facade, no blood in the vestibule through which over the years have strode the glories of Madison Avenue, Broadcast Row, and through which, on the way out, was borne General of the Armies Omar Bradley on the day he died, passing out within those storied walls.

Harry, who has been there since shortly after Prohibition was repealed, greeted me at the door. It was just past 5 p.m and I strolled into the bar, prepared to elbow my way to the mahogany for a refreshment. But there was no one to elbow. Just five out of towners knocking back a quick one prior to sitting down to an early dinner and inquiring of waiters and one another, "How do you get to Madison Square Garden from here?"

Ettore the barman fetched me a glass. Except that the joint was empty, all seemed normal. And, after all, it was a Monday during Lent.

Michael the chef (he's been there eight years and been the top man for the past six) came out to welcome me aboard. "Seventy-five years they've been in business," he said, referring to antecedent establishments, "and 65 years in this building. It'll be here when you and I are gone." I lifted a glass to that and glanced about the barroom (three women had now entered). All seemed routine.

Junk still hung from the ceilings, the walls remained adorned with Peter Arno and Whitney Darrow Jr. cartoons from The New Yorker, there was a framed dollar bill dated 1959 from then-Treasury Secretary Robert B. Anderson to 21 Club owner Peter Kriendler, plus two framed (rear) horseshoes worn at Hialeah in 1956 by Nashua. And by now a guy named Dick O'Connor was puffing away at a superb cigar.

I've been going to the 21 Club since the Marine Corps set me free in 1952 and I've known Ken Aretsky since he and his partner Steve Ohrenstein operated an Upper East Side saloon called Oren & Aretsky's (Oren's kid is now the first Jewish quarterback in Notre Dame history) and I am quite sure both 21 and Mr. Aretsky will survive the current unpleasantness and, a year from now, the drinkers will be back bellying up to the bar on 52nd Street and that Ken will be running another great place and that I will be attending and spending money at both establishments.

That is, if there are any joints left in New York from this new law that goes into effect today!

Who will be the first New Yorker arrested by the smoke police for lighting up a Marlboro? At a time when in Washington they are busily dismantling clean air regulations so that it is more permissible to pollute America, New York's City Council, which somehow didn't get the word that's the direction things are going these days, voted in this new no-smoking bill.

So even as you read this, the smoke police will be out there, truncheons in hand and cuffs at the ready, legally enabled and apparently willing, to haul you off for igniting a Lucky at Elaine's or a Cohiba at the Four Seasons. Several years ago when the subject was first bruited about, Tom Margittai of the Seasons remarked to me, "Can you see me going over to Sandy Weill after lunch and telling Sandy he can't light a cigar?"

No, frankly, I couldn't. But as of today, the Black Mariahs will be presumably out there at the East 52nd Street curb, ready to cart off Mr. Weill (and perhaps Mr. Margittai, as a co-conspirator) to Rikers Island to join the crack dealers, graffiti vandals, and assorted wiseguys who make up this city's penal population.

I am frequently wrong and may be so now, but I think this law is going to be as widely ignored as Prohibition and will bring down derision on the heads of its sponsors and reinforce the notion around here there are lots of laws you don't have to acknowledge. And on the enforcement side, we've got 30,000 cops, not enough to keep up with the sex perverts. And now they're going to be bursting through the doors of Tavern on the Green to club smokers to their knees and drag them off in chains?

What next? Flogging, the ducking stool, an iron cage to St. Helena's, branding and the thumb screw? Is New York to become the new Singapore?

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