The Last Refuge

Campbell's smoking ban encroaches on the sanctity of Mecca -- otherwise known as The Bar.

Danny Deckchair Shaker Square Cinemas
Cliff (front) and nephew Chris Noble at their family's - tavern, where people believe they can think for - themselves. - Walter  Novak
Cliff (front) and nephew Chris Noble at their family's tavern, where people believe they can think for themselves.
Cliff, a reed of a man with a high-mileage look and a smile that says he enjoyed every minute building it, lets his stogie linger in the ashtray. He manages the Union Club Tavern, not to be confused with the upscale Union Club on Euclid, where politicians, executives, and other lowlifes congregate. This is the real Union Club, on 26th and St. Clair, home to a higher class of people.

On this Wednesday afternoon, all but one of Cliff's customers are partaking of tasty American tobacco products. You'd find the same ratio any day, he says. His clientele consists largely of union members, who come from the elevator, iron, steel, fire, cement, and bricklayer halls that dot this semi-inhabited stretch of the near East Side. And these people, mostly middle-aged, with jobs and mortgages and kids, believe they can make their own decisions.

That includes whether to smoke or not.

"I know it's not good for you," says Cliff. "But it's my choice."

Yet if Mayor Jane Campbell has her way, Cliff and company will soon be relieved of their right to think. She wants a smoking ban that would include restaurants and bars. While it's hard to quarrel with restaurants -- they're open to kids, and kids get first consideration -- bars are an entirely different matter.

The Union Club is an unremarkable place, physically speaking. It has the requisite green paint and fake wood paneling, NFL highlights on the TV, and particle board patching a section of wall. Its beauty, however, is unmistakable.

Arrive on a Friday night, and you might conclude you're at a family reunion. Everyone seems to know everyone. They want to adopt you.

Cliff describes his place as a social club/church. "For a short period of time, he's in a synagogue, a temple of some sort," he says of his customers. "You don't come to get drunk. You come to see your friends. A lot of these guys are lonely -- they're divorced, they're widowed. They come to see a smiling face."

It's all very good and therapeutic and comforting -- and you'll find variations of the same theme at hundreds of bars from Glenville to Old Brooklyn. But if Campbell were to invoke her smoking ban today, Cliff knows what would happen to his parish on St. Clair. "I'd be broke."

He's an apolitical man who, like most people, knows that government is something you endure, not look to for guidance. "We've been through 43 presidents," he says, "and we've survived every fucking one of them. How bad can they hurt us?"

But he wants no beef with the city, so he refuses to give his last name and tiptoes around questions of a ban. Yet he wonders if anyone in Campbell's office understands the city they represent. "I would hope that she has some regular people around her. Does she? I don't know."

Which, of course, is the real problem here. While conservatives are rightfully ripped for playing the moral Gestapo -- always wanting to spill your blood and legislate your bedroom -- liberals take a more patronizing approach. They claim to fight for The People, but they too believe that The People can't decide things for themselves, so they treat them as a colonial power treats the natives, always deciding what's best.

Campbell says she's acting for health reasons. And Smoke Free Ohio is carpet-bombing airwaves and newspapers -- including this rag -- with tales of cancer and death. They want to protect restaurant-and-bar workers, they say. It's a noble goal.

But Michelle Konjicija can protect herself, thank you. She's a stunning woman, 40 going on 25, and tending the Union Club bar on this day. A health nut who just returned from a 150-mile bike ride, she's the kind who drinks protein shakes for lunch. Yet she wants no part of a ban. "Woe is her," she says of the Smoke Free Ohio ads.

Konjicija is something of an expert. She's conducted 23 years of field study, having worked in bars since she was 17. She knows it to be a transient industry with rarely a shortage of help-wanted ads. "This is not the only job there is. You can work in a really nice restaurant or a very nice bar and make just as much money or more, and there's hardly any smoke." She cites places like Great Lakes and Johnny Mango, which have already decided to go smoke-free at the wishes of their customers.

But that's the critical point -- the customer's wishes. And these are very different joints with very different clientele. While they may curse the gray haze inspired by American tobacco farmers, the boys at the neighborhood tavern do not.

Here, as long as you remain the gentleman, you're free to shoot off your mouth, argue about strong safeties, smoke, lament your marriage, drink too much, and take warmth in the good hands of friendship. It's the rare refuge where lawyers, bosses, status, and fashion don't govern every move. There's no punch clock, no hectoring foreman, no employee handbook. The patrons make the rules. It's the closest thing we have to pure freedom.

"Reality, you hang it up at the door and pick it up again when you leave," says Cliff.

Sociologists have long complained about our loss of community. But sociologists, it appears, have never been to a neighborhood tavern. These places are among the last good things Cleveland has going for it. And they should be preserved, without political intrusion, if only as museums to remind people that we were once free, and that we thought for ourselves.

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