Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Firing Up the Muse

Following what is now a national trend, the State of Iowa has for the most part gone smokeless. While our state legislature sees fit to allow smoking in Casinos (and in an isolated American Legion bar here and there), the majority of the state's restaurants and bars are now smoke free, save those establishments which have outdoor beer gardens and which don't serve food; in those cases—like The Picador, Martini's, or Joe's in Iowa City—a patron can (as The Picador advertised on a chalkboard propped outside its front door the day after the smoking ban went into effect) "come in and enjoy a relaxing smoke in our beer garden."

There has been no poetry I know of to celebrate the institution of this new law. Perhaps this is because poetry has, for many years, been on the side of smoking in bars—or at least on the side of having a relaxing smoke during happy hour or while enjoying a nightcap. Printed on matchbooks throughout the midcentury, these poems were funny and oftentimes given away as advertisements for bars and taverns themselves. Drinkers and smokers carried bits of verse around in their pockets or pocketbooks that contained all sorts of free if not useful bits of advice.

Take, for example, a sky-blue matchbook advertising the Trovillion Tavern owned by Glen and Sally of Vienna, Illinois, which provides a barometer by which to measure one's inebriation. Simply titled "Drunk," it reads in call capital letters:



The dimiter lines of the Trovillion Tavern's matchbook cast Glen and Sally's no-doubt smoking establishment—or at least the state of drunkenness—as a decidedly male space. They aren't alone in doing so. Consider the poem distributed on the inside of a matchbook advertising Jean and Bob's 21 Club in Buffalo, Wyoming:

The Bartender Knows

He knows all of our sorrows
And all of our joys
He knows every girl
That chases the boys
He knows all of our troubles
And all of our strife
He knows every man
Who ducks out on his wife

If the bartender told
All that he knows
He would turn all of our friends
Into bitterest foes
He would start forth a story
Which, gaining in force
Would cause all of our wives
To sue for divorce

He would get all of our homes
Mixed up in a fight
He would turn all of our bright days
Into sorrowful nights.
In fact he would keep
The whole town in a stew
If he told a tenth
Of all that he knew

So when out on a party
And from home you steal
Drop in for a drink

"The Bartender Knows" is noteworthy for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it's gratuitously printed on the inside of the matchbook, a space usually left blank because it would have required a separate press run to print the poem there and thus would have cost folks like Jean and Bob more money to purchase. Apparently, though, the cost of including "The Bartender Knows" was worth it.

"The Bartender Knows" is not just an advertisement for the 21 Club—"The Finest Club in Buffalo"—but for the culture of male drinking more generally. Establishing a divide between the female space of the home (from which one escapes) and the male space of the bar (where one seeks out the reassuring company of other men), "The Bartender Knows" is not only about a man (the bartender is identified as a "he") but spoken by a man as well ("all of our wives"). It's a paean to the homosocial space of the bar—the space where the average man finds his true confidante in the person of the barkeep. Indeed, the girl who chases the boys in lines 3 & 4 seems mentioned as a token gesture to heteroxexual relationships, one that is then subordinated if not repressed for the rest of the poem. Humorously, the bar becomes a center of Buffalo, Wyoming's information economy, with the bartender himself serving as an amalgam of godfather and Santa Claus—a figure who knows what you've been doing but promises to not punish you for it, a promise that nonetheless doubles as a constant threat of revelation that establishes and maintains the barkeep's seat of power.

The triangulated relationship between smoking, bars, and men opens up questions about how and where women—such as Sally of the Trovillion Tavern, or Jean of the 21 Club, or even the girl who chases boys in "The Bartender Knows"—fit into this homosocial economy. For years, critics of Virginia Slims' "You've Come a Long Way, Baby" ad have railed against how the cigarette company conflates the act of smoking with actual progress in women's rights. Following a chain of associations from cigarette to poetic matchbook to bar, one better understands the significance of that one Virginia Slim smokey treat: it not only represents a breaking of social taboos against women smoking, but it purports to allow women into the masculine discursive space of the tavern with its kept secrets, its inebriation, and its escape from the home. Virginia Slims doesn't just equate smoking with women's rights; it defines equal rights, one can argue, as men's and women's equal access to the smoking and drinking that takes place in the commercial space of the bar.

Of course, this access to the bar is only a conceptual one for, as these poems show, the actual space of the bar remained a masculine place where the "he" at Trovillion Tavern, for example, can fantasize about being out of the emasculating house when he can hoist a glass, lift a cigarette and, full of his manhood, "rise again."

No comments: