, we postpone the bittersweet parting by pulling out our cigarettes. Between smokers, the habit stands as a powerful symbol. Smoking can be a way of being together and not talking, an escape from a torturous event, an opening line, or an invitation for intimacy. Granted, these are the usual excuses for a vice that’s increasingly unacceptable, but the reality is my smoking habit has fostered the beginnings of many relationships.
I’ve noticed that smoking has increasingly become an inconvenience to those around me, though. The iconography surrounding cigarettes is changing. The back patios of coffee shops are no longer filled with people reading and smoking and engaging, and an ashtray in a public space is pretty rare. As it stands now, I’m prohibited from having a cigarette with my coffee unless I step 15 feet from the door – and even then I have to be careful that there’s no one around whose senses I am offending. The number of public smokers is visibly, undeniably dwindling, and I have to wonder whether the culture that I once felt so at home in even exists anymore. Getting tired of feeling shunned, I decided to seek out a few pockets of public smoking that live on, despite the rest of San Francisco sighing and disapproving.
Tempest is the sort of bar you have a hard time finding. Located in a SOMA alley smack dab between nothing and nothing else, it’s a stunning contrast from its surroundings. The streets outside are dark and the brand of quiet San Franciscans equate to danger, but the panic disappears as soon as I enter.
There’s a shockingly eclectic mix of locals here. Two men with glasses and well-fitting sweaters sit at the bar smiling at each other, while just four feet behind them a woman with a leather vest and long-faded tattoos leans over the pool table, aiming to sink three remaining solids. The bartender is young with twinkly eyes and an askew baseball cap. He calls me “lovely” in a way that’s endearing, and you can just tell he’s the sort of guy who calls his mother regularly. I order the special – a shot of Jim Beam and a Pabst, all for five bucks.
My server’s name is Justin Trujillo, and he isn’t just the bartender. He’s the owner, and so is everyone else who goes behind the bar. By having no official employees, they’re allowed to keep the place as smoky as the patrons can make it. Justin and his friends bought the Tempest from the long-time owner, Eric Berman, who ran the bar for 20 years. The place “was built off regulars,” Justin adds. He claims that many of them met here and have been coming together for years now, and the Tempest indeed seems a worn-in homage to its history.
Justin leaves to empty ashtrays and I take in the décor. It’s like any good story – the pieces shouldn’t make sense together, but they do. There’s a neon light advertising Lucky Strike filters, a cigarette that’s no longer produced, and a boarded-up window. A handsome wooden mantle hangs behind the bar, detailed by soft green- and rose-stained glass. An arcade game with a long-dark screen bears the title “MIDWAY: New Game” and I can’t help but think about the people who were here when it was new, when Lucky Strikes were still an icon of American class.
I approach a group of people in plain clothes and fine hats. They’re playing cards at a table, all smoking and laughing, involved in a game called “Impossible Munchkin” that sounds ridiculously intricate. Brian, who is heavyset with handsome canine teeth and a serious five-o‘clock shadow, agrees to talk to me about smoking.
He clenches his Marlboro between his teeth, spreads his large hands wide, and says, “I’d rather live a good, short life. I fucking love smoking – shit, is it ok that I say fuck?” Brian affirms that the Tempest is a community, and that he feels more at home here than in most of San Francisco. We talk for a bit and when I get up to leave, those at the table insist on swapping jokes. I pitch my favorite one, which has a punch line that only works with certain types. “So a guy walks into a bar,” I say, “and he stays there for the rest of my childhood.” They bend over, screaming and hooting, and high five me.
I think it’s rare for this sort of bonding to happen between strangers at normal bars, where groups of people bump each other on their way to buy a drink, but rarely do they leave the night with new friends. With fewer of us out in public now, it seems smokers are even more willing to extend themselves to other members of the moribund breed.
My next stop is Summer Place, a bar on top of a hill in the Financial District with a charmingly misleading name. It’s sleek where the Tempest is down-home, less of a party zone and more of a hiding place. There’s a crackling fireplace and leather swivel chairs, a jukebox with fine sound and a large selection, and a Creature from the Black Lagoon video game that whirs and flashes softly. I arrive in the early evening on a Monday and the other people are all in pairs involved in quiet conversation or contemplation. Some just put a song on and take deep drags of their cigarettes, perhaps enjoying the memories the music evokes. People here seem deep in thought, either trying to remember or forget.
While I don’t see locals from different worlds interacting as boisterously as they did at the Tempest, there’s still a sense of awareness of the other patrons at the bar. When I sit down on the stool and take out a cigarette, an older man pushes his ashtray toward me, and the woman on my left wordlessly offers a light when she sees me looking for mine. There’s a whole etiquette surrounding smoking that dictates a kindness to strangers that you just don’t see elsewhere. Summer Place is quiet, but in no way unfriendly. There’s an unspoken agreement between drinkers that we’re here for the same reason, and when I get up to go, people look up at me with placid smiles.
My last stop is Wild Side West, a neighborhood bar in Bernal Heights. You can’t smoke indoors, but there’s an enormous back area that’s equal parts jungle, estate sale, and fantastical dream. It embodies the spirit of San Francisco that I adore: No matter how old you are, life should always be a playground. There are Christmas lights of all colors wrapped around the trees, and carousel horses sprinkled everywhere – hiding in branches, and splayed in claw-foot bathtubs among thriving plants.
Soon after I sit down, a woman with short blonde hair and a golden smile comes to pick up empties. She has a hearty laugh and tells me her name is Fritz, but her official title is “Bar Bitch.” I tell her I’m writing a piece on good bars for smokers and she offers to grab one of her favorite regulars.
Minutes later, a middle-aged man with long hair makes his way down the steps into the backyard. He looks at me cautiously. “You the broad talking ’bout cigarettes? Now which side are you on, exactly?” he asks. I hold up my glowing ember and he laughs. “Well, thank god,” he adds. “Move over and let’s talk.”
Bryan Tesar moved to San Francisco 33 years ago from Idaho. He’s been smoking since he was 12 and coming to Wild Side West for 26 years. What he likes about the place, he says, is that everyone’s welcome. “Gay. Straight. Transvestite. Transgender. Me, I’m hopelessly heterosexual, but it doesn’t matter here one way or the other.”
Bryan and I talk for near half an hour, though I mostly just listen and nod. He gets up to leave and stops to turn around five feet later. “So what are your dreams in life, anyway?” he asks. I don’t really know him, and chances are slim to none I’ll see him again, but I answer as wholly and honestly as I can.
What I replied to Bryan isn’t the important part. It’s more valuable to realize that our shared smoking vice left us a little more vulnerable. Within these smoking communities, we are more open to forming connections, interested in sharing with strangers we wouldn’t otherwise find a reason to chat with. The truth is, without a cigarette in hand, I wouldn’t have talked to Bryan, and he wouldn’t have smiled wistfully and wished me luck.
Whether you’re among us smokers or just a sympathizer, enjoy the sunset while tangled in a garden at Wild Side West at 424 Cortland Ave. Get some quiet time by the fireplace at Summer Place at 801 Bush, and be prepared to make friends at the Tempest at 431 Natoma.