Down a steep, narrow staircase off Hanover Street in the North End is Stanza dei Sigari, one of the city’s few remaining cigar bars. It was a speakeasy during Prohibition, and it still looks the part, with its leather chairs, dark wood, rough-hewn brick walls, touches of wrought iron, and glass curio cabinets loaded with old cigar paraphernalia. If it weren’t for the incongruous ’80s music and the plasma TVs (now required in all city businesses), the place would be utterly timeless.
On a cool night earlier this fall, I sat for hours down there with Eastie businessman/The Snob blogger/Republican sparring partner Colin Kingsbury, smoking cigars and divesting the bar of its supply of good whiskey. In a previous life, Kingsbury had worked at the Ehrlich’s cigar store on Tremont Street, and that experience, combined with his towering disdain for overreaching governments, made him an ideal companion for this excursion. Not long before, Mayor Tom Menino had announced the latest phase of his war against smoking: banning it on outdoor patios at bars, prohibiting drugstores and any business on a college campus from selling cigarettes, and most outrageous of all, shutting down cigar bars, like the one we were sitting in. The move carries more than a faint whiff of fascism. "It feels to me like, ‘You’ve made your point,’" Kingsbury says. "But is there no sense of limitation? Are you not going to be satisfied until we’re all drinking wheatgrass and riding our bicycles to work? Where does it end?"
It’s a fair question. Clearly, the mayor won’t be content until every last dried leaf of tobacco is purged from the city. It doesn’t matter what the context is—whether it’s a cigarette, a cigar, or a cigarillo, or whether it’s the product of Big Tobacco, full of tar and poisonous chemicals, or hand-rolled wares sold by and consumed by consenting adults within a historic family-run business like Stanza dei Sigari. A public-health push has officially bloomed into a full-scale moral crusade—nothing new in a town long governed by the belief that grown men and women are simply incapable of living their own lives without destroying the city and leaving their immortal souls littered everywhere like blown-out umbrellas after a nor’easter.
The tobacco purge galls in part because it’s so odiously paternalistic, but also because the previous anti-smoking push already drove smoking rates down to a record low. Yet try to tell a fanatic he’s being excessive, and he’ll take it as encouragement. Besides, it’s not just smoking the mayor is hoping to stamp out in this late stage of his rule—it’s vices of all sorts. It’s curious to behold his old-school fervor (and slapstick and hypocrisy) for clean living, considering Bostonians have become a distressingly healthy lot of late, both in mind and body. Along with million-dollar condos on every block and luxury shopping on every corner, his vision of the city increasingly seems to include a deeper and more refined form of gentrification: one of the soul. It’s enough to drive you to drink.