No-Sin Zone

By Joe Keohane | Boston Magazine |

The British drinker/novelist Kingsley Amis once argued that "the human race has not devised any way of dissolving barriers, getting to know the other chap fast, breaking the ice, that is one-tenth as handy and efficient [as alcohol]. Conversation, hilarity, and drink are connected in a profoundly human, peculiarly intimate way." After several hours in Stanza dei Sigari, smoking and drinking and fulminating with Kingsbury, our back and forth takes a turn, and we find ourselves swapping stories about our weird first jobs. That devolves into a wholesale denunciation of today’s teenagers, who, it’s concluded, have neither character nor style. The two of us end up getting mightily polluted sitting in that corner solving the world’s problems. At midnight, stinking of smoke, we carefully mount the stairs back out onto Hanover Street. I fall into a cab and relax in the back, listening to the radio, scribbling nonsensical notes, and enjoying the bracing wind on my face and the view of the illuminated Zakim as the taxi hurtles across it.

Seven hours later, I awake to a gruesome hangover—which, echoing John Steinbeck, I try to accept as consequence, not punishment. It was a night spent smoking and getting drunk, undoubtedly much more fun than whatever wholesome alternatives Boston was offering that Tuesday night. A local business made some money (two, if you count the cabbie), no laws were broken, and the only person hurt was me, and even then it was a glancing blow. To sane people, this is a winner all around. But to the city it’s something that I and everyone else should be forbidden from doing ever again.

In the BRA archive at the Boston Public Library, there’s a 1973 letter from the late, great Dan Ahern, a force in shaping the modern Back Bay as executive director of the Back Bay Federation for Community Development. Writing to the agency in the run-up to the nation’s bicentennial, Ahern made his case for the creation of an adult entertainment district (he was pushing, unsuccessfully, for putting it in Park Square) in a small masterpiece of wit and pragmatism. "We would be unwise to assume that all of the 18 million visitors will be clean-minded mid-Americans who will spend their daytimes tramping the Freedom Trail and then, after a New England boiled dinner, bed down at an early hour," Ahern wrote. "We must recognize that the Bicentennial hordes will contain a fair number of swingers who will be looking for night life in the city. Some of these will be satisfied with the kind of entertainment which you and I prefer: symphony, drama, chamber music, etc. But others will want something more earthy. They will be looking for nightclubs, topless restaurants, porno movies, and the other kinds of entertainment which they associate with big-city life at its very best."

Imagine: recognizing that certain people want to indulge in certain legal activities that you find distasteful, and finding a way to accommodate them. Those days, we allowed people to watch X-rated films in public theaters in Boston. Now we don’t even want them smoking cigars. As the mayor rolls on, stamping out human impulses he deems unseemly, it’s becoming painfully clear that if anyone has less self-control than sinners, it’s the self-appointed saints.