James Leavey's Corner
Lighting Up In The Big Apple

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Lighting Up in the Big Apple

by James Leavey, editor, The FOREST Guide to Smoking in London
and The FOREST Guide to Smoking in Scotland

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James Leavey

A couple of years ago, I asked Harvey Keitel if he would be the subject of a 'My favourite cigar' ' article. He politely refused, on the grounds that as a major Hollywood star, he didn't wish to be seen encouraging smoking. All this from a noted cigar aficionado who had just appeared as a Havana-chompin' New York cigar shop owner in two films, Smoke and Blue in the Face.

Part of Keitel's cautiousness, I guess, was that he is a well-known citizen of New York City, where smoking in restaurants with more than 35 seats has been banned since the Smoke-Free Air Act was passed in 1995. An odd ruling, that. Surely it would be more sensible to discourage smoking in smaller restaurants rather than the bigger ones.

Anyway, the anti-smoking puritans have now shifted their crusade to the bar. Not that the Big Apple's smoke-easies are likely to take much notice. For while fewer diners may be consuming first- or second-hand smoke, a newly hardened resistance of serial and social smokers is digging in.

According to the New York Times, NYC's smokers are puffing away at an underground network of restaurants that would rather risk a health inspection than alienate valued customers. But then you can always tell where New York's rich, hip and sophisticated like to party - by the tell-tales clouds of Cuban tobacco smoke.

Meanwhile, over 700 New York City restaurants cheerfully ignored the anti-smoking regulation, last year, and many of them are listed

For the casual smoker-friendly visitor to New York, it all comes down to this: most of the city's restaurants have a smoking section somewhere, usually the bar. The rules are relaxed late at night, mainly because they don't want you to take your smokes and custom elsewhere.

In New York, money talks. And the last thing most of its inhabitants want is to seem is unsophisticated, or uncool. And smoking, especially cigars, is still very cool in NYC.

If you're loaded (with money, not booze), you will always find a home in swish cigar bars like Club Macanudo. But even if you've spent a fortune getting a ticket for a Broadway show, you will still not be allowed to light up inside any theatre, not even the lobby, even if you're watching a famous performer enjoying a smoke on stage.

So where to go" Well a good place to enjoy a cigar is the deck of the Staten Island ferry (which runs a 24 hour service) on the Hudson river. But make sure you stand at the stern and that the wind is blowing the smoke away from the boat, as some intolerant non-smokers have been known to complain.

You can also smoke next to Eiffel's famous Statue of Liberty, which welcomes one and all to America, but they'd prefer you didn't light up inside it. And don't even think of using Miss Liberty's torch.

In fact, don't even think of smoking indoors anywhere in New York, aside from a bar or a specially designated area in a restaurant, or tobacco shop (for a current list, check the links on Most of the hotels would also prefer you didn't light up, so always check when making that booking.

All this explains why you will probably see more cigar smokers on the streets of New York than any other city around the world, except Havana. I once got told off for lighting a cigar at the top of the Empire State Building. Over the years at least sixteen people have committed suicide by jumping off the top of the platform on the 86th floor. Maybe they thought I was enjoying a final smoke before the leap.

If you get fed up pacing the streets with a cigar and want to gen up on tobacco, nip into the New York Public Library on 42nd Street, adjacent to Bryant Park between Fifth Avenue, where there are many smokers, and the fashion district, where, as they say, there are not many non-smokers.

The non-smoking library has an amazing collection of documents, dating back to Colonial times, including an original copy of King James' s infamous Counterblaste to Tobacco, illustrations and paintings and drawings - all on the subject of nicotine.

And if you start feeling oppressed by all those skyscrapers and angry stares every time you light up, you will always find a warm welcome, comfy chair, refreshments and fine cigars at the Uptown Cigar Company ( at 32 John Street, in Kingston, two hours from Manhattan.

I would have recommended Nat Sherman's cigar emporiums, if it wasn't for the fact that they have a reputation of being offhand to anyone who doesn't want to purchase a box of their cigars, and also the fact that they never even bothered to respond to my polite emails.

New York is a much safer place to visit, since it introduced its 'zero tolerance' policy. Remember this when you're sitting in Central Park on a fine day and an intolerant stranger suggests you put out your cigar.

One of my favourite places is Washington Square, which has been the artistic and intellectual hub of Greenwich Village for over a century. Former inhabitants include Edgar Allen Poe, Eugene O'Neill, Herman Melville, Mark Twain and Henry James, all of them smokers. It's still a great place to wander round with a tube of lit tobacco.

SoHo is a lively neighbourhood with many avant-garde galleries, fascinating shops and charming restaurants. While you're there, check out the Guggenheim Museum, located in a former warehouse where some old tobacco signs are now on display.

A short walk will take you to the New York City Fire Museum at 278 Spring Street. If you want some fun, try lighting up outside, and see what happens.

Which all suggests that New York is an inhospitable place for visitors who smoke. Not so. The Big Apple is still one of the most exciting cities in the world and there is far more to the place than can ever be recorded here.

If you look carefully, especially with a bit of help from the Lonely Planet or Everyman guides, you will still find a warm welcome in New York, and even better, a clean ashtray. Whether you get to share it with Harvey Keitel, or not, is another story. But he did offer to share a cigar with me, sometime, and I guess you can't say fairer than that.

Copyright James Leavey, 2000. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the Author.


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