Coffee and Cigarettes

During a recent visit to Montreal, I was struck by the many changes. I spent the greater part of my life in Montreal, but had not visited in several years. It is normal to find that a place you once lived has changed. Nothing stands still, however, the changes I am referring to go much deeper than the usual new buildings or housing developments.

The social fabric of a community is made up of many elements: knowing your neighbours, or at least recognizing faces on the street; communication with local merchants; places where people get together to meet and talk over a coffee or a drink; population density and the ease of circulating on foot or by bike, via public transportation, or by car. Neighbourhoods with small businesses run by people who live in the area have a different feel from ones that are rife with franchises.

Roaming through my old neighbourhood, the old haunts had disappeared. The local cafe, run by people from the neighbourhood and offering a spot to go and spend an afternoon or evening reading or talking over a coffee and a cigarette, populated with students, professors, artists, writers, and musicians, had gone, replaced by yet another chain offering a prepackaged and franchised atmosphere that could be found anywhere on the planet. The former rows of books, everything from novels, poetry, and drama to philosophy and social science, sitting on battered shelves for people to pick up and browse over a coffee had been replaced by, well, nothing. Emptiness. Mirrors reflecting back the image of the consumer to himself.

In the place of books, there was now wireless Internet access, and not only there, but in pretty much every other cafe along the same street. Rather than coming in for a discussion with other flesh and blood people facing you across the table, the tables were full of laptops as the customers carried on their virtual life oblivious to those around them.

And, of course, smoking has now been banned - another disruption in the social fabric. Where ten years ago there were a mixture of smoking and non-smoking cafes offering a choice, now there is nowhere that smokers can go and congregate together. Needless to say, the most popular cafes were always the ones where one could smoke.

The growing wave of anti-smoking intolerance in Montreal, as elsewhere, was encouraged with appeals to health, reminiscent of propaganda seen in Germany in the thirties. Just look at the fascination and preoccupation with the body that has developed as the war on tobacco has intensified. The bodies in Nautilus ads, fit and bursting with health, would not be out of place in posters declaiming the purity of the Aryan race, even if the old notion of serving the fatherland is no longer necessary and a fixation on individual needs and desires suffices. In our narcissistic society, there is nothing so noble as one's own needs and desires, and those of the body predominate.

It strikes me that the pattern that we see in the shift from real cafes to cybercafes is the same we have seen in the shift from cities and towns offering public spaces where people can gather together and exchange to the move to malls, shopping centres, and the box stores that dot the suburbs.

Go to any small town or village in Europe and you find a park or town square at its heart, surrounded with cafes, a place where one can meet the neighbours or stroll through the weekly local market. The auto is an afterthought in these towns. You are meant to get around on foot.

In towns in North America, the car is king. Urban planning is based upon distances that can be covered in an auto, not on foot.

Malls are populated with businesses that are for the most part chains, owned by corporations with no real connection to the community. Then there are the box stores, the Walmarts, Costcos, Staples, and the like that sit isolated in the middle of large parking lots offering no connection to each other. There is no cohesion or integration that encourages social interaction. We arrive isolated in cars, do our shopping, and leave. Even in the malls, which offer the modern version of a public space, the atmosphere of electric lighting and canned music, consumerism and consumption, is oppressive, hardly encouraging to conviviality, much less critical thinking and exchange. It is a "commons" that does not open up and reach out into the world, as did the squares and public parks of yore, but one that is closed in upon itself, yet another narcissistic mirror. Should you wear a t-shirt that the owners find offensive, you'll very quickly be reminded that the space is not public at all. It is owned and private.

Coffee and Cigarettes 2
©Jim Jarmusch

Curiously, smoking is one of the elements that weaves together people in the social fabric. As places to smoke are more and more restricted, smokers are forced to seek them out, and in seeking them out, they come upon other smokers. One of the side effects of the ban on smoking in workplaces is that employees from every department in a large company have the opportunity to congregate together in the same places to indulge their little pleasure.

Smoking brings together secretaries, shipping workers from the loading dock, engineers, marketing gurus, and executives. Over a cigarette, ideas are discussed and problems are solved. Workers who are part of a common project, but from two departments that never meet, can discuss and resolve problems that would never be brought up otherwise. Don Oakley quotes some anecdotal evidence in his book Slow Burn:
To digress a moment already (as readers who have stuck with me this far are aware that I am prone to do), the segregation of smokers from decent society may have benefits that go beyond the protection of innocent nonsmokers from disease, disability and premature death. For example, in a posting to the alt.smokers "user group," " (Particle Man)" wrote:
An observation: the more nonsmokers push for smoke free environments, the more smokers end up together. Smoking, talking, trading notes.

When I started smoking there was very little, if any, community spirit among smokers. You smoked at your desk, or wherever, and never really felt any association with other smokers . . . But now, we have our own sections. Our own lounges. And our own user group. . .

The really interesting thing about the outdoor smoking area where I work is how many problems get solved there. I work in an engineering organization. The smoking "lounge" attracts people from every discipline for one simple reason: they are addicted to nicotine. But hey, here are mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, device driver types, application types, Unix, MS Windows, OS/2, managers, janitors, net-hackers, physicists - and they are all there having a cigarette or cigar or pipe, and looking at each other.

Guess what? A LOT of tough problems get solved there, more than I've ever seen in multi-functional meetings called by management.
From NSA Voice, the National Smokers Alliance newsletter:
Workplace smoking prohibitions have created "unlikely friendships with co-workers whose paths they might never cross," reports the Newark Star Ledger. As a result, new lines of communication are being formed as these "smoke-break buddies" from various levels and different departments gather in the doorways and on loading docks of their companies to smoke.

"Go out and smoke, and you'll learn lots of things," said Janet Saporito, a South Orange, N.J., smoker interviewed by the newspaper. "You do meet people you'd never know otherwise."

Stanley Deetz, professor of communication at Rutgers University, commented on this social phenomenon. "A lot of companies have tried to invent these types of connections, yet here's one that has emerged spontaneously," said Deetz. "It has this uncontrolled, spontaneous quality which makes it creative and useful."

Julie Wiegel of West Orange, N.J., for example, found her new buddies useful in her search for a new job. "You find out different jobs that are open," said Wiegel, whose position at her company was being eliminated. "You'll hear, 'My friend works here, and they're hiring.'"

Others have benefited by meeting company executives. "I've had some great conversations," said Frank Petrock of Belleville, N.J. "There are people who come out here at a higher level."
So while the clear push in society is towards fragmentation and isolation, the ban on smoking is offering an opportunity for smokers to move in the other direction.

I was discussing the issue of social disintegration recently with a friend who runs a bookstore. He has been aware of the problem for a long time and is trying to do something about it. His bookstore serves as a place where people can drop in at any time of day to browse or to sit and chat. It is not unusual to find discussions happening over the counter or in the back on sofas where people can come and sit and read or talk.

He also was telling me about a book club the store has started. He says the discussions are passionate, and he feels the participants, for the most part married women who rarely get out for "adult conversation", are starved for this type of dialogue. The books serve as a springboard for an exchange of ideas that often leaves the book behind and ends up focusing on the state of the world and what can be done about it. The members sense that things aren't quite right, and they are relieved and encouraged to find that others feel the same way. The discussions break down the feelings of solitude and self-doubt each of them suffers from, allowing each individual to verify that he or she is not crazy, that things have in fact gone horribly wrong, and that they are not alone in having these thoughts and worries.

Virtual communities of like-minded people such as SOTT are important in building a network that spans the globe, however, we must not forget that each of us lives in the real world at a local scale. As the old saying goes, think globally, act locally. We shouldn't forget that second admonition.

So if you are looking for something constructive to do to combat the race towards social fragmentation and annihilation, why not take a small step in re-establishing the social fabric in your town: find a sympathetic bookstore in your neighbourhood and offer to organize a book club. Or go to a local cafe and suggest they have discussion evenings once a month where people can get together and thrash out the problems we see and are afraid of speaking out about at home or work.

The point is not to proselytize your own ideas. The point is to encourage exchange and discussion, to create a space where people are allowed and even encouraged to think for themselves. There is a potential of unlimited creative energy out there that is not being used. It is being wasted. We must be creative in finding ways to tap into that energy so that it can find ways of being expressed. Who knows what can happen, then.

If you start up a book club, you might even suggest Don Oakley's book Slow Burn on the nonsense spouted in the name of public health and tobacco and explore one of the key battles against social cohesion.