Saturday, April 09, 2005

A Breath of Fresh Air

This time around in Chicago, I feel a little more at home than on my last visit. Last time, I was working at home, and the weather was still cold and snowy. Typing on my laptop in my quiet-as-a-tomb living room while the wind whipped wildly outside and the ground was steadily powdered white made me long for Celebration. The condo felt so solitary with my husband at work in the city and animal menagerie back home in Florida.

This time, I am going back to my old office to work, so it feels more like the old, familiar routine that I followed for a decade and a half. The weather has improved to sweatshirt temperatures; after a long, hard winter, people keep commenting, "Isn't it nice outside?" I nod a superficial agreement, but after coming from a palm treed paradise where we've been having temperatures in the 70s and 80s, "nice" has a much different meaning for me. Tonight we went out to dinner with my brother and sister-in-law, and tomorrow we're joining old friends for a Gospel Brunch at the House of Blues. All in all, it's not so bad to be back (just as long as I'll be returning to Celebration soon).

But there is one thing that I greatly miss about Florida: the strict laws that regulate indoor smoking. Virtually all restaurants in the Sunshine State are totally smoke-free. There is an exception for places that get less than a certain amount of their revenue from food sales (i.e. places that are primarily bars but that might serve snacks or appetizers). Other than that, smoking is prohibited inside all of the eateries. If you want to light up, you'll have to sit outside.

The law was passed as a referendum a couple of years ago, and it passed 75 percent to 25 percent (interestingly, that's also the approximate ratio of non-smokers to smokers among the general population). At first, it was a novelty to me, but now I've come to expect it. Returning to Illinois, where I have to specify "Non-smoking, please," and then probably have an extended wait, comes as a jolt to me.

While I have nothing against smokers, I do hate cigarette smoke in enclosed areas because it wreaks havoc with my sinuses and sends me into a full-blown allergy attack if I'm around it for too long. Even my own brother is not allowed to smoke in my house. He is a two-pack-a-day chain smoker, but ironically he doesn't like it around him when he's eating, either. He is a cross-country truck driver, and he smokes up a storm in the truck cab, but he always sits in the non-smoking section of truck stop restaurants.

I have no problems when restaurants have their smoking and non-smoking sections well separated with solid walls, or better yet in separate rooms. Unfortunately, in Illinois they often go on the "invisible wall" principle. They arbitrarily designate an area in an open room as "non-smoking," even though there is no barrier. In theory, you can be sitting in the non-smoking section, and the diners in the booth next to you and/or behind you will be lighting up. Apparently the smoke is supposed to know enough to stop at the invisible wall, but I've never seen that happen yet. Somehow it slips by the imaginary force field and invades my airspace and nostrils.

Normally, at busy times you can be seated immediately in the smoking section but there is a long wait for non-smoking in Illinois eateries. It drives me crazy when the host or hostess doesn't accept my stated preference and tries to talk me into sitting in the smoking section. I'm sure they're not happy about all the lost revenue from the sea of empty tables while a huge crowd of potential diners either cools their heels waiting for a non-smoking table or simply leaves. They'll say, "Are you sure? I can seat you in smoking right now. Are you positive?" But I've learned that they will back off when I finally respond with, "Yes, I'm sure because I haven't mastered the talent of holding my breath through a whole meal yet."

My wait is often even longer because when I say "non-smoking," I mean non-smoking, which means far, far away from the invisible wall. I'm not going to wait 45 minutes for a table and then be seated next to or across from a smoking table. I've noticed more and more people demanding the same thing, so perhaps someday restaurants will realize how much revenue they are losing and build real smoking/non-smoking sections.

I was irritated this weekend because I went out to dinner at Pepe's (a wonderful Mexican of the few places that I miss in Florida) after work on Friday. Even though we arrived around 5:30, it was already hopping, and the choice of vacant tables was slim. Knowing that they subscribe to the "invisible wall" theory, I specified, "We want non-smoking, and as far away from the smoking section as possible."

"Sure thing," said the hostess, and she proceeded to lead us to a booth only two down from the start of the smoking section. The people behind us wouldn't be lighting up, but the ones behind them would be, not to mention the kitty corner tables. I politely but firmly said that it wouldn't be acceptable.

She said, "I don't really have anyplace else." I pointed to a large round table at the back of the restaurant, strategically placed in a lung-friendly area, and said, "What about that?" She looked decidedly unhappy but finally agreed. But as we settled in, she couldn't help snapping, "You know, we could be seating a larger party here." I just love it when other people try to make their problem into yours. I am a paying customer, and it's not my problem if their smoking policy sucks. I very sweetly replied, "Well, you know, that darned smoke just can't seem to stop at the imaginary line." Of course, she had no answer for that, so she flounced off and we enjoyed our dinner surrounded by breathable air.

We often run into the same thing at The Melting Pot, my favorite fondue restaurant. There is one on Sand Lake Road in the Orlando area (actually, in Dr. Phillips), and of course we have no problems there. But there is also one in Oak Brook, Illinois, and they literally seem to be obsessed with convincing me to sit in the smoking area. For a long time, the whole restaurant was smoking, and I never ate there. But I think they were losing a lot of business, so they finally changed their policy. Still, when I asked for non-smoking, they would wheedle and cajole me into changing my mind. My favorite excuse was, "But no one is smoking in the smoking section right now." Yeah, and what happens when someone who wants a cigarette does decide to light up. Once, the hostess even tried to convince me that they were still an all-smoking restaurant until I motioned her to follow me, took her to the back, and pointed to the ashtray-less tables.

Quite literally, whenever we make a reservation and specify "non-smoking," that note never makes it onto the sheet. My husband has finally taken to asking them to repeat the information to him, but that hasn't helped. On one memorably annoying visit when we arrived at the appointed time, they curtly informed us that they had no non-smoking tables open and that we should specify our preference when calling. My husband immediately said, "I did, and I made you read it back to me." Too bad for us; we still had to wait over an hour. When they finally called us, they led us to a table with an ashtray on it! If their food wasn't so darned good, and if we hadn't wasted so much time already, I would have walked out at that point. Instead, I held my temper and point out their little "error."

Eventually, we were seated in non-smoking. But to add insult to injury, they seated a party across from us that included a man who was actually holding a lit cigarette in his hand! He sat down and immediately began puffing deeply, not even noticing that there was no ashtray, the cloud of blue smoke descending over all of the surrounding booths. You can bet I had our waiter over there within seconds, and the party was hustled off to a more smoker-friendly area. It still boggles my mind that they would sit a smoker holding a lit cigarette in the non-smoking section when I had just waited over an hour and there was immediate seating in the smoking area.

It really wouldn't bother me if I didn't have allergies that turn my nose into a faucet and my eyes into scrunched-up, red, watering, puffy holes in my face when tobacco smoke is nearby. But in Florida, it isn't an issue, as long as I confine my dining to the inside seating area. That's just fine with me; smokers are welcome to their area, and I can forgo dining al fresco to give them their separate area while I dine in respiratory comfort.

Soon enough it will be back to Celebration, where I never give smoking a second thought when I go out to dine. But there is one thing that I've learned to specify, although it's taken a while. It's not smoking/ the south, you must specify "Unsweetened" unless you want your iced tea with enough sugar in it to make your teeth ache. But that's fine with me; for a smoke-free environment, I'd drink tea with a whole canister of sugar dumped into it. It may be hazardous to my waistline, but better that than a hazard to my respiratory health.

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