Letter to the Editor: Finding Favor in the Smokiest Places

Tobacco Bowl farewell
Details on the Tobacco Bowl’s closing are available here. — photo via Clair Belmonte
By Clair Belmonte

I have spent a good portion of my college career drinking coffee and chain-smoking in a unique and bizarre coffee and cigar shop. This coffee shop of mine contains every social degenerate you could imagine, all of whom have an intense interpersonal connection with me just from also being deemed a “regular.”

We sit here — the homeless and the economically challenged, the elitist intellectuals customary to a college town, the students who insist they can only study while shrouded in a cloud of cigarette smoke — young and old, intermingling in one large, multicolored room that’s always too cold. Open your ears for five minutes to hear a conversation on the merits of Tolstoy. The Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack blaring for the tenth time in three days. Demands for more coffee from the jerk writing a review for a new art film no one’s ever heard of, due at 3 p.m. Let’s talk more about Soviet montage, please. Try to go back and pretend you’re actually doing work, instead of eavesdropping on the table next to you. There’s no turning back now; you’re fully invested, past the point of no return.

Despite studying at the university, I’d say I’ve learned more in this place than I’ve ever retained from my classes. Sit down, kids — gather your American Spirits and listen to a rant on the definition of autonomy from your favorite baristo. Need help on the New York Times crossword? Ten people are ready and willing to remind you how clueless you are of all things cosmopolitan. How about the advantage of making your own moonshine? It isn’t that hard, after all, if you’re careful. What do you know about ’20s big band and old school samba? The owner will tell you all about it, with his argyle socks and patterned pants. The wealth of “useless” information is endless, producing all of the gems you’ll someday whip out at some pretentious party where you pretend to fit in, like you’ve been doing all your life. “Where did you learn that?” Don’t answer, friend. It’s our little secret.

No one fits in here. It’s a home for people with nowhere else to go — a glorious separation from the social norms which plague us everywhere else in this town. Before you know it, these people are your friends. For a while, you consider hiding these connections from your “real friends” in the outside world; they wouldn’t understand. You pass another regular and nod knowingly, part of your own personal Fight Club. What you don’t initially realize is that these people are your real friends; it’s the outsiders that are imaginary. Who do you spill your passions to, claiming you’re tearing up from the smoke in your eyes? Who listens to your rants? Who actually cares about what you have to say instead of waiting for their chance to talk?

What would you do without these people, who remind you that insanity is just a part of life?

You notice the weird looks from passersby as you enter or exit under the notorious striped awning. All they see is a bar full of sad faces, obfuscated by the ever-present smoke. They question how you could possibly fit in there. They’ll never understand what happens behind closed doors. They don’t ask the right questions.

What do you want to know about? There’s a resident expert in everything you could ever dream of. One guy was in the whaling business, one girl in the Israeli army. Good luck finding a major that makes you as well rounded as this place. Information you never asked for falls at your feet, and you find twenty new passions you would have never known otherwise. Forget political correctness — religion and politics aren’t taboo anymore. Keep an open mind, and the world is yours.

You won’t be accepted at first — no one ever is. We need to see if you’re enough of an outcast to fit in here. We’ll mock you, we’ll insult your intelligence, we may even ask you to go back to the bro bar you stumbled out of. Regardless, we’ll give you your chance to shine. Tell us what you love, and we’ll respect you. We live for passion.

Don’t get too overwhelmed when you find yourself completely sucked in. You start coming here every day. You start to feel loved by this cult-like community. You no longer see these people as something weird, or lesser, or degenerate. They’re you — the homeless, the intellectual, the pretentious, all dying for the same acceptance and recognition as you are. You start to look at the people you meet differently. Everyone has something to offer, in that they are a further extension of who you are and what you love, expressed and hidden because they don’t have the outlet that you do.

You’ve finally found a home base. These are the only people that understand you. You’ve never fit in before, but now you are the social elite because you use proper grammar. Because you care about the economy. Because you’re YOU, nothing more, nothing less. When was the last time that happened?

But now, the Tobacco Bowl is closing its doors after 25 years, and the disappointment of its patrons is palpable. I’ve visited my haven less and less as the years have passed, but it has and always will be remembered as a significant part of my development into adulthood. The last few weeks of my college career will be dimmed by the absence of my first comfort zone in Iowa City; although I’ve found my place in this town now, I think of what all the incoming freshman are missing out on by the departure of this study and social asylum. Tobacco Bowl helped me to finally find a community where I felt I truly belonged, and I know that as I cross the stage this May and leave Iowa City for a new city, my parting thought will be of the wonderfully unique and beautiful people I met over coffee and cigarettes.


  1. I’m certainly feeling a sense of emptiness I’ve not felt about a place in a while. I was one of the first place I came to when moved to Iowa City in 2002 and again in ’11 when I returned froma six year exile in the UK. I’ve had coffee in Java House and High ground, but they just don’t have the same feel of disjointed ease I have when I’ve been in the Bowl. Sure, I get more stuff done in those places, especially when I can’t spend the time to socialise, but I’ve met far more people and certainly more interesting people in the Bowl. We definitely come from all walks of life, from homeless people to graduate students and even a professor or two on occasion. It was a place of refurge for me when I left Washington DC shortly after the trauma of 9/11, and it’s been the only place I felt any sesne of belonging when I returned from the UK due to a visa fiasco. No, my all of my times were pleasant, and I’ve had my share of arguments with people, but it was still the only place I could have such an argument without getting thrown out on my arse (trying do that in Java House and see how long you last there, not to mention it also ripp you off for tea).
    Sadly, in some way it is not a total surprise it’s closing, given the reality of this town being run over by economic terrorists such as Marc Moen with his sleek high rises which are out of the reach of many people in this town, with the overly privileged city council members supinely bowing to his gentrified vision of the downtown area, encased in glass, and making certain that wrking class and poor people will be kept as far away as neceaasry. Moen is Iowa City’s robber baron in chief, and I’m certain if he could get his way, downtown would be a gated area, further stirring up class warfare in a city where a city council can say there is no hosuing shortage problem while suppressing an independent study saying the opposite. No it’s not exclusively the faault of Moen, as capitalism in the guise of property speculation has been with us for a while, particularly after the ’07-’08 global crash which began the current Great Depression; he is simply a symptom, and he is part of the problem.
    There are some solutions to the problem, and not just trying to find another place to put the Bowl which possibly could be accomplished, but it requires a good deal of backing, and I doubt any bank in this town would be willing to land many people the money to revive the Bowl in a suitable place that would be fairly accessible. One would be to have new city council elections that would get rid of the current clatch of dauphins who do little more than ambol and gambol for the developers and and actually help to create well paying jobs which would allow people to have a decent living standard. However, given the transient nature of being in a university town where businesses rely heavily on a student labour force, it allows many business owners to pay wages barely above minimum, thereby keeping many people from being able to find decent work which could pay them a livabel wage.
    You may think I was just rambling, but the loss of the Tobacco Bowl is a symptom of a much larger problem, both in Iowa City and throughout much of the rest of the country, where speculators can make millions in a day while poor people can get thrown in jail because they find minders for their children so they can go to job interviews. The loss of the Bowl is simply another nail in the coffin of this town, and it loss will be felt for some time not because it economically viable but because it is culturally and socially necessary.

    1. Thank you for loving the tobacco bowl as much as I did and thank you for supporting my grandfather who started this and passed it on to my uncle. Thank you all for loving the Tobacco bowl as much as my grand parents loved it!

  2. Thanks for the compliments, guys!
    Kenton – yes, I initially wrote a version of this a little over two years ago. I’ve probably forced it on you more than once.

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