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.

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