You don't even need to light up!

Smoking rooms at airports are pretty ugly, but soon they'll be attractive and filled with food.

Published February 11, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Generally speaking, I think it's a good idea to spend time in places you can't imagine yourself spending time in. At one time or another, for really no good reason, I have gone into soup kitchens, Baptist churches, porn shops, mortuaries, bingo parlors, Turkish baths. You learn things -- typically that you don't know beans about the people there and that most of your assumptions were simplistic, naive or just plain wrong.

That was my experience one afternoon inside a glass-walled smoking room at the Continental terminal of San Francisco International Airport. As with most places I can't imagine going to, I felt a little uncomfortable walking in. But no one paid me any mind. Oddly, pathetically, being taken for a smoker made me feel kind of cool. (Why do I admit these things to anyone?)

I took off my coat and sat down. As I did not then light up a cigarette, but merely sat there looking around and smiling stupidly, the smokers soon began to suspect that something was up -- that they had a ding-dong in their midst, a nonsmoker who didn't realize she was sitting in a smoking room. One summer during college I walked in off the street to apply for a job at what I took to be a bar but in fact was a strip joint. I do not have the requisite equipment or general air of a stripper, and the manager must have suspected that I was a naive ding-dong but did not know exactly what to say. I was getting that same sort of look in the smoking room.

I told the smokers I was writing an article about airport smoking rooms. Amazingly, no one questioned this. People never do. I could have told them I was doing an article on the global impact of wheeled luggage and they'd have nodded agreeably and tried to help. People are great.

"As smoking rooms go, this one isn't bad," said a woman from Idaho named Darla, who reminded me of Michelle Pfeiffer. (I didn't expect this; I expected everyone to look like Steve Buscemi.) I looked around. You could write your name in the haze over our heads. The ashtrays had no sand, and the vent on the ceiling was hairy with dust. It was hard to imagine what bad was.

"Atlanta," offered a woman in a gray suit, whacking a pack of Kents on the back of her hand. "Salt Lake City's is the worst," said Darla. "I mean, OK, we like to smoke, but that place is ridiculous." Another smoker nominated D.C.: "You go in there, you don't even need to light up." (This was a line I would hear three times that afternoon. It's the "Hot enough for you?" of airport smoking rooms.)

Most of the country's worst smoking rooms were built in the early '90s. "The early ones were almost set up as punitive to smokers," says George Benda, CEO of Chelsea Group Ltd., a ventilation consulting firm in Itasca, Ill. "They just sort of walled things up and said, 'Let's make this as obnoxious as we can, and maybe they'll just go away.'" These days, with funding from tobacco giants Philip Morris and Brown & Williamson, airports and their concessionaires are working with firms like Chelsea Group to build properly ventilated bar-restaurant smoking areas. Denver has a popular one (the Aviator's Club), as does Richmond, Va. (the Hitching Post). Says Benda, "It's a major trend. Airports are waking up to the fact that smokers are people. And not only that, smokers are people who eat."

Within five minutes, Darla had left. The typical stay in a smoking room, I realized, is equivalent to the time it takes to smoke a cigarette. Somehow I had imagined that smokers spend their entire stay at the airport inside these rooms, just as they spend their entire meal in the smoking section of a restaurant. But this was stupid. Of course they leave.

A man with a white beard walked in. I was vaguely aware of being surprised that his beard wasn't yellowed by nicotine. Asked his opinion of the room, he said, "It stinks in here," to which I replied, "But you people aren't supposed to mind the smell of cigarettes." A row of four smokers to my right leaned forward to look at me. "But we do," they said in urgent, worried chorus. "I don't smoke in my home," added the Kent smoker.

"I don't either," said the man with the white beard. "I don't either," said two others.

"You come out of here and everyone knows where you've been," said a man named Miles who does heating and refrigeration for airport concessions. Miles knows about ventilation, and Miles knows that the ventilation in this room "sucks." (Or, more accurately, it doesn't suck very well.)

Smokers are addicted to cigarettes, and thus they must put up with the stink, but that doesn't mean they don't mind it. The smokers I talked to felt pretty much the same way nonsmokers feel about smoke-filled rooms and clothes that smell like ashtrays. "It's a disgusting habit," said Miles, blowing smoke roughly and with obvious contempt, the way a bouncer heaves an obnoxious customer out the door. Smoking rooms are just one more disgusting thing about it. "Places like this help people like me quit," said Miles.

One thing almost none of the smokers complained about were the glass walls that I had assumed would make them feel as though they were on exhibit. Only one man mentioned it, a P.R. firm owner named Peter. "You see people stopping to stare with their kids. It's like, 'Look, honey, he's an addict,'" he told me. "Christ, people, I'm smoking. I'm not shooting up in front of your children." Other than him, the smokers I spoke with preferred the open feeling of glass walls to the closed-in feeling of solid ones. They said they enjoyed people watching and seemed not to notice -- or mind -- being watched themselves.

The general consensus was that smoking rooms were the lesser of two airport evils, the greater being no smoking area at all. "At least you don't have to walk all the way out through security to the front of the airport to have a cigarette," said a man in a cowboy hat and cowboy boots who videotapes rodeo events for a living but does not smoke Marlboros. It quickly became clear that smokers are so used to being treated as third-class citizens that they are thankful for any accommodation airports make for their habit.

One woman I talked with actually enjoyed spending time in a smoking room. "The one at the United terminal is a beautiful atrium with tropical plants and palm trees," she said. Then she took a last long drag and pressed her butt into the ashtray, that is to say, the butt of her cigarette. Miles watched her go. "I smoke over in the United terminal all the time. That room is the worst. She's been smoking something other than cigarettes."

Intrigued, I walked over to the United terminal and found a room much like the one I'd been in, only with more smoke and cracked chair seats. I asked a smoking flight attendant if she knew of a beautiful atrium with palm trees. "You're thinking of the United terminal in Los Angeles," she said. "It has no ceiling. When it rains you get wet."

By Mary Roach

Former Salon columnist Mary Roach is the author most recently of "Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal." Her previous books include "Stiff," "Spook" and "Packing for Mars."

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