When I got home from the airport, I called Atomic and Ellen and we made plans to go to the Café. I arrived first and the waitress brought me a white porcelain bowl instead of an ashtray, which I thought was strange. Then Ellen and Atomic came and we all ordered beer specials. As we drank, we talked about Atomic’s next UN contract, which will take her to the Democratic Republic of Congo in a few days time. Every so often we looked at the clock, watching as midnight drew nearer.
As it did, I noticed a steady stream of people entering the Café with their cigarette packs in hand. Some took seats in the non-smoking section, and no one made an effort to stop them. It eventually occurred to me that we had all come for the same reason: to be here on the last night, before our small corner of the world changed.
A few minutes before midnight, I took out my camera and solemnly lit my last cigarette. Then, I waited to see what would happen. Would the bartender make a formal announcement, or would the waitress quietly come to collect our ashtrays? Would anyone refuse to put out their cigarettes? Would I? Or, would we all admit defeat and shuffle meekly home?
At precisely one minute to midnight, a twenty-something man who was sitting in the non-smoking section stood up and called for our attention. The room fell instantly silent. He then raised his lit cigarette and, grinning broadly, asked everyone to pay tribute to the last night of smoking in Montreal. Delighted, I grabbed my camera and raced towards him to take his picture as the Café erupted with cheers and applause.
Looking around the Café at my fellow denizens, my heart surged. Everyone was smiling and waving their cigarettes in the air, suddenly connected in a way they hadn’t been before. I went around to every table and took pictures, and made a point of telling my subjects that they were beautiful, perfect, merveilleux, because, in that moment, they were. I fucked up some of the pictures because I couldn’t stop laughing, but I knew it didn't really matter.
Then, I noticed that it was well past midnight and that everyone was still smoking! The staff made no moves to remove the ashtrays, and no one volunteered to extinguish their cigarettes. Atomic and Ellen and I kept smoking too, proudly noting that we were now criminals in the eyes of the law. I revelled in this last act of defiance, and felt such love for the Café and its patrons that I can’t even tell you.
Thinking about it on my way home, I realized that the Café is a place that the architects of the Quebec smoking ban don't understand, nor do they care to. They don’t meet their friends there just before midnight on a Tuesday night; they don’t stay past closing time, finishing their drinks as the waitress cashes out; they don’t head to the diner across the street for poutine at 4:00 AM, lingering for a few more fragments of conversation as dawn looms. Most of all, they don’t experience remarkable moments of camaraderie with total strangers the way that smokers do, and probably always will.