Stuart Reid

Diary - 24 January 2004

Smokers in New York are trading cancer for hypothermia

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New York

It’s as easy as pie to get through Checkpoint Charlie. The very agreeable Hispanic immigration officer at Kennedy asked me to place my index fingers, one at a time, on a scanning machine. My prints were instantly checked against the dabs of (I suppose) suicide bombers, anarchists, white slavers, drugs barons, porn kings, and those who, wittingly or unwittingly, have in the past 60 years engaged in genocide (on however small a scale). But... no match. I was clean; and I was through immigration faster than on any previous visit to the United States. The new security arrangements may be daft, but they are not yet burdensome. Now that the Feds have my prints, however, I shall have to keep my hands to myself on future visits.

I arrived in New York on the eve of the biggest freeze for 100 years. In the early hours of last Friday morning, after two days of Arctic conditions, the temperature in the city dropped to 21F below zero, if you take the wind chill into account. The morning news shows loved it. It was so fun. One channel reversed the old fried-egg trick. A reporter cracked four eggs on a pavement, and they froze solid within minutes. But there was a serious side to it. The transit authorities apologised because some trains were running 15 minutes late as a result of frozen points and the like. Fifteen minutes! If such ‘adverse weather conditions’ were to hit England, the country would close down for 15 days, minimum. There’d be food riots, looting, heated exchanges in the House. Counselling centres would be besieged. No one would apologise.

Family friends told me that I had to wrap up in layers. My brother-in-law suggested skin-tight silk underwear, which sounded nice. But Bloomingdale’s couldn’t, perhaps wouldn’t, help me. So I improvised. I wore chinos over pyjamas tucked into thick cotton socks; walking shoes with leather uppers and rubber soles; T-shirt, shirt, jumper, sports jacket and standard English navy-blue woollen overcoat, scarf, ski gloves, ear muffs ($5) and trilby. In that clobber the walk to the subway (four blocks) was a doddle.

The ban on smoking in public places is a joke when you read about it in England, but it is not at all funny when you see office workers smoking on the sidewalk in 10 and 20F below. Some of the huddled masses Mayor Bloomberg is saving from lung cancer and heart failure may die instead from hypothermia, bronchial pneumonia or carbon-monoxide poisoning. The nicotine Nazis have such a grip on New York that it is an offence to have an ashtray in your office. When it comes to cigarettes, this is a town without pity, or brains. A manic-depressive friend of my wife’s had her visiting rights cancelled because she lit up in the loony bin.

But you may smoke cigarettes in a cigar bar. I recommend Florio’s Grill, in Little Italy. The guv’nor, a self-styled conservative, has robust views, and he is happy to share them. ‘Britain is our best friend in all the world,’ he says. You nod modestly. Then he hits his stride. ‘You seen those pictures of hotels in Baghdad? No potted plants! What kind of a country is that? Those Muslims, they can’t even make a clock radio. What have these guys ever given the world?’ You acknowledge that the Middle East lacks the creative energy of the US, but mumble something about algebra and the wheel. ‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘But that was a long time ago, right?’

Mr Clock Radio is not the only New Yorker with robust views, of course. Cindy Adams, the New York Post’s answer to Lynda Lee-Potter, reported last week that after a disagreeable encounter with a French immigration officer in Paris, she yelled at him from beyond the customs barrier, ‘And screw-ay les Fran