The Big Bagel is facing one of the worst financial crises since the city teetered on going broke during the Seventies, when it actually defaulted on its bonds, and President Ford famously told the place to 'drop dead'. I remember being in Elaine's at the time, and when the headlines came in with the morning papers a cheer went up from the drunken customers. Elaine's, the favourite watering-hole for writers and showbusiness folk, was packed back then, at five in the morning. Not this time. I was there last week, hosting a party for friends, and the place was like a library on Saturday night in Belfast. Business at New York bars and restaurants has plummeted by as much as 50 per cent in the wake of the smoking ban, and many establishments are on the brink of shutting their doors. It is as if Mayor Bloomberg purposely set out to kill off what was left of post 9/11 nightlife in the country's most swinging city.
Which, of course, he has not. What we have here is a severe form of narcissism, a grandiose, self-centred, over-inflated ego imposing its will on a supine populace much too cowed by authority to practise civil disobedience. Mind you, Bloomberg has a tough job – one he inherited – but his dictatorial streak of all or nothing is hardly helping matters. Most people I've spoken to, smokers and non-smokers alike, feel that people who own and run bars and restaurants should be given a choice. An owner decides whether his establishment is smoking or non-smoking, and then the customers decide where they want to eat and drink. It's very simple, really, but the Ayatollah Bloomberg thinks otherwise. In the meantime, deserted city bars and restaurants have fallen on very hard times. Again last week, at Le Cirque, the poshest restaurant in the Bagel, the magnificent art nouveau bar was totally deserted after dinner. The head waiter had some choice words for the mayor, words I wouldn't dare repeat even when describing the foreign minister of Belgium, or that democrat down in Zimbabwe, Bob (le flambeur) Mugabe.
Needless to say, Bloomberg's popularity has hit rock bottom. His job approval is at an all-time low – 32 per cent – which is sub-basement. Worse, celebrity-obsessed Noo Yawkers have turned thumbs down when pollsters asked whether they would dine with Mayor Mike. Only 40 per cent of those asked said dining with him would be fun; 60 per cent of those surveyed thought the mayor was out of touch with the little people, a billionaire who is unaware that an 18.5 per cent tax hike on property means the difference between survival and bankruptcy. Take, for example, my karate dojo. My partner Richard Amos, an Englishman who spent years in Japan and who looks like a Japanese master except for his eyes, is probably the best Western teacher of shotokan karate. Richard pays $5,000 per month for a great dojo on the upper east side. He keeps and splits with me whatever he makes over that. As soon as the new tax was imposed, his margin became negligible, actually it went into the red, so if he didn't have me as a partner, it would have been sayonara. There are thousands upon thousands of people for whom the fat lady has sung. (Incidentally, a few members of Norway's national team flew over to train with Amos at our dojo. I am now back and working very hard at karate, and we mixed it up pretty good. They were young and much bigger, but it was they who cried uncle first. I only regret not having cut down on the booze and other bad stuff when I was competing. On current form, I could have won the European championship. Perhaps in the next life.)
What Bloomberg lacks is sensitivity. He is seeking to block a bill that would make it easier for siblings of firefighters and cops who died in the 11 September tragedy to follow in the steps of their siblings. On a 100-point civil service exam, a sibling of a dead firefighter or cop would be given a ten-point bonus. No big deal, and only fair, but the mayor does not see it this way. In fact he sees it as unconstitutional, obviously never having heard of racial quotas or Affirmative Action. (The bill would hamper the city from recruiting more minorities, as most firefighters and cops who died on 9/11 were white.) To say that relatives of those who died are irate would be like saying Tony Blair is not confined by facts, a gross understatement.
Never mind. Noo Yawk is Noo Yawk, and the place will survive, with or without Michael Bloomberg. I think he will be a one-termer, like David Dinkins, but the election is 18 months away. What he should do is cut the fat out of city government, not hound smokers. What he should do is deal with the city's unions – bloated and demanding as ever – not tax small businesses to death. What he must do is make tough choices, not showboating ones. Every livery car in the city runs its engines while parked in order for the drivers to speak non-stop to various customers. These cars pollute more than all the smokers put together throughout the century, yet there's no law about idling one's engine 24-hours per day and night. And spitting. The Bagel looks like a Chinese spittoon, yet not a word from our mayor against this particular health hazard. I guess Bloomberg was abused as a child by a smoking parent or neighbour and is out to get even.