My grandparents came from Pennsylvania to live with us when I was little, dazzling us with schtick from their vaudeville days. Our meals became a riot of quick patter and music hall jokes. “The show must go on”, my grandfather used to say, “is what the ringmaster says to the clown with the broken leg.”
I think of this when I play street fairs and someone lights up near the band. It’s a smokefree event or we wouldn’t have taken the gig, but the smoker knows he or she can give a blank look to anyone who objects and continue to smoke, exposing everyone. The organizers can’t do much about it, police have other priorities, and any musicians’ cumulative dose of secondhand smoke over the course of the day is considerable.
The courtesy used to be to ask, “mind if I smoke?” before lighting up before tobacco products were labeled deadly, so expecting this courtesy today would not seem extreme. Those who speak up after the match is struck are consistently mischaracterized as extremists, as killjoys, as aggressive, even as violent, for objecting to something even the tobacco industry acknowledges is deadly.
And then there’s what I call the tyranny of the green room, with its no laws, no rules implications, where musicians trying to avoid tobacco exposure have to learn not to breathe.
My bandmates are instituting a protocol for this moment; the music stops. The band quits playing the minute any one of us is aware of secondhand smoke exposure, and will not start again until the it’s addressed. Secondhand smoke does immediate damage, even to healthy adults, and we refuse to become the attractive nuisance we become when smokers smoke near us, exposing everyone.
If you love live music at a farmer’s market or a street fair, help us by speaking up before a tobacco addict gets as far as the lighter or the matches. Even smokefree venues are at risk from those who are confused, deliberately or otherwise, about the social contract. We want the show to go on, but no gig is worth dying for.