There once existed in every city barroom a sort of scruffy, lively, lovely symphony that played without rest and without ovation. But its members are falling away; background sounds once familiar have been silenced. The jangle of the pay phone on the wall, the click of the lighter, the snap and hiss of a match being lighted.
To those retired players in New York City bars, add the hulking workhorse in the back of the pit. It played all night: thunk, thunk, thunk, as the coins dropped into the slot, followed by the grinding crank of unseen gears as the rod was yanked out. The short solo ended modestly, like a tap on a high hat, with the whisper of a pack of smokes wrapped in plastic film sliding into the tray below.
The cigarette machine.
Time was, a man knew the workings of his favorite bar’s cigarette machine better than he knew his own refrigerator. But that machine, once as familiar as the bartender himself, is going the way of the product it sold. The ban on smoking in city bars took effect seven years ago, and since then, the number of cigarette machines has dropped sharply, from practically countless to easily countable to a child with one hand otherwise occupied.
A quick and dirty survey of the smoke-free landscape produced only three cigarette machines — one in Manhattan and two in Queens — that date back to the technology of the century past, with the levers that are pulled to bring forth a pack of cigarettes. Are there perhaps more than three? It is hard to say without inspecting every single bar. But if so, the New York City Department of Finance, which requires licenses for cigarette machines, does not know about them.