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The Last Smoker
Audrey Silk is Still Waging the Battle for Smokers Rights
Welcome to Issue #8 of CAFÉ ANNE!
Audrey Silk is probably not the only New Yorker growing her own tobacco to avoid the city’s insane cigarette taxes. But the founder of NYC Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment (CLASH) is likely the only one to name her backyard crop after the former mayor who raised those taxes in the first place. She calls it “Screw You Bloomberg Garden.” Please see this issue’s feature, “The Last Smoker,” below.
In other news, the next issue of CAFÉ ANNE will feature Q&As with sidewalk Christmas tree sales people all over town. Got a question for a tree seller? Perhaps you’re curious what they eat for breakfast, their favorite cryptocurrency or their predictions for 2022. The one restriction: you can’t ask about anything having to do with Christmas trees. Please email your question: firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll make sure it gets answered by at least one sidewalk tree salesperson.
Finally, I can’t imagine a better holiday gift for all your loved ones (family, friends, pets, coworkers, neighbors, barista, accountant, dentist) than a subscription to CAFÉ ANNE. And gift subscriptions are available! You can choose a one-month subscription for $5 or a full year for $50. You can even make your gift anonymous!
IN THIS WEEK’S ISSUE…
• Weird Trash Heap #6
• Thanks A Lot, Cats
• The Last Smoker
Weird Trash Heap #6
Kyle in Brooklyn observed the below in Park Slope:
“Yes, is that classy Manuka honey and a honeycomb? Along with other delights!” he writes.
I’m personally intrigued by the Band-aid and the glue stick.
Please send your best sidewalk trash photo to email@example.com and I will include it in a future issue.
DEPARTMENT OF BLAME
Thanks A Lot, Cats!
-Emergence of Omicron variant
-Escalating racial and class tensions
-Inflation ($4.49 a quart for half & half!)
-Truck driver shortage
-Drug overdose deaths reach all-time high
-Tappan Zee Bridge renamed Mario Cuomo Bridge
-Passing of Norm Macdonald
-NYC traffic worse than ever
I hope you’re happy now.
The Last Smoker
If you were going to pay a pilot to fly a banner over New York City, what would it say? When Audrey Silk hired a plane in 2016, thousands looked up to see her message: “SMOKING IS NORMAL.”
Here’s a shot of the plane flying over Yankee Stadium:
Ms. Silk, 57, is the founder of NYC Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment (CLASH), a group she launched in 2000 to fight bans on smoking in bars and restaurants.
Even as the smoking rate has dwindled to just 14% of the adult population, her crusade continues. She’s one of those minor players who keeps popping up, year after year, giving New York City its character.
The plane stunt didn’t get much publicity. She got more attention in 2011 when she attended a City Hall ceremony where Mayor Michael Bloomberg was signing a bill banning smoking in parks. Ms. Silk stepped up to the podium and lit a Parliament.
“There’s no smoking here!” the mayor objected.
Ms. Silk rolls her eyes recalling the incident, which led to a cop-escorted exit: “No shit, Sherlock!”
I met Ms. Silk last week at her home in Marine Park, Brooklyn. She lives on a quiet street where the tightly-spaced homes look like houses drawn by children. She ordered us a pizza. I had to chance to look around while we waited for the pie.
I met Dinky, her Toy Fox Terrier, and Albert, her boyfriend’s parrot. “We argue all day long,” she said of the bird.
I was startled to see an ashtray on her coffee table. It’s an unusual sight these days.
“They’re in every room!” said Ms. Silk.
“Even the bathroom?” I asked.
“In the bathroom, sure,” she said.
Ms. Silk showed me her beeper, which she bought in 2000. She still doesn’t use a cell phone.
I also admired her stack of New York Posts, the only newspaper she can tolerate.
“I went away for my birthday in April—six days. And since April I can’t catch up!” she said. “I have to read them all. In order!”
I even got to see her backyard, home to her infamous “Screw You Bloomberg Garden” where she grows her own tobacco to avoid cigarette taxes.
“I’m saving at least $5,000 a year,” she said.
She wouldn’t say how much she smokes: “That’s irrelevant. Even non-smokers are CLASH members. It’s the principle.”
And the principle, of course, is civil liberties.
“It’s the right to be left alone,” she said. “I also testified at the trans fat ban. And I testified when Bloomberg tried to ban big sodas. These things are all legal. You want to advise us, inform us, educate people, give them your opinion? Fine. But don’t tell me what I can and can’t do.”
Her voice rose. “You say it’s a slippery slope, and everybody laughs. Bullshit! This pandemic now is the anti-smoking campaign on steroids. Getting people accustomed and conditioned to government intrusion in their lives, telling businesses what to do.”
When the pizza arrived, Ms. Silk told me a bit of her back story.
She grew up in a Jewish family in Brooklyn’s Manhattan Beach neighborhood. Her father was a diamond cutter. Ms. Silk graduated high school at 16 but decided against college, opting for a clerical job at Liberty Mutual Insurance at Rockefeller Center.
I asked if the Manhattan job seemed glamorous.
“No,” she said. “It was a pain in the ass.”
She hated commuting to work and landed a summer job in Brooklyn with the Parks Department. That’s when she started hanging out with the cops, who encouraged her to take the police exam. That was it. She served as a patrol officer for the next 20 years at the 67 Precinct in East Flatbush. This was during the height of the crack epidemic, when the area ranked among the city’s highest in homicides.
“I did my job. That's about all I can say,” she said. “It wasn’t a calling for me.”
But it was a good career choice. She loved her fellow officers and got to retire in 2004, when she was just 40 years old. This was a huge win for someone who values her freedom—and needed time to spearhead a movement.
She didn’t plan on launching CLASH. A smoker since her mid-teens, she learned of a City Hall hearing on a proposal to expand the indoor smoking ban and decided to testify.
“I figured I’ll go represent Joe and Jane Citizen. The man on the street,” she recalled. “But they couldn’t care less what I had to say.”
She also decided to write an opinion piece for her neighborhood paper. The editor told her to send it on her organization’s letterhead. “Uh-oh,” she thought.
Deciding that only groups get attention, she declared herself an organization and launched a web site with a membership application. CLASH was born.
“Once you’re in the press once, they see you’re a spokesperson, they catch your name, and it snowballed,” she said.
CLASH never got very big. It has about 3,000 members. But every city reporter knows to call Ms. Silk if they need someone to comment on a smokers’ issues—she is the lone voice speaking for a stigmatized community. She’s been featured on shows ranging from the Daily Show with Jon Stewart to Fox & Friends.
And thanks to one large donation from an anonymous philanthropist (who Ms. Silk says has no ties to the tobacco industry) CLASH has sued the city, state and feds at every turn over the last 21 years in its effort to preserve smokers’ rights.
It hasn’t gone well.
CLASH won one lawsuit in 2012 challenging a smoking ban in New York State parks. But that was overturned on appeal.
Yes, smoking is now banned just about everywhere, and NYC cigarette taxes are so high that a pack costs $15.
I asked Ms. Silk, who has devoted four to five hours a day to the cause for years, if she feels like she’s lost.
“By the dictionary definition of lost, we can't say we won,” she said. “I won’t spin it like that.”
She thought a bit more. “No, we didn’t win.”
Did she learn anything from the experience?
“At the beginning, the important thing I learned is they don't want to listen to the citizen. That was an eye-opener,” she said.
Is there anything she learned about herself?
“No,” she said.
We pondered why some people are so eager to control their fellows. Mr. Bloomberg, she ventured, has a savior complex. Others, she said, like to feel superior. And then there are folks who demand a world perfectly suited to their tastes and preferences, which she finds particularly dangerous: “In a civil society, you cope with inconveniences, otherwise nobody has any liberty. We'll start banning everything that annoys anybody.”
But the worst, she said, are the reformed ex-smokers. “It's because they quit smoking, but they really want one,” she said. “They have to demonize it even more to keep themselves from going back.”
She lit another cigarette. I quit smoking in 2015, but I sort of envied her puffing away. And felt happy knowing she is not done fighting. CLASH is currently challenging a law that made it illegal for public housing residents to smoke in their own apartments.
She’s also busy inspiring her neighbors. When they see her smoking outside, she said, they feel emboldened to do the same.
“There’s more smokers out there than you know. You have to have the person who brings them out,” she said. “Like the roaches hiding in the dark. They need someone to say, ‘It’s okay, you don’t need to hide. Don’t give a shit what other people might say or think!’”
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