Up in Smoke

The Bird's been keeping a beady eye on the competition of late -- and not because it wants to learn how to bore its readers to death. No, this faux falcon has been flying over Cancer Corner, that downtown spot formerly known as Second Street and Van Buren, just outside the Arizona Republic building, where that daily's scribes routinely gather to suck on fags.

Or they did, anyway, until the daily paper's corporate owners, the Gannett Company, recently announced a "smoking surcharge" at all 99 of its newspapers.

Seems Gannett has joined a growing number of corporations across the country fed up with black-lunged staffers sucking up company time in five-minute increments. These piss-on-your-rights conglomerates are in bed with a nation of health insurance companies sick of processing so many smoking-related claims, and the result is a self-righteous suck-off that happily discriminates against folks who'd rather fight than switch.

Which is why, starting January 1, the Republic will charge its tobacco-addicted employees an extra $50 a month toward their health insurance costs. Which, The Bird thinks, sends a clear message: "This is exactly what you deserve for choosing such a filthy, stinking habit, you leaf-loving morons!"

Needless to say, the Republic has its own spin on the matter.

"I would prefer to call it a 'wellness credit,'" says Republic benefits coordinator Barb Manning of the tobacco fine. "If you don't smoke, you receive a $600 credit for the year applied to your medical contributions. So, when you do the math, a nonsmoking employee pays $50 less per month than an employee who does smoke."

Not so fast, Babs! The Bird isn't buying your Jedi mind tricks. And neither do the pair of Gannett employees it busted on Cancer Corner last week, who gave up an extra five minutes of carcinogenic meditation to rag on the no-smoking sham Gannett's imposing.

According to the Republic drones -- a couple of live-hard-and-die-fast, chain-smoking IT clones -- both Miss Manning and employee benefits specialist Sheila Vasquez have been about as clear on the company's new smoking surcharge as a brown cloud in August.

"No one's really told us what constitutes a 'smoker,'" one of these techies said. "If I go play poker with my buddies once a month and puff a cigar, am I a smoker?" (Probably not; you're probably just someone who needs to get out more.) Equally unclear to these puff-happy staffers is how Gannett will determine who's smoking, and where and when. Perhaps some of that 50-bucks-per will be spent on smoker-surveillance cameras or on spies who will bird-dog Republic staffers suspected to be puff daddies. Outside of their posts, this vulture's IT pals claim, employees will be on the honor system about whether they like a Tareyton or two.

"And what about a surcharge for the drinkers, the drug users," the other geek whispered, "and the overeaters? Where do you draw the line?"

Well, this tweeter draws the line at having secondhand smoke blown in its face, but the poor slob's point is well taken. Even Republic employees should be allowed to smoke. Or maybe make that especially Republic employees should be allowed to smoke. But not according to the convoluted rules of Gannett, come the first of the year. And the rules are elucidated as cleverly by Republic spokesperson Vasquez as they would be by most Republic reporters:

"Our corporate office says you're either pregnant or you're not," Vasquez said. "The same goes for smoking. You're either a smoker or you're not."

Stopping Jenna

Thanks to the Scottsdale City Council's unanimous vote last week, visiting a strip club in that city come March will be about as titillating as partying with librarians.

There will be no lap dances. And no nudity. Clubs will have to erect a four-foot barrier between dancers and customers. If a dancer dares to visit with her customers after performing, The Bird has heard, she'd better be covered up.

And forget about a friendly handshake. Todd Borowsky, owner of Scottsdale's Skin Cabaret, says he's spent some time examining the council's newly passed policy. Even the most platonic of touches between stripper and strippee, he tells this avian, appear to be strictly verboten.

"It's the most extreme law in the state," Borowsky squawks. "They're attempting to put us out of business."

Hey, Todd. What was your first clue?

But if Scottsdale was hoping for a first-round knockout, it's got another think coming. Porn star Jenna Jameson, who recently purchased an interest in Scottsdale's other strip club, Babe's Cabaret, is launching a petition drive. If her minions can scrape together 3,384 signatures by January 11, the council's decision will go to a citywide vote. Word has reached The Bird that the earliest possible date for that vote would be May 16.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela