“For the first time, Midway Stadium is entirely smoke-free,” the announcer’s voice hollered out from behind home plate.
To my surprise, about half of the men, women and children in the stands gave a standing ovation. Double chins swayed as some of these fans grunted from their seats and began to applaud. Soda swigs were taken to clear their mouths of giant pretzel clusters clinging to their gums before they cheered.
“But fortunately, for those smokers out there, we have the Smoking Gulag in center field.”
It looked like a pirate ship had crashed its rotted wood frame into the outfield and had come to take what remained of Midway’s spoils. Sporadic puffs of smoke drifted a few stories above the center fielder’s head.
After finishing a delicious bratwurst and beer, it was just about time to feed my lungs with some good old-fashioned Turkish tobacco. As I walked behind the outfield billboard advertisements to find this “Gulag,” the scene began to look even more like conquered pirate land. Plastic lawn chairs from decades ago began their long biodegrading process in this frightening stretch of land, where the crews at Midway seemed to stick everything they did not want or need anymore.
So there was the Gulag, even scarier than I had imagined it. From below, it looked like a rickety tree house for brave souls to wear their lowered social status on their sleeve.
“Come on up. This is the only smoking-mandatory section in the country,” waved a hand from atop.
I began to climb the scraggly staircase, which had near ladderlike steepness with 3-inch, decaying wooden planks that teetered beneath my feet.
At the top, a beautiful scene emerged. Midway Stadium sprawled out in front of me with a mighty beauty of deep-seeded family memories and fearless comic antics. Old men with their stogies reminisced about how once they could enjoy the game from behind home plate without glaring eyes and hinting coughs. Two old airplane seats with ashtrays embedded in the armrests were filled by leathery hands and wise, scruffy beards.
I spent two innings in the Gulag. The Saints tied the game in the bottom of the ninth, only to lose it in the 10th. Despite the loss, I had hope in the Gulag that the ship would crash deeper into center field.
Later that night, state lawmakers passed a $1.60 tax increase on every pack of cigarettes.
Fortunately for nonsmokers, their vices have not been demonized quite yet. If by chance overeating and drinking are one day equally socially punished, we should only be so lucky to have more Gulags serving brats and beer.
J.P. Getty is a freelance writer in Minneapolis.