There are certain hobbies that, while possessed of an inherent appeal, I would never take up because the subculture attached to them so repels me.
Take golf.I enjoy whacking the little white ball—I’m pretty good on the driving range, truth be told—but I would never go so far as to play the game for the simple reason that I don’t want to spend a whole afternoon with golfers.
Marijuana is another example.Pleasant though the high may be, no amount of stonedness could hip me to hackeysack and Grateful Dead bootlegs.
It’s not golf and pot I object to, mind, but golfers and potheads.I simply don’t enjoy the former enough to justify associating with the latter.
Cigars, on the other hand, are loathsome on both counts.Smoking a cigar is basically stuffing a rolled-up penis substitute in your mouth and lighting it on fire, thereby emitting a pungent waft of reek that overpowers olfactory sensors a hundred yards away.Plus it causes cancer.What fun!
And who engages in this despicable hobby?Stinky old-timers, mafiosos, Soldier of Fortune subscribers, professional poker players, Fidel Castro, and the sort of well-heeled gentlemen you might encounter at a $10,00-a-plate fundraiser for Governor Schwarzenegger.Pricks, in other words.
So it went for the first thirty-five years of my life.I was vehemently opposed to cigar smoking.You’d see Ingrid Newkirk sucking on a cheeseburger before you saw Greg Olear sucking on a Cohiba.
But then, last summer, it all changed.
We were up at Lake George, visiting my friend Sue and her husband Adam, one of the hippest guys in Brooklyn, which puts him in the running for hippest guy on Earth.He plays bass in a rockabilly band, and he has really awesome facial hair, and he makes these cocktails that…put it this way: when I die and go to heaven, there will be one of Adam’s Tom Collinses waiting for me (borne on a silver tray by Rita Hayworth and Bettie Page…but I digress).
Anyway, we’re all sitting around a bonfire after a hearty dinner, and we’re all bombed, and Adam asks if I’d like a cigar.I’d smoked once or twice before, years ago, cheap stogies at bachelor parties, usually a prelude to an upchuck.But I accepted his offer, and was shocked to discover that when I puffed on the thing, I actually kind of liked it.
A week later, back home, I decided, on impulse, to try another cigar.My wife was going out that night—my plan was to sit on our front porch, which has quite alovely view, and fire up a stogie.
The first problem I encountered: buying cigars at a convenience store is like buying books at an airport.The selection caters to a more shall-we-say prosaic taste.With no real idea what I was purchasing—and mindful of the crunchy college chick behind the counter glowering at me for engaging in what she obviously considered a filthy habit—I opted for Dutch Masters, because, first of all, they’re Masters, and second of all, when you think of countries known for producing premium cigars, number one on the list is, clearly, the Netherlands.
That evening, with the kids asleep and my wife at Bacchus (the New Paltz bar, not the pagan orgy)—and after cutting the tip with scissors from the kitchen because I didn’t have a proper cigar cutter—I smoked the Dutch Master.In my sober state, I was expecting to hate it, but it was surprisingly tasty, even without the four-Tom-Collins primer.
How pleasant it was to sit on the porch, watching the trees swaying across the street and the patch of sky slowly darken! How clear my mind became!
And then something unexpected happened.Suddenly, and without warning, the magical properties of the burning tobacco leaves took control of my senses, bestowing upon me—whammo!—a buzz of the quality I had not experienced since the first time I got drunk, halfway through my second cup of beer, at a keg party at Bill McClellan’s house after the prom in 1991.
And it all made sense!Much ado was not being made about nothing!This is why new fathers handed out cigars when their babies were born, and Red Auerbach fired one up after every Celtics victory, and the record company bigwigs pushed them on Pink Floyd.A dynamite buzz, without filling your bladder, piling on empty calories, or getting so messed up you develop a taste for Junta.
I found a place by the Dunkin’ Donuts that sold premium cigars, and bought some Macanudos—a vast improvement over the Dutch Masters (fun fact: when you smoke a good cigar, you don’t reek like stale ashtray when you wake up the next morning).But it is a Dutch Master between my teeth in the candid photograph my wife took of me out on the porch that will be familiar to readers of my posts:
That photo turned out so well, I decided to bring a cigar—a Rocky Patel, it was—to the shoot for the Totally Killer jacket.When she saw the thing, the photographer, the great Amber S. Clark, didn’t hesitate: “Fire it up.”
On the back cover, we’re going with with the picture of me where I look like a guidance counselor.But the first thing you see when you open the book, on page one, is Amber’s shot of me enjoying my cigar:
A writerly affectation?A nod to Hemingway?A touch of pretention?Guilty as charged.But at least I don’t look like every other bespectacled schmo.Which is, of course, the whole point of having an author photo.
One day, a few weeks before my birthday, some Cuban cigars mysteriously appeared on my doorstep (thanks, J____!).I smoked one of them, a Romeo y Julieta, on Election Night, well before the returns were in (I knew back in March that Obama was a shoe-in).What better way to celebrate a communist taking the White House than firing up a Habanos?
Before lighting it, I drunk deep of the husky aroma—this is one of the best parts of enjoying a cigar—and it made my heart sing, it made everything groovy.It smelled like sex, that thing.This is what I told everybody for weeks afterwards: “The Cuban cigar?Man, it smelled like sex.”
(“Stop saying that,” my wife scolded me.“You’re creeping people out.”)
Then the winter came, and it grew too cold to smoke on the porch.That’s when the tables turned on me.The New York smoking ban, which had so vastly improved the quality of my life in the city, was now working against me.I was like Tom Cruise in Minority Report when the telepathic chicks say that he’s going to commit a crime.I was being undermined by my own damn system!
The only place you can really smoke in the dead of January is a cigar store.Fortunately, there’s a superlative one, Uptown Cigar, in nearby Kingston (one of the coolest and most undiscovered cities on the East Coast, incidentally; move up here, you Brooklynites yearning to rent cheap).
I’d pick something from the closet-sized humidor and hang out on the cushy leather sofas, listening to the old guys at the next table talk about sports or politics or what have you.It was like reading a scene from a novel written a long time ago, or stepping into a time machine (one redolent with cigar smoke, of course)—there just aren’t many places like that anymore.
With the spring came the warm weather, and I’ve enjoyed a number of cigars in the last few months: Romeo Y Julieta, Upmann, Monte Cristo, Ashton.My new favorites are Acids.Acids are made by an American named Jonathan Drew.He’s called a “mad scientist,” because he has a special mix of stuff he puts in the cigars that make them taste like a combination of a) a robust premium smoke, b) incense/perfume, and c) candy.That might not read like a good thing, but trust me, it is.
(No sooner did I type that sentence when the mail carrier beeped, indicating that my Acid sampler tin had arrived.Woo-hoo!)
I took a tin of tiny Acids to the TNB Off the Blog event in New York, and convinced Kimberly M. Wetherell to join me:
Not that I condone cigar smoking, as such.I’m careful not to smoke in front of the kids, for example.And most people don’t develop the same aficion that I have—I brought some $15 cigars to a vacation I took with some buddies last year; none of them really took to it, and one of them got sick.
But for me, it works.
“Cigars are about relaxation and indulgence,” writes Alex Svenson in the latest Cigar.com catalog (which I keep in the bathroom right next to the US Weekly).“They are not habit-forming addictions and are enjoyed by choice.”Well said, sir!
Understand, I’m not a guy for whom relaxation or indulgence comes easily.My New Age bona fides start and end with astrology, and the only thing I really splurge on is books.
But smoking a cigar is not like wolfing down a Big Mac Value Meal—it’s an investment in time.It can take upwards of an hour to polish off a seven-inch cigar.And that’s part of the experience.I sit, I smoke—I commune with fire, as Tom Robbins put it—and I let my mind rest.
Meditation is so much better with a Macanudo.