THE TOBACCONIST – This is where I pick up my imported cigars, especially rolled for me by a little man east of the Urals. Well, not exactly. My boutique cigar store is Samuel’s Exclusive Club for Discriminating Clientele (some of you shorten it to Sam’s) and my expert connoisseur is Billy Joe, who prefers “a chaw of tabacky to those hoity-toity Swisher Sweets.” I am here today in pursuit of the long-missed Cuban cigars. A bit of background: Most of my friends and neighbors agree that President Barak Obama is the very worst president we have ever had, and should be tarred and feathered. But he did restore diplomatic relations with that commie island of Cuba, which means cruise ships will be arriving in Havana harbor, the quality of our baseball players will vastly improve and car collectors who like to restore ’52 Studebakers are probably waiting at the Miami airport.
Then there are those of us who wait for the more civilized quest: a fine Cuban cigar. As you know, they have been off-shore and off-limits since 1960. I could get them in Mexico, and I noted that duty-free shops catering to U.S.-bound planes in Toronto had boxes of Cuban cigars stacked almost to the ceiling. “Can I take these into the U.S.?” I ask. “Certainly,” says the clerk. I figure the U.S. customs agents in Chicago, Detroit and other points of entry have enough confiscated cigars to start their own second-hand smoke shop.
So here I am, looking around for those fruits which were forbidden these many decades. There may be a problem, because this situation reminds me, as it does you, of Coors beer and Krispy Kreme. For years Coors was brewed and sold only in Colorado. It had to be kept cold from the brewery to the house refrigerator. So back in those days, frat rats on their skiing vacations in Aspen would pack iced cases of Coors and bring them back to Texas. It was nectar of the gods, until Coors started selling its beer in Texas, and no one thought it was so special. Krispy Kreme was welcomed to Houston when it arrived, because the millions of Yankees who moved here kept telling us how great Krispy Kreme was. Alas, the company closed all of its Houston locations seven years ago, citing a disagreement with franchisees and lousy sales. Last year, Krispy Kreme had 249 locations, down from 338 a decade ago. Now the company is trying again in Houston, hoping this time we will all agree with our new neighbors from the north that KK really is the best.
My cigar problem, and maybe yours, too, is that I cannot drive my ’56 Hudson to Havana and pick up a trunk load of cigars, because those goodie two-shoes at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection say, initially, U.S. visitors won’t be able to bring home more than $100 worth of Cubans for personal use. Indeed, plain old tourism is still banned. Also, telling the real Cuban from the fake won’t be so easy. Counterfeit versions are everywhere. Here’s an interesting news item: “Most people are not getting what they think are Cuban cigars. Many are made in Mexico, with a facsimile of a band that appears like a Cuban band.” Let’s check these labels in this store. “Little Havana.” OK, that section of Miami is pretty close. “Smoked by Cuba M. Gooding, Jr.” “Made especially for Mark Cuban.”
There is yet another problem. In 1960, the CIA considered a plan to kill Fidel Castro by injecting poison into his favorite cigars. Nothing came of that, but Castro is still alive, if not well, and may have a long memory. (While we’re at it, don’t buy any Cuban pigs in a bay.) On the other hand, we need to tell those mules on the Rio Grande smuggling teenagers and drugs into the U.S. for a small price that they are working for chump change. An authentic box of Cohiba Behikes in the U.S, can go for as high as $1,000, according to Cigar Aficionado magazine. But remember that among those appearing of the cover of Cigar Aficionado include Bill Cosby and Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s the same curse as being on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Rudyard Kipling wrote, “And a woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke.” That may be the dumbest thing anyone ever wrote. Upon hearing this, Sigmund Freud observed, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Which brings us to Thomas Riley Marshall, 28th vice president of the United States, who, one day, turned to John Crockett, chief clerk of the Senate and remarked, “What this country needs is a good five cent cigar.” That is the only remembered quote by Vice President Marshall. When Will Rogers heard of Marshall’s statement, Rogers replied, “This country has plenty of good five cent cigars. The trouble is, they charge 15 cents for them.” Finally we have the observation of cigar-smoking Mark Twain, who wrote, “More than one cigar at a time is excessive smoking.”
The habit peaked a few years back when the economy was booming. It caught on, not only among men but among women, too. It is acceptable for women to clip off the end of a cigar, but not for men. Have you ever seen a movie where John Wayne takes out his little clipper and snips off the end of a cigar? Of course not. Men bite off the end, then spit it out. Real men bite off the burning end and swallow it. Cigars are older than cigarettes. Indeed, “cigarette” means, “little cigar.” The word, “cigar,” comes from the Spanish word, “cigarro,” which comes from the Mayan word for smoking, SEEK-ar. Apparently the Mayans didn’t have a word for “throat cancer.” In any event, as with Coors beer and Krispy Kreme, these long-awaited Cubana cigars may not be as good as remembered. It wouldn’t be the first time Castro was blowing smoke.
Ashby is fuming at email@example.com