In the Company of Men
Back in Covington, Tennessee, about 45 miles northeast of Memphis, my granddaddy always had a big, fat old cigar shoved in the side of his mouth. My grandma didn't much care for the habit, but she put up with it. She was a church-going Methodist and preferred the more genteel and discreet habit of dipping snuff for herself.
My granddaddy loved his cigars and smoked them day and night, inside and outside, awake and asleep. I can remember him in his furniture store on the town square just across from the courthouse, rocked back in one of the brown Naugahyde La-Z-Boys lined against the wall, with a stogie pinched between two pink knuckles, dozing the afternoon away. Smoke would drift lazily toward the ceiling like steam rising from
the hot pavement after an afternoon shower.
I'd sit at the other end of the store and drink ice cold Co' Colas wondering why my grandma let him smoke those stinkers inside when she wouldn't let him bring liquor in the house, since liquor always made him nice and friendly. But I figured my grandmother had her reasons.
My Uncle Melvin always took a more philosophical approach. Once my granddaddy nodded off, Uncle Melvin would lean back in his chair, prop his feet up on the oak desk near the cash register, and pontificate on how there are two types of cigar smokers in the world.
One, he'd say, cut the end off nice and clean with a pocket knife. Uncle Melvin would draw his knife out and cut off an imaginary end of a cigar, brushing the cutting gently off his lap. Then, he'd tell me that this kind of cigar smoker would light the opposite end carefully to get it burning evenly. This kind of smoker, he would continue, always stubbed his cigar out halfway down so he didn't smoke any of the bitter end.
My uncle would then give me a mischievous smile and slide another imaginary stogie from his shirt pocket. "Now, this cigar is what you call a stinker, a five-center. You can buy this fella down at Andy's pool hall." He'd wave it under my nose so I could get a good whiff of it, and finally he'd bury the end deep in the side of his mouth almost to his back molars. He'd explain that this kind of smoker nervously chewed his cigar end and lit it like he was doing it in a hurricane. For this type, he'd say, the cigar burned awkwardly up one side. My uncle would lick his thumb and show me how this kind of smoker had to lay on a dab of spit on the fast side so the other could catch up. He'd tell me this type was the kind that would smoke a cigar down to where he couldn't hold onto it any longer and the butt would be a soggy mess of black leaf tobacco disintegrating between his lips.
I'd like to be able to say that my granddaddy was the former, but he wasn't. He hung onto his cigar like he spent his last nickel on it. I remember how he would peel the stained cellophane wrapper off a cigar with obvious heft, and chew on its end for an hour or so. Then, he'd strike a wooden match and draw the flame with a vigorous sucking motion until a red ember glowed angrily from the dry end. Ironically, he collected lighters and even had a hand-grenade lighter of which he was particularly proud, but he never used them. They were just for show.
By the time I reached adolescence, my granddaddy had passed away, but his example burned deeply in my memory. So when I began searching for the trappings of manhood, I naturally turned to cigars and chose a particularly foul brand whose name had the ring of sweat-stained, hard-drinking men, called Swisher Sweets. Their name conjured up a whole mouthful of brown saliva that seemed to represent something I longed for.
On Friday nights my friends and I would head over to the 7-11 convenience store and buy a package of Swisher Sweets each. Then, we'd swagger over to the cemetery and sit on headstones late into the evening, smoking our cigars and arguing the virtues of American versus Japanese motorcycles, though, in our heart of hearts, we knew that none of us would buy anything but a Harley.
When I turned 18, I moved to New York City where I quickly gravitated to small, sophisticated cigars, called Dannemann's. These dark and tightly packed machine-made cigars seemed more fitting to the harsh city lifestyle. When smoked, the tobacco was strong and bitter. In a romantic way, the cigars reminded me that life was hard, but that I could gain a taste for it. Eventually, though, I began to desire something more and haunted the cigar stores in Chelsea where I could buy fresh, hand-rolled cigars.
In these places, I began to learn about tobacco and cigar sizes and styles. I learned I liked my cigar end cut with a V. I also found there was a world of difference between a machine-made, mass-produced cigar and a genuine hand-rolled Macanudo. Once you smoked a cigar made from fresh tobacco leaves and rolled in a single leaf wrapper, you couldn't bear lighting up a machine-processed stogie that smelled of chemically treated tobacco.
It was in these stores that I first heard whispers about Cuban cigars. In reverent tones, cigar smokers would stand around a glass counter filled with fine hand-rolled cigars from Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Honduras and other far-flung locations and recall those moments when they had gotten their hands on a box of this illicit contraband.
One year, my wife and I decided to vacation in Paris. With great anticipation, I had planned to buy nothing else while there except a box of cigars. Cuban cigars. So when we landed, I stopped at the first tobacconist I found and surveyed the selection of cigars. I noticed the price and was astonished to find that after a quick calculation they cost nearly $20 a piece. Quickly, I retreated, not quite ready to make this kind of investment. Even though it was the one purchase I had been anticipating, as the moment approached I began to have doubts about Cuban cigars. Like the old fishing story where the fish keeps getting bigger with each telling, I suspected that Cuban cigars had grown to mythic proportions simply because you could not buy them Stateside.
Fortunately, I had promised a friend to return home with a box of Cuban cigars and could not go back on my word. So one morning toward the end of our trip, I strode into a tobacconist and bought a box of Cuban Ramon Allones Specially Selected. As I triumphantly stepped out of the shop, I felt slightly dizzy, and went straight across the street to a café for a quick café au lait.
I gently cracked the seal of the box with my thumbnail, tipped back the top and inhaled. My nose was treated to a rich, almost coffee-like aroma. Snug in a row were 12 lovely cigars. Afraid to disrupt their uniformity, I paused. Then, I picked out a cigar from the middle. I held it up to the light. Its coloring was darker than my drink. I squeezed it between my fingers and felt its firm buoyancy. I cut the end. After a moment, I placed the cigar in my mouth. It fit. I lit the end, drawing in the flame with the same rhythm that my granddaddy had used so many years before. For that short span I was adrift in a cloud of warm, spiced smoke.
The cigar was heaven. It was then that I realized something my granddaddy perhaps always understood. A good cigar is one that is unhurried. A cigar should never be rushed. Far from the high-stress corridors of city life, Covington, Tennessee, offered the ideal place for the true enjoyment of a cigar. And in that Parisian café, I longed to return to a town much like Covington, and to a house with a front porch swing, upon which I could smoke my cigar with the leisure, attention and appreciation it deserved.
Laban Carrick Hill now lives in a house with a porch and has written several children's novels for Bantam Doubleday Dell.
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