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Members Only: Cigar Clubs

The Privileges of Membership
Michael Frank
From the Print Edition:
Fidel Castro, Summer 94

"Please accept my resignation. I don't care to belong to any club that will accept me as a member."

--Groucho Marx,The Groucho Letters, 1967

"This has got to be the greatest: a beer, a cigar and a chocolate doughnut." Jim O'Connor, a 40-year-old attorney, is talking to no one in particular, and his voice can barely be heard above the din of conversation rattling the walls of Blooms, a rather odd and awkwardly shaped cigar store on Pittsburgh's south side. The front half of Blooms resembles a living room, with a fridge and microwave, member-donated, mustard-colored chairs and a pea-green couch. Dead cigar butts in variously shaped ashtrays indicate that Blooms is a cigar store and not a mobile home. Nevertheless, Blooms is a home of sorts. Cigar Camp--a weekly event that unites cigar lovers with cigars, food and drink (roast beef, lox and bagels, focaccia, Coca-Cola and various "adult beverages") and each other--feels a lot like a block party at a neighbor's house.

On this painfully cold Saturday in late February, the room is packed with men (and a few women) watching basketball on the tube, drinking and eating, and talking each others' ears off. A monstrous cloud of blue smoke is diminished intermittently when someone opens the front door. As the afternoon wears on, the smoke gets thicker, the conversations grow louder and the folks hanging out here become more like family than an eclectic mishmash of strangers who see each other only four times a month.

There doesn't seem to be anything average about Blooms Cigar Camp. "Camper" Bill Eakin, a 40-year-old steelworker, says that cigars are just an excuse for uniting. More than other party themes, Eakin says, cigars have a tendency to eliminate superficial social barriers: "You'll see a biker talking to a lawyer, a steelworker talking to an accountant. I'm a Democrat, and now I'm good friends with a Republican. That's the way it is at Cigar Camp."

A few minutes later, as if to prove Eakin's point, Don Long and his buddy Larry McDonald show up. Both men are riders in a local Harley Davidson motorcycle club, but they come to Cigar Camp to commune with cigar smokers. According to McDonald, both men quit drinking and doing drugs. "So we had to do something!" he jokes. Marc Adams, owner of Blooms, was so impressed by Long's "eccentricity" that he gave him a free Punch Chateau L. "I've been coming ever since," spouts Long.

Both McDonald and Long say they smoke cigars while riding, though McDonald admits that his Punch doesn't last as long when he's doing 60 mph.

And there's even more weird camaraderie. Ray Mansfield, an NFL center and four-time Super Bowl Champion of the Pittsburgh Steelers, comes in for a cigar and some coffee. He talks quietly with Jorge Lindenbaum, a doctor who specializes in hypertension. Neither man seems to be suffering from that disease. Across from them, lounging on an old, beat-up couch, are two fresh-faced 18-year-olds who somehow look very relaxed with cigars and chocolate doughnuts. A 27-year-old English professor, James Jaap, talks about Joseph Conrad (and cigars) while five feet away, Pete Vercilla, a respiratory therapist, proudly exclaims, "these are not going to give you a problem," while holding up his Hoyo de Monterrey Rothschild.

Optimistic cigar mavens would likely say that Blooms is not all that unusual and that cigars have a way of uniting the most disparate personalities. It's a valid observation, but it is also probable that cigar clubs such as Blooms are becoming more common because they satisfy the most basic need of a cigar smoker--giving him a tranquil place to light up. Of course, Blooms means more to its regulars than that, but the need for a place to smoke and the fellowship created by such a place are not mutually exclusive. Rather, more cigar smokers are coming together in reaction to the antismoking hysteria that is sweeping the nation and, as a result, friendships and cigar "camps" are forming.

In some places, like Aspen, there is little choice. Aspen has the toughest antismoking law of any municipality in the United States. Smoking is illegal in most public and private places. According to the Aspen Indoor Clean Air Act, the only place where smoking is legal is in a private residence, a private hotel room or a private club. But even Aspenite cigar smokers have found a way to survive--at the Caribou Club.

It's a bit hard to find (the local cops don't even know where it is--all the better), but after a few passes and the right directions, descending the stairs into the Caribou Club is just like going to a speakeasy. There's no name on the door outside, and the underground club has a partially obscured entrance, so club members remain undisturbed by any potential riffraff trying to talk their way inside. That gin-joint feeling disappears upon entering. The Caribou Club is labyrinthian: there are luxurious dining areas, private function rooms, a giant, sunken living room with a massive fireplace, and at the back, the Whiskey Bar where, along with a collection of Cognacs, Ports, Armagnacs and, of course, whiskey, there is a humidor. The cigar selection is pricey but vast and often well aged.

Jimmy Yeager, general manager of the Caribou Club, says that a typical club member might be a local small-business owner or Arab royalty. And many "Hollywood types" are members--the tanned and beautiful set love to clog Aspen's streets and slopes during Christmas and New Year's. (There's a wait, but membership is relatively cheap: $1,500 for the first year and $1,000 for each subsequent year. Membership can also be purchased on a weekly basis.) According to Yeager, there are many members, especially the locals, who join so they can smoke cigars.

Strictly speaking, the Caribou Club is not a cigar society, but it does host cigar dinners (the most recent dinner helped raise $2,400 for a Colorado-based charity for terminally ill children), and it is the only gathering place in town where cigars are legal. On any given evening, at least one cigar smoker can be found at the Whiskey Bar, relaxing and lighting up in "safety." Or so it seems, until one notices that all four walls depict enraged Native Americans, blurred as they seem to rush at the viewer--Custer's Last Stand, painted from Custer's perspective. It's not a bad metaphor for the state of cigar smoking in Aspen.

Half a continent away, in sunny California, there is another club born of expediency and one man's shrewd business sense. Les Amis du Cigar and the George Sand Society are upscale cigar associations created for men and women.The owner of Remi restaurant in Santa Monica, 56-year-old Givan Tabibian, started with simple cigar dinners back in 1992, and then he soon realized that his was one of the only cigar-friendly restaurants in town. Like Aspen, Santa Monica restricts all public smoking (there may soon be a statewide ban in California), forcing restaurateurs to disallow smoking entirely or to create private rooms for cigar smoking.

Now Remi has cigar dinners every week and boasts the only American cigar club devoted to women. However, Tabibian makes sure that all club events are coed, because, "men alone are always a variation of the same old locker room, no matter how many tuxedos they wear. Women have a civilizing influence."

Unlike the Caribou Club, there's no formal dues structure at Les Amis and George Sand, though, ironically, the very legislation that sought to restrict smoking has made Tabibian's club an even more popular cigar haven--to the point where he may have to limit membership. "It's the latest twist on declining yuppie culture. But that's OK, as long as people enjoy themselves, it's great."

Though Remi and the Caribou Club provide refuge for the cigar smoker, they are not, technically speaking, cigar clubs. And, though Cigar Camp might be defined as a club, Mark Adams admits that he's also doing whatever he can to attract new cigar sales. That's perfectly fine. Every cigar smoker is happy to have a place to smoke with friends, and most aficionados would gladly pay dues, buy dinner (or even a cigar) or walk a tightrope across the Grand Canyon to find a place where other people enjoy his passion. Still, genuine clubs start from the ground up. The Cigar Society at Florida State University, in Tallahassee, is a good example of cigar-club evolution. The society, founded by Charlie Barley, a 21-year-old junior at the university, started by accident.

A few days after an argument erupted between him and his roommates, Barley brought cigars back to the apartment as a peace offering. "We didn't know what we were doing," Barley recalls. "We bit off the ends, spit them on each other and lit up." That night they opted to sit on the back porch with the cigars instead of going out to party. "That was the best cigar I ever had, and I knew that it was the stogie that broke the ice between my friends and me," says Barley.

In January, three months after the first cigars were hoisted in group salutation on Barley's back porch, 13 people were crammed into Barley's small apartment living room to smoke cigars. Barley and pals knew they were on to something and, in one heady night, they drafted a charter and submitted it to the university. The charter rather boldly states as a goal "the education of members about" the finer pleasures in life, including tobacco and alcohol. But there's a twist: "[The cigar society will be] an oasis in a society which tends to abuse and not appreciate such great pleasures." To that end, part of the charter includes the right to ban any member for misusing alcohol or drugs.

Still, Barley admits that official university recognition may take some time--and heavy politicking. But current membership dues are a paltry five bucks, and Barley says that there is a growing interest on campus. This fall he hopes to have Bobby Bowden, the coach of the national champion Florida State Seminoles football team, speak at a Cigar Society and Alumni dinner.

Though he's almost 20 years older than Barley, Sam Williams has had similar problems lighting up in public. In 1992, he and his brother Gill spent a great deal of time wandering around their hometown, of Washington, D.C., looking for a place to smoke. Neither of their wives would let them smoke at home, and both men were getting tired of the comments and taunts that fell upon them even before they lit their cigars.

Two years and 15 to 30 regular club members later, the Baccarat Club convenes for weekly meetings at the Henley Park Hotel in downtown Washington. There, members smoke cigars and plan for the future. "We want to make our group eccentric. It's not just going out and having a good time with a bunch of guys," Williams claims. "We came together to mentor some young adults in the Washington community. And maybe through our union, enjoying the good things in life, we can pass that along to young, disadvantaged people to get them to appreciate what life has to offer."

Williams, a psychologist and student counselor at Bowie State University in Bowie, Maryland, says that, while the Baccarat Club has more African-American members than Caucasians, conditions for membership are very simple: "We figure that anyone who enjoys a good cigar, fine wine and a good meal can get along with us."

At a recent smoker, Williams and his brother argued about horseback riding with a couple of new Baccarat Club members. "These guys happened to both be Jewish, and they joked about black guys riding, and we told them, 'Jewish guys can't ride.' After we finished kidding around, all four of us decided to go up to Montana this summer for a week of riding."

According to Williams, it is even possible that there will be more women smoking cigars at Baccarat Club. "Women are very much interested in the club, but they're reluctant to say anything. Their perception is that it's a men-sy kind of thing, even though it's not."

After conquering racism and sexism, Williams continues to look out for those who can't afford a good cigar. "We're hoping to get funds from the city. We want to set up some kind of nonprofit organization so we can give community grants to the kids we're trying to help."

It seems that, sometimes, a cigar club is much more than just a cigar club.

* * *

Then again, sometimes a cigar club is just a bit odd. In Port Moody, British Columbia, a suburb of Vancouver, Canada, there is the Port Moody Cigar and Soccer Club. Every Sunday, a group of men, who are all over 40, gather to kick a ball around. No standings are kept, but the soccer club is part of an official league. "It's just for fun, but the part we like is the end of the game," says Mal Harkness, the unofficial club spokesman. Harkness, a graphic artist, says that after the final whistle blows and the handshaking and "good game, good game" chants are complete, about half the team members gather outside the clubhouse and light Cuban cigars. "The team favorite is a Montecristo, but there is an unofficial rule. If you travel somewhere, even if you're a nonsmoking member, you have to bring back cigars," Harkness says.

The latest box came back from the Philippines--Harkness is quick to add that nonsmoking members don't always have good taste.

Occasionally, when Harkness and teammates are smoking cigars, a curious thing will happen. "Sometimes guys from the other team will come over, and they'll smoke with us." Asked whether rival-team members could come to the annual Port-and-cigar Christmas dinner or ride along on the yearly pilgrimage to the A.E. Morris Cigar Co. in Victoria (the only public space in B.C.'s capital city where smoking is allowed), Harkness hesitates not a second. "Of course. We're just doing this for the fun of it." The fun, at least the cigar part of it, has been going on for almost six years. The team has been around since 1960.

About 1,000 miles to the south of Port Moody, another group of men gather for an equally odd ritual. They're the members of the Volunteer Fire Department of Colma, California, a suburb of San Francisco. Every Saturday the firemendrill, putting out mock fires. Then they start real fires--lighting cigars and smoking them while playing poker. Mark Fontana, 42, owns a granite company and opens his basement three times a week to members. "Some of the guys are good winemakers, and we generally cook something for dinner. All the guys are married, but we sit around after work and talk about our businesses or the fire department."

All of the firefighters, including Colma Mayor Dennis Fisicaro, are in their mid-40s. "People think cigar smokers are all old guys," says Fontana, "but we're all pretty young, successful, small-businessmen." The club's favorite cigar brand is Macanudo, which Fontana buys through JR Tobacco. "I don't mind paying for the cigars. I keep a pretty good stock, and it's just nice to enjoy the end of the day this way with friends."

Fontana says that the club formed because there wasn't anywhere else to go and smoke, but also to do something for Colma. The fire department puts on community "feeds" for the public, sort of like a miniature soup kitchen.

* * *


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