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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.

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