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Walking My Cigar

Gay Talese
From the Print Edition:
Premier Issue, Autumn 92

(continued from page 1)

She was a blondish woman in her early thirties, bespectacled and of a lean and dour mien, but hardly unattractive; she wore a pair of Indian beads draped over her slender neck, dangling halfway down her yellow gingham blouse, and she had on a beige linen jacket with a button on the lapel reading: "Pro-Choice."

"This is a public street, you know," I said.

"Yes, " she said, "and I'm part of the public."

I was tempted to inhale and blow smoke in her direction, which hardly would have downgraded the air quality of the avenue, where the soot from the uptown buses and cars had already turned the cafe's white tablecloths toward shades of battleship gray and navy blue. But I noticed that the woman's companion, who had not ceased waving her hands over her dinner, had now drawn the attention of the waiter, and some people at the next table; and suspecting I'd have few allies in this crowd, I allowed my dogs to pull me further uptown.

Puffing deeply on my cigar, which now seemed to have turned into a hotter smoke, I thought more about the social ostracism confronting cigar smokers.

Was it indeed motivated by female sexism? Have some angry members of the Women's Movement defined cigars as a vestige of that bygone male era of male clannishness and exclusivity? Are some of these women getting back at their cigar chomping, tough-minded, sexist fathers who, refusing to pass on the lucrative family business to a worthy daughter, favored instead an incompetent son? What would Sigmund Freud, an inveterate cigar smoker, say to all this? Would he identify the cigar as a phallic symbol that contemporary women both envy and loathe?

No, no, I decided; in my case I could not blame women entirely for the cool receptions accorded to my cigars. Just as many men have groused about my cigars: for example, many doormen whose hostile stares I've seen whenever I've paused to relight my cigar under the marquees of their apartment houses or hotels; and those taxicab drivers who, spotting me on rainy nights waving toward them with my cigar extended, have sped past me while giving me the finger. And I should also mention that New York's restaurants, which are overwhelmingly owned and operated by men, have led a vigilant campaign against cigar smokers that contrasts with their relative permissiveness toward cigarette smokers who are allowed to light up in designated areas. The restaurateurs' strict boycott of cigars extends also to those who smoke pipes, I might add. But what do I care about pipe smokers?

And yet there is one famous New York restaurant that (in addition to '2l') does welcome cigar smokers, and this is owned and operated by a woman! She is Elaine Kaufman, the proprietress and social lioness of Elaine's on Second Avenue, a bastion of democracy that is favored by writers and other advocates of freedom. As long as her patrons do not criticize the food, Elaine allows them to do pretty much as they wish in her restaurant; and if anybody complains to her about the cigar smoke, she promptly points them in the direction of a doorway leading into a sideroom, which the regulars call "Siberia."

Still, the liberty available to cigar smokers at Elaine's and a few other restaurants hardly refutes the fact that the cigar is becoming increasingly a less portable pleasure; and, in my view, this is but one symptom of a growing neo-Puritanism and negativism that has choked the nation with codes of correctness, and has led to greater mistrust between the sexes, and has finally, in the name of health and virtue and fairness, reduced options and pleasures that, in measured amounts, had once been generally accepted as normal and natural.

"When America is not fighting a war, the puritanical desire to punish people has to be let out at home," the writer Joyce Carol Oates explained years ago, referring to literary censorship. But this applies to restrictions of every kind, including the current edicts against my humble cigar--out of whose smoke my paranoia rises each night, and does not evaporate even when I take a final puff and toss the butt into the street, signaling to my dogs that our nightly walk in the outdoors is over.


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