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Peter Weller's Cigar Paradise

Africa, or finding the Founding Fathers (Rolling in Their Graves) While Smoking my Way Through Post-Apartheid Cape Town
Peter Weller
From the Print Edition:
Tyson vs. King, Jan/Feb 04

Back in the ancient liberal days -- the summer of 2000 -- I heard the words "Stay at the Mount Nelson," spake by Antonio Sersale, who owns the Hotel Le Sirenuse, one of the most divine hotels in the Western world, located on my Home away from Hell (Los Angeles) -- the Amalfi Coast near Naples, Italy. But this is not a Baroque tale. This is Cape Town, South Africa, where I arrived on a hero's welcome in a mild winter's day in…mid-June? Yes, I was below the globe's girth for the second time. And a hero's welcome for an actor is welcome indeed before the cameras roll and the creative harangues are put to test.

My entrance to Cape Town was heralded in Kennedy's, a terrific cigar/jazz joint I liked so much that I steered every social dinner in my five weeks' stay back to its upstairs lounge. Matter of fact, I scribed most of this rant there. Kennedy's was owned, at the time, by a friendly cat named Per Menko. The downstairs bar still offers jazz almost every night, and the upstairs has elegant dining, including a West African peanut soup with shavings of cold crocodile accompanied by, if one desires, Private Collection from the region of Stellenbosch.

And so I checked into the Mount Nelson Hotel, owned by the Orient Express Group, and was ensconced in the biggest suite since the Boer War. My drawbacks to the Mount Nelson, were, in spite of the hotel's antiquity, elegance and supreme service:
a) No rooms had terraces, except in the new wing where there are no suites.
b) One could only smoke cigars in the tiny, quaint, but oh so quiet bar or on the veranda, which is too nippy in winter. The lounge caters to a 'high tea' on Sundays, much the same as the Ritz in London, albeit the Ritz allows cigars.
c) I became instantly infatuated with an employee, and…ahhh, but this is another story.

And so, I moved to Table Bay Hotel at the Victoria and Albert Waterfront, where my small suite had a terrace, facing the convergence of the Indian and Atlantic oceans.

The Table Bay, complete with a split-level lounge, was built at the tip of a modern mall that sits atop a land fill where once stood the old shipping bay of Cape Town. I jogged every day along the old rail tracks that served the bay until the last two decades, when modernity transformed this area into a mini-Miami Beach. One of Table Bay's splendid restaurants is the Conservatory wherein, after sipping a clear lemon/coconut soup, I finally met the chef, a young Chinese man named David who informed me that these concoctions were his own.

On our days off I threw brunches with cigars for fellow cast members on my terrace, and, being that it was winter in mid-July, we were blessed with beautiful weather. As the Table Bay has door-to-door access with the Victoria and Albert Waterfront mall, where one can find anything from Cajun food to a great espresso at one of five cafes, cigars were an easy catch because of the Cigar Emporium located there. The manager, Cheryl Klaic, showed me the last Prometheus/OpusX humidor left for sale in the modern world. I saw much to purchase at the Emporium including two boxes of Partagas Lusitanias and a box each of Punch Cabinet Double Coronas and Bolivar Royal Coronas. Cheryl released a cabinet/humidor to me where I stowed my purchases, thus I had my own personal walk-in stash during the entire shoot. And, bless their hearts -- they are open until 9 p.m. on Sundays!

Downstairs, on the main floor of the mall, the Cock 'N Bull, a tobacco stand with a small walk-in humidor, was owned and managed by a great lady, who goes by the name of Rose. She showed me a collection of cigars she had on sale, and among this amalgam were 10 H. Upmann Sir Winstons for about $9 a stick. I asked Rose if she had the rest of the box, and she came up with 10 more, some of the best Churchills I've ever puffed. For the rest of my shoot, I raided Rose's place for singles: double coronas of all makes, plus a few El Rey del Mundo Tainos to boot. It wasn't that Rose didn't know what she was selling, she simply didn't command the clientele for major hauls; thus she broke the boxes and sold remainders for cheap to move the inventory. In addition, she was a lovely person with a great sense of sarcasm. And so I was set for comfort in Cape Town. Or so I thought.

On July 4, 2000, I threw a dinner for 18 folks at Kennedy's. This millennium Independence Day fest would be the apotheosis of that American celebration in all my years passed and, probably, yet to come. For over this volatile, cathartic, three-double-corona dinner (Punch, Hoyo and Partagas Lusitania) there took place a political brouhaha so bizarre, that, by comparison, the Kerry/Bush debates would resemble an episode of "Friends." (They did anyway). And the harangue was all the more potent, happening in a country that has only, in the last decade, begun to pull itself from a bug nest of racial repression.

Two nights previous, on July 2, I had the privilege of meeting a black American doctor, in his 70s, a combat veteran of Omaha Beach and onetime White House adviser, who was attending, along with other doctors of color, the World Conference on AIDS in Durban, South Africa. Over a Romeo y Julieta Prince of Wales (once my favorite Churchill, now extinct), the Doc explained that medicos from all over the world were networking in Cape Town before moving on to Durban. At this juncture I invited the Doc and his daughter (who speaks on health for the American professional sports) to my dinner for the U.S/ of A. at Kennedy's.

Two nights previous to that meeting, June 30, while dining alone at Kennedy's (and, simultaneously, drawing on a Taino), I had been politely interrupted by three young black Americans -- two men and a woman -- who introduced themselves as fans. Further conversation revealed that each, having parents from Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe and Kenya, respectively, was on scholarship sabbatical from different American universities to study the social/political dilemmas in their parents' respective countries of origin. So I invited them, as well, to my birthday party for America.

On the day of the party, while on the movie set, I, as the only American on board in this shoot, had a massive chocolate cake delivered to the crew (South African) and cast (Scottish, Australian and English) with a "Happy Birthday America" logo across the top. After a short speech and round of applause, I was invited by co-actor and dear friend "Alfred," a surreptitious Scotsman, to meet his visiting pal, "Dave," a black American actor from Chicago. Previously I'd conveyed to Alfred how much I'd enjoyed Dave's work in a certain film, so Dave had a sucker for a fan -- me -- at the handshake.

Dave greets me in a very debonair and polite fashion. Alfred and his friend Ida will attend the festivities at Kennedy's that evening, so I extend the invitation to Dave. Weirdly, Dave, the only other American present in this lunch tent, retorts that he will come but he will not celebrate the Fourth of July.

Taken aback, I stammer, "Well…don't come then."

And I walk off and sit down with my assistant, Maria, on the other side of the tent and light up a Choix Supreme. As I become aggravated over the impasse, I can see Dave on the other side of the room brooding as well. He's thought to impress me with some revisionist racial jive, which I don't buy because I know the guy's making more loot in American movies than the average farmer. To add, I, although never thrown in jail, am an aging hipster. And, as such, was a participant in the social revolution of the U.S. of A. -- the '60s. (Don't all you young'uns groan.) That glorious and painful decade was indeed the eye of the American cyclone of the twentieth century U.S. So I could hear Dave's tin drum of "Tom Jefferson and his slaves" before he even spoke, and nowadays, for me, that's all so much manure. Leveraging perfection over progress, one could blow off Aristotle because Crete didn't have the vote. On the other hand, I will scream against all the do-gooder jingoists when starting their "anti-immigration" rap, because the world movement and mixing of people is a force of nature that never has and never will be stopped; plus it makes the planet interesting. And, in spite of the Founding Fathers' originating their idea only for the white male elite, the context they created has allowed future generations, albeit sometimes in blood, to bring forth the most functional, however flawed, political system in the world. And I am, although a U.S. citizen, a world traveler and also a European resident. I love Europe, but Europe's infrastructure steps on its own @#$% in the name of the "state"; in addition, more often than not, the small business has little chance of finding bank backing. Utopia is not to be found, but, unless you wish to live on planet Zeno, there is no better place given to the opportunity to raise social Cain than the States. And this is thanks to, I believe, a bunch of guys, some of whom were major assholes and had slaves but who, nonetheless, laid down a malleable set of principles that would bring about the most opportune reversals in the tide of inhumanity. So for me, the old reverse Jim Crow, powerful in '68, is paltry in 2000, the year of this cacophony.

And now my rapid departure has stolen Dave's soapbox. In order not to piss off his peers, here he comes over to my table. I am manically puffing on my Choix Supreme.

"I'd like to explain myself," he says. "Perhaps I was unclear."

"Your intent was clear. You find America racist; thus your refusal to celebrate its birthday."

"You do not know what it is to be black."

"No I don't. And I never will. So you can use that line for life. What am I hearing? You're a victim?"

"The Founding Fathers owned slaves."

"Some of them."

"Although I live in the States I do not wish to light fireworks for slave owners. The country was founded by white men, while men of color…."

"…were in chains," I interrupt. "Look. I'm 53, you're what? Twenty nine?" (Ain't nothing gonna work here except the "old man" rap.) "In my day Watts burned. As did Harlem and Detroit. And I'll tell you something worse about the Founding Fathers. Not only did they not intend for people of color or women to have a vote, they didn't have it in mind for anyone -- even white people -- to vote unless they were property owners. So all that's true. But by now, it's weary. The stance-indignant resonated in the '60s, but Hughie Newton pistol-whipped his barber and my personal hero, Eldridge Cleaver, ended up designing pants. It doesn't cut any ice anymore."

"Anymore?"

We are two self-righteous pontiffs talking old ideas. In South Africa yet -- a country that was now paying racial dues that made '60s America look like an episode of "Friends."

I begin to clarify. "I was and am a jazz trumpet player; my mother was a pianist, and I grew up all over the world as a dependent in the United States Army, where my father was a career pilot."

"So you grew up with integration."

"I grew up completely integrated, school -- next-door neighbors coming in and out of my house, down to sand box buddies, and, because I still am a mediocre bebop trumpet player, my true heroes were and always will be black musicians, speaking of which, right up to the day he died, I hung with Miles Davis, who bequeathed me his only self-portrait, and, as a white guy, after hanging with Miles anybody else's racial rhetoric sounds pithy. But there are country white guys I know in west Texas who grew up more integrated than me. All I'm trying to tell you is that, thanks to hip parents, I've been exposed to black American sensibilities since I was born. And I'm not black. But I went to music school in the '60s, when 'burn baby burn' meant exactly that…thus I've become very discerning in my middle years about what rings my bell. And today the 'Founding Fathers had slaves' rap resonates as much as a penny falling into a coffee cup, dig? To boot, it doesn't sound authentic coming out of your mouth, because I think it's something you wear in case your costume doesn't fit."

"So be it." Dave gets up and walks back to his table, sits down.

And I light up a Sir Winston and proceed to gloat over my last perspicuity; the veritable oratory that's spewed out of my mouth. With the cigar, I feel like, gee…yes…Churchill himself, damn it! Then the dull thud of epiphany. Hoisted on my own petard. As I will not burn the flag, but defend your right to burn it, as it is only the effigy of the country, I see that Dave must come to the dinner for the U.S.A., for no other reason than to not celebrate it! This, after all, is that day's particular gift: to come and choose to do what one wishes. To not have Dave there would, in principle, be a violation of the very celebration -- freedom of thought and speech.

I walk over to his table.

"Dave, I hereby invite you to the birthday of the U.S. of A. at Kennedy's tonight and, in the spirit of liberty, I invite you to celebrate or not celebrate; whatever you wish." And I walk away, puffing the Sir Winston, now feeling less like Churchill and more like Ben Franklin, by Jove.

On the way to the Revolution, I inform the Doc of the afternoon's impasse and my transformation by way of my flag-burning stand. He only responds: "I landed at Normandy Beach. I saw many die that day, and I do not hold with flag burning." Hmm.

At the battlefield -- the grand salon at Kennedy's -- the colonial army arrives. There are the Doc, his daughter, three other black American doctors, the three African-American students, a dear friend and Australian actor named Roger, myself, a young (19 years) actor from South Africa whom we call Red (Roger's dubbing because Red has hair dyed blue). The Redcoats arrive in the guise of Alfred, his friend, Ida, Dave and the last guest, Rick (Benedict Arnold), an American television producer, whom I know from a previous gig, who is in Cape Town with another shoot and arrives with two of his cohorts. I bring my driver, Pete, an ex-Rhodesian War mercenary vet, who is one of five known persons in the world to have survived a non-opening chute from a paratroop jump. And along with us is my assistant, Maria, a lovely Danish girl, living in Cape Town for 10 years.

So there are 18 people in all, nine of whom are black, five of whom are South African, three of whom are Australian, one of whom is Scot. Rick (Benedict Arnold) and I (Paul Revere) are the only white Americans.

I enter puffing a Punch D.C. to a few snide comments from the eco-hip.

"We are in a friggin' cigar bar, people," I chortle. "And it's my party." Alfred, a fan of forceful declaration and a resuscitator of Dylan Thomas, applauds. Much wine has begun to flow, and some guests are well on their way to gaga land, including Rick. We sit around a long rectangular table in the alcove of the upstairs salon, viewing the entire room, the bar and the balustrade. Jazz from the downstairs bar floats up around our small talk until the new and massive cake arrives. Like the one from the afternoon, it is chocolate; "Happy Birthday America" is scrawled in some kind of coconut goo along its face.

"I think Peter should give us an intro before we begin the chow," Roger, forever the Aussie provocateur, bellows.

"I think our guest Dave should speak first," I respond, intending to co-opt the opposition right away. Round of applause. Dave reluctantly stands, looks around the table.

"I had several things to say. And I said them to Peter this afternoon, so I will just leave it with this: in spite of the misgivings I have about the racial origins of the United States of America, I am happy to have been invited to this party and to share this evening with all of you here and now." He sits down to applause. Roger then gives me the shove to speak. I stand, not realizing Benedict Arnold (Rick) is about to fire six-pounders off my bow.

I began, "When I was in London in 1977, doing Sticks and Bones, David Rabe's play about Vietnam, I was roasted nightly by my landlord, Phillip Gundry, a professor of English history at Oxford, who, at my expense, made constant jokes of the great imperial sin of Vietnam perpetrated by America, at that time too dumb to learn from Europe the ultimate hazards of colonization. The night before I left London, Phillip threw a dinner for me, inviting all his professor friends who, one by one, went around the table and blasted the United States one more time, lest I forget every wound Phillip had opened during my stay in his house. However, when it got to Phillip, he stood and said, 'Whatever her mistakes of the last half century and in spite of her own problems concerning human rights, the United States of America has taken the torch of civil liberties from Europe and waved it back at us. And we, the globe, must listen, for it is the United States that is foreshadowing what must come concerning problems of race economics, so that all on the planet may live in liberty.'"

I continued to the table, "And, folks, at Phillip's proclamation I almost started to weep…."

"Crap! Jingoistic ignoramus crap!" the cannons sound from across the table, out of the mouth of Rick, an American and…traitor.

"Let me finish!" I ask.

"Why should you finish? I've heard that crud forever, and you know as well as I do, the United States has done more to subjugate the world with money and guns than any other entity in the history of time."

"I'm not talking about that. Can I finish?" I plead.

"WHO WANTS TO HEAR THIS GARBAGE?" Rick jumps out of his seat.

"I DO!" yells the Doc.

"And so do I," yells Roger, the fairly sizable and imposing Aussie.

"WELL, I THINK I SPEAK FOR MANY OF US WHO DON'T!" yells Rick.

And I look around and see the beady eyes of Alfred connecting with Dave and Ida.

"Let me finish and then you can…." I try to continue. But Benedict is on a roll.

"NO, don't finish, you righteous bastard, you're speaking patriotic hogwash, and you know better, and we don't want to swallow it."

"Shut up and sit down, ya C---!" Roger bellows at Rick.

"What?" responds Rick, stunned at Roger's blast, as all heads turn and mouths drop, at the Roger's use of the 'C' word, a normality in Australia, a heart attack with the rest of Western-dom.

"It's Pete's f*$#*ing party, and you're an invite same as all of us," Roger bellows.

"Let me ask you." Dave interjects to Roger. "Were there slaves in Australia?"

"You bet, mate!" twangs Roger. "And we're still treating the Aboriginals like 'shite,' but that ain't the point. The point is that it's Pete's party and I f*&$#ing asked him to make a speech, and I ain't heard a f*&%#ing ending to the speech for all the f*&%$ing yammering from that your f*&%$ing traps."

And then Doc, looking sideways to Dave, interjects at him, "Did you fight in a war?" This stops the traffic. The three students bounce looks from Doc to Dave and back again.

"That's beside the point here," a calm Dave responds.

"No, it is exactly the point. How much money do you make?"

"That's a &^%$ addendum!" yells Benedict (Rick).

"NO IT AIN'T," shouts Roger. "How much money YOU got? Where do you live?"

"He lives in a triplex in Paris, France, with his own personal wine cellar," I yell, looking for the easy kill, now that Lafayette is to the rescue.

"Holy Geez, MATE! A f*&$#ing wine cellar!? You're the f*&%$ing CULTURAL ELITE! Give up all your loot to these doctors' AIDS project here, and I'll listen to ya, but right now, all your backwash is making my teeth ache."

"And while you're at it, pay your per diem on time!" another volley from me at Rick who, two years earlier, had produced a fun miniseries in which I had starred, although the company was consistently late with per diem; that was probably because we were in the Sahara Desert, but I used it as ammunition anyway.

"You don't work for me now, you contemptuous bastard!" Rick shoots back.

And we are off, in a screamfest that I have never witnessed before or since. The battle lines are drawn. I torch up another D.C. for war.

And we are off, in a screamfest that I have never witnessed before or since. The battle lines are drawn. I torch up another D.C. for war. One side shouts down the other. The African-American exchange students each take their turn. As do my assistant, Marie, and driver, Pete, with his horrific experiences in Angola. Then they begin yelling at each other about the European imperialism in other countries in Africa. The three exchange students, having parents who suffered under this problem, chime in, and the whole shebang turns into an unimaginable, politically incorrect Armageddon.

"The U.S. is forcing its self-aggrandizing agenda on the Third World, and only if there's a financial interest at stake!" raves Dave.

"That's true!" yells one of the exchange students.

"But the rights of humans would be extinct in those countries without the U.S. forcing a hand, so it's a trade-off!" yells back another student at her peer.

"Talk to the Serbs who had to eat those bombs in Belgrave!" raves Alfred.

Roger raves at Alfred, "I don't hold with the WTO or America's f*&$#ing global business meddling with every c*&%$ on earth, but this is a f*&%$ing party for the f*&$ing Yanks, because Pete's a f*&%$ing Yank; so shut up!"

And on and on, for a solid hour, all of us standing, screaming at a collective decibel level of banshees. A break, a pause as a waitress delivers a course; I light another D.C., and we are up and at it again. Rick is about to come apart at the seams when I see the manager, Per, in the outer room waving at me. I quickly duck out.

"Where're you going?!" yells Rick. "You're not leaving this war, you coward!"

In the lounge, Per says, "Your sociological skirmish has filtered all the way down through the lounge and into the jazz bar; the group has stopped playing and everyone's into a yelling match down there on a par with your war here…is someone smoking pot?"

I sniff the air. I do indeed smell "gange," of which I do not puff. "Is this trouble?"

"Yes, I believe it is," echoes Per ignominiously. "And, should the fuzz arrive, I believe I will have to take someone down with me, which," he smiles, "would be -- you."

Beating a fast track back to the table. The harangue is now ear-splitting madness.

"Can the dope, whoever's smoking it," I attempt to scream over the din.

"WE HAVE NO TIME FOR SUCH LUXURIES!!WE ARE FIXING THE WORLD AT THIS CONFERENCE, MY FRIEND!" waxes Alfred. And he bear-hugs the life out of me as Roger commands, "Our young friend 'Red' has something to say -- ridiculous no doubt, but no more idiotic than every other f*&%in' word spoken in the past hour. But since Red suffered the degradation of this hybrid confab of bullshit with no recourse, I believe we should give the c*%$ the f*&$#ing floor."

And thus "Red," in punked Blue hair, stands. His soft and juvenile tones begin, "I am 19 years…."

"JEEESSSUSSS, DON'T GIVE US YOUR F*&%$ING AGE! THE COPS ARE ALREADY COMING TO BUST US FOR ACTING LIKE MASSIVE LUNATICS AND ASSHOLES!"

"Sorry, Roger," apologizes the youth.

"No problem, Red," responds Alfred the Scot. "But get the f*&$# on with it before I smash the f*&$#ing table."

"Well…," Red softly continues. "I am African. And…I don't consider myself White African or Black African, nor South African or anything else other than…'African.' That said, I can tell you when I went with my father to vote, eight years ago, there we stood in line, for the first time, with blacks who cheered and chanted the songs of their ancestors and tribes. And it was so moving, my father began to weep. You see…ten years ago, this very hilarious yet pertinent fit of madness that I have witnessed tonight could not have happened in a public place among Africans, white or black. I have never heard anything quite like this tonight. And I am sure I never will again."

"You've swallowed the pill of truth there, Red!" says Alfred.

Red continues, "If indeed, we were all in the United States right now, I'll warrant we would have been behaving much more 'politically correct'."

"The truth! The truth! The almighty truth!" screams Alfred.

"Thus is the demeanor of Americans on their home soil," continues Red. "But you've felt the liberty for this rant, because, I venture to say, you've felt the undercurrent of the new freedoms in South Africa; thus you've run amok. I must say I've never laughed so much or seen so many people of color with so many points of view scream so loudly. But, in spite of the fact that you have used this country to pound your various positions tonight; and in spite of the fact that this conversation WOULD probably NOT have happened at the same party in the U.S.A. -- it is the U.S.A. that has made this conversation a possibility for me to hear it tonight in South Africa. Because, were it not for the influence of the U.S.A. and, indeed, whether you like the place or not, folks, were it not for its legacy of its civil upheaval, we here in South Africa might still be living under apartheid, and I would have never met, let alone heard, so many wonderfully MAD lovelies such as yourselves speak so voluminously and violently on so many wonderful subjects at all." And he sits down.

Long Stunned Pause.

And we all jump up and hug Red to thunderous applause, hoops, hollers, belches, etc. And now I see Per, once again, in the other room waving at me, shrugging his shoulders as I light my last Hoyo D.C.

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