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Walking My Cigar

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

Each evening after dinner, accompanied by my two dogs, I stroll onto Park Avenue to walk my cigar. My cigar is the same color as my dogs, and my dogs are also drawn to its smell; they leap up my legs as I light it, prior to our walk, with their nostrils widened and their eyes narrowly focused with the same greedy stare I see whenever I offer them milk bones or a tray of spicy canapés left over from one of our cocktail parties. Were my cigar not so expensive, and were I not certain that they would cat it, I might offer them a puff, for I'm sure they would appreciate the after-dinner pleasure much more than most of my friends.

Too many of my friends, including my wife--who incidentally, smokes cigarettes--have been swayed in recent years by the insidious campaign against cigar smoking, and this has affected my otherwise admirable disposition. It has made me defensive at times, argumentative, even an activist against America's anti-smoking lobby--which is really ridiculous, because I'm basically a non-smoker myself. Except for my single after-dinner cigar.

I took forward all day to my nightly cigar, much as I looked forward to dating Scandinavian airline stewardesses, back in my early days of bachelorhood in the 1950s. In those days, nearly all stewardesses were beautiful, and the Scandinavians were additionally reputed to be sexually adventuresome (except for those stalwart moralists that I unfortunately came to know). This was also a period of such widespread tolerance for tobacco that it was even lawful to smoke cigars on airplanes. While I was not a smoker back then, I recall inhaling and enjoying the rich aromatic fragrance of other men's cigars as I sat on airplanes and in restaurants; and from these men's expensive style in dress, and their self-assurance, I saw them as part of a privileged breed that, only because they were much older than me, did I experience no envy.

Not only were they older, but they tended to be portly and jowly, although such characteristics in the 1950s were somewhat in fashion among male members of the Power Elite. The most respected among the elite's portly, jowly, cigar smoking clubmen in those days was Sir Winston Churchill, England's World War II leader, a crusty old gent who stood before cheering crowds with his hands in the air, waving his cigar along with his V-sign, which his fellow cigar smokers could well have interpreted to be the twin symbols of the Free World over the brutal forces of regimentation.

Cigar smoking took on a more youthful and romantic image after 1960 with the elevation to the Presidency of John F. Kennedy, who often appeared in public puffing on one of his favorite Havanas; and this was when I, and some of my colleagues in the newspaper business, also indulged for the first time. From a journalist friend of mine who covered politics in Washington, I was able to obtain the best in Cuban cigars before and during America's lengthy embargo on all Cuban products. I especially remember the gift box of Havana Churchills my friend sent me after the birth of my first daughter in 1964, and a second box after the arrival of my second daughter in 1967. Even more fondly do I recall in later years how my little girls would argue each night over whose turn it was to wear the "ring" after I had removed it from one of my after-dinner cigars-a ritual that not only introduced them to the blissful effluvium of a superior smoke, but which inculcated within them as well an appreciation and respect for the pleasure it brought me.

That their loving response toward me and my cigars continues to this day, decades after their final fight over paper rings, makes me wonder if some women's repugnance of cigar smoking might have less to do with a cigar's smoke or smell than with their personal relationships with the first man in their lives who indulged in the habit. Since the public outcry against cigar smoking, which is an all-but-exclusive male practice, has been accelerated during these recent decades that have also witnessed the increased emphasis on women's rights, it has occurred to me that there might be some connection.

This could well be the case in my own home. My wife of 30-plus years, who never complained of cigar smoke during the first half of our marriage, has, since her subsequent promotions in the business world, shown an assertiveness against my nightly habit that has driven me out into the streets, there to seek acceptance and tolerance in the polluted evening air of New York, with my dogs.

And yet even the streets do not guarantee a green light for cigar smokers. I was made aware of this one recent evening as I passed a sidewalk cafe on Madison Avenue, and suddenly noticed that two female diners were not only holding their noses but were waving their hands over their plates of food and wine glasses as ways of nullifying what they presumably feared to be the floating poison of my cigar smoke. And, just as I passed their table, one of the women exclaimed: "Ugh."

"Are you referring to my cigar, madam?" I asked, pausing to remove my $7 Macanudo Vintage No. 1 while pulling back on the leash of my growling Australian terriers.

"Yes," she said. "I find it offensive. In fact, it stinks."

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