"Isn't America a great country?" The speaker's name was Larry, and he was puffing on a cigar as he addressed his rhetorical question to the crowd of nearly 1,000 fellow cigar lovers walking the few blocks from a rally at Washington, D.C.'s Lafayette Park to the Big Smoke at the J.W. Marriott Hotel.
People began assembling for the March 1 rally, across from the White House, shortly after 4 p.m. After a cool day of low clouds and drizzle, the sun broke through and the sky cleared as the crowd grew from a few cigar devotees to nearly a thousand. Streaming from government office buildings and hotels, they gathered in the center of the park around the statue of General Lafayette. They came from all over the United States and from at least a dozen foreign countries. "This is the place tzo be," said Matthew Green of Pittsburgh. "Today, this is the center of the universe for cigar smokers."
The rally was organized by Cigar Aficionado magazine, and its editor and publisher, Marvin R. Shanken. The invitation was simple: Come, smoke a cigar in front of the White House, and show the world that cigar smokers are responsible citizens. As the crowd pressed against him and television crews filmed the gathering, Shanken said, "We are not here representing ourselves; we are representing all cigar lovers around our country who could not be here in person. We are expressing our great appreciation for fine cigars and letting the world know that cigar aficionados are not second-class citizens. We have rights, too."
Actor Joe Pantoliano flew in for the rally from California after asking the producer of his current film to release him for a couple of days. "I promised to be back at 7 tomorrow morning. My flight is at 8 o'clock tonight. I came here for the freedom of smoke," he said, breaking suddenly into street talk, "to say to the world, man, that smokin' a cigar don't hurt nobody."
Not only doesn't it hurt anybody, but the faces in the crowd showed something much more indicative of what cigars do for the human spirit: They cause bliss. There were smiles, laughter and quiet conversation as cigars were lit and smoked. Said Doug Hill of Richmond, Virginia: "They say you can smell the smoke for blocks down Constitution Avenue."
Wayne Smith, a leading expert on Cuba at the Center for International Policy and Johns Hopkins University, stood to the side, appraising the crowd. "Look around you. People want to smoke in peace and tranquillity. They aren't molesting anyone, they aren't bothering anyone. They are just smoking a cigar in peace," he said. "You can't do that in two minutes; it takes time. What more could you ask for?"
Bradford Reynolds and Wendell Wilson, two friends from Washington, D.C., were serious about their attendance. "I've been a cigar smoker for 20 years," said Reynolds. "This is a rare opportunity to find a time and place for intercourse with one's own ilk, from all walks of life."
Sam Almeddine, who attended with his cigar-smoking female friend, Heddy Carr, said, "I associate the cigar with everything good that happens to me. This is such a great event." Vince Lonero was nearly giddy with excitement. "I missed the counterculture in the 1960s," he said, "but I'm completely satisfied now. This is the counterculture of the '90s."
The rally represented more than just a symbol of cultural protest. It was a declaration of freedom, a public pronouncement on the pleasures that accompany the enjoyment of a good smoke. The cigar-smoking multitude stopped traffic at every corner between Lafayette Park and the J.W. Marriott Hotel. For once, cigar lovers proudly displayed their favorite pastime, peacefully marching through the streets of Washington. There were no disruptions, no rude protests, no angry displays. It was merely a peaceful celebration of what a great cigar is all about.
"This is a historic moment," said Shanken. No one disagreed.