A perverted California metropolis called Calabasas just passed an anti-smoking ordinance that only the Sphincter Police could stomach. Among the rules: if you’re sitting in your car, smoking, and it bothers the bastard in the car behind you, you’re obliged by law to extinguish at once or get ticketed. No shit. Read about it here, and link to Al Capone’s excellent blog.
I started smoking a pipe in college–it seemed appropriate for a philosophy major–and cigars came along soon after. I never really smoked cigarettes, although I might buy a box of English Ovals now and then. Twenty cigarettes would last six months, unless I had help.
A trip to the tobacconist was always a treat. Behind the counter stood a crew of toothless, hunch-backed, gravel-voiced old timers, always armed with a wise ass retort or a rank joke, and the smokey old-wood ambiance of the shop was downright nurturing. The aroma of fresh pungent tobacco could overwhelm the inexperienced, but in a short while it became as tantalizing as a summer barbecue.
One time I asked Moe–never knew him by any other name–about the differences between two particular brands of cigar.
“Same goddam thing!” he hollers, voice raspy with age and seasoning. He turns his head and spits a wet, brown piece of cigar wrapper (or lung) on the worn linoleum floor. “Same goddam thing! Cat shit and dog shit! Same goddam thing!” Another time he told me he smoked cheap Phillies Blunts–a horrible domestic stogie; sawdust and toad load rolled in newspaper–because “after 50 years of kissing my wife’s ugly puss, nothin’ tastes bad no more.” Except he didn’t say “kissing.” Or “puss” (but close).
Well, you know what happened next. A cigar, never popular among non-smokers, soon became a badge of disgrace, and lighting one up a cardinal sin on a level somewhere between public masturbation and shooting smack. Complete strangers felt it was their “right” to issue cease and desist orders on sight. The Enlightened Among Us announced they were performing a noble service by snatching them out of people’s mouths. Whole restaurants, airports, public buildings, and even outdoor stadiums like whatever Joe Robbie is named these days prohibit smoking. Shitting Fuck! What would Babe Ruth say about denying baseball spectators their Saturday afternoon stogie? The Big Bambino kept one burning while waving a bat in the on-deck circle!
Tobacconists closed up shop. Smokers retreated underground. Cigar store Indians headed for the reservation.
And then, something even worse happened. Cigars went upscale. Make that “yupscale.”
Observers of the scene trace this 180 degree turnaround to the publication of Cigar Aficionado magazine, an expensive glossy featuring tuxedo-clad, high fashion celebrities enjoying hugely expensive “designer” cigars. The magazine’s publisher arranged swank dinner affairs where the wealthy and prominent (“rich and famous” to us cretinous peasants) paid about a grand apiece to wine, dine, and smoke–a different beverage and cigar accompanying each course. The idea caught on, and these gala moments have been sponsored across the country. Even women attend, puffing away.
The same snotty finger flickers who squealed in disgust when I fired up my stogie at a ball game years ago now hood their eyes and soberly share their insights on subtle distinctions between Honduran and Dominican blends–unless I heard them wrong and they’re comparing illegal domestics.
The handful of tobacco shops that managed to survive the onslaught of the Lifestyle Nazis, many of which had already converted prime display space to such neutral articles as fountain pens, walking sticks, jewelry, watches, candy, “men’s gifts,” etc., quickly seized the day, retooling their dingy digs into tobacco “boutiques.” Out went the Wolf Brothers rum-soaked “Crooks.” Banished: the gaudy cardboard boxes of A&C “seconds.” Good riddance to Garcia & Vega, El Producto, Ben Franklin, and anything bearing a built-in “tip.” These were replaced with the highest of the high-end smokes: Royal Jamaica, Dunhill, Macanudo; brands that had always been carried, but now available in every length and ring size imaginable. New brands appeared, created solely for the purpose of introducing a line of cheroot that would bring in bigger bucks. It’s now easy to find a $5, $7, even $12 cigar at any tobacconist.
Moe and his raspy crew are long gone, replaced by manicured, raised-pinkie fops in suits and ties, solemnly declaiming the virtues of tobacco leaf from mountainous as opposed to island climes. Gag me. They either ignore or remain blissfully ignorant of the fact that outside of the local Cuban immigrant rolling El Ropos on her hairy thigh, only about a dozen manufacturers of cigars exist in the world, creating hundreds of different labels for virtually identical cigars, routinely swapping their stock with each other like kids with trading cards. The actual cigars themselves are less distinct from one another than Pontiacs from Oldsmobiles. Moe was right: Same goddam thing.
Hence my horror of a trip to the “tobacco boutique.” I will forgo the yuppie chatter, thank you so much, and continue to buy my cigars through the mail. My first choice is JR Cigars: the catalog is great bathroom reading–the man can write–and his prices rock! Spare me the pretentious, prancing, phonies peddling their poison as if it were something more profound than Mars Bars for adults. Should I choose to be bored to tears by pocket-picking toadies, I’ll tune in the teevee to paid political programs. At least when those frauds are smoking, you know where they’re blowing it.