Jun 16, 2005

Hand-rolled on a virgin's thighs

Not me, cigars. At least that's the way I always heard of a good smoke being prepared.

Having watched torceadors at work rolling cigars by hand there were no virgins in sight, unless some of those brown-eyed, walnut-dark gentlemen were not of the sexually active frame of mind. Which was quite a shock to me, but I guess the high cost of finding virgins these days, mixed with the upkeep costs and the ever-increasing demand from high priests and Wiccans makes it more economically feasible to simply use a big flat space.

So that dream being popped, let's move on, shall we?

When I was first introduced to the world of cigars in the mid 1980's it was just beginning to boom. The economy was trying to turn around, smoking wasn't completely and utterly evil yet, and men (and some women) were starting to realise that a cigar is sometimes more than a Freudian symbol for naughty bits. And of course, Bill Clinton hadn't ruined it for all of us yet.

The first time I slid open the thick glass door and stepped into the humidor at The TinderBox, where I was gainfully employed, I was struck first and foremost by the humidity--I thought it was open to the outside air it was so damp. But no, a humidifier chugging away quietly behind the wall was pumping a steady stream of mist into the room, keeping the area at a comfy 70% humidity. The A/C was running steady too, keeping the room right around 70 degrees, which made it comfortably cool, and I was later to find out, kept tobacco mold from growing and kept any missed tobacco beetle eggs from hatching.

The array of cigars was staggering--boxes stacked on shelves from knee height up to eye level, and ranks upon ranks of long thin sticks resting in their Spanish Cedar or brightly-decorated cardboard boxes, some in cellophane, some bare to the air, and some in smoky glass tubes. The smell was wonderous, thick and rich as an old forest, and the shades and colours were nearly endless.

When I started learning, I was taught that there were three classes of wrapper, the leaf that holds the filler tobacco inside. There was Claro, the green leaf wrapper that was mildest, there was E.M.S., which stood for the mouthy English Market Selection, and then there was Maduro, the dark, oily browns and near-blacks that promised the sort of tastes you only get from very expensive coffees. There was something called a ring gauge, which measured how thick a stick was (you didn't call them cigars, that was crass, you called them "sticks") and there was length, which was, naturally, how long each stick was. It didn't stop there, because there were names for the lengths as well as for the styles--familiar names like Churchill and Torpedo and Cheroot, and then exotic names like Robusto. And then you got into the bewildering array of different fillers and wrappers, because each seemed to come from a different far-away place: Nicarauga, the Dominican Republic, Camaroon, even Brazil and Connecticut. Each with it's own unique taste, and each combination of filler and wrapper changing the finished product.

And so the long slow process of learning began, and time passed.

Fast forward to a few years ago, when I got back into the cigar world. The big boom had hit, and cigars were going for premium prices. It was nothing for someone to boast that they had paid $100 for four Dominican Republic Cohiba Churchills, and even a run of the mill stick would set you back five or six dollars easy. And some of the names had changed--no longer was there a Claro or an EMS choice--it was now unexplicably Candella and Natural. Maduro was still there, dark as night and tempting as sin, but it and a few names seemed the only thing that had changed.

And of course there were a thousand and one new brands, a bewildering array of new box images and cigar bands to ooh and aah over, each backed by their own ex-patriate Cuban family, each family planting and growing and harvesting their own special blend of leaf, each offering a new tasting experience, each with, I would assume, their own barn-full of flat-thighed virgins who sat still for hours a day, letting swarthy sweating brown men carefully craft cigars on their untarnished bodies.

Yesterday I stepped back into the cigar world in a big way, and I'm still rather unsure why. My pipes are still my love and my joy, but sometimes I find myself reaching for a cigar rather than a pipe. Perhaps it's fear that I'll drop one of my beautiful pipes into a spinning table-saw blade and get to watch it ripped to shreds, or perhaps it's a fear of walking through the yard only to step in a chuck-hole, to hear my teeth suddenly bite through an acrylic bit. I love my pipes, and the unhurried rituals of smoking a pipe, but for me sometimes a cigar is the choice.

I've had a smallish desktop humidor that holds about 30 cigars if you really shove hard, and it seemed to always be willing to let it's tiny sponge element dry out at the worst possible time, and even then the hygrometer always insisted it was still 69% humidity inside, so I did some selling of old stock I had lying around and I took that money and got a very nice, roomy personal humidor (think desktop sized, and without the humidifier behind the wall) and about six bundles of sticks, and last night I spent a happy twenty minutes or so carefully unpacking sticks and nesting them in each of the humidor's seven trays.

While I stood here in my office packing away the sticks, carefully making sure that each had it's heel turned away from me and the label was facing upwards, so I could see at a glance which stick I was reaching for, I realised I was feeling a lot like I did when I was still a kid working at The TinderBox. I could clearly remember the sometimes stern, sometimes laughing "Mister Bill" giving me stocking lessons; how I shouldn't open a new box of sticks until the old box was down to it's last five sticks, and how the new empty stayed behind the counter for preferred customers or attractive women who might want a cigar box, especially at back-to-school-time, and how to check the humidifier's water level, and keep the air out of the huge bags of bulk pipe tobacco we kept on the floor, pushed up around the outside edge of the humidor.

I remembered most the sweet leathery fragrance that without fail wafted out when I slid aside the big glass door of the humidor, and how the light seemed somehow subtly different, like you had suddenly stepped from a mall in Louisiana into a storeroom somewhere in Cuba, and that if you could only find the back door you could walk through it into the rolling room, and join the rows of silently smiling, silently smoking dark men with their white shirts and Panama hats, and their wise fingers going about their work.

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