“Hey buddy, got any spare change?”
I turned to see a disheveled man huddled in the shadows as I walked to my car after a long day in the University Library. I was about to remind him that there’s no such thing as spare money when something caught my attention – a wiff from his cigar. He was smoking some soggy low priced stogie. I hated to think of where he’d gotten it – best not to go there. But that smell brought me back to how my love affair with the halfling’s leaf began a decade before and for a few moments I was frozen in time.
It was my friend Christopher. He was quite generous. Actually, it was his brother. He had a cushy job with Nike and would often give nice things to his brother. This time, Christopher shared some of the wealth with me. His brother had given him three boxes of cigars – fine cigars – and Christopher gave me two of each. “Each” meaning two Fuente Double Chateaux, two Ashton Cabinet Selection No. 6, and two Padron Anniversario 1964 Torpedos. I knew nothing about cigars and had no idea I’d just received six of the finest sticks money could buy. I also had no idea that my love affair with cigars had begun at the top of the food-chain and it would not be easy, or inexpensive, to maintain this level of quality. But he sure saved me a lot of time discovering what I liked!
Christopher was a great guy – full of life and a bit edgy. I went skiing with him a couple times – it seemed like he was trying to break the mountain. Same with Mt Biking. But he had a great voice and a heart of gold. He hated being called Chris, Sometimes I called him ‘Stopher instead, usually Christopher, but sometimes my favorite title – Saint Christopher.
We went shooting a few days later – as in guns. I believe in limited government – I think Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms should be a convenience store instead of a government agency. So we were out in the countryside at an outdoor range the day after a storm. The sky was filled with puffy white clouds and beautiful color, and the air was filled with the wonderful fresh smells after Mother Nature had cleansed the air and freshened the soil. I had my new stogies with me at Chris’ insistence, and when he lit up an Ashton No. 6, I did too. It was my first cigar -- I had no idea of the genie I had just let out of the bottle.
Suddenly the wonderful smell of the earth and sky, and the cool breeze in the air had met their perfect companion – the toasty fragrance of Dominican filler and Connecticut shape wrapper, aged to perfection by one of the finest cigar makes in the world. Even the smell of spent gunpowder was that much better paired with this delicious heavenly treat, I realized immediately what a cigar was – pure flavor, without the need for anything else like food. The most insubstantial of substances – smoke – carrying the most delightful of flavors and fragrances reduced to their sheer essence. I don’t how well I shot that day – I may have hit a few targets. All I could remember was the smoke. I was smitten – I was in love.
A few days later I pulled out a Fuente Double Chateux. I was amazed at the cedar wrapper and the care that went into this cigar – a bit milder than the Ashton, but just as amazing and just as beguiling. But I was completely undone a week later after a concert at school. It was another one of those day after a rain afternoons with the broken clouds and the smell of wet earth and asphalt on the breeze. As I walked back to my car I lit up my first Padron Anniversario – and that was all she wrote.
Like smoking chocolate silk. I had no idea anything could be that good. Full flavored, yet smooth. Dark, rich, heavenly, exotic. It was the best thing I had ever tasted in my life. Christopher said his old girlfriend used to say that, but I’m not sure what he meant. I guess she liked them too. All I know for sure was that I knew what my favorite cigar would be for the rest of my life. It still is.
But I had to wonder, was there anything even better out there – better than the three superb sticks Christopher had given me – better than the Anniversario? I had to find out, and so began my quest.
That was right before the cigar boom hit. Soon stogie shops sprang up on every corner like toadstools after a spring rain. Folks trying to cash in on the craze ran most of the places. They’d been frozen yogurt shops, then video rental places before. I remember one that had their dubious walk-in humidor done up with tacky early 1970s wood-grained paneling – they kind that’s just vinyl film stuck on particleboard. Like we’re stupid enough to believe the vinyl film is as good as real cedar?
I knew the boom would last too long. I also knew that my beloved Anniversarios would be discovered and get hard to find. But I spread the word to my best friends and relished in sharing the magic with them. A group of us entered into a pact not to talk about them outside our group, lest they get too well known – as if we controlled their reputation. Funny – they never got good reviews in the big cigar magazine – until they started advertising. But no – the cat was out of the bag and the whole world knew of these marvelous Nicaraguan treats. And they did get hard to find. The guys at my best local shop kept them hidden – you had to ask for them and they’d only give them to you if they liked you. They liked me. It must have been my wide-eyed sincerity. It sure wasn’t my bank account.
I tried lots of other things and got all kinds of recommendations. “If you like the Padrons you’ll like these.” Not really – sometimes not even close.
But I still had those wonderful times smoking my Anniversarios in my back yard, blowing smoke rings and watching them curl heavenward -- marveling at how anything so ephemeral as smoke could taste so glorious.
I also found a few more favorites – Avos, Buteras, PGs – all fantastic renditions of the classic Dominican with Connecticut wrappers. And my standby – the Fuente Flora Fina 858s. Almost impossible to beat at the price, and I love the Cameroon wrapper. It turns out it was Fuente’s favorite cigar. He was either born or passed away on August 5th, so it reads 85 forwards and backwards. That’s the story they told me anyway.
I even had a few Diamond Crowns, some Hemingways and an Opus X.
But nothing matched that fist Padron on that winter’s day.
Then two things happened. Rob Reiner got an initiative on the California ballot to tax the heck out of tobacco and use the money to help children. It passed. How could anything so described fail to win over a majority of California voters? Who doesn’t want to help children? Even Michael Jackson says he wants to help children, and who doesn’t want to blame tobacco for all the world’s ills? Now that society can’t remember what any of the big evils are, we focus on small ones.
So the price of cigars jolted skyward, the yogurt shop-turned video store-turned cigar shops folded up. Only the real dealers survived. The boom was over, and Anniversarios were easier to find. We would never go back to those blissful early days when they were easy to get and inexpensive. But at least the frenzy was finished.
Then Christopher married and moved away. I lost touch with him. But I found new stogie smoking buddies.
And I started traveling. I went to Canada, I went to Korea, I went to South America, and I went to Europe. And there I encountered the most alluring of smokes – the embargoed, the forbidden, the Holy Grail – Cubans!
I struggled with my conscience and my fear of getting caught. I support the embargo. Funny – they never got good reviews in the big cigar magazine – until they started advertising. Castro is a bastard. Even his own people feel that way, especially the ex-patriots in Florida. But my curiosity and my quest for something even better than a Padron Anniversario got the better of me. And heck, even JFK, the night before he announced the embargo back in 62 had Pierre Salinger scour every cigar shop in the greater DC area to buy up every one of those little Partagas cigars he liked. So I scoured Toronto in the snow, I bought them, I smoked them, I brought a few back.
(Funny – in Canada you clear us customs and immigration before boarding your flight to the US. That way the planes use the same terminals as domestic flights. But once you clear customs in the Canadian airports, you are kept away from everyone else. The airports there have two of everything – two sets restaurants and newsstands and duty-free shops. Is that just to be sure no one buys a Cuban stogie and brings it back?)
Well – guess what – Cubans may well be forbidden, but that doesn’t make them better. Most I had weren’t well made, had bad draws, were too strong and too young. Some were downright awful. One tasted like ammonia. I hear Castro was cranking them out for the money. Maybe that’s why all those Cubans make the dash for freedom in little rubber boats. Maybe they’re looking for a decent cigar. Or maybe freedom. I just hope they get here before Reiner puts another initiative on the ballot.
All I know is a fine free world cigar is every bit as good or better than the Cubans I’d had. I’d take an Opus X or a Hemingway – or an Anniversario over these over-rated Cubanos any day.
But then some really did live up to their reputation. The Romeo et Julietta Churchills were fabulous, as were the Cohiba Esplendidos. Then I had a Siglo IV. A perfect cigar – as smooth as my Anniversarios, but more flavorful and deeper. I was getting hooked.
Then I found it – a Bolivar Belicoso. My friend Jeff said it was the best cigar in the world – the best thing a man can put between his lips. Or was it the second best? His wife agreed – she must like them too. He said a well-aged Belicoso was heavenly. So I grabbed one in Toronto and got it home. I was going to smoke it, but it was Jeff’s birthday, so I gave it to him. I still haven’t had one, but I’ll be in Toronto in May and I’ll have one then – I may just have found the Holy Grail – a cigar even better than my Anniversarios.
So there I was – face to face with this homeless man begging for money, smoking a lousy cigar. I remembered Christopher’s kind generosity in starting my love affair with smoke, and how no matter how hard life became, I could find solace in a good cigar. I thought of this poor man, down on his luck, too old to be helped by Reiner’s initiative. I realized he’d probably never had any of the wonderful cigars I’d been so privileged to enjoy, let alone an Anniversario. He needed it a lot more than me. I reached into my breast pocket – there was my last Padron – I was saving it for the drive home. And here was my chance to do a good deed and help my fellow man. Maybe this was a test from God – you know, give and it shall be given unto you. Could I do the right thing?
“Here Buddy” – take this:
I handed him a couple of bucks and walked on. That last Anniversario was for me. Christopher would have wanted it that way.