Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Smoking Under Pressure

Friday I hustled home from work, frantic to smoke a cigar. I'd been waiting for days. Finally the kids were away, wife getting something done (hair, nails, who knows) and I had over an hour to kill before a dinner date with friends at 6:30. My shipment of various high rated gems from Nick's Cigar World had come in the day before and I was chomping at the bit. Of special interest was the Puros Indios Maxima Reserva (media corona size) which I had been trying to find ever since trying one from a CI variety pack back in my cigar infancy (3 months ago). At the time I had told Sally that it was THE BEST CIGAR I HAD EVER HAD but of course I had only tried 6 brands by then. (The newbie smoker's refrain: This is the best cigar I've EVER HAD...)

Would the media corona taste as good this time? Or had my palate grown so sophisticated that I would grind out the trifling thing in disgust? Only one way to find out: Do a confirmation smoke.

My mouth was watering and I could practically taste it. In the inviting silence of the house, I opened my humidor. There it was, the Maxima Reserva, unwrapped and ready for picking. Reservations crept in: Would one day be enough to humidify this baby after getting it in the mail? Or would lighting it up now only bring a harsh and unrepresentative experience? God, I wanted that thing badly.

It was 5:20. Time was ticking away. Just grab the darned thing and smoke it, I said to myself. How moist did a cigar have to be?

I went out on the deck in the blasting heat of the sun. Dilemma: Smoke it here, in full view of the neighbors and their potentially tattle-telling offspring? They were always coming in and out of their house this time of day. No, better to take it to the park 5 blocks away. I could ride my bike over and have this thing lit in 5 minutes. I ran back in the house, grabbed my backpack, stuck the cigar in a plastic bag. And the lighter. And a bottle of water (need water when you smoke, otherwise you get dried out ). What else? The makeshift snippers. I grabbed the backback and ran out the door, feeling time slipping through my fingers.

On the way to the garage, looked at my watch: 5:25. By the time I got there, it would be 5:30. I'd have to be done by 6:15. Total smoke time of only 45 minutes. It wasn't going to work! I was only going to get halfway through the 6-inch Maxima Reserva. I should have smoked the damned thing on the porch, to hell with the neighbors. Damn it!

I slunk back to the house, demoralized. Better not to smoke at all than to throw away half a perfectly good cigar. As soon as I got inside, the phone rang. It was Sally: Our friends were delayed and dinner was pushed back to 7:00.

Joy! Another half hour! I could devour the Maxima Reserva as long as I was done by 6:40 - that would give me enough time to ride back home, change my clothes, wash up, and drive to the restaurant. Or was I deluding myself? Let's face it, I'd need to leave the park no later than 6:30. Still less than an hour to smoke the thing! It wouldn't do it justice.

By now I was pacing, walking in and out of the house, going to the concealed humidor, sighing yes, no, maybe... I felt like Ray Liotta in Goodfellas, stoked up on cocaine, trying to make the spaghetti and transact the drug deal, surveillance helicopters whirling above, the Feds tightening in...

I had to make a decision. I ran back in the house, opened the humidor and found the smallest stick in the bunch: An Oliva Series G Cameroon Robusto. Couldn't have been more than 4.5 inches long. I stuck it in the plastic bag with the Maxima Reserva, deluding myself that the bigger cigar was still in the running.

I jumped on the bike, rode to the park, opened my backpack and eyed the two cigars. I could either huff and puff like a fiend through the Maxima Reserva, or take a leisurely run at the little Oliva.

I chose the Oliva with a heavy heart. Oh how I had wanted that long, skinny Maxima Reserva! Oh, how hard it was to ignore your lust and do the right thing!

Yes, the Oliva Series G was high quality, like Cigar Aficionado said. No, I did not relax and enjoy it as much as I should have. No, my craving for the Maxima Reserva did not go away. It remains with me to this day.

I'll have to try another Oliva Series G when I'm not under so much pressure. Meanwhile, I'm thinking about that Maxima Reserva. The kids are out of the house tonight. My wife's got her evening class. Weather's nice, no wind or rain predicted. Perfect cigar smoking weather. Rub hands together, evil Vincent Price laughter...

Sunday, June 24, 2007

First Cigar Ever, Didn't Really Count

My very first cigar ever was actually one I tried at the age of 13, sneaking off with my cousin Mike to my grandfather's barn in rural Pennsylvania, circa 1974. It was an old red barn built at the turn of the century, with hay stewn along the wooden floor and dust motes floating through the air, made visible by sunlight streaming through cracks in the wallboards. I didn't know that Mike had taken me here to smoke. He pulled out a thick stubby cigar, which he had stolen from his father, and proceeded to light it. He handed it to me, said "don't inhale," and watched me fall into a fit of coughing.

I would have to describe that cigar, a robusto of some sort, as strawy and dry, with brusque overtones of seed and grass. Looking back, I'd give it a Cigar Aficionado rating of 79, taking into account that it probably hadn't seen the inside of a humidor for weeks.

So, my first Robusto. After coming to our senses and realizing the barn was a hay-filled tinderbox, we crushed out the cigar, threw some bubble gum into our mouths and moved down to the ground level to check out the cows. Mike proceeded to demonstrate that a cow will lick just about anything you put near its mouth, but the details of that event don't belong here or on any self-respecting blog. Suffice it to say, I kept Mike away from my little sister in our subsequent visits to the hinterlands of Pennsylvania.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

My First Time

My wife was the one who started me down the slippery slope of cigar smoking.

Looking for something new in the category of "Christmas presents we won't open when the kids are home," Sally stumbled upon a 5-pack of Harvill rum-flavored Jamaicans while buying a bottle of 12-year-old scotch (during the holidays she likes to feed my delusion that I'm a man of means with expensive tastes. In reality, she gives me the 12-year-old, it's gone three weeks later, and I'm back to Seagrams 7 and Old Overholt).

She picked up the Harvills on a whim, thinking that I might appreciate them in a culturally ironic way, whether I actually liked them or not. A new direction in campy indulgence.

She was right. The moment I unwrapped the cigars, I laughed with appropriate hipness (me, smoking a cigar! Next thing you know I'd be buying a smoking jacket!), but I also noted a seismic rumble below the surface, a tectonic unmooring, an immanent sea change that Shakespeare likely would have foreshadowed as a strange alignment of the stars. But I ignored this feeling of import, laughed and said, great, this should be fun! I'm not even old or rich, but what the hell. I'll try it!

I didn't know the least thing about the Harvill brand - whether it was respectable or some horrid rag of a smoke that even a park bench wino would decline if offered. I didn't know how to characterize their size, either, but they looked pretty impressive. Bigger than cigarettes, though not nearly as thick as the bazookas that balding men chew in movies and TV shows. Now, looking back in my accumulated cigar wisdom, I would guess they were cigarillos.

I kept the pack of Harvills in my sock drawer for a week, then took them along on New Year's Eve. Sally and I went to a jazz club here in this Nondescript Midwestern City, and it was pouring down freezing rain. We got up during the first intermission between sets, and ran upstairs to smoke outside the doorway. I lit the little stogie and started puffing like a maniac. The first thing I did, of course, was inhale by accident. Anyone who has ever smoked cigarettes (and I have, in the distant past--including way too many that I didn't enjoy in the least) must overcome this reflex - but once you've messed up with a cigar, you learn fast: Inhaling don't taste good, bub.

So I kept puffing away, learning not to inhale, playing around with the cigar, biting it a little to get a better draw, exhaling like a captain of industry into the howling wind and rain. "How do ya like it?" Sally yelled out, puffing on her I'm-being-bad-tonight Marlboro light.

"Hmm," I said. "It's not bad. I can actually taste the rum flavor." I huffed and puffed a few more times, starting to get an inkling of the chacteristic warmth and fullness that distinguishes cigars from their lowly cigarette cousins. Cigarettes can't give good mouth, let's face it. Only a cigar can take you by the tongue and never let go... But all this I was yet to truly comprehend. It was just a cigarillo, after all. So, an inkling...

"You done?" said Sally, stubbing out her schmig.

"Uh, no." I still had more than half of mine left.

"Well, shouldn't we go back in? I mean, the band's gonna start up again pretty soon."

"Oh. Well... ok." So I ruefully stubbed out this, my first "real" cigar, not sure what I had just experienced, but having learned a lesson that every cigar smoker must surely learn: It's all about time management. No five-minute quickies, son. If you can't stand and deliver for at least half an hour, put that lighter right back in your pants.