Austin, Texas, 1 January 2002. I’m huddled into myself in the backyard of the house of a woman (Let’s call her K-Funk.) I’ve just met, watching champagne-laden friends light roman candles, spinners, sparklers, and other fireworks into the brisk night. Although it’s quite cold, it’s also dry and the grass is brown and crisp. K-Funk’s eyes pop with worry every time a glittering spark dives toward the ground. She turns her head this way and that, ears pricked up to receive early warning of a police car’s siren or an irate neighbor’s slamming door. Still, she’s smiling, and she hasn’t told us to stop.
I’m not holding any fireworks at this point, but I am making a spark of my own. Sort of. I’m trying to light a cigar, and so far it’s not going so well…
Three hours earlier, my friends Ernesto, L(2), and Ohio had been in a grocery store, looking for six-dollar champagne to contribute to K-Funk’s party. Standing in line with the other two hundred souls who had the same bright shopping idea as we did, I noticed that we were standing alongside the locked cigar case. “You know what would go well with New Year’s Eve?” I said. “A smoke.” Ernesto nodded slowly.
So, we discussed our options. All of the cigars looked terrific; the more expensive ones had the most florid names, and were the most appealing. Neither of us knew anything about cigars. Neither of us smoked. Neither of us had ever, really, smoked regularly. Neither of us had ever touched a cigar. We were so hapless that we’d given up on impressing the women—L(2) and Ohio—and were just pointing randomly at plump, brown things that, for all we knew, could have been nicely wrapped rat turds.
A man tapped my shoulder. He looked friendly enough, not insane. “I’d recommend the Arturo Fuente Short Story . It’s got a wonderful flavor and a sweet, sweet smell. A fantastic all-around cigar for beginners.” He pointed to the Fuentes.
Ernesto and I took a look. “Short Story” was right—they couldn’t have been much longer than Vienna sausages; they certainly weren’t any thicker. They were clearly the runts. They were ten dollars apiece, which seemed steep for an overgrown cigarette. “Are you sure, man?” I said. “Positive,” he said. “Great cigar.”
Twenty minutes later, as our rotgut champagne was finally being rung up by the cashier, I told myself, “To hell with it.” I’m a literary-minded man, so the name is a sucker punch to my heart. Plus, the man is right behind us; I couldn’t dismiss his advice to his face. The cashier unlocked the case, brought out two Short Stories, I winced as they rang up but paid for them anyway, and we were off.
So now the magic moment has arrived. People are shooting stop signs with their pistols; fireworks dance in the air; champagne is being ceremoniously uncorked and guzzled; passionate kisses are being enjoyed. And we can’t get the damn cigars to light. In our inexperience, we’d neglected to buy a cigar clipper, not thinking that the Vienna sausages would be round at one end, much less two. We don’t understand how we’re supposed to smoke them if there was no hole at either end. So we use Ernesto’s Swiss Army knife and an unraveled paper clip to punch holes on both ends. And thank god there’s a smoker present; neither Ernesto nor I owns a matchbook or a lighter. I’ve essentially paid twenty dollars to provide a free vaudeville show for the party, complete with slapstick. I’m not sure which one of us is supposed to be Laurel, and which one is Hardy, but we both have the W.C. Fields bit down—lots of angry cursing under our breaths.
Finally, we get the things lit. Blue smoke pirouettes above us. It suddenly smells like a grade-school campfire. The smoke looks less like clouds than slowly dissipating, translucent cloth. We’re so entranced by this ever-shifting beauty that we don’t keep sucking on them, and the red tip goes out. Damn, damn, damn. So we relight and pay attention this time.
It’s the paying-attention part that attracts me most to cigars, and why I still occasionally smoke them. You really can’t do much else while smoking a cigar. Unlike a cigarette, cigars need to be tended to. Relight, re-cut, suck in, blow out, shake off the ash. They also last much longer than cigarettes; even our Short Stories took 30 minutes to whittle down to nothing. Unless you’re willing to have your walls absorb the smell, you’re guaranteed to be stuck outside with a good cigar for more than an hour. So, you can read or talk or just watch the world as you smoke, but you sure as hell can’t cook or play tennis or mop the floor.
You can contemplate. Cigars encourage it. The smoke is beautiful to watch. Nothing punctuates the end of a good joke quite like the jab of a lit cigar. The aroma is delightful (or it can be—I’ve since smelled some rancid cigars).
I don’t get as much time for contemplation as I’d like; does anyone? So, sitting on the balcony of my apartment with a cigar and a good book is a pleasure of potential energy as much as kinetic energy. Getting that cigar lit automatically means that I’m forced to sit and think for a while. And, at least for a while, I rest.
While smoking, the only thing that bothers me is that I’m not smoking an Arturo Fuente Short Story. Damn my luck that I’d be turned on to cigar smoking by a cigar that, even by regular smokers’ standards, is difficult to find and is produced only sparingly. Oh well. Wherever that Austin man is now, I’d like to tip my hat to him. I just wish I could do it with a Short Story in hand.