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A longtime cigar nut examines the sudden crass commercialism of his favorite vice

Wednesday, Dec 25 1996
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Smoke hangs in the room like tule fog on U.S. 101. Underneath the inversion layer, two guys in their 20s squeeze through the packed ballroom of the Hyatt Regency, stuffing free cigars into their tote bags. "It's a Gloria Cubano, dude!" exclaims one in a Hawaiian shirt.

More than 1,000 have coughed up $150 apiece for tonight's "Big Smoke." Sponsored by Cigar Aficionado magazine, the country's premier cigar lifestyle rag, this traveling cigarapalooza gives fans the opportunity to smoke ourselves sick, down the endless free samples of cognacs and single malts, and wander through the surreal bazaar of baubles and trinkets:

The Prometheus Odyssey high-temperature laser butane flame lighter, with satin gun-metal finish. The "Ambassador" Halliburton aluminum traveling cigar case, with "digital hygro-thermometer." The J.C. Pendergast French Smoking Chair, finished in Don Juan Hand-Distressed Leather. The Reed & Barton "Chairman" free-standing humidor, Queen Anne-style, with 400-cigar capacity. The Mako Cigar Dossier, a hard-bound book in which to affix your favorite cigar labels and make detailed notes on each smoking experience. And, of course, the smoking jackets, jewelry, golf clubs, cigar cutters, neckties -- all testifying to the inevitable primal truth: Give a monkey enough time, and he'll nickel-plate everything in sight.

The video Cigars! The New Rage! by Los Angeles DJ Rick Dees blares a sassy disco beat from one booth, as the image of actor Joe Mantegna smiles and removes a wooden box of cigars from his personal locker at the obscenely opulent Beverly Hills Grand Havana Room cigar parlor. "It's hip!" says a girl, handing me a cheap cigar cutter. "It's energetic!"

Through this combination of small-town carnival and 1950s Vegas -- past the thick-necked guys in suits, the well-endowed girl at the Martini & Rossi booth, the rotund man in a priest's collar promoting his "www.holy-smoke.com" Website -- dart two buzz-cuts in dumpy Dockers. "There he is!" shouts the one with a nose ring. "Get a fuckin' pitcher with 'im!"

The object of their pursuit is Marvin Shenken, publisher of Cigar Aficionado. Short and squat, in pinstriped suit and loafers, Shenken circulates easily through the mob, as he has done at every "Big Smoke" throughout the country, smiling and posing for snapshots. Amazingly, people are humbled at the privilege of shaking the hand of this Sultan of Stogies. He is the messiah who liberated the village and made it acceptable to indulge such a disgusting habit.

After maneuvering the Wine Spectator into a moneymaking publication, Shenken launched Cigar Aficionado in 1992, which quickly grew into a thick, 250,000-circulation glossy monthly, veering on the fetishistic in its coverage of cigars. Although he graduated dead last in his class at the University of Miami, Shenken has recovered and then some; he recently dropped $520,000 at auction to own JFK's personal humidor.

I've been smoking cigars for 18 years. And right now, I'm plotting exactly how I would kill him.

I'd hit him low with a shoulder to the crotch, Raiders-style. Knock him right out of the loafers and into the Isle of Arran single malt scotch booth, smashing case after case of their little bottles. We'd crash the flimsy trade-show barrier and collapse into the Macanudo/Partagas/Temple Hall display of leather jackets and brushed twill caps, me scratching at his eyeglasses. We'd fall wrestling into the Donna Karan table, scattering the prized perfumes, roll right through the Ashton cigars, snapping their finest Robustos like twigs, before landing in front of Shenken's own magazine's booth. And right there, in front of his horrified staff, underneath the rack of cigar-patterned ties and suspenders, I'd get a good grip on his throat, bang his round head to the carpet, and scream over and over, "WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH MY HOBBY?!"

America's current cigar craze has reached proportions that would render Freud apoplectic. "Why Cigars and Why Now?" articles are omnipresent. Cigar-related magazines, books, videos, Websites, movies, clothing, even a national live radio talk show flood the market. Celebrities gleefully jam cigars in their mouths in the presence of paparazzi. Restaurants, nightclubs, entire geographical regions advertise cigar nights. Cigar-of-the-month clubs tempt the uninformed with slick, manly brochures. The year's best racehorse was named Cigar. The president smokes cigars on the golf course. The Modernism gallery on Market Street features cigar-themed pieces of art. And, in perhaps the ultimate litmus test of populism, a cigar humidor can now be found at Costco.

Cigars are de rigueur in today's in-your-face, anti-PC cultural climate, a bizarre incorporation of yesteryear's pudgy politician power trip with the emerging petty bourgeoisie. To this ersatz aristocracy, where pink-faced young Turks rush about reclaiming their inner frat boy, a cigar is an obvious and natural companion to the martinis and Cosmopolitans at irony-soaked Cocktail Nation clubs. The wars have all been fought, and now it comes down to personal concerns. Our worst fears have shifted from communism to airline accidents. In response, we can all pretend we're in a frisky Rat Pack movie for a night, polish off a steak dinner with a cigar and highballs, and work it off at the gym tomorrow morning. As comedian Dana Gould has mentioned, the cigar is the ponytail of the '90s. You pull out a cigar now, and the immediate reaction is, "Ah, Christ, you're one of those people."

All that said, the actual joys of smoking cigars haven't changed. They're still a gateway to relaxation and obnoxiousness, they're still deliberately unhealthy, they still represent rebellion. It's still fun to say to the world that if you're going to smoke, you might as well go for the gold and stick an entire log of leaves in your mouth. And if you're going to really indulge yourself, a Cuban cigar constitutes one of the few things of which you could afford to sample the very best in the world.

As few as five years ago, cigar smokers quietly went about our vice in efficient, cumulous silence. There was no rube in a suit strolling into a local shop and announcing pompously, "Yes, I'm looking for something in the $3 range." There was no smug college kid at a tobacco counter in Tijuana, purchasing a $500 box of Cubans, and turning to exclaim, "May I recommend the Romeo y Julietas -- if they have any left!" There were no legions of new smokers, eagerly memorizing hundreds of cigar sizes and brand names for later regurgitation: "I've really begun to enjoy the Barrios Neglectas, which remind me of a flavorful Presidente Unoposado, although if I'm up against the wall, I've been known to settle for a nice Cojones Fabuloso."

About The Author

Jack Boulware

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