Distillations: Up in Smoke at Occidental Cigar Club

The first cigar I ever smoked was in Havana, where I bought Cohibas on the black market from the factory guards. I fell in love, but had to keep it a long-distance relationship: Smoking too much hurts my singing voice, and that's a price I will not pay.

"I've always wanted to be a fictional character," I told a friend recently. "Instead of a real person."

"I think you pretty much are," she replied. "You've achieved it."

Later that night I could smell the Occidental Cigar Club a block away.

Those really expecting a "club" will be disappointed by the Occidental — it's a small, dark box of a room. A humidor of men.

There are women at the Occidental, but not many. A sign in the bathroom reminds ladies to "leave the seat in the proper position."

I walked in, sat at the bar, and waited so long that I began to wonder if it was self-service. Eventually the bartender, Kurt, came over, from where he'd been taking his time with other customers. He made me a Manhattan. He filled it right up to the rim, and it was delicious.

I asked him to pair a cigar with it. Told him I like them flavorful but lighter.

"You like 'em lighter," he acknowledged.

"But flavorful."

He scowled. "All my cigars are flavorful."

I admitted I'm a novice, and he gave me some tips for getting the most out of the cigar he brought — Dominican tobacco rolled in Tennessee. It was perfect. A minute later, I was in heaven. The bar even seemed brighter.

Connecting with people at cigar bars is easy as breathing. You're part of a club just by being there, and they welcome their own. I got into a long riff with a couple of guys from a start-up, trading stories about cigars from Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Cuba.

Then we told stories about drunken nights of excess — the things we and our friends have done that have made people decide to get their lives together and say "no more" — and I noticed a strange pattern. Everybody else's stories involved people getting hurt, sometimes terribly: beaten down, relationships ruined, opportunities lost. But not my stories. My binges usually have a happy ending — a connection was made or a load was lightened or a journey begun.

Weird.

This had never occurred to me before, and I have no explanation. Is that luck? A social skill? Something I was born with? Something I learned to do over time? The result of trying to turn myself into a fictional character? I remember that in a small hotel in Belgium I once drank more than I could handle and collapsed, then woke up because I was talking to myself in the second person. Words tumbled out of my mouth: "You have no idea," I told me, "just how much effort we make to keep you safe."

I didn't know how to respond.

My friend, whom I'd been talking with earlier that day, has an amazing daughter. She's a character from a fairy tale, possessed of the kind of beauty that is impossible in ordinary people, uncanny artistic talents, and the disposition of a shy-but-whimsical elf. She was born out of a storybook, naturally a fictional character while I worked so hard to become one, and over the last two years she tried to kill herself twice.

And here I am, smoking cigars, laughing about times on the edge when I was her age and walked away from the roughest of landings. I don't know how that happens. I think I should. Was I protected by the fact that I had to work at it while she's a natural? Or are we just characters from very different stories?

Regulars came in and bantered with Kurt as he poured me an 18-year version of the first single malt I ever drank, back in Scotland. He matched it with a Padron 1926. I laughed with the start-up boys as we told bigger and bigger stories.

Beautifully buzzed, I knew it was time to stop. As Kurt brought me the bill I asked him: "Much as I love this, let's admit that it's all poison. How do you manage spending so much time around poison?"

"It's pure tobacco, 100 percent. Nothing added," he said. "It's not poison."

Is that true?

I don't believe him. I think that some of us are just better at handling the poisons we love.

 
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