It is one of the mysteries of the universe that the cigar that smells so delightful to me when I’m smoking it, smells so rank to me when the other guy lights up.
There are few adult pleasures that can match the nerve-settling effects of a draft on a good, a really good cigar. And few adults who can bear the stench of someone else smoking one.
So I sympathize when someone complains that cigars are unbearably nasty. They are, hands down, the most fumigatious pestilence this side of old tires burning in a city dump — except, that is, for the one I’m smoking.
Of course, I would never ignite one in a restaurant. It is the height of brutishness to fire up a stogie in a closed and inhabited space. Maybe even worse than smoking a cigarette.
And I would never smoke in someone else’s home. The stale odor penetrates the furniture and hangs in the air for days.
But that doesn’t change the truth of the matter, that a good cigar is one of the greatest joys this planet affords.
Cigars are often compared with wines. There is a difference between a screw-top muscatel drunk from a brown paper poke and Chateauneuf-du-Pape. If one makes you gag, it’s no reflection on the nobility of the other.
The appeal of a good cigar is strong. On the evening before he signed the Cuban Trade Embargo in 1961, which made Cuban cigars illegal in the United States, John Kennedy sent his aide Pierre Salinger out to scour the streets of Washington to buy 1,000 Havana cigars for him.
Although the cigar business has declined overall since 1964, when 9 billion were sold — current annual sales run just more than 2 billion — the figures for “premium” cigars, those that currently sell for more than $1.25 each, have gone just the other way. In 1974, some 50 million were sold, while today, that number is 100 million.
That speaks of a rise in taste among cigar smokers. No longer must the cigar be the skag-end of a butt chewed to a gooey wad in a mouth full of uneven brown teeth. It has become upscale in the polished smile of an Arnold Schwarzenegger or a David Letterman.
But I also fear that could be the death of the cigar experience. Yuppies know how to trivialize anything: The point seems to be who can pay more for a hand-wrapped Dominican robusto. Is a $23 cigar really that much better than a $2 cigar?
The pricey glossy magazines that feature photographs of movie stars, metrosexuals or smug investment bankers and their single-malt scotches and tailored suits make me want to give up my cigar. That is not what I mean. Like prayer, let me smoke privately, not to show off my income level.
Yet, a good cigar, like a good wine, is complex. It has tastes and aftertastes, aromas and essences. And one should not forget the visual aspects of a good smoke: The twining strands of rising smoke and the exhaled clouds that spin and curl in the air.
American Indians knew this part of smoking. The so-called peace pipe was really a religious ritual. The smoke, swirling about in the lightest breeze, revealed the existence of Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit. The smoke made the invisible visible.
It takes a good half-hour to go through the ritual, from clipping the end, to lighting it while holding the match flame just off the surface of the tobacco, to rolling the tube between your fingers while exhaling, to tapping the ash off the tip, to the final decision to extinguish the cigar butt after one last lingering puff.
The ritual is like entering a cathedral: You enter a different time frame, one where the pulse slackens, blood pressure relaxes, and the buzz of everyday concerns stands off for that space of time and leaves you be.
I feel that way when my friend Alexander and I climb out his second-story window onto the roof and light up at night, watching the stars and the smoke, and talking about the things that friends talk about.
We don’t smoke inside; Alexander’s wife would kill us.