For the first time. Ever.
So, I was completing a kayak run when I saw a waterfront shop awning: Union Cigar Society. In the window, a banner in Italic script read “Fine Cigars and Accessories.”
Now, I’ve only just been introduced to cigars in 2012. I had never smoked anything until this spring. And then, a friend introduced me to cigars. Fine things. A cigar to signal the change of seasons? Yes, please.
But I had never before purchased tobacco, and cigars strike me as still very much the territory of men. I didn’t know what would happen. Maybe lightning would strike me down. Maybe I would get stared down or kicked out. Who knows?
And then, too, I was wearing a hoodie and torn-up jeans—in the yacht district of Lake Union. So I didn’t expect to be well received in a “cigar society” next door to a yacht shop.
I stood on the sidewalk and stared at the storefront and checked that the “Open” sign was on. And I stared some more. What if I told him I was shopping for someone else? A man? Maybe then—
Goddamn it. If you ever want to smoke another cigar, you’re going to have to do this some time.
So I went in. The shop was empty.
Floored in dark cherry laminate, the walls painted a dark maroon, plantation shutters, a poster with a woman eyeing me coyly over her shoulder in a swimsuit and red heels, something in Spanish—circa 1940s, in one corner a display case of extremely fine punches and lighters, a shelf of boxed cigars, and a high counter. Behind which no one stood. And there was nothing, from what I could see, to browse.
I stood and took in my victory for a few minutes—well, I had walked in the door.
And then a man came in the door and smiled at me and set a plastic bag on the counter. Probably early thirties and five-foot-eight, Latino, and built like you’d expect a cigar aficionado to be built—ample girth, round face. Clearly well fed and fond of the good things in life. “Hello,” he said.
“Hi.” I half-expected him to ask whether I was lost.
“What can I do for you?”
“I’m looking to buy some cigars for my brother, and I don’t know where to start.” The last part was true, at least.
“Do you know what kind of cigar he likes?”
“I’m afraid I don’t.”
“Well, let’s have a look. Come on in.”
In? And then, suddenly, Narnia-like, he opened a door that I hadn’t noticed before, made of stained-brown glass. And I walked into this small room, about half the size of a college dorm room.
It was lined, floor to ceiling on every wall, with shelves. And the shelves weren’t deep—just enough to hold the length of a single box, unfinished oak, and the boxes sat shoulder-to-shoulder down the shelves, each box filled with a certain kind of cigar. Spotlights from the ceiling lit the boxes, giving them this deep-throated honey color that warmed my heart. Ventilation hummed in the walls.
The temperature, the humidity—it was all different from the other room, all just-so, like an art gallery, and the air smelled of that sweet, earthy musk that is nothing so much like the perfume of the woods in autumn or certain Chinese teas, with a leathery, sodden tincture—as if one were drinking from a puddle of fresh-fallen rain pooled over roots in the forest.
Ok, I’m getting carried away. But seriously. Few rooms in my life compare.
“It smells so good in here.” I said. He smiled at me again, and it struck me how handy it is to be a practiced liar.
“So is your brother a big cigar smoker, or a few-times-a-year guy?”
Right. I was operating under false pretenses because I was afraid he might not sell cigars to a woman. Hmm. “A few times a year.”
So we whittled it down to three, and preferably a variety—so my brother could find out what he likes. And as he selected his personal favorites in each category—light, medium, and full-bodied (and not necessarily the most expensive, which made me trust his sincerity: these would be good smokes)—I made a mistake.
I took the full-bodied one, which wasn’t wrapped in plastic, and held it to my nose.
Damn, if it didn’t smell good.
And he smiled at me a third time.
I think thus ended any illusions I was buying for someone else, or at least not smoking even one of these cigars. As he rang up my three cigars and punch, he asked what the occasion was for my brother. “Birthday,” I said. Hmm. Which, now I realize—a month late—I should have done.
When I asked, he told me they’d been open for about a year.
We got to talking business, because I know other small-business owners in the area. He said it was going well so far. “But,” and he glanced back through the smoky glass door. “The guys and I always figure if we close our doors, we’ll get to smoke the stock.”
I laughed. Clearly, he didn’t consider this the worst thing that could happen.
“You come on back now and let me know what you think of those,” he said as I left.
But being found out turned out to be not so bad. I had felt welcome, not reproved. He had treated me better than the cashiers in most shops where I bought things that I felt I had so much more a right to. And I returned home with my treasure of three cigars, set them beside my leather-bound books, and admired the little plunder from my adventures. A little bit of proof that I am getting braver about having the adventures I want to have, all the weight of tradition notwithstanding.