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A Small Cigar

On one of life's smallest pleasures.

My first cigar was smoked at the end of the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college. I was a recent initiate to the mysteries of tobacco, and I knew nothing about cigars; I selected the stick based on budget (not large) and the appealing harlequin figure on the label. I bought three, one for myself and one for each of my roommates. We smoked them on the steps of the library in contravention of recent rules about smoking on the quad. Cosmic retribution for the transgression was quick but incomplete: one of the roommates got sick. It put an end to the session, all the same.

The cigar’s brand was “Rigoletto,” another point in its favor. (Who could resist a Verdi-themed cigar?) I do not think I have seen it in a tobacconist’s shop since, and, if I were in the position of walking in for my first cigar today, I doubt it would be my first choice. Some research suggests that, along with King Arthur Flour and Oxford University Press, the company has given its branding one of the catastrophic updates that have so effectively uglified modern life. (H.L. Mencken, himself a champion cigar-chewer and a son of the cigar business, talks about the American fetish for the ugly. It has gotten much worse since his time.) At any rate, this Rigoletto must not have been terrible, or, if it was, I didn’t know it. I stuck with cigars.

One of the joys of middle age, it turns out, is learning what you really like. I sampled many varieties of cigar in my youth—Davidoff churchills, various sizes and price points of Arturo Fuentes, Romeo y Julieta, red-dot Cohibas. When abroad, I’d buy little tins of Cuban cigarillos—real Cohibas, real Montecristos. It was through these and the admirable, economical Ashton Senoritas that I came to self-knowledge—I want a small, cheap cigar, spicy but not too dark. It has been Toscanos (which my Italian family refer to with affectionate disparagement as “guinea-stinkers”) and General Grants for me ever since, with the occasional white box of Senoritas for old times’ sake—an admittedly low-rent but cheerful way to be.

Not that the road to knowledge has been without its trials. I think I can claim to be one of the few people ever to have gotten a sense of relief from reading The Magic Mountain. Although the book is not on the whole very comforting—far from it—my relief came from discovering, from a conversation between Castorp and the quack Behrens, that even regular cigar-smokers in that infinitely more tobacco-laden era occasionally felt a little ill after hitting the stick too quickly, too often. After my last final in college, during which I drank a thermos full of boilermakers and so became cheerful, I lit up an Oliva Serie V (an excellent cigar that I still enjoy on occasion, although more carefully). This proved too much for my system, and difficulties ensued back in my dorm room. Myself lying sickly on the bathroom’s cool tiles while, inexplicably, John Lennon’s “God” playing on repeat drifts in from another room—this remains more or less my personal vision of Hell.

Cigarillos are safer; I have never been betrayed by a Toscano. You can smoke two while mowing the lawn without fearing death and the afterlife. They are also, with the exception of hookah, the most sociable form of tobacco consumption. “A small cigar can change the world”—so begins the excellent Jethro Tull deep cut, “A Small Cigar.” “I know, I’ve done it frequently at parties / Where I’ve won guests’ attention with my generosity / And suave, gentlemanly bearing.” The narrator goes on to complain about the cannabis-smoking ways of the modish and upwardly mobile; he leaves the party in a fit of unfashionable pique and shares his stash with a train-station bum. This vignette, I am afraid, comes close to biography for me.

There is something roguish and campy and archaic all at once about a small cigar. It is redolent of the racetrack, cheap suits, the opening montage of Cheers, the prose of Mencken and Ring Lardner, the adventures of Horace Rumpole—a low-register trapping from a more genteel civilization. (Much like the print press, for that matter.) I remain suspicious of cigarettes—too many of my relatives have died of lung cancer—and my wife has, probably wisely, forbidden dip. Admitting in print that I smoke a pipe would be to self-condemn as the worst, most pompous kind of Catholic hack. No, no; the small cigar for me.