Vital Signs

Jonathan Jones takes my cigar, sets it to his lips, and slowly starts puffing. In his hand he holds a slender stick of cedar, cracked down the spine to keep it alight as it rekindles the dying ember inside the cigar. His breaths are long, hollow pulls that seek to drag in as much air as possible without inhaling. Inhaling cigar smoke too deeply, he tells me, is a bad idea.

“That’s good,” he says, savoring the taste as he slowly lets the thick blue smoke billow out of his mouth. Reluctantly, he hands it back. “That’s real good. You’ve got to take this back, because I’ll finish it if you don’t.”

The other men in the store nod and make sounds of agreement. Most of them are regulars here at Bonnie’s Little Corner, stopping in for their weekly visit to sample the smoke shop’s wares and share their passion for all things tobacco. Tonight, this loose-knit smokers’ club is joined by both the area sales rep and the CEO of Trilogy Cigars; together, the assembled men candidly discuss the pros and cons of the samples the two have brought.

“So, honestly, what do you think?” someone asks me. It’s Alan Rubin, president of the company that makes the cigar. And here’s where trouble nearly starts.

You see, I don’t smoke. It’s not that I’m judgmental, or even particularly worried about my health. But somehow, despite years spent in smoky bars and cafes, I’ve simply never picked up the habit. This is a hard thing to explain, and I fumble as I try to answer Rubin, lacking both the technical vocabulary and the sheer passion for the subject that all the others have. I tell him it’s OK.

After a moment, I explain that my mouth tastes like dirt and smoke, though not in an altogether unpleasant way, and that — honestly — it’s not mixing well with my coffee at all.

The men in the corner smirk. Suddenly, I become aware that they’re experiencing this close tobacco encounter of the third kind on an entirely different level. For them, each puff seems to be something to savor, something more than the mere conjunction of dried leaves and fire. They roll the smoke around in their mouths as if tasting a fine, aged Bordeaux. And as they talk, a dense, hazy cloud rolls out.

That gets me thinking about dragons, and about humankind’s perennial obsession with the magic of fire. On a purely visual level, ignoring all the other senses, smoking is an almost supernatural experience.

These men, however, don’t mention this. Instead, they talk about their work lives, their families and their pets. For a few moments, there’s a spirited discussion of cars, which leads to further digressions on travel and foreign foods. Meanwhile, I’ve long since given up on my cigar, preferring to focus on my own addiction, coffee — a dark, black, Cuban-style roast that is the other specialty at Bonnie’s (and the reason I started coming here to begin with).

Still, here inside this downtown boutique, I can see why people take to things like cigars, and why they hang around in smoke-loving cliques. They share the same passion, and they enjoy one another’s company. There are worse things in life.

I doubt I’d ever want to join this club; I can barely stand being a secondhand smoker. If I were a smoker, though, this is just the sort of place I’d love to come to. A place where the men can decompress from their day, talk big about small things, and breathe a little fire and smoke before returning to the mundane routine of their daily lives. Their wives, a few tell me, won’t even let them smoke in the house.

Later, my coffee long since finished and my once-pink lungs fatigued from their workout, I gather my things to leave. True to his threat, Jonathan Jones has already finished my barely touched cigar.

[A&E reporter Steve Shanafelt covers diverse topics for Xpress.]

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