Cigar smoking: Man's last and only domain?

NATIONAL CLOSEUP

November 09, 1992|By Mary Schmich | Mary Schmich,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- Ah, the smell of manliness. Sweet, dizzying, choking. The aroma's hard to take at first, but a gal can get used to all manner of manhood's mysteries and even start to like them.

We're talking here about men and their cigars.

Specifically, we're talking about the 80 or so men jammed into the Up Down Tobacco Shop for the 3-Day Cigar Party, which began Thursday.

What bliss for the cigar aficionado, reviled and exiled in so much of the United States, to be allowed in these three days to share his tall cigar tales and puff till he can puff no more.

It comes as no surprise, of course, that, where a group of men are gathered, there will be a contest. In this case, it's to see who has the longest ash.

In addition to smoking the same type of cigar, a Por Larranaga Cetros, all participants in the contest must abide by three rules: You may not try to keep your ash intact by running a wire through the cigar. You may not remove the cigar band. And you may not lie down on the floor.

"I never smoke a cigar this way, but I'm very competitive," says Joe Paich, 59, the building services coordinator at Loyola University.

He is hiding in a corner, out of the way of jostlers, holding his cigar straight up to keep the ash from falling. His ash is an eye-popping 4 inches long.

Chris Jones, a 26-year-old flight attendant who flew in from Minneapolis just for the cigar fest, is puffing over by the store's humidor. His ash is an inch long and slowly growing.

"Cigar smoking," Mr. Jones says, tipping his head back, taking a long drag and exhaling, "is a sign of regalness. You see somebody smoking a $5 cigar, it's a sign of class. It's the one, truly -- I shouldn't say this, it's really sexist -- it's the one thing that used to distinguish men from women."

Used to. Resignation and regret drip from Mr. Jones' voice like tears. He has only to look around the store to see that yet another gender barrier has toppled.

A few feet away stands Scarlet Savides, part-time actress, bartender at Trattoria Roma and cigar devotee.

"Smoking a cigar is very relaxing," she says, rolling her fingers in front of her mouth. "Very seductive."

Ms. Savides took up cigars a couple of years ago, under the tutelage of Diana Gits, Up Down's owner and the hostess of this party.

"I think a woman smoking a cigar looks rather dumb," Ms. Gits says. "Cigars are basically for men."

However, Ms. Gits, who is wearing thigh-high black boots and sunglasses, is obviously not a woman tamed by convention's lasso. She can smoke with the manliest of men, chomping on a cigar -- no hands -- while she talks.

Thirty years ago, Ms. Gits ran a dress shop down the street. "Selling dresses to women was not my cup of tea," she says. "They buy everything on Friday and bring it back on Monday."

She switched to selling pipes and cigars. Fifteen years later, she built her own store, complete with a glass-enclosed humidor that allows her to exhibit thousands of cigars while keeping them moist and cool. She traded her own cigarettes for cigars.

"Cigarettes were getting to be a drag," she says. "When you're done smoking a cigarette, you feel like somebody kicked you."

Smoking a cigar, she says, is a long, slow pleasure, one indulged in by those who have good taste, patience and, usually, lots of money. In fact, she says, cigars have become the latest yuppie accouterment, sought more and more as a symbol of prosperity.

"The last few months, it's been incredible," she says. "I've been waiting for this kind of business all my life. Everybody in the world with any money is smoking high-class cigars. For a lot of men, it completes the outfit."

Not that a cigar smoker is all smoke and no substance, she is quick to note.

"A cigar smoker is a very loyal person to his wife or his girlfriend," she says. "They're gentlemen. They're the last of the men on the white horse."

In the spirit of investigation and competition, I finally light up. The cigar, my first ever, is sweetly bitter, like a good cup of coffee. Heady with my newfound macho, I consider joining the contest for longest ash.

Alas, within 15 minutes, I feel queasy. I let my cigar die a quiet death, my ash barely half an inch long.

Frankly, good men, this is one domain you can keep.

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