The untouchables A cigar is still a good smoke, whether politically correct or not

August 16, 1993|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

In the pungent blue haze of an Owings Mills tobacco shop, the men and their cigars take refuge from a hostile world.

Banished from many shopping malls, most restaurants, even their own homes, the coterie gathers for a cigar-tasting at Fader's Tobacconist like followers of some underground religion. For three hours on a Saturday afternoon they puff and schmooze. Smoke drifts out the door, past the wooden Indian who gazes upon a nation where it seems that even the president is not free to enjoy a stogie in the White House.

"You can walk into a room with an unlit cigar and someone will say 'That stinks.' I'm serious," says Frank Elam, a cigar manufacturer's representative. He's standing behind a counter offering gratis the Punch Grand Cru, a Honduran cigar that sells for $2.80.

It's tough out there for cigar smokers.

The odd thing is that the species of cigars Mr. Elam hands out this afternoon is getting lots of press lately. These so-called premium cigars -- handmade of high-grade tobacco -- have been making a comeback after decades of cigar industry decline. Although the cigar business overall is flat, premium cigar sales are up, their image polished, their new fans young and successful, their virtues extolled in a year-old high-gloss magazine, Cigar Aficionado.

All this at a time when finding a place to fire up a cigarette, much less a big, fat Honduran smoke, is more difficult than ever. New smoking bans are sweeping the nation. The American smoker slides deeper into the untouchable caste, and the cigar smoker occupies a still lower rung: the pariah's pariah. Even President Clinton, who enjoys an occasional cigar, apparently can't smoke in the White House.

Never mind a good five-cent cigar, what America really lacks is a place to smoke one.

Starting young

Lee Livov, of Pikesville, started smoking ci-gars when he was 15. That was 60 years ago, when a man could light up a corona about any place he liked. These days, Mr. Livov says he wouldn't dare pull out a cigar in a restaurant or any other public place. "You get those looks, I don't like those glaring looks," says Mr. Livov, a retired shoe-store owner.

He's standing by the counter at Fader's where Mr. Elam has just handed over a Punch Grand Cru, describing it as a vintner might a fine Bordeaux: A light-tasting, mostly Honduran blend with a Glittle bit of Nicaraguan leaf, a bit of Dominican. Unlike the four-for- $1.50 cigars sold at 7-Eleven, which are marked "contains non-tobacco ingredients," premium cigars are made entirely of natural tobacco leaves that may be aged for years. They can sell for $5, $10, even $19 apiece.

None of the connoisseurship that goes with fine cigars impresses Mr. Livov's wife. He recalls ruefully how his wife used to allow him to smoke anywhere in their Pikesville home "until this business came about." He refers to the national debate about the health effects of ambient tobacco smoke.

Lately Mr. Livov and his cigar -- spicy bouquet and all -- are banished to the basement, where he has a sculpture workshop and "a good exhaust system."

Joe Jenkins, 38, of Randallstown, says he smokes cigars outside, in deference to his wife and two children. That wasn't good enough for a neighbor who made a nasty remark while he was smoking out on the sidewalk.

"It's outside, come on," says Mr. Jenkins, a contracts manager for Westinghouse, standing at Fader's and pronouncing the Punch a tad too mild for his taste. In balmy months, Mr. Jenkins can be found smoking a cigar on the sidewalk -- cranky neighbor notwithstanding -- or in the backyard. In winter, he says he smokes in the garage, or "in my car. That's my private kingdom, if you will. Nobody can bother me there."

Winter evenings also find Jim Moore and his cigar cloistered in his garage in Sykesville. "I have a wood stove out there," says Mr. Moore, 39, who runs a chain of photo-finishing stores in Washington. He says he prefers not to smoke around his four children, although his 8-year-old son, Stephen, accompanies him the tasting, leaning against the counter clutching in two arms a $71 box of cigars.

At his wife's insistence, Mark Seward II says, he smokes cigars outside their house in Baltimore, near the Catonsville line. In very cold weather, he smokes in his study on the second floor, huddled over an open window where an exhaust fan sucks out the smoke. An acolyte slouched before a windy shrine.

"It's just a little rig I have," says a smiling Mr. Seward, a 39-year-old contracts representative for Westinghouse.

Like Mr. Livov, all the men interviewed at Fader's say they don't even try smoking a cigar around non-smokers. Too much hassle, they say.

The public pressure falls heavier still on the rare female cigar smoker. No one bats an eye anymore about a woman on the U.S. Supreme Court. But let a woman light up a stogie and suddenly it's as if feminism never happened.

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