Cigar Lovers Find Camaraderie in Difficult Times

Like a post-apocalyptic scene from a sci-fi movie, humanity has begun to emerge from its bunker and peer out into the rising sun of a post-pandemic world, surveying the landscape for what remains of the life we remember. Those initial moments of contemplation yield mixed feelings of hope, uncertainty and perhaps a new-found appreciation for our own mortality. We’ve survived a terrible event while quietly acknowledging those who didn’t. And so, with a cautious optimism we proceed out of our shelter looking to rekindle our life’s fire and rejoin a world anxious to return to normal, or a close facsimile thereof.

For those of us who’ve made it through the last 15 months or so, life has been far from anything resembling sipping margaritas on a sun-kissed beach. And on the other end of the scale, it thankfully wasn’t reminiscent of the “Mad Max” franchise, the gasoline-fueled, survival-of-the-fastest epic pitting unwitting survivors in dune buggies against twitchy, axe-wielding bad guys in mohawks running them down in high-octane, steam-punk-o-mobiles. The simple reality is that many lives have been forever altered as a result of the various local, state and national pandemic policies and the sometimes-confusing guidance for safe interactions and vaccinations. From the continued economic impacts of rampant unemployment and shuddered businesses to the psychological stresses of isolation and the curious rash of toilet paper shortages, our society has been left reeling in search of answers on any number of fronts. Some struggled to get things they needed like groceries and haircuts whereas many just couldn’t get out. One of the most important questions that quickly came to the fore was, “how do we connect?” With family. With friends. With colleagues. And the list goes on.

In a world driven by the need for immediate gratification coupled with text, email, and social media dominance, many of us rediscovered the telephone, you know, that “other” use for our Apple and Android devices, to chat with friends or face time our grandparents during holidays. With so much extra time on our hands, some even took to blowing the dust off their handwriting skills to send letters via “snail mail.” But what about those of us who are hard-wired for human contact, those that are connected outside of the family unit, work, church or classrooms? How do we commiserate, now? And how do we do it in a group setting? In a cheesy but true case of life imitating art, as Jurassic Park’s own inimitable chaotician, Dr. Ian Malcom, eloquently said, “…life will find a way.”

Interestingly, the varying means to reconnect with one another really didn’t evolve as much they just became more apparent. Almost overnight they became more attractive, more practical or more effective. To some of us, some of the ways we connected were novel, less stressful and more fun. Need an example? Two words: video conferencing. Video conferencing is not a new technology by any stretch, but the COVID-fueled dumpster fire that was 2020 turned the virtual hang-out into a multi-billion dollar industry almost overnight.

It’s no secret that the greater cigar community is a special one, one that welcomes all SOTLs and BOTLs, and is exemplified by like-minded people whose makeup and backgrounds are as varied as grains of sand. Life slows down when you walk into a cigar shop, and in the lounge, strangers become friends.

I’m reminded of a time – pre-pandemic – I was on a business trip and stopped into a cigar shop on the outskirts of Oklahoma City. Since I was overdue for a cigar review and the only place my hotel would allow smoking was anywhere, “as long as it was outside,” I headed to the nearest cigar shop and lounge only blocks away. Wedged into a relatively new strip mall, the shop was small but modern and the front half offered a solid selection of cigars and accessories. The spacious lounge occupied the back half and featured 2 rows of cushy, leather chairs, “stinky” type ashtrays throughout, a couple of high tables, a full wet bar, fridge and a multi-seating area under a big screen TV. A great escape after a day’s toil.

As I got to work, I was conscious of a handful of lounge companions who at first just made polite small talk. About 20 minutes into my review, I got into a college baseball discussion with a guy sitting alone at an adjacent table. After some brief good-byes with others in the lounge, he called it a night, and it became very clear everyone there were regulars. One of the guys from the group in front of the TV, on his way to the fridge, called over and invited me over to sit with his group.

I was deep in thought and in mid-sentence with my pen frozen on the page. Flattered by the offer, I paused and genuinely thanked him for the invite and explained that I needed to get my review in the books. We continued with the occasional friendly, cross-room banter and laughter for the duration of the evening including successive invites to join the conversation. Eventually, we all made brief introductions, commiserated over the latest news bites, and laughed over some clever one-liners. By far the best part of my long day.

While I’ve had great experiences at cigar lounges and herfs and met some great people, I realized that THIS is what epitomizes the cigar community: doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, what you look like, believe or even what you smoke – total strangers will welcome you in as a member of their tribe. I can’t begin to convey how much this underscored what was already a good evening, an enjoyable review and some much-needed Zen time from a long day of traveling.

Um, that’s a tall order to replicate virtually.

As the pandemic raged, widespread lockdowns and the resulting isolation devastated our lifestyle. Due to pervasive cigar lounge closings coupled with the shutdown of all relevant indoor and outdoor spaces, many cigar smokers of all stripes felt their passion stifled as they struggled to find ways to reconnect. But what I observed over the last year and a half is that my fellow cigar smokers did carve out ways to unite and stay connected. Were they perfect? No. Were these efforts as satisfying as meeting in person? Maybe not.

But in a world of uncertain times and a seemingly endless cacophony of bad news, many of us found light in the various ways we could get together to reconnect and even find reasons to celebrate. What follows are some of the ways we found to escape our mundane, albeit temporary realities.

SOCIAL MEDIA

Facebook & Instagram Live are great ways to connect with cigar lovers, especially if you belong to some of the many Facebook groups. Need something a little more spontaneous, plan a Live stream with some of your compadres or crash one that someone else started. I hate to admit it, but on one Fall night on the back patio lubricated with a few tumblers of Monkey Shoulder, even yours truly succumbed to crashing an Instagram Live stream put on by a popular pair of cigar podcast guys. Yeah, try fat fingering B-L-A-C-K L-A-B-E-L T-R-A-D-I-N-G C-O-M-P-A-N-Y on your iPhone in response to the innocuous, “what are you smoking tonight?” before realizing you could have just typed, “BLTC”. WARNING: when there’s whiskey involved, there’s a bit of learning curve.

VIRUAL HERFS

All you need is a smartphone/computer/tablet, a few cigars, a drink or three and friends (or at least one or more likeminded herfers). There’s a number of platforms that offer video conferencing but Zoom seems to be a favorite and it’s free for meeting with folks under a certain head count. You can have fun with backgrounds, and you might have noticed some screen shots of virtual herfs posted to Instagram and Facebook. It’s the next best thing to hanging with the gang from the lounge in person discussing the issues of the day.

INTERACTIVE SHOWS

One issue many businesses across the world struggled with was how to adapt to the changing landscape from in-person to virtual interactions. Brick and mortar tobacconists who also sported online stores saw record sales in 2020 while many without were forced to shudder their humidors, and lounges. Some for good. Those with an online presence had distinct advantages and know-how and instinctively took it to the next level. Curb-side service was a great alternative for many, but it didn’t rank high on the whole reconnecting schtick. Many grassroots tobacconists tried to keep things rocking with virtual herfs for their customers, but larger chains, like Abe Debabneh’s Smoke Inn, supercharged the idea with full-blown shows offered on Facebook Live and YouTube, including his annual The Great Smoke.

CIGAR CLUBS

Hop on any social media site and you’re bound to discover a dizzying array of cigar-related groups and clubs. On Instagram in particular they’re easy to spot as most sport unique, colorful logos which are often featured in user’s posts in the form of decals, patches and even coins. Access to the clubs is as varied as the clubs themselves, but you’ll find the process in most straightforward and others, like the Distinguished Ruffians, that add a little entertainment to the membership schtick. You’ll find clubs large and small and some that span different countries outside the US like Australia, Canada, Germany and the UK. Others, like the Ash Hole Cigar Club, have chapters throughout the US as well as a leadership structure. One thing’s for sure, there’s no shortage of pride when “patch checks” are called and it seems to becoming more and more popular to join multiple clubs which should help to keep you busy and connected. Or, you can just launch a new club of your own.

PODCASTS

One digital aspect of the cigar universe that seemed to take off during the height of the pandemic were podcasts. Sure, there were a few popular, pre-COVID podcasts like the Hot Ticket Podcast and even radio shows such as the The Cigar Authority that already enjoyed a healthy following, but a number of enterprising cigar lovers who had something to say took advantage of the lockdowns and fired up their own cigar cause, many of which are flourishing today. When you can’t find them on iTunes, Spotify or Anchor, you can join a number of these audio jockeys and bloggers, like the Cigar Pulpit duo, who also like to “go live” on various social media sites adding another layer for virtual interaction. The AshHoles are another popular podcast bunch as is a relative newcomer, the Cigar Talk Podcast. There’s never been a better time to start one of your own!

Clearly this is not an exhaustive list of what us wandering cigar lovers can conjure to occupy our time, but this short list seems to offer a fistful of potential good times for most of us. I think the folks over at Cigar Dojo sum it up best when they remind us to “never smoke alone”, which is sage advice regardless of circumstances. While some of us have begun to shed our masks and are able to enjoy and prioritize a variety of in-person activities again, I don’t think these simple but powerful ways to connect virtually with the Cigarverse will fade away, on the contrary. Nonetheless, it’s crystal clear that when it comes to connecting with fellow SOTLs and BOTLs, the cigar community will find a way. – In Fumo Pax!

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