Harbor Style Harbor Style July 2017 : Page 38

38 | H ARBOR STYLE

Fellowship Of The Leaf

Rusty Pray

HARBOR STYLE takes a glimpse into the fellowship and camaraderie of cigar smoking.

The whole thing started with Cosmo Kramer.

Emil Dameff’s first taste of a Cuban cigar, his 20 years of collecting thousands of top-shelf Leaf while chasing the perfect smoke, his building the “little hideaway” next to his rural Punta Gorda home that serves as both sanctuary and depository, his opening of Havana Tranquility on Marion Avenue: He owes it all to a television sitcom.

Imagine.

“I’d never smoked a cigar in my life,” Dameff recalled one late afternoon while entertaining a few friends in his private cigar room. “I got hooked on that stupid show. I just watched how enamored Kramer was talking about Cuban cigars to the point that I actually went on a cruise and had to have a Cuban cigar.

“From the first puff it was like, ‘Where has this been all my life?’”

Dameff, a family doctor and a card-carrying member of a fairly wide fraternity of cigar-smoking physicians, is a bona fide cigar aficionado. His credentials grace the shelves and await their turn in storage in a humidor whose outer wall is made entirely of glass.

It’s the window to cigar heaven.

“These are some of the most exotic cigars, very rare,” Joseph Ravid, one of Dameff’s guests, declared while surveying the humidor.

The door to heaven is big, thick, ornate and equipped for glassware and storage. You thought it was pearly gates? Only Dameff can open it. He controls it with a fingerprintrecognition switch stashed behind a lamp hung on a dark paneled wall.

Ravid is a family physician with a thriving practice in Punta Gorda and a veteran cigar smoker. The others who joined the good doctor Dameff in his cigar room – all luxurious leather, dark wood and genuine amiability – were Ricky Satcher, a retired hospital CEO; Tom Houchen, a 33-year-old systems engineer; and Joe Mayes, a minister who was about to take the baton as the music director of Burnt Store Presbyterian.

Their common bond? The fine cigars provided by their host, a sincerely gracious man who wholly embodies the concept of friend.

“It binds us all together,” said Mayes. “No matter who we are, where we’re from, what we do, we’re all cigar smokers here. It’s good fellowship.”

That fellowship extends well beyond the walls of Dameff’s inner sanctum. It holds true at Havana Tranquility; his semiprivate cigar lounge just outside downtown Punta Gorda.

The demographics are different but the camaraderie the same at Fedora’s Cigar Bar, just down the road on Wood Street. Conversation also mingles with smoke well north of both places, at the Tobacco Locker off Toledo Blade.

They are Charlotte County’s primary sanctuaries of smoke, establishments where customers – the vast majority men – gather to talk, joke, tip one or two, and light up. Most definitely light up.

Let’s get one thing straight. These guys don’t smoke cigars sold at Circle K. The cigars are hand-rolled, high-end tobacco products from places like Nicaragua, Honduras and, yes, Cuba. The cigars cost anywhere from $6 a stick to, well, how much would you like to spend? Accessories like cutters, lighters and ash trays can be every bit as expensive.

“If you want a real, hand-crafted cigar, you’re going to be hardpressed to find boutique brands in any normal cigar store,” said Ron Andrews, operations manager at Havana Tranquility since it opened in 2014.

Havana Tranquility is not your normal cigar store. While one side is a retail shop with humidor and counter, the other is a private club with 48 members who enjoy leather lounge chairs, big-screen TVs, 36 lockers and other amenities.

The cigar stock includes close to 500 cases from 40 vendors, including all the big names like Padron, Davidoff, Gurkha, Cohiba and Comacho. The other establishments’ humidors offer similar selections.

The pastime cuts across economic lines. It breaks down age and social barriers.

“It’s a diverse group of people,” said Andrews, “The camaraderie is the cigar. It doesn’t make a difference what your station in life is, if you enjoy a cigar with someone, you’re just enjoying the cigar and their company at the time.

The lounges aren’t locker rooms where guys tell off-color jokes and snap towels at one another. They are reserves, safe havens, places to get away from it all.

“This has been just the best escape I’ve ever found,” Dameff said of his private getaway. “With no windows, you’re going to get the same feeling whether it’s 2 o’clock in the morning or 2 o’clock in the afternoon. It’s just an escape.

“It’s de-stressing,” Andrews offered. “You just sit and smoke the cigar and let your troubles float away with the smoke. I enjoy sitting with people and smoking a cigar and having a conversation. But I also enjoy just sitting alone with my thoughts and smoking a cigar. Your mind opens up. You see things clearly.”

Judging by the history of the cigar, folks in Florida have been destressing for quite some time.

The story goes that when Ponce de Leon landed in Punta Gorda, he offered the Calusa cigars all around. They accepted. Everyone relaxed in the shade, puffing peacefully. Between blowing smoke rings, the mellowed-out Calusa readily ceded their control of Southwest Florida to the Spanish.

The tribe wound up emigrating to Cuba, where members made a fortune in Cuban cigars. Ponce set up a Cuban-cigar import business in Tampa, thus giving birth to the cigar bar.

That’s how the story goes.

None of it, of course, is true.

But according to Florida Memory, the online archives of the Florida State Library, commercial cigar rolling did come to “Florida in the 1830s. Cigar manufacturing took place in all of Florida’s urban areas at some point during the first century of statehood, but its impacts were particularly profound in Key West and in the Ybor City and West Tampa areas around Tampa Bay.”

Punta Gorda has a cigar history all its own. Over a 40-year period, from about 1891 to the 1930s, it was home to a robust cigar industry, according to local historian Frank Desguin.

One of several cottages built to house workers – one company was located on Wood Street – was moved to Punta Gorda History Park in 1999 and restored.

Andrews bridges a small segment of that history. Long before he became operations manager for Havana Tranquility’s two locations – Dameff owns another in Jackson, Miss. – he owned the Wood Street cigar bar.

That was 1999.

“The reason I opened that store was I couldn’t find a premium cigar in Punta Gorda,” he said. “I wanted to open up a neighborhood smoke shop.”

He sold it in 2011, and for a time, business went up in smoke. Eventually, it became the Habana Cigar Lounge. Under the ownership of the late Jose Santiago and his fiancée, Kathie Jette, it became a neighborhood hangout where newspaper denizens mixed with “two doctors, a dentist, a radio personality, a millionaire banker, a former state senator from Pennsylvania, a Florida State trooper, a corrections officer, two retired narcotics cops and a retired New Jersey state trooper,” said Al Hemingway, a freelance writer and contributor to this magazine who spent some time there doing research.

After Santiago died in 2015, Port Charlotte residents Lisa Pervin and Tom Foti bought it, renamed it Fedora’s Cigar Bar, and opened in July 2016.

They made a lot of improvements – expanding the bar, putting up new smoke eaters and new wall treatments, making the humidor more accessible. They kept the lounge area of big, comfortable chairs, but added high-top tables to the bar area to create even more seating.

What they didn’t change was the loyalty of the customers and the camaraderie Santiago had nurtured.

“The old place has a lot of memories, but the new owners, Tom and Lisa, have remodeled it and have done a wonderful job,” Hemingway said. “They’re constantly having events and the Red Shirt Friday crowd really supports them.”

John Hanzl, a retired Rolls Royce Marine engineer and cigar smoker, regularly makes the trip from Burnt Store Lakes to Fedora’s with his wife, Betty Ann. She’s also a cigar smoker.

“I think that Fedora’s is like the Punta Gorda Cheers,” John said. “It is very difficult for someone new to not know everyone in the bar before he or she leaves.”

On a recent Friday, a newcomer to Charlotte County’s Cheers would first have bumped into Joe Maggiore, sitting outside with his standard poodle, Baci, in tow. Baci is outgoing, a curly-haired red head ready to make friends.

“I like to come by, have a cigar, and watch the world go by,” said Maggiore, the dentist, who has been keeping an eye on the world from this very vantage point for some time now.

Inside, the room was just beginning to fill. The bar was already well stocked with patrons. Several couples hung out at the high-tops, drinking beer and smoking. No one was sitting in the leather lounge chairs. Women made up about half the clientele. Most of the folks were wearing their red shirts to honor the troops, it being Red Shirt Friday and all.

John and Betty Ann Hanzl sat at a high-top with Gary Knight, the maestro himself, and his wife, Karen. Gary sings bass with Uptown Express, a successful local oldies band.

He was once part of a doo-wop group called the Delmonicos. That was back in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s. As an act, they were humming along, landing gigs and getting traction in the New York area. Then the Beatles came along. Music changed after that.

Knight, who is 79 and sports a distinctive mane of white hair, has been smoking cigars almost as long as he has been singing. He was 5 when he first raised his voice.

“I’ve been coming here six, seven years,” he said. “I wouldn’t know another place to smoke. There’s a lot of good people here. It’s soothing to the being.”

Glynn Smith, a regular since Andrews had the bar, was nearby, wearing a fedora. He sells anti-freeze for a living and is a portrait artist. His wife owns High Cotton Boutique at Fishermen’s Village.

“We’re all friends,” Smith declared. “No one comes in this bar who is not welcome. You don’t have to pay to come in here.”

As afternoon wafted into dinnertime, the bar remained steady. People left, people came in, people ordered another, people lit their sticks. Conversation was constant.

Lisa, tending a busy bar without seeming to hurry, surveyed her realm of the everyman.

“It’s been a good year,” she said. “We’ve been lucky to keep the regulars. We have new people coming in all the time, more couples.

“It’s for everybody.”

About 15 miles north, folks gathered for similar smoke and relaxation at the Tobacco Locker.

Like crumbs left behind on the forest floor to point the way, three little white signs line the right-of-way on Brighton Street. They’re not much bigger than letterhead, but they carry a big message: In a word, Cigars.

They point the way to the Tobacco Locker, which is, in reality, a cigar warehouse with a cigar bar attached. The warehouse supports a flourishing internet business, tobaccolocker.com, and it couldn’t be farther from mainstream Port Charlotte.

It’s way up there in the northern reaches of Charlotte County, on Brighton, which is off Toledo Blade, which is North Port by tradition if not specific geographic location.

Once the building comes into view – there is signage, and it’s on the left, by the way – there’s a cozy parking lot and an even cozier lounge.

“Once you’ve found us, you come back,” declared Lynn Davies, co-owner with her husband, Bill.

The lounge is furnished with a few hightops, some comfortable leather chairs, and the smallest of bars, where beer is on tap and in package, wine comes by the glass or bottle, and seating is at a premium. In all, the room seats about 20.

There’s a large-screen TV, but that’s not the focal point. The leather chairs form that. “We like to encourage conversation,” Davies said.

A couple of cases on the outside wall house accessories, and another leather chair stands in a back corner, in case someone needs to make a call and can’t hear over the humming of conversation in the main room.

Several lockers – they can be rented for an annual fee – cozy up to the chair. Some names on the lockers are businesses, others are individuals. One belongs to a Charlotte County commissioner. The names run the gamut from something you’d find at the bottom of a credit card to the stuff of fairytales: Grumpy, Moon Flower.

The humidor is small but contains all the right names. Moon Flower isn’t one of them. Padron and Davidoff are there. If by some quirk your kind of cigar is not sitting on one of the shelves, not to worry. Lynn has it around here somewhere, probably in that air conditioned, humidified, 2,500-squarefoot storage thing she’s got going.

“The fact that we can pull from that inventory is huge,” she said.

Tobaccolocker.com has been in business since 2005 – not quite twice as long as the lounge – and that history, Davies said, makes filling requests as straightforward as a torch flame.

“We’ve been in the business so long,” she said, “we have good relationships with the manufacturers, so we can have whatever somebody requests, from the simple, everyday smoke to the exclusive-production $80 cigar.

“I tell everyone who comes in: ‘Whatever Padron you want, I have all of them. I have boxes of all of them – not just this box on the shelf.’ Same thing goes for Fuentes. Same thing goes for Davidoff. There’s only 250 retailers of Davidoff in the country. That means I have everything Davidoff makes right here.”

Davies, 55, is homegrown, a product of Fort Myers High School. She graduated from Florida State, where she majored in fine arts and archeology. She has been unable to apply either discipline to the cigar business, although without temperature and humidity control in the warehouse, she’d be dealing with petrified sticks.

“We maintain temperature and humidity on all our products, whether it’s in the warehouse or right in this humidor here,” she said. “Which is huge. There’s never a problem with dried out cigars. You go in some of these convenience stores and (the humidor) is hot inside. You’re going to have problems. They are not going to taste the same. I have people all the time say, ‘I picked up one when I was out of town, and it just didn’t taste the same as it does from your humidor.’”

She and her husband of 17 years started in the insurance business – again, little crossover. They’re both cigar smokers, and when they had to make a change, Lynn looked at Bill and said, “‘You have enough cigars to open a store’ – and that’s how it started.”

When they traveled around Florida, they would stop in small shops on the road and “see what people had, how they did it, and what we would do differently – how we would want the community to think of the store, what the store would bring.”

She is a member of an exclusive club – a woman cigar smoker. She is not so rare that she is the only one of her breed. But let’s face it, there’s something exotic about a woman who smokes cigars. As long as she comes equipped with breath mints.

Like many cigar smokers, she remembers her first.

“I started smoking in 1993,” she recalled “I was a cigar smoker, my husband was a cigar smoker. I can smoke anything in that humidor. I had a friend who is Cuban. We were at a New Year’s Eve party. He said, ‘Why don’t you try one of these?’ I said, ‘Okay,’ and that’s what started it – New Year’s Eve 1993.

“I used to play a lot of golf and smoke with the guys.”

Which is not like smoking with the boys outside of study hall. Certain steps must be followed to smoke a fine cigar – man or woman.

“It’s the ritual, the way you cut it, light it, smoke it,” Ravid said. “You’ve never seen anybody light up a Marlboro, look at it and say, ‘Man, that is one fine Marlboro.’”

Ah, yes, the ritual. Smoking a cigar is all about the process. After you settle on a fine cigar, the next step is to cut it. If you don’t have to cut the cigar to light it, it’s a White Owl. It’s not a fine, hand-rolled, worthy-of-ritual cigar. Lighting comes later.

Knowing how to cut a cigar the right way is key to the ritual. As might be expected, there’s more than one cut, and more than one instrument to make the cut.

The most basic type of cutter is a guillotine, single or doublebladed. The name is self-explanatory. They are practical, inexpensive and easy to carry around.

A wedge, or V cutter, resembles the guillotine, but slices a wedge into the cap of the cigar instead of cutting it completely off. The cutter is designed to slice from one side, and at the same depth, so there is no danger of cutting too deep.

The hole punch is used to put a hole in the cap of the cigar. Some suggest that if you’re in a pinch and don’t have some type of cutter or hole punch available, a pen or pencil can be used to create a hole at the end of the cigar.

That method does not come recommended by anyone belonging to the Fellowship.

Once the cigar is cut, it’s time to light it. The first step in lighting a cigar is to step firmly away from the Bic. Old-fashioned wooden matches and lighters that produce flames capable of delivering a weld are the preferred fire sources.

The longer the match, the better the chance to get the stick lit before the box is empty. Oh, and make sure there’s no coating on the wood. It’ll make the cigar taste bad.

And light the cigar without puffing first. Make sure the end glows before you take your first puff.

The ritual complete, it’s time to kick up, take it easy, relax and enjoy your smoke.

“People say they save cigars for a special occasion,” Ravid observed. “A cigar is a special occasion.”

Read the full article at http://trendmag2.trendoffset.com/article/Fellowship+Of+The+Leaf/2810770/416554/article.html.

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