I am the only woman in the establishment and yet I barely notice, so at home do I feel. I've just perched myself in one of the lounge's lion-armed chairs, newspaper in hand, when, from across the room, a man bellows, Rocky Patel; toro; 1992; a Nicaraguan blend. I used to like those. Good smoke.
I turn to locate the voice responsible for so ably naming the cigar in my non-newspaper-holding hand and find a number of middle-aged men looking at me through plumes of billowing smoke from their own cigars.
Bravo, I say. They're my favorite.
Name's Arthur, says Arthur in a real, honest-to-gawd New Yorker accent, not moving from his leaned-back, leg-crossed position. There is a chair here. Come. Sit.
And Arthur says: Don't worry, Al will protect you from me.
Al assures me this is absolutely true.
And so this is how I came to be a part of the gentlemen's group comprised of Willie, Billy, Rudy, Arthur, Al, and George. I like to call them the e's because you can easily tack the syllable onto the names of the other blokes: Art-ie. Al-ie. George-ie. And because they think it is funny when I suggest it.
It won't be long until you're officially a member of the group, said Billy, the owner and manager of the two Cigar Inns on New York's Upper East Side. You keep coming every week and, before you know it, you'll be going out to dinner with us.
As Arthur tells it, and he is the biggest talker of the bunch, they all assemble at this Cigar Inn -- on 71st Street and First Avenue; the other is located at 54th Street and Second Avenue - daily. It is here that they come to relax, smoke, shoot the breeze, and watch television. And, often, as Billy alluded, they see each other outside of the cigar lounge, deep friendships born around the same passion.
How long [have] you been smoking cigars? Arthur said. I really wish you could hear his thick Queens drawl.
Since my first year of college. I've always had an affinity for manly things, I reply. They chuckle. You know, politics; baseball; gin; cigars, chess. Really, I should have been born Winston Churchill, I explain to them, earning another round of laughter and nods of approval.
Al pipes in: You don't see too much of that these days ... young women smoking cigars. At 78, Al is the oldest of the assembly, and Arthur proudly boasts for him that he is a member of the New York Friars Club - a private club famous for its risqué celebrity roasts. (Al will continue to lament and laugh, to every other bloke who walks through the door, about how the Friars Club botched their St. Patrick's Day dinner of cabbage and corned beef. How ya do that, I want to know.)
But Al brings to focus a point that I've been long noticing: When it comes to cigar smokers, women are indeed the minority.
So on my next visit -- which happens to occur weekly -- I choose a Friday night, hoping to catch a woman to put this to, and I score.
Kimber is tucked into a little corner, smoking a Prensado, one of Rudy's recommendations. She tells me she loves the taste and feel of the cigars; this particular cigar is very smooth and full-bodied, she said, but that her favorite is still a Davidoff; she also announces she has been smoking since she was 16.
I grew up the only girl of six [children], she says. What do you expect with five brothers? She laughs.
But cigars, she tells me, are not just a great smoke, no, seriously, they are more than that: They create camaraderie between men and women. Here, like nowhere else, men and women are equal, bonded together by the cigar denominator.
I like men, Kimber says. I feel comfortable around them. I enjoy their company.
Still, she can understand the timidity of non-cigar-smoking women.
It's like the men's clubhouse with the 'No Girls Allowed' sign posted outside, Kimber explains. But what women don't know is that guys love it when you break into their clubhouse. Even if they say they don't want you, they're really always excited to see you.
Nevertheless, numbers still support the fact that a cigar lounges' typical clientele is not women.
Billy, Cigar Inn's owner and manager explains, that, statistically, Men account for 83 percent of friends on our Facebook page, and women only, like, 17 [percent].
So is it just that women are afraid of trespassing? On what? Gender and culture barriers?
Aaron Figmond, retail manager for Nat Sherman, a prominent retail tobacconist based in New York City, speculates that perhaps it's just that cigars don't inherently appeal to women. But, he says, hypotheses abound about the apparent lack of interest in cigars among the softer sex.
And the numbers, too, reflect the lack thereof.
It's very safe to say less than 10 percent of the female population [smokes cigars], some would go as far to say only 5 percent.
The reason for that, he explains, is because cigars are a very specific subculture, part of a cultural movement representing a slower time, when simpler pleasures abounded.
That's why, in general, cigars rarely to never appeal to anyone young, never the less women, he said. But you definitely have peaks and valleys of women cigar smokers. Catherine the Great, Whoopi Goldberg. Madonna. Demi Moore. ... I'll let you choose which woman represents the peak.
In an interesting tidbit of information, Figmond tells me that it has long been said that Catherine the Great, in an attempt to not sully her white gloves from the tobacco leaves, are the reason cigars now have bands.
But for some women, like Sarah, an old colleague who has never smoked a cigar -- and who kindly mocked me for my constant puffing -- says they are unappealing for reasons more than soiled gloves. Simply, she says, they're revolting.
Why don't you just stick your mouth around an exhaust pipe, at least you don't have to pay for that, she says. And let's not talk about how you smell, the mouth cancer you're promised to get and the yellow teeth.
I think she's overreaching just a smidge, but she shan't sway me to her side. I'm supposing this is why Billy said that, in his experience, the female patrons of his lounge are 50/50: Fifty percent love it; the other 50 are indifferent, there only to please their significant others.
One thing is clear, however: The men of the Cigar Inn want the presence of the women who appreciate their leisure.
It becomes more interesting to see men and women sitting in one spot talking about a movie or book, talking about stocks ands politics and religion, or whatever is happening in the world, Billy says. Like we did today.
Who's he kidding, Arthur asserts. Watching a woman smoke a cigar is sexy. (He promises he truly is on his best behavior.)
Kimber, with her Prensado, is right that it's absolutely a man's world in the cigar lounge. But I offer, what better place to be a woman than smack dab in the middle of a man's world? It is there I feel absolutely a woman -- they always tell you when they think you're beautiful -- but where I also feel equal with men ... even manly, perhaps. My thoughts are asked for, and respected.
Who knew that a soft, brown, pungent, smoldering cylinder could be the great equalizer of men and women -- that you could hold it in your hand?
And this is precisely why I like smoking cigars.
Also, I really like breaking into clubhouses.