Heap some tobacco onto a brown leaf, roll it up, stuff it nice and thick. Cut off its tip, poke a hole in it, set it ablaze. Smoke it, don’t inhale, just let it linger in your mouth. Relax. Relaxation is the day’s agenda for six hundred men at the Rhode Island Convention Center. They’re here to, as the Expo website reads, “enjoy cigars as they were meant to be, with fine food and drink, in fine company … take a long draw on luxury, hold it, savor it … at the New England Cigar Expo!”
The Expo coordinators advertise Providence as “the ‘Renaissance City’ where haute cuisine, the fine and performing arts, and a lifestyle of refinement and taste are proudly celebrated.” You know, the sort of place where people will spring for a $300 Expo ticket. A signed Sopranos bottle of wine. Twenty sample cigars and a little camaraderie.
The patrons, almost exclusively male, huddle around heaters and sofas on the Convention Center’s patio. Health codes have forced them outside, and they are not happy. “Just because of this,” says venture capitalist Charles Lax, “Chafee is a one-term governor! These are six hundred voters, and they’re treating us like shit!” Never mind unemployment— these are the issues that resonate here today.
They’ve always represented power: when Columbus pushed two men off his boat onto the shores of Cuba, they returned with tales of tinder and herbs and smoke perfumes. They’d seen, Columbus wrote in his navigation diary, “many people… women and men, with a firebrand in the hand, and certain weeds whose smoke they inhale.” These people did the strangest thing with the firebrands: “burning a part of it, from the other part they suck or absorb or admit the smoke with breathing.” Columbus brought these smoke-leaves back to Spain, and they became exotified objects of opulence, transgressive and powerful at the same time. ¡Viva España! ¡Viva la reina! The European elite could not get enough, and the savageness of tobacco struck fear into conservative hearts: one of Columbus’s Cuban explorers was imprisoned for ten years during the Spanish Inquisition for smoking this “devil’s weed.”
Roll it, cut it, light it. Exhale. “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” Sigmund Freud said famously, except there’s no proof he really said that. He smoked more than twenty per day, until the roof of his mouth was riddled with tumors. His patients recalled the stench of his office—leather, wood, fire. “I owe to the cigar a great intensification of my capacity to work and a facilitation of my self-control,” he told his physician shortly before dying of jaw cancer. The smoke in his mouth gave him strength—and killed him. The physicalized symbol that defined his career punctuated his life.
By 1900, four out of five men in the United States smoked cigars—everybody who was anybody lit up. They were fat brown wands of power. Boss Tweed kept boxes ready for his guests and secretly ran a cigar-manufacturing company with his political rival, Horace Greely. Bonnie and Clyde smoked them as they ravaged the West. Winston Churchill kept 4000 Cubans in a cellar in his Kent mansion. Think of the photo—Churchill looking out over a terrified England, flashing “V” for victory. In his other hand, if you squint—the nub of a cigar.
The Covention Center’s steel-beam interior has been spattered with images of wealth—makeshift curtains, ‘live’ big band music that appears to be coming from a computer. The walls are lined with fold-up tables under starchy tablecloths; whiskey and rum distributors pass out samples in Dixie cups. Fritos and pretzels line the cocktail tables. The occasional woman surfaces, hired to promote products. Her miniskirt and stilettos turn her into a prop. “I got an internship smoking cigars,” one girl says.
Outside, twenty more tables are lined up against the brick exterior, with a different cigar distributor at each stand. An ever-growing line of Expo-goers looking to cash in on the 20 cigars they’ve been promised. One stand even displays the rolling process—an old Cuban man sitting at a table making stogies by hand. (“A real Cuban!” somebody in front of me whispers.) A girl to his right beckons customers. These are the things, presumably, that the cigar industry has determined its buyers want: women and mild illicitness, a faux-Cuban cigar. A taste of the exotic, the forbidden, just like Columbus.
“You have to determine, what are your vices? Crack cocaine?” asks John Lynch, a sweaty Fall River fireman standing towards the back of the patio. “Cigars help you have a better quality of life. Right now I’m at peace with the world. The Indians smoked a peace pipe for a reason, right?”
For Lynch, cigars symbolize virility, his youth, the past. “Back in the day, we [firefighters] were a bunch of cigar-chompin’, skirt-chasin’, beer-guzzlin’ men,” he says. “Now the guys are more ‘metropolitan’—eatin’ sushi, you know. But, heh, still chasin’ skirt.” These new firefighters aren’t allowed to smoke cigars, he says, but he can because he’s been “grandfathered in.” He puffs on one of his samples, savors it. These stogies mean experience. They distinguish him from the greenhorns, connote his sense of power, though that power is personal, local.
After all, cigars are affordable. And today their consumer base is diversified—anybody who considers himself important in his world, regardless of whether or not he’s a member of the one percent. Perhaps that’s how the symbolism of the cigar has changed. The cigar displays satisfaction more than anything, along with a chance to try on the borrowed jewels of wealth.
People here take them seriously. Take, for example, the Cigar Rights of America PAC with a stand in between cigar distributors. The self-described “NRA of cigars,” the group travels across America fighting smoking bans and advocating smokers’ rights. Their chairman, Glynn Loope, says that most fundamentally, they’re “all about freedom.” He won’t, however, tell me if he’s ever smoked a Cuban.
In the nineties, at the height of yuppie culture which valued success at any cost, cigars made a comeback with a vengeance. Michael Jordan graced the cover of Cigar Aficionado, as did Arnold Schwarzenegger and Claudia Schiffer. Madonna smoked one on Letterman in 1994, saying “fuck” throughout her twenty-minute interview to rattle the FCC.
The symbol lives on: in Rick Ross’s 2009 cut “Cigar Music,” he spits, “Fascinated with foreign felines/since I was knee high/this cigar got me buzzin’ like a beehive.” Ross, a Mississippi-born rapper who espouses a playboy persona, promotes the conception of wealth that comes with cigars. The references he make feel somewhat tired: later in the song Ross describes himself as the “down-south Nas.”
None of these pop icons fit into the traditional association of cigars and old-money power. Yet in another way they play into it—appropriating a symbol means accepting what it represents as a norm rather than conceiving of changing it.
Since cigars are cultural objects with little cultural consistency, they highlight the most basic problem of symbolism: connotations shift. Cigars mean status, but they also gesture towards subversion. They are a symbol of wealth disconnected from traditional “class:” Scott Disick, the ambiguously-employed boyfriend of a Kardashian, uses cigars to look high-powered but lands closer to American Psycho. This disjunctive form of wealth is the real one percent—the famous cigar smokers, disparate as they come, are a good litmus test for the ruling elite. The signifier points to an ambiguous signified. This means a dynamic social hierarchy, but one that values the same things—money, power, respect. The ends justify the means in ways that make us uncomfortable, but this is nothing new. So the wealthy light a cigar and say “suck it,” and the world’s Scott Disicks follow suit.
Towards the back of the patio, at the end of the row, are the fancy cigar tables only available to the VIPs—that is, those willing to fork over another $200 for distinction from the other Expo patrons, a few extra cigars, and entrance to the after-party at Italo American Grill. This, if anything, is the section of the event tailored to the regional bourgeoisie, the one percent of an economically crippled city, whoever they may be. Like, say, Expo host Buddy Cianci, the notorious ex-Mayor of Providence. “Buddy is one of my heroes,” says firefighter Lynch. “Providence used to be no better than Fall River—it’s a destination now. And I don’t think he realized what he was doing. He just wants to make Providence the best it can be. He’s chubby, five feet tall, and comes across as powerful. That’s saying something.”
If you’re looking for Buddy on a weeknight, there’s a good chance you’ll find him at his favorite pub on Federal Hill, puffing on a cigar with his associates. The pub is called Tammany Hall, and he loves it despite, or because of, its “bad rap:” say what you will about Boss Tweed, the man knew business and power. “I’ve smoked a cigar there with Rudy Giuliani,” Buddy says. He’s a star at the Providence Tammany; a man among his people, much like the environment at the Convention Center. Buddy mingles through the Expo, his cheekbones rouged and his front pocket stuffed with cigars. People pat him on the back. Smoking “is a very civil thing to do,” he says. “It goes well with cognacs, rum. I like to take one after dinner, like Churchill and Kipling.”
The Expo’s other celebrity is Federico Castelluccio, who played stoic hitman Furio Giunta on The Sopranos. He sits on a fold-up stage, a line of Expo patrons waititng for him to sign their limited edition wine bottles and medieval portraits of Edie Fialco and James Gandolfini.
“We smoked a lot of cigars on The Sopranos,” says Castelluccio. “And then we’d go to an event and smoke more. It’s funny—it’s hard to tell if life is imitating art or vice versa.” In one beloved Sopranos scene, Furio breaks his silence when a mobster complains about the “communist fucks” who “want to paint Columbus as a murderer” by protesting Columbus day. “I never liked Columbus,” he says in thickly-accented English. “In Napoli, a lot of people are not so happy for Columbus, because he was from Genoa. The North of Italy always have the money and the power. They punish the South since hundreds of years. Even today, they put up their nose at us, like we're peasants. I hate the North.” Furio values power as a mobster, but doesn’t necessarily identify with the status icons of the past.
As the Expo-goers leave the Convention Center, they run into the other thing happening in Providence on October 15: an Occupy Providence march. College kids and locals raising their fists, talking about change through bullhorns on steps. The patrons begin to heckle the protesters, who heckle them right back.
In some ways, the movements have more in common than they know: just as Occupy brings suburban moderates and acid-burnout drum-circlers together, the Cigar Expo brings firefighters and iconic politicians together. There’s no cohesive Occupy demographic, and cigars embody not only the values of the detested one percent, but also a more universal smoker demographic. Symbols of power, like symbols of rebellion (the Che Guevara t-shirt) signify something more diffuse. This makes it difficult for social and political movements to effect change.
This generation ascribes less importance to the old symbols—they feel tired, imprecise, beside the point. The fear of the Bomb has become the fear of terrorism and infiltration and surveillance. Fear is scattered, so we find little to unite on. What a list of demands-- #occupyitall, sparsely. We are nodular, webbed. Yet the same question applies to the protested—what real difference will a PAC based on cigars make? In the sixties, Winston Churchill’s cigar-sporting “V” for Victory was appropriated by the counterculture movement to mean peace, an alternative. And what do we appropriate? The women and the mobsters and the sports stars already got to the cigars, and each one of them subverts it in his own way. Rebellion feels personal, not organized. How can we unify if there’s no object to center ourselves on? Without a central bullhorn, no blatant symbol emerges, and personal momentum gets lost in the smoke.
MIMI DWYER B’13 is trying really hard to determine her vices.