T.J. Verteramo of Rotterdam visits Gator's Cigar Shop for the smoke. And the words.
The air inside the store's smoking lounge is pungent, like autumn leaves burning outside on a cool October night. But the leaves roasting inside Gator's back room are made of tobacco, rolled inside thick brown leaf with names such as Montecristo, Ashton and Olivas.
Verteramo, 38, also appreciates the conversation that fills the air inside the Rotterdam business on Altamont Avenue across from Fiero Avenue.
"We talk a lot of sports here," said Verteramo, who delivers lunch foods to local elementary schools. "Most people who come here know one another. We talk about our lives, and get rid of some stress."
People who own and occupy other cigar lounges in the Capital Region say the same thing. Cigar aficionados have been prohibited from lighting up in bars and restaurants since 2003, when New York State passed an anti-smoking law. And even though smokes are allowed in outdoor public places such as parks, cigar fans risk frowns and dirty looks from people who do not appreciate clouds of blue smoke wafting toward their noses.
New barber shop
"The cigar lounge has become the 21st century barber shop," said Chris McCalla, legislative director for the International Premium Cigar and Pipe Retailers Association in Columbus, Ga. "Back in the day, the barber shop was the focal point and gathering place for local news, gossip and for friends to visit with one another. The cigar shop lounges have replaced the barber shop as the new social center for cigar and pipe smokers."
Head gator Brian Fresoni said his Gaetano's Smoking Lounge - named after his father Gaetano "Gates" Fresoni - was the first place in the Capital Region to encourage both combustion and conversation. Paul Sickles also runs a cigar sanctuary in downtown Schenectady; James Kommer entertains smoke gourmets at his James & Sons Tobacconists (formerly Park Lane) in Saratoga Springs.
Fresoni has decorated the place like a living room for guys, complete with worn, comfortable sofas and chairs, one of them a leather-padded barber's chair. Boxing gloves and New York Yankee souvenirs are tacked to the walls; photographs of well-known cigar smokers Alfred Hitchcock, Jimmy Durante and Arnold Schwarzenegger are also part of the scenery. So is a clock ringed with cigars, and a television placed high in a corner of the room.
Last Friday night, Verteramo, Fresoni and George Robinson of Rotterdam chewed both their cigars and the fat. Siena College basketball, former Rotterdam police officers, big prices at the new Yankee Stadium and a few minutes' worth of politics were all in the air - the lounge sounded more like a college dormitory room or a private clubhouse.
Verteramo talked about running into "Johnny O" and "Joe Magazines."
"This is the place for nicknames," he said.
"Like 'Bonesy,' 'Minnie' and 'Al the Cat,' " added Fresoni.
A thick haze of smoke never shows up. The lounge has a ventilation system, so that much of the smoke is whisked outside.
"I'm single, and I could smoke in my apartment, but I don't," said Robinson, a former General Electric Co. employee. "You want some company - especially Sundays, when football is on."
Verteramo said his wife, Erin, doesn't mind his visits with Brian, George and other smokers.
"I can't come here for an hour - it's more like two or three," Verteramo said. "She's OK with that. She knows where I am. It's like time stops."
While Gator's is pretty much a good ol' boys' hideout, female cigar smokers are welcome. "I have more who buy," Fresoni said. "Some of them smoke the flavored cigars like the mango, the vanilla. And I'll have women who come back here, smell the cigars and say, 'This reminds me of my grandfather,' or 'This reminds me of my father.' "
Only one person is persona non grata in the lounge. The Marlboro or Winston smoker must go outside.
"The smell of a cigarette is disgusting to us," Fresoni said. "It ruins the smell and aroma of a cigar; you can't enjoy the flavor of your cigar."
Wrong for a reason
Paul Sickles is also prejudiced against the cigarette crowd. A sign at his Habana Premium Cigar Shoppe on State Street (next to Aperitivo Bistro) reads "Please, no cigerettes." The bad spelling is by design.
"I did that on purpose so people would notice it," said Sickles, who became the store's new owner this month. "Everybody who comes in here says, 'You spelled it wrong.' I don't want 'no' to be associated with 'cigar.' "
Like Fresoni, Sickles has his own family of smokers to entertain. His room is small now, just 358 square feet. He expects to move his stock of Camachos, Macanudos and other cigars across State and into a larger location just past Jay Street, by February.
"It's like the old corner bar," Sickles said. "Very similar in layout and feel. Some of it's camaraderie, some people come in to network. I've always got a movie or a sports show on TV."
Smokers in the Habana say they visit to relax. Some people smoke cigarettes on coffee breaks, in the car, at home; cigar smokers say people smoke the more expensive tobaccos to take a break from routine and forget life for a while.
Sickles offers mahogany lockers for people to store their cigars and beverages. Padded chairs by the front window offer views of State Street; a semicircular leather couch stands in back of the room. A home away from home is part of Sickles' plan, because many cigar lovers can't puff in their living rooms where the smoke bothers wives and children.
"At home, he wouldn't have the cajoling," Sickles said. "There's a lot of cajoling, a lot of needling here."
Like other believers in the sweet leaf, Sickles doesn't see any health risks with the fiery diversions.
"You don't inhale a cigar," he said. "You try the smoke, swirl it around in your mouth, you enjoy the flavor," he said. "You're not smoking like a chimney, [like] with a cigarette."
James Kommer agrees. Cigar fans George Burns, Groucho Marx and Milton Berle, he said, all lived long lives.
"I never heard of any of them dying of cancer," he said. "They died of old age, and that's not a bad thing."
The American Cancer Society disagrees with both men. According to the society's Web site, "Cigar smoking increases the risk of death from several cancers, including cancer of the lung, oral cavity (lip, tongue, mouth, throat), esophagus and larynx. Smoking more cigars each day or inhaling cigar smoke leads to more exposure and higher risks. For those who inhale, cigar smoking appears to be linked to cancer of the pancreas and bladder as well."
The society also says cigars are a trend in the U.S., helped by movie stars and athletes who are photographed with smokes in hands and between lips.
Thursday, January 15, 2009
Source: Schenectady Gazette