For the morning cigar group, it’s not really about smoking

Sunrise is over an hour away when Tom Kurkjian pulls up in a Central Avenue parking lot, types a code in a lock on an unmarked metal door, and walks into a dark room.

Kurkjian is 74 years old and is a retired history teacher at Voorheesville High School, where he coached tennis and volleyball.

They call him Coach.

He walks over to a wooden locker, inserts a key, inspects a few boxes inside the cabin, and selects a Cavalier Geneve.

He crosses the room to his usual corner and a dark blue leather chair with wide oak armrests. He sets a cup of coffee and a bottle of water on a side table next to an ashtray and drops into the worn cushion of the chair.

He begins his morning ritual at the Habana Premium Cigar Shoppe with the respect and precision of a blessing. Cutter. Lighter. Smoke. To glide.

A list of COVID-19 protocols is painted on the inside of the door, including a reminder not to be a jerk – although a stronger slang term is used.

Soon Coach is joined by Pete, Mickey, Quiet John and the guy they call The Provocateur because he likes to give guys the needle of almost anything under the sun.

“I stopped one day, I sat in the living room, I ran into a bunch of these jamokes and got hooked,” said Peter Rokeach, 65 from Colony. He’s a retired IT consultant who has been on the morning shift for nearly two decades, long before Habana moved in 2010 to its current location at 1645 Central Ave. There is also a North Greenbush outlet.

“We’re a real bunch of misfits looking out for each other,” said owner Scott Bendett. He was first mocked when he brought a few boxes of cigars and sold them at the Colony Center from the mid-1990s onwards, en route to building a cigar empire with two stores and online sales. .

Other friends might prefer a morning encounter to a plate of pancakes, but these guys love the tangy, woody scent of a good Maduro in the morning and unshaven cheeks shrouded in a cloud of blue-gray smoke. .

These guys are so dedicated that they gathered outside in the parking lot, six feet apart, and smoked cigarettes together during the pandemic lockdown.

“It’s more about people than cigars,” said Rokeach, who smoked a robust Oliva V Melanio and gave me an Oliva G, luckily a sweet cigar for someone who isn’t in the morning.

Seated in a large circle of 10 leather chairs, the gathering had a ceremonial atmosphere, like the agora in ancient Greece or the advice of an elder. The store only opens at 10 a.m. so they have four hours of private kibitz. The members-only lounge costs $ 75 per month, with fees reimbursed in premium cigars from the cellar. There is a waiting list for the 72 lockers. Members get free water and soda, along with all the good humor and cheerful ribs they can handle.

“Our wives call it husband day care,” said John Gaudet, 66, of Albany, a retired steam fitter. He and other members have a long tradition of Black Friday. They come to Havana to smoke cigars over a hearty breakfast, while their wives do their shopping.

Like most of the others, Gaudet’s wife banned cigar smoking in the house, so he upgraded a garden shed with propane heating, a ventilation system, and a television. “My man lost,” he calls her.

There is a big screen TV on the wall in the Habana member’s lounge, but it is turned off in the morning. They watch sporting events at night.

“It didn’t matter if we set it on Fox or MSNBC, it got too toxic and divisive,” said Nick Kling, 72, a retired third-generation market gardener who lives in Fultonville, Montgomery County. , and made the longest trek in Havana.

“Before the Trump era, we could discuss politics and have civil disagreements,” he said. “Not anymore. We stay completely removed from politics. The same goes for sex and religion.

The Habana crew is an eclectic bunch, with a range of political leanings and jobs ranging from doctors and lawyers to laborers. Local politicians and law enforcement officials come to smoke and chat. A group of cardiologists shared a locker with a brass nameplate that read “Lung Docs”.

I am talking about the health risks of smoking cigars. They claim that they are not inhaling. They insist that they smoke premium all-natural, hand-rolled cigars (averaging $ 10 to $ 20 a stick) without the harmful chemicals and additives in cigarettes, which some previously smoked.

They admit that cigars carry a high risk of mouth and throat cancer.

Sigmund Freud – who did not say “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”, a quote often wrongly attributed to him – was an avid cigar smoker. He smoked up to 20 cigars a day. Although he was diagnosed with oral cancer in 1923 and had painful operations, he continued to smoke until his death in 1939 at the age of 83.

“We’re like a brotherhood,” said Mickey Grady, 73, of Niskayuna, a Vietnam War veteran who retired after 38 years working in circulation and distribution at The Times Union. He smoked an Oliva V.

Frank English, 86, of Albany, a Korean War veteran with 26 grandchildren and 24 great-grandchildren, sat nearby. “It’s a relaxing place for me,” said English, who blew on a Perdomo mural.

They have a literary bent, with a book club that meets once a month. They are currently reading “The Aleppo Beekeeper”, a novel by Christy Lefteri which humanizes the plight of Syrian refugees.

For some of these men, cigar smoking is a rite passed down from father to son. They tell stories of long walks with good cigars that helped relax in old family conflicts.

Some owe their livelihood to cigars, like Francisco Padilla, 48, who hand-rolls his private label cigars in the store and books weddings, parties and special events. It can run 250 in a good day. He’s a fifth-generation cigar maker from the Dominican Republic who started learning the trade as a boy.

Bendett hired him 15 years ago, enrolled him in intensive English classes, and helped him become a U.S. citizen in 2012.

“This is my second family,” said Padilla. With the help of the crew, he established a cigar factory in the Dominican Republic which employs eight people. The father of three hopes his daughter, Maria, will be a sixth generation cigar maker.

Coach wrote a poem that described the Morning Cigar Lecture as “a place to relax, mull over, or meet the generally friendly, sometimes fiery, rarely unbearable travel companions … a cigar guy with other cigar guys “.

I wonder what Freud would say.

Paul Grondahl is director of the New York State Writers Institute at Albany University and a former Times Union reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]

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