In the morning the cajero waits behind the counter top. He pulls at the head of a cherry-footed Bandido, and lifting his chin releases its peaty smoke, as if he were illustrating the ghost of Don Antonio.
The bouquet seems to form Don Antonio’s hand or elbow, or maybe the collar of a guyabarra. Over the cajero’s shoulder sit three cigar rollers, Bolivar Rodriguez, Mariano Rosario and Crystian Polanoco, they portion their day by hand; Bolivar is always nearest the cajero. He barbers an unblemished wrapper with his cheveta. After, he books the cigar and seals it with tree sap glue, or gum tragacanth. On his left, Mariano collects filler leaves in a semi-fist; he selects and deselects certain leaves, turning some and ripping others to favorable shapes. To his left is Crystian, who works with his neck and shoulders on the torpedo maduros.
Together their hands sound like wild conejos tearing lettuce—strewn-pawed in the loam of a garden bed—under a boxy lector with lips for radio speakers. On a good day they can roll 500 cigars. Today and every day they roll cigars with passion and grace for Don Antonio.
The shop door opens and a grey trousered customer enters. The antecedence of Don Antonio vanishes. The customer orders a breakfast cigar. It is said by some that smoke is food for the soul. It seems like a Flat Iron #2 or a Pasíon Piramides; the customer untucks his newspaper. Meanwhile the cigar is cut and then handed over by the cajero. Both the cajero and the customer pull in from their breakfast cigars, their dark saccadic eyes jerk from the open newsprint to the washed shop window.
Between the two of them, components of Don Antonio reemerge. In this calcareous smoke, the elbow and the guyabarra, for instance, also the tracery of legs, and a single ear like a flower on a cake. Now it’s apparent the customer chose a Flat Iron #2; because of it, a leathery scented finish overpowers the scent of the cajero’s Bandido and conditions the interior.
In the afternoon Mariano has one or sometimes two bananas and a café con leche. By now the fillers are box-pressed and the sap-finished cigars are brought down to the humidifiers, there they sleep in bundles of fifty known as medias ruedas. After a quarter or half-year sleep they’re stocked in the shop for sale and smoke. At this point in the day, Heroni Navarro (Hero) and Wilson Vazquez (Chino) arrive to run cigars; regardless of who’s in the shop, they both offer familial handshakes, effulgent words, campy vocables.
Those inside the Martinez Cigar shop will now open conversation to baseball tar, glacial silt, mathematics, and the truth or mythos of narrative. Suddenly beloved shop heir Jesus Martinez returns. Naturally he is welcomed like a father, whom all acknowledge by an interjection of conversation. In the next hour people visit, pick up cigars, jar each other with words and then rest in this ergonomic designation.
Bolivar, Mariano and Crystian round their keep by sweeping the loose tobacco and putting order to their mesas. After sweeping, the three of them light shop cigars. They’ve worked hard today. Since it’s Friday, a few men arrive with a small basket of liquor, while others are cajoled to unfold the domino table. The cajero assists them. Some of the newcomers pull chairs out to the curb. Their plumes of smoke elongate into chalky arms which reach for the sweethearts and inamoratas who walk down W29th St in the early evening. Slips of radioed salsa cause some to turn: See here, a certain vintage of male, almost forgotten.
The shop begins to fill with loyalists of tradition and some initiates to the novelty. Without argument, Don Antonio has emerged beside the cigar boxes piled to the tin ceiling. He arrives at the right time. After all, a revenant means something else entirely to those who, when eye to eye, exhaust themselves in questioning their own flesh. As if to defy the living with the dead, Don Antonio occupies spaces here and there. Some think it’s their imagination. Although, this is just another layer of the going experience at Martinez Cigars.
A palm slapped domino cuts the clank of bottles and tumblers; a struck vesuvians’ pupil heralds an eye to the draw; a trope of time collects in a bowl of mineral ash, of cigars cone-columned. All warmly absorb these moments, spirited, making their rounds— eventually— and departing from the shop of smoke bearing the scent of some misunderstanding in the greater public’s nose.
At closing time, Jesus and a few others soften the lights. Jesus closes the door and folds the key into the lock. On this evening, they proceed up W29th St. They will return in the morning, to the place Don Antonio built, but survives only by their own beating hearts, and the way smoke circles around these men day after day.
171 West 29th St.
New York, NY 10001