I can remember the first time I stood and watched those crumpled up old men roll their cigars. Their swollen and crooked fingers moved precisely from leaf to leaf and with such speed that I could barely tell where one leave started and another ended. Their glance was always downward as destemmed the leaves and sliced them to manageable pieces with large metal knives shaped like the letter D. Rings of smoke hung in the air as they puffed away on cigars that dangled from their mouths. They spoke even faster than their hands scrambled to roll the leaves. A few words between the old men would end with loud sighs or deep infectious laughs. Then the shop owner would come by with rum and fill the shot glasses sitting on the edge of their tables. I saw some snap the shot up quick and down it followed by gritted teeth and a small smile formed on their faces as they glanced around the room at each other. The old man I had been staring at hadn’t touched his shot but was concentrating on finishing the task in front of him. I kept staring at his hands and then finally after glancing at them for several minutes I stopped focusing on what they were doing and noticed that they were just as dark and wrinkled as the tobacco he was rolling. How many hundreds of thousands of times had those hands done this? His fingertips were all jagged and worn. The veins were pulsing on top of his hand but none of this seemed to bother him. They never slowed nor did he ever act like they were aching, he just kept rolling and trimming the tobacco leaves. When he finally finished he took the cigar from his mouth, tapped the ash into the tray next to him and then he picked up the shot glass with rum and slowly sipped it. He stared at his finished work the way a great sculptor or artist stares at a finished piece, sizing it up, unsure of his pride in his work until he had scoured every inch for an imperfection. Finally, satisfied he moved it into a mold with the others he had rolled and with one final flick of his wrist he downed the last of the rum and put the cigar back in his mouth. He slowly turned his chair around to the pile of leaves on a table behind his and slowly sorted through them. Taking great care and plenty of time to sort through them to find leaves that suited him. I don’t know how long I had been standing there watching this old man but my legs were starting to get tired. I didn’t want so sit down. I was totally mesmerized by what was going on in front of me. After a few more minutes the owner stepped out from the closet where he stored all of the tobacco with a large bushel in each hand. He slid passed me and started unrolling them and placing the leaves on the tables behind the rollers. As he turned back around he came towards me and put his arm on my shoulder.
“Welcome, welcome, would you like to try one?” He asked.
“I’ve never had that many cigars,” I said.
“You’ll love these armano, they taste just like a woman,” he said leading me by the shoulders through the sliding glass door behind me and into the humidor.
It wasn’t much bigger than a closet but it was packed to the brim with cigars of all shapes and sizes. They were brown, black and green. Some were even two leaves of a different color wrapped together.
“What kind do you like?” he asked.
“I don’t know, I’ve only ever had a few my grandfather gave me and he always got his from a liquor store.”
He stared around a bit, glancing carefully at each box on the top three rows on the shelf. I was sure it was like a bar where the most expensive cigars would be on the top shelf and he was going to hand me one of his most expensive cigars. He reached up and grabbed one from the near top and handed it to me.
“How much?” I asked.
“Don’t worry armano, come have some café.”
I was sure know he’d get me for an overpriced coffee and cigar but I wanted to know what the cigar tasted like and the aroma of the coffee being brewed made me want it to. I followed him back out and waited as he slid the glass door closed as he waived me towards the bar. I walked behind him watching his legs swinging in a pronounced way making his Capri shorts seem even tighter. He was wearing a Brazilian soccer jersey and an oversized gold watch. As he passed back around the bar to cut my cigar I could see that both arms were covered in tattoos. They were full sleeves covered with Japanese coy fish, women’s names, the Cuban flag and a few other things I couldn’t make out.
“You want the V cut or the regular cut brother?” He asked.
“I don’t know, I have only bitten off the end like my grandfather.”
“No here man, I cut it for you.”
He snipped the end and passed it to me as he reached for a lighter. I put it in my mouth as he took a lighter that seemed like a mini blow torch. I leaned forward and started to puff on the end as the flames jumped higher and higher. I was starting to worry they might singe my eyebrows when he finally pulled away. Satisfied he nodded as I leaned back in my chair.
“You ever had Cuban coffee?” He asked.
“I’m not sure,” I said.
“Don’t worry I make you some good Cuban café. It’ll put hair on your huevos.”
He moved over to a brass espresso machine that looked to shiny to ever have been used. I leaned my head back as I started to gaze around the small shop. The ceiling was gold and embroidered with delicate designs around the edges while the walls were a beige or tan color. Above the bar were pictures of old sun drenched men cultivating and harvesting tobacco somewhere in Nicaragua from what words I could make out on them. The far walls near where he stored the leaves for rolling were oil paintings of beautiful dark women dancing to drums being played by wide eyed men smoking a cigar and staring at them. As well as paintings of old men dressed in suits smoking a cigar and rolling them. I couldn’t see the signature on them well enough to make out the name of the artist. Suddenly I heard the hiss of the cappuccino machine and could smell the coffee brewing as he steamed the milk. Taking another few puffs on the cigar I could taste the sweet aroma of the cigar gently covering my tongue. I could never say I was a good judge of cigars because I’ve never smoked that many in my life. But if this wasn’t a good cigar I’d be okay with that. I held it in my hand and saw how the leaves overlapped layer after layer and where the stims had been sliced out and covered with another piece of tobacco. I felt like I was holding a burning piece of art. Even though I liked how it felt in my hand and how the taste set on my tongue. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was destroying a masterpiece in its own right. I heard the clicking of the cup on the bar and was greeted by a steaming cup of coffee.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Try it,” He said turning back to the cappuccino machine.
I blew gently on the piping hot cut and tried my first sip and was instantly burned on the tip of my tongue. I jerked my head back and he must have caught a glimpse of these as he didn’t look back but waived his hand in the air.
“Careful, it’s hot.”
“I know that now,” I said.
“That’s why it’s called hot coffee,” he laughed.
I blew on it some more and tried again, slower this time. It was far sweeter than I thought it would be. It was almost like a candy bar. When I took another puff on my cigar I could see why the two went together so well. The sweet and hot coffee helped with the after taste of the tobacco leaving a smoky and sweet flavor lingering in your mouth. I could tell I was hooked from here on out.
“Ta Bueno?” he said.
“It’s good?” he repeated.
Rings of smoke hung in the hair. Coffee was being brewed and Latin music with drums and a fast pace were being played through speakers in the ceiling. My head was spinning and my belly was warm. I could feel the sweat dripping down my forehead and the fans spinning feverishly above wasn’t doing anything to keep me cool. I didn’t care. Between the coffee and the cigar my heart was racing faster and faster to the beat of the music. I wasn’t scared only excited because I couldn’t remember if I had ever felt this way before. It was like sitting still and sprinting through a marathon all at once. It was pure excitement, pure adrenaline, or more like pure living for the first time in my life. I hadn’t looked at the clock. I didn’t care about when or if I would be going home. I wanted the cigar to be three feet long and the coffee to be served by the gallon. How I had gone so long without ever feeling what I felt in these few moments I don’t know. But I won’t go without out it from then on.
“You okay man?” the man asked.
I hadn’t realized that I had all but collapsed in the chair and my arms and legs were dangling close to the floor while I had been staring at the ceiling. I sat up in the chair and ran my forearm across my head as I wiped away the sweat.
“I’m sweating death,” I said.
“Si, that’s how you know it’s good.” He said with a grin.
“I’ve never felt this way before.”
“You’ve never been to NicaHabana before.”