CONFESSIONS OF AN ARMCHAIR CIGAR SMUGGLER
by Joanne Wolf
by Joanne Wolf
When Freud observed that "sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar," he clearly had never spent time in Los Angeles. A cigar to the Hollywood player or aspiring player is a Cuban cigar, and preferably supplied by one’s own personal smuggler. No Bigshot worthy of his own parking space would dare host a meeting without a sealed box of Cohibas on his desk, and this is where my friend Tom comes in. Tom (his real name: Hi, Tom!) is a born businessman who rarely engages in any activity unless it involves a profit margin. A cigar aficionado for many years, Tom fell into the smuggling racket after a casual Internet search produced a number of Cuban cigar merchants, most based outside the U.S.A. He settled on one company with an address in Spain, that guaranteed complete security and satisfaction.
"The order form stated that the company wouldn’t ship to the United States" Tom told me, "but something about the way it looked- kind of like an exaggerated warning sign in bold red letters- made me think it was just there for dramatic effect. I tried filling out an order form, and sure enough, one of the countries you could click on was the United States."
Bingo. Tom’s first order- one box of moderately priced Cohiba and one of Romeo and Juliet- was delivered to his home by an international courier service, although others were sent by Federal Express. "I wasn’t surprised to see some crappy plates when I opened the package, because I’d been wondering what kind of cover they used" Tom recalls. "Most of the packages were marked with a ceramics company as the return address. For some reason, a couple of packages had the return address of a Doctor Gonzalez, and a delivery slip that said "prescription medicine." I never figured out if that was some Spanish guy’s idea of a joke. And I never knew when to expect a delivery, since it could take anywhere between ten days and three weeks. Actually," he mused "the uncertainty about the delivery time seemed to give my customers a little extra vicarious thrill. It probably made ‘em feel more like outlaws."
Since Tom’s primary source of income is his custom home theater business, he often finds himself in the homes of wealthy entertainment industry types who prefer personal service, at a price, to the less pampering approach of a large company that can usually offer a more reasonable fee. Tom doesn’t offer cigars to every customer, but the sight of a humidor will indicate a potential client. If he brings up the subject of Cuban cigars and the response is enthusiastic enough, Tom will mention that he can get almost any brand, in sealed boxes, if the customer is interested. He might go on to explain that because Spain never joined in the economic embargo of Cuban goods, Havana has traditionally saved its best cigars for import there. The boxes Tom procures therefore display the seals of both the Cuban and Spanish governments, which guarantees that the contents are genuine Havana Cuban cigars. When he quotes the prices in pesos before converting them into dollars, "the guy is usually drooling by then" Tom smiles. "If only these people realized how easy it is, but no one wants to do any ground work. God bless capitalism!" he says, lighting up a huge Monte Cristo and boxing up a pair of powerful high tech speakers that came from his own living room but will be sold as new to a nouveau multi-millionaire who created a sub-genre of teen-trash soap operas and can now only speak to his fleet of building contractors and interior designers through his terrified personal assistant.
While Tom prides himself on being something of a renegade scam artist, he insists that he keeps his cigar prices low, making just enough money to pay for his own habit. He once dreamed of joining LA’s prestigious Havana Club,a private enclave of Hollywood players who pay upwards of $3,000 a year—once their name has been referred by an existing member and a place opens up on the waiting list—for the privilege of dining amidst a cloud of cigar smoke and comparing Gucci loafers and Dunhill lighters. "I lost interest in that place after my wife heard about the good-looking waitresses," Tom says wistfully. "Really, I’m looking for a peaceful life, with as little stress as possible."
The stress factor accounts for Tom’s recent decision to cut back on his Cigar smuggling. Two of his last four orders wound up confiscated by US Customs. Each time he received a polite letter advising him that the Customs Department was holding a package for him if he cared to claim it. And it was made clear that failure to do so would result in forfeiture of the package. Tom knew enough to tear up the letters and accept his losses, but the specter of a criminal charge has been enough to spoil his fun. "Why bother?" he says philosophically. "I make plenty of money already, and I don’t need the aggravation." He’ll always have fond memories of his smuggler days, like the time a famous television producer turned down an offer of a $250 box of Partagas, according to one of his assistants, because Mr. TV "already has a cigar guy and likes to pay at least $400 for those." Tom ‘s mobile phone rings and it’s his wife. He rolls his eyes and says: "Sure honey, we only talked about cigars. And hey, we just upgraded our speakers again, wait ‘til you hear ‘em, baby, the whole house rattles!" As I leave, I mention that I’m thinking of buying a scriptwriting software program that retails for around $200. "Are you crazy?" he asks. " I can find one to download off the net for nothing. Never pay money for software" he admonished, giving me a new credo and ten minutes later, a copy of Final Draft (not the real name of the software, ahem).