I came for my sanctuary. What I got was a headache…and a lesson in class.
Tonight, like most nights, I came to Frankie’s, my English speaking bar and cigar lounge near the Fourth Gate of the free trade zone in the South of Shenzhen. Though it’s often hit or miss here, tonight was miss. Miss for me, hit for many. If you haven’t seen me since high school, you might be surprised to hear me say I don’t like crowds. I used to. Years ago. Not anymore. Maybe it’s age, maybe it’s boredom, maybe it’s both of the above. I like to think its something different. I’d like to say it’s part of the maturing process. A process I could use a lot of help with. That’s a banner I can stand under. Maybe we all can.
Whatever the reason, I enjoy relaxing with a cigar, sometimes with company but always without scatter and noise…unless it’s my own, in which case, I bring my own…on my iPhone.
The lounge is where I do a lot of my writing (I’m writing this there right now), some of my reading (although, ironically, I’ve never been a big fan of reading and my limited vocabulary reveals this), some of my thinking and even some of my teaching. When one of my students, a business owner, wanted to change his classes from late afternoon to early evening, I said “yes…provided we can have class here.” Lucky for the both of us, he agreed.
When I arrived at Frankie’s tonight, it was frantic. The bar was busting. I wasn’t worried until I got to the lounge. It was frantic too despite it often being empty but that’s been changing due to a recent smoking ban that’s being enforced now in China…in bars, not in lounges. What almost always used to be my safe bet, is becoming my roll of the dice and tonight I crapped out. The room was full…of kids celebrating a birthday drinking (not nearly as much as I used to) and trying to smoke cigars.
I took off my coat, undid my scarf (windy night) and sat down. The chatter was incessant, as it should have been, after all, it was a birthday and while I would have preferred peace and my quiet, they were here first and I couldn’t hold it against them. It’s where I like to come too.
Not long after I arrived, some drama unfolded about the conditions of the cigars. “Your cigars are dry” said one of the guys, pointing to a wrapper which was breaking apart, to Nate, the smile usually behind the bar who had come in to help. I came to the defense of Frankie’s who has been trying to get the humidity levels right. “Actually, they’re too moist” I announced. [Cigars are sensitive. They like 70 degrees and 70% humidity and not much else. A few degrees or percentage points in either direction is okay, but anything other than that isn’t. They’re picky and sensitive…kinda like me.] The guy proceeded to correct me and complain while I tried, tried, to explain. That’s when something unexpected happened. A wave of his friends’ rebuke came crashing down…on him.
Instead of rallying around their one slightly obnoxious and loud friend (sound familiar?), most of the group came to MY defense. They told him to “shut up”. It was a girl in particular who put the bead on him. In a sea of men’s voices, it was the woman’s that stood out. “Shut up!” she said to him. “This guy’s a regular! He smokes in here almost every night and you’re presuming to tell him he doesn’t know cigars?” How she knew that (any of it) I still don’t know. I had never seen her before. Nevertheless, her friend’s mistake was an honest one. The wrapper was indeed breaking apart.
Maybe I should have kept my mouth shut (it’s usually when I open it that I get into trouble). But a few days prior, the bar had called me asking for my help. In one of the humidors on a number of cigars was what looked like a powder. They hoped it was plume. When cigars are well maintained and aged, they will sometimes break out into a whitish powder or fuzz appearing on their wrappers. This is called “plume” (or bloom). Instead of plume, the powder was mold. Lethal. Mold spreads rapidly and, if unchecked, can ruin everything in sight. I investigated. The cigars were way too wet, in that humidor and every other. Instead of 70% humidity, they were at 82% and the tobacco inside the wrappers was swelling and bursting through the outer leaves. Taking this customer’s criticism personally and fearing Nate might actually believe him and not me, I had responded and acting out on fear usually doesn’t fall in my favor. All the more reason, the group’s response was a surprising one to me.
I went back to my cigar, toasted the foot and proceeded to light my little bit of heaven. Shortly thereafter, I went to the bar to order my coke and that’s when something else unexpected happened.
“Excuse me, sir” I heard behind me. I turned and faced an unfamiliar face. “I wanted to apologize. My friends and I…we’re all business students…are here celebrating. It’s my birthday and one of us has already had one too many” he laughed awkwardly.
“Your birthday? Congratulations!” I smiled. “My name is Peter. What’s yours?”
“My name is Nathan.”
“Nathan, thank you and it’s quite alright. Perhaps I should be apologizing to you. It was none of my business and on any other day I wouldn’t have said anything. It’s just the bar and I have recently…”
“Oh, no sir.” (“Sir,” I’m still not used to that) “You don’t have to apologize or explain. My friends don’t know shit about cigars and I’m pretty certain you do. We’re here cluttering your room and arguing when you’re just trying to relax.”
“Nathan” I paused, “what would you like to drink? I’m buying for your birthday.”
I was also buying to thank him. See, though he was cluttering my sanctuary and interrupting my repast, he was reminding me of how cool it is to show class. And maybe that’s a little more important than my selfish pursuit of my “me time”. I like my peace and quiet and I like my lessons, I just don’t like to learn them…especially in front of a room full of people. Nathan made that more bearable.
The next hour and a half were filled with typical celebratory conversation and laughter. They chatted, sang “Happy Birthday” and said a few things even I thought were funny. In fact, some of the guys came up to say hi. And when midnight rolled around and they took a vote to move their party to Coco Park? Well, no, I still wasn’t sad to see them go.