Yesterday a friend wandered in, saw the reprehensibles congregated in the backroom, decided that they would not improve his mood, and wandered out again. But before leaving he offered me some John Cotton's No. 1 from a cutter tin he had recently opened. Whenever he stops by he always has an antique tobacco to share, which I appreciate enormously. It's like having a misguided tour of the past, revisiting old landmarks.
My tastes in many things were formed during my misspent youth, during which I worked at a tobacconist in Berkeley (Drucquer & Sons
) that my father and my uncle had patronized when they were going to school. My father had introduced it to me when we visited The States by dryly remarking that it was a kind of snooty place, I might like it.
More than the offering of tobaccos, however, was the atmosphere (old world, colonial products, opinionated people), and the chance it gave me to wean myself of homesickness by stinking in the manner to which I had become accustomed (Latakia mixtures plus bizarre experiments with straight leaf), and develop my tastes under the benign tutelage of a short strong-minded Chinese woman
who read a lot, discussed music with one of the patrons (Jack Gail), and held her own decisively in conversation, especially with the rather jovial collegiate men who drifted in on Saturday afternoon.
I may have partially repaid those lessons by introducing her to the finest Chinese teas, and advising her to visit Amsterdam and Brussels.
As well as teaching her about Indonesian coffee beans.
In those days I was a little eccentric.
Oh, plus pottery, Chinese seals, and I-Hsing teapots.
Eventually I floated out of Berkeley's orbit. Drucquers got sold, Greg Pease worked there a number of years, left, and finally the place closed. People hardly smoke pipes in this age, and though it was legendary, it was unhip in the extreme. Today, tobacco is a black sheep and a political hot potato.
Merchants like Drucquer & Sons aren't suited to the present age.
Tobacconists everywhere are disappearing.
Because of do-gooders
"Will no one think about the children!?!"
Oh bugger the little brutes! If they smoked pipes and fine cigars, they'd be a lot better than playing video games all day and bullying their more geeky classmates! Besides, most children are little disease vectors, and unfit for civilized society until they've been vaccinated, spanked, taught some manners, and have started getting over their juvenile conceit!
The first step is weaning them away from vapors.
As well as fruity aromatics.
But enough about your loathsome offspring.
Berkeley was at one point the nexus of the universe. Bookstores, coffee, tobacco ... one did not see the pot, patchouli, and self-impressed intellectual failures with gluten allergies that are there now.
It was once a charming place.
Dunhill 965, Black Mallory, Robert McConnell, Constantinople, State Express London Mixture, John Cotton, Capstan ...
[And of course Balkan Sobranie; you knew I was going to mention it.]
The store was in an elongated space, narrow and deep. Main shop floor, humidor, office, blending room, and both miscellaneous storage as well as pipe restoration in the back. I spent hours working on pipes, wandering out occasionally for fresh air, or to talk with Cara and Alice over their bins of tobacco, to grab a cigar, to grab lunch. In the evening two or three of us would stay in the office, where the owner (Robert Rex) kept the hundreds of pipes that weren't on display in his home.
I once outmanoeuvred him on a Comoy Blue Riband, which I still own. But he had some spectacular Dunhills just strewn higgledy-piggledy on the cluttered shelf above his desk; a veritable museum of briar.
By the time I had been there a few weeks I no longer noticed the smell of tobaccos nearly as much. Like with the wonderful aroma of the Indian Restaurant, it had faded into the odour-equivalent of white noise.
During the next few years I read books by Marguerite Yourcenar, Willa Cather, Edward H. Schafer, Herlee Glesner Creel, Wyndham Lewis, Evelyn Waugh, Faulkner, and Proust. My first introduction to O'Henry, and a very fond revisiting of De Spaanschen Brabander by Bredero, as well as finally learning to appreciate Vondel, occurred at that time, as well as a brief flurry of interest in noted literary man Suffridus Sixtinus.
It was an educational interlude.
[No, I shall not detail Donald's friend Elizabeth, who smoked cigars and occasionally a pipe. She collected guns and drank Old Grand Dad; altogether a very exciting girl.
Sparkling, vivacious, and commendably stubborn.]
Tea. Coffee. Scotch Whisky. Pipe tobacco. The office in the back of the shop. The stacks of the university library. Bookstores on Telegraph Avenue. Caffè Mediterraneum. Dwinelle Hall, Sather Gate, Moffit, and the campus redwoods.
I was a very blinkered person.
In the years since, I have lived in Berkeley, Oakland, Alhambra, Monterrey Park, and San Francisco. I have travelled a bit -- South East Asia, Canada, Europe -- and had a long-term relationship. Which ended. Dammit.
Yes, I am older. But I still read, smoke pipes, and drink tea.
Time has not weighed heavily upon me.
I've probably not matured very much. A bachelor again, I have become the still feisty and disreputable uncle you should never trust around your kids, as I will introduce them to tobacco and a well-rounded vocabulary, and may very well plant mind-worms in their impressionable little heads.
At the very least they'll end up with broader tastes in literature, putting hot sauce on everything, and turning into bright young ladies with a marked affection for gluten, roast duck, cigars, and fine pipe tobacco.
As well as the individuals who still enjoy those things.
They won't be safe for the suburbs.
Something Greg Pease said about bringing back the old Drucquers blends stimulated this revisiting of the past, and the years in between. As well as all the nose memories of that time. I wonder if he has found a replacement for the Black Virginia that went into the Arcadia mixture?
Levant, Trafalgar, Red Lion, Blend 805 ...
I used to smoke Royal Ransom a lot.
An over-indulgence in Latakia.
Deep reeky perfume.
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