The cigars that are immolated on these pages are very often among the rarest collectable Cuban cigars, coming from limited release humidors of which only a few hundred are ever made, and which retail for thousands of dollars each. In my custody, unfortunately, most of these cigars exist only as singles; gifts from benefactors with pockets far deeper than my own who can afford to buy the humidors and break them up. There is one exception: the Romeo y Julieta 130 Aniversario Humidor. There are 249 like it, but this one is mine.
The humidor comes with 100 cigars, 50 each across two sizes, a 109 (that isn’t actually a 109 – more on that later), and an Aguilas, a nice mid-size perfecto, which is what we shall examine today.
The cigar lights well – I love a good perfecto. The dominant flavor at the outset is very nutty, walnuts over hazel. The tobacco is medium strength with smooth, rich smoke. The quality of the leaf is undeniable.
There was a time in my life, early in my career, when I worked two days a week in the sheltered workshop of a university administration building, keeping the faculty’s website up to date. It was a simple job. From time to time, subject administrators and professors would send us an update to a webpage – a revision to a timetable, an article about their new research project, things like that – and we had to apply these updates to the website. For me, a boy of twenty-three with a fairly advanced knowledge of HTML, one of these updates would typically take less than five minutes. On a busy day, we might receive ten updates. There were four of us in the team. I was hired because my three colleagues were having trouble getting through the entire workload each day.
Florence was our team leader, a very sweet Filipina who took the job extremely seriously. She did, admittedly, spend about four hours of every day drinking tea and gossiping in the break room, but during the other four she was hard at work, staring worriedly at her screen and wrestling with the update jobs. I mentioned earlier that a knowledge of HTML was helpful. It was. Without HTML, you would have to deal with the ungainly custom editing software that the university had provided us. It was an extension for Microsoft Word that was supposed to make editing web pages simple for anyone with basic computer literacy, but unfortunately, the software wasn’t very good. It would leave odd gaps and font changes everywhere. Bullet points were a real mess. The issues were simple enough to correct if you knew HTML – you just had to go into the code view and remove a few erroneous tags. If you didn’t know HTML, then you had to figure out a few tricks. Remove the fonts from everything and then reapply it in a big block, that kind of thing.
Florence, despite four years in this job, had not learned HTML or figured out the tricks, and her computer literacy was questionable at best. For her, the job we were doing was a difficult, technical one. She genuinely tried hard at it, and often stressed about the workload, sometimes working late to make up the difference. I think in all honesty, she was genuinely unaware that she was staggeringly incompetent.
Stephen, on the other hand, was just lazy. About my own age, he was a sly, pudgy fellow, who regarded me with suspicion. He had somehow convinced all and sundry that he had a medically diagnosed health condition, and must not be allowed to get stressed. Whenever Florence tried to give him work she would do so apologetically, with platitudes like “don’t let yourself get stressed, take your time, if you can’t do it that’s fine, just let me know.”
The highlight of my time with Stephen came on a pleasant spring day. It was about 10:30am, and he’d been at work for perhaps 45 minutes when he announced that he was feeling stressed, and was going to go to the break room for a bit. “Oh yes, of course, take as long as you like, your health is the most important thing” Florence told him. Five hours later I happened by the break room: he was still there, slouched on the couch, watching the cricket.
Finally, there was Asha, a sort of vague hippy who kept her computer covered in the detritus of Eastern spirituality: little Buddha statues, various charms, a portrait of her yogi, that sort of thing. Her job was to answer the phones. Every now and again – perhaps twice a day – a professor would call up rather than log a page alteration through the system. Maybe the change they wanted was so small that they couldn’t be bothered sending it, or maybe their own computer literacy wasn’t up to figuring out the change request system: either way, Asha’s job was to take their request and either do it or log it in the system for one of us to do. In the hierarchy she was considered to be less technical than Florence or Stephen, so most of the ‘difficult’ jobs she would assign to them. It worked out fine. Asha was chatty and personable, and the professors liked her. Even if she didn’t do all that much work, she gave us a good public face.
About midway-through the spring Asha sent an email around to entire department. “Hi guys,” it read. “I’m taking a vow of silence for the next twelve weeks, so please don’t think I’m ignoring you if I don’t answer when you talk to me around the office. I’ll also be trying to minimize written communication during this time, so if at all possible please don’t email me.” Essentially she was saying “I’ll show up and collect cheques, but I’m not going to be doing my job for the next three months.” Nobody seemed to mind. Florence took over the phone answering duties, and fretted all the more about the amount of work that was piling up.
Midway through, the cigar is mild but luscious, with thick notes of cream. It is an after dinner cigar, really, one that leaves a sweetness on the lips, and has the slight zap of dessert spices, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. Above all, nut notes still dominate. Mainly almond.
My interview was as much a farce as the rest of my employment there. I showed up a bit drunk, being as the interview was at 4:00pm and I was twenty-three and still had the habit of drinking beer with my friends on sunny afternoons. The interview panel policy dictated that four people must be present: the immediate supervisor (in my case, Florence), someone higher up the chain (David, the coordinator of the communications section of the department, and the only hardworking and competent person I encountered in my time there), someone from HR, and an entirely disinterested person, preferably from another department. In the best case scenario, therefore, there would be one person on the panel that could assess whether or not the candidate was qualified for the position. With Florence as my supervisor, there wasn’t even that. Most of the questions were about my hobbies, and vague HR nonsense. I guess they liked my drunken swagger, and were able to overlook my slight slur, because they hired me in the room.
Once I started, my colleagues soon came to hate me. The first task Florence gave me was a simple clean-up exercise of a lot of old pages. “Just go through and familiarize yourself with the system” she said. “Ask me if you have any questions.” There was a thirty minute or so learning curve while I figured out how the software worked, and after that I started chewing through them. Three hours later I brought my results to Florence. She was horrified. “Oh my God” she said. “That was supposed to take you a month.”
Initially I was hired full time, but more or less immediately they cut me down to two days a week, Thursday and Friday. A pattern soon emerged: on Thursday mornings I would arrive at 9:00am, and start on the backlog of jobs that had accumulated over the first three days of the week. I would normally be finished by 9:45 when the others began to trickle in, mouthing the same platitudes each week about how the “trains were hell today.” There would then be an hour or so while they settled in, got their coffees, said hello to everyone, but by 11:00 each of us would be at our desks, silently browsing the internet, trying to look busy, all fully aware that there was absolutely nothing any of us had to do, and them seething with resentment with me for doing it all. When something new would arrive, it would ping into all of our inboxes simultaneously. I would glance around, making sure that Asha had made no attempt to close her organic food blog, or that Stephen hadn’t alt-tabbed off the footy scores, and then I would do the work.
On Fridays they just didn’t show up. For the first few weeks Florence would send me apologetic emails, saying that she was sick and she hoped I wouldn’t have too much work, but after a while she just stopped showing up. Once the others realised that their supervisor wasn’t coming in, they followed suit. I would blatantly read books at my desk, and take four-hour lunch breaks. It was that kind of a gig.
I never actually quit. Eventually I just stopped going in. There was never any phone call asking “where are you?” No email. Some months after I left I was passing the office late one night, and decided to see if my key still worked. It did, and there was my computer, still set up with my post-it notes, just how I left it. I’ve often wondered, in the intervening decade, if I should just start showing up again. Start submitting timesheets. The pay was pretty good.
There is a greater point to telling this story than simply to slam my long lost coworkers – I’m setting up the idea that over the spring and summer of 2006 I had a lot of time on my hands, and that free time set in motion the sequence of events that led to my acquisition of my Romeo y Julieta 130 Aniversario Humidor. That is a story for another time, however – next week, specifically – with my review of the 109 from that same box.
The cigar ends sweet and mild, with just a slight taste of tar that tarnishes its perfection. Overall though, a fantastic, top notch smoke, that falls only barely shy of the pinnacle of Romeo y Julieta.