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Smoking Allowed

BU’s Cigar Aficionado Society offers social alternative


Photos by Vernon Doucette

A sleeve of pearl-white smoke rolls from Theresa Strachila’s mouth as the bartender brings over a jug of ice water. In the dim light, a group of students sinks into leather couches and wingback chairs, lit cigars between their fingers. Tiny stacks of tapped ash fill the oversized ashtrays like ruins. Outside, car lights cut across the plate-glass windows fronting Boston’s North Street.

“There’s a mystique about the club,” says Strachila (CAS’12). “I get emails all the time saying, ‘I don’t know if you’re an exclusive club, but can I please join?’ Or, ‘I don’t smoke cigars very well, but here are my qualifications.’ I’m like, no, please come, there aren’t any applications.”

BU’s Cigar Aficionado Society is one of the school’s 400 or so student clubs, and at 10 years old, among its longest running. And despite the tradition-bound and ancient activity of smoking, the group is seen as one of the University’s quirkiest. At the semiannual Student Activities Expo, it’s the table that gets the most double takes, and school tour guides are known to single it out to prospective students.

On a recent Friday evening at Churchill’s Lounge, near Faneuil Hall, cigars are slipped from cellophane wrappers, clipped, and lit, a constellation of orange suns glowing through mist. The conversation is as thick as the smoke, swirling around such topics as the origin of brandy, the disparity in quality of BU dorms, the University’s printing quota, and concerns over finding work. In a box on the table, club president Strachila fingers out a San Cristobal, a boutique cigar handcrafted in Nicaragua by José “Pepin” Garcia, and hands the stick to a visitor. She’s also brought a box of Ashton Aged Maduros, a medium-bodied smoke with Dominican-grown leaf.

“I enjoy the flavor and the taste,” she says. “I like that smoking a cigar is a communal event. A good cigar takes an hour to smoke. You enjoy it, you enjoy the company of people around you. It’s not like a cigarette, where you go outside for 10 minutes. You’re able to develop conversations more.”

The BU Cigar Aficionado Society meets every Friday, from 5 to 8 p.m., at Churchill’s Lounge, 140 North St., Boston.

Strachila’s love of cigars was born during a summer-abroad trip to Nicaragua in high school, which included a visit to a village where cigars were hand-rolled. Cigar smokers often talk about the intimate connection between smoker and maker that spans geography and culture. As a BU freshman, Strachila knew she wanted to join the club, but admits she was intimidated.

“I dragged two friends with me, and we came to a meeting and really enjoyed it,” she recalls. “I liked the social nature. It was an eclectic group of people with different opinions. It’s a good way to meet people you don’t live with.”

Today, Strachila estimates that there are 10 or so regulars, with 45 people on the mailing list. Members hail from all over the University, from the College of Arts & Sciences to the School of Management. Students from other local colleges drop by, too, she says. The club always gathers at Churchill’s, one of only a handful of cigar bars still left in the city (the Boston Health Commission has ordered them all shut by 2018 and banned the opening of new ones). The group also puts on formal events at the lounge and organizes trips to Suffolk Downs, with stops at local tobacconists. Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore has been known to show up for a stogie.

“The cigar club is one of the last social things you can do at a university where you can just meet people without any real goal to accomplish at the end of the night,” says club treasurer Dan Loperfido (CAS’11), a philosophy major. “We’re not raising money, we’re not putting this on a résumé.”

The club attracts more males than females, something members would like to change. Of the 10 students smokers who showed up this evening, 4 were women. “My first meeting, I was the only girl,” Strachila says. “It’s associated with men. It’s seen as not feminine to smoke a cigar.”

Katie Parolin (CAS’13) couldn’t care less about that.

“I come every week,” she says, rolling a San Cristobal between her fingers and shooting out smoke rings. “I like the people. It’s kind of like a cult, but a welcoming cult. Anyone who wants to join, can.”

The club traditionally does “monologues” at some point during the evening, where group members introduce themselves, talk about something on their mind, and describe aspects of the cigar they’re smoking. Another feature of the outfit is that the leadership earns the opportunity to work the bar at Churchill’s. Both Loperfido and Strachila make extra cash doing it a couple of nights a week. It works out for both parties, since the students already know about cigars and are familiar with Churchill’s policies and the selection in its humidor.

No one is more pleased about the growth of the Cigar Aficionado Society than Drinnan Thornton (CAS’03, SED’05), a bartender at Churchill’s. It’s his baby. He started the club when he was a freshman. Like Loperfido, he was a philosophy major, a course of study that seems to fit well with puffing on a stogie. “Smoking a cigar lends itself very well to just thinking and ruminating about the world, without a doubt,” he says.

Thornton started the club after looking for something to do in the city over Thanksgiving break his first year at BU. He and a friend ended up at L. J. Peretti Company’s Cigar Shop near Boston Common and bought a couple of cheap smokes on a lark. Thornton fell in love. Next semester, he and some friends launched the group, and were eventually welcomed by Churchill’s, which doesn’t impose a cutting fee. He points out that contrary to popular perception, cigars are not prohibitively expensive. “You can still get a premium hand-rolled cigar for $5, and you can take an hour and enjoy your life.”

“The club is good for college students,” adds Thornton, who is also a residence hall director at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. “You’re in such an insular community. A lot of students don’t leave campus all week, and this can get them out and into the city, even though it’s a 20-minute train ride. In fact, that should be part of the allure. It makes it feel like more of an occasion: I’m going to go have a cigar, not just step outside.”

Thornton is the first to admit that smoking cigars is not a healthy pursuit, but neither is wolfing down burgers and pizza or pounding Four Loko, he says. The cigar club at least offers students a socially safe environment.

“You don’t have to get shit-faced to socialize in college,” he says. “You come here, you learn how to interact, to be kind and respectful, and to have good conversation. Now that’s a skill you can use later in life. Trying to figure out how to get a girl drunk at a frat party so you can make out with her—well, that’s just not going to be applicable down the road. No one smokes a cigar and then decides to get naked and run through traffic. And when was the last time you saw two cigars smokers say, ‘Ef you, let’s brawl!’”

The BU Cigar Aficionado Society meets every Friday, from 5 to 8 p.m., at Churchill’s Lounge, 140 North St., Boston. Take the Green Line to Government Center.

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