Among these are my Dad's birthday. It's not that I don't know the date, that is very easy. He was born on Jan. 8, the same day as Elvis Presley. Since the world never forgets The King's birthday, I have a yearly reminder of when dear old Dad was brought into the world. I also always know his age: Since he was born in 1950, it makes the math really easy.
A few years back I did neglect to call Dad on his birthday and I received the proper dose of guilt about it, so I have made a promise to myself not to make that mistake again. This year, he turned the big six-o, and while driving around Sparks a while ago I came up with an idea of what his present this year should be.
Sometime in the past decade, Dad became a prolific cigar smoker. After working for Montgomery Ward for many years, he found himself out of a job when the company went bankrupt in 2001. I think the lack of workplace stress gave him withdrawals, so he had to find something else unhealthy to put in his body. Whatever the reason, the good side of his new habit was that it made gift-buying really easy for a man who is otherwise impossible to shop for. When I lived near him in Anaheim, Calif., I would often join him for a drink and a cigar. It gave us something to do during our all-important, but fairly silent father-son bonding.
Now gainfully employed, he still spends many hours sitting in the back yard by his pool with a giant stogie, burning through them at blinding speed often with a beer or glass of bourbon in his hand. I am certain that one day something will startle him (or he'll fall asleep) and he'll spill the drink, drop the cigar and set himself on fire. That stuff will kill you one way or another.
Driving down Rock Boulevard one day, I noticed a storefront sign for hand-rolled cigars. I passed by it many times intending to stop and make sure it was actually in business. On Thursday — the day before Dad's birthday — I decided the time had come. I stopped by and saw the "Open" sign so I walked in. The store, Dimas Cigars at 1200 N. Rock Blvd., is fairly plain with a couch and some chairs in the main entry, a small display case with some cigar products and a small walk-in humidor. Being used to a fancy Southern California cigar shop, I was a bit dubious at first.
Then I met Marvin Ruiz, a thin, smiling, Hispanic man who was sitting in the room just behind the humidor. I told him the reason for my visit and he happily led me to his desk, which was littered with the remains of tobacco leaves. I said I wanted two cigars: one strong and one mild. Ruiz, a fourth-generation cigar maker from Nicaragua, dug into some plastic bins and pulled out several large pieces of tobacco, which looked like corn husks that had been sitting in the sun too long. First, he said he was going to make the mild cigar, using a combination of Nicaraguan viso (full flavor), lijero (strong, dark leaf) and Indonesian secco in a Connecticut wrapper.
He bunched the leaves in his hands and gradually rolled them into a long tubular shape. He took a larger leaf and wrapped it around the rolled leaves, rubbing the wrapper in water with his finger to act as an adhesive. Using a sharp, curved, hand-held blade, he cut away the excess leaf and then he used a circular punch to cut a piece of leaf to cover the smoker's end of the cigar. A final cut with a table-mounted blade to make the open end and the cigar was done. It was beautiful and if I hadn't just watched him make it by hand, I'd have thought the cigar came from a machine. He repeated the process with a slight variation on the leaves to make a cigar with a stronger flavor.
At 34 years old, Ruiz has been making cigars since he was 14. He worked for cigar manufacturer Plasencia in his native Nicaragua at a plant where as many as 70,000 cigars were made a day. Those were made by machine, he said, but his hand-technique is a hundred years old and taught to him by his parents and grandparents. Ruiz said he came to the United States to do cigar-making demonstrations for Plasencia and he liked it. So, the company helped him stay. He has worked in Texas, New York, Chicago and Florida and now works in Sparks rolling cigars for that shop and for the owner's two cigar shops in Sacramento. Ruiz suggested one other previously made cigar for me and placed my gift in a plastic bag.
Even though my Dad has received lots of cigars as gifts over the years, these ones seemed a little better since I knew I'd be able to tell the story behind them. I mailed the cigars on Friday, so Dad will receive them a few days late and since I know he reads my column he will find out what his gift is a few days before it arrives in his mailbox. This is sort of like my birthday card, since I never buy cards to go with gifts. I hope you enjoy them, Dad, and happy birthday.
Now, if you'll excuse me, my mom's birthday is in one month so I need to get started on her present now. Maybe I'll get her a fire extinguisher.