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Depravity’s Rainbow

A week at the premier cigar industry expo in Las Vegas
A man and a woman in horse masks. They both hold large beers, and the man holds a cigar.

“If there was extensive cheating going on in professional football,” Charlie said the first day in Vegas, “they would all be blowing up the long snapper. That’s what my guy says. Anyone seriously trying to tamper with the outcome of a game would have to target the position. Without a clean snap, you’re cooked. Those punters aren’t used to moving a step. If I were a coach, I’d tell my team, I don’t care about the penalties, I want you to take out the long snapper.”

This, a real conversation, took place in the Venetian’s Yardbird, a dim den of armchairs and sofas and, like everywhere in Vegas, hysterical house music. I was trying to beat back a fasting spell with meat and cheese as Charlie detailed the value of greasing a particular form of lineman. Charlie’s been an intense dilettante ever since I met him. He can (and will) tell you about custom Winnebagos, Burmese boxing, or the best ocean for Uni. He’s always lined with the fresh ores and agates of his researched obsessions, and it is not uncommon to sit through an Uber with polite ears cocked as Charlie rebounds new intelligence about, say, casino design, off your forehead. In between trips to Target and checks to see if the crate containing Nespresso pods and laptops had finally arrived from Dallas, Charlie and I spent the first day talking pro tennis, marijuana for hangovers, and color correction software.

There’s no burning the leaf on the corporate leather.

Charlie Minato cofounded the blog halfwheel (lower case “h”), “the industry’s cigar blog.” In the span of a few years, the site morphed from an effete review center to a full-blown breaking news outlet, designed to keep the public abreast of all cigar-related content. A given chyron might contain a note on a Nicaraguan rolling factory (strikes, shutdowns, partnerships), an update on tobacco legislation (woes attached), or an announcement of the latest cutter hitting shelves (no comment). For this one week, I am halfwheel’s editor, proofing all their “live coverage” of the Premium Cigar Association’s annual Convention and International Trade Show. In other words, I am the humble long snapper, the quiet leatherhead ensuring a smooth change of possession between private draft and public post. The scenario where I am bribed boobish manifests as a craps roll on a typo.

Truth is, I’m in Vegas because of a flunky romance. An old crone on my college paper discovered she could avoid my advances if instead she became my benefactor. Because of her, I’ve had a recurring editing job that involves sitting in yet another tight booth with five dudes, two of them without hair.

For the past few years, the PCA Convention and Trade Show has been held in the Venetian Expo, a fat expanse of shag where companies build booths and bait retailers. The floor is a varied meadow of masculine type. In the course of my work, I’ve met raspy Cuban expats with bad teeth and Byron’s head on their cigars (“He smoked Cubans,” is the reason why), swaggering Latinos with watches and linen, and retired athletes with nothing better to do. The booth structures themselves vary from perennial hamlets to modest parlors to the one guy whose whole set-up is a cigar stuffed into a bottle of VSOP nailed to a stand. Each bit of architecture tends to have a hook: a large-scale replica of a tobacco factory (J.C. Newman), a working barber shop (Altadis U.S.A), or, my favorite, a wooden confessional, reputedly run by a priest with a holy palate.

For halfwheel, the PCA delivers a gold rush of content (though, I learned this year, not traffic), which means it requires planning and focus. There’s no burning the leaf on the corporate leather all day, sipping espresso with the pretty rep, or, at night, endless refills at the scotch pond. This is not to say indulgence is forbidden. You can do whatever you want, so long as the work gets done. Charlie won’t stop you. But a WordPress post for every booth—usually 150-plus of them—tends to wring the night owl out of you.

Candidly, the past three years as halfwheel’s editor have been cautious by Vegas standards. Each day is of an Apollonian, not Dionysian, order. I wake up to an alarm, walk through the dings to work, and drag a cursor around until I hear stop. I have to be as sharp as a pair of talons, relatively chaste, and seriously punctual.

Charlie’s sixty-seven page “PCA Guide” is a more than adequate piece of literature documenting halfwheel procedure, with some postmodern embellishment and the odd sprig of satire to lighten the program. The guide’s final instruction, page sixty-seven, reads: “Charlie is acting like an asshole, what should I do?” “Give him a glass of rum and remind him to calm down.”

There’s a huge countdown clock zip-tied to the corner of our booth, which is less like a booth and more like a protest. It’s a black, unlabeled box brooding at the pageant’s fringe, with a few tables and a lockable door. The hour, minute, and second appear in the sky in big red numbers, delivering my central motif: time, that Vegas antivenom and swimmer’s sixth sense beating at the center of all my activity. Live coverage, for halfwheel, means a post every hour, making me, the editor, a kind of paranoid ticker. Such vigilance, from eight to seven, is polio for your luck-hungry parts. By quitting time, I’m about as ready to gamble as Gandhi. I have barely a drop of hedonic resolve left to enjoy some Weller 107 in the booth, and some fashionable fungi for dinner. After that, it’s a journey to the cool side of the sheets.   

I think Charlie’s assiduous approach is why the industry reveres him. They don’t need another Bacchus with a blog, another worshipping glossy, or another influencer. They need their New York Times, and Charlie has given it to them. He’s created a breaking news outlet that retailers consult with their morning joe. Because of this, and despite Charlie’s quirks, he is beloved by the best cigar makers and despised by the bullshitters, the ballbusters, and the whole roster of satellite mediocrity.

This is all amplified by Charlie’s appearance, which is anomalous for the cigar industry. To see him in a crowd is like spotting a cold count among the cobblers. He has a pallid, girlish face, shoulder-length black hair, and way of looking amused that involves constantly pursing his lips. His stature is slight, and he wears almost exclusively the color black. When Charlie walks, it is with the purpose of a surgeon being briefed to the ER, and he speaks in blunt declaratives. Praise is rare, and almost always understated, but when it comes, you do your best to hoard it. Charlie’s also knowledgeable; people in the industry think he’s a genius. He’s lectured me (he likes to lecture) on espresso machines, obscure backorder cigars, and MMA, the moron’s maypole. One of the first days, over some buffalo mozzarella, I said MMA is too violent to watch, and Charlie looked off into the distance, squinted, then said, “Compared to what?”

When it comes to the PCA, Charlie doesn’t skimp. He ships a sarcophagus from Dallas, packed and mapped out with supplies, that includes everything from a megarouter to a mini fridge, as well as all the necessary cigar paraphernalia (ashtrays, lighters, cutters, extra butane) if anyone chooses to light up, which they don’t. The booth is kept ambrosial, too, with rums, bourbons, and tequila. Often a random cigar wig will come over for a taste, because he knows Charlie isn’t scouting deals on this stuff. Since I’m mostly in the booth alone, I tend to end up pouring.

Charlie has conquered Vegas. That’s the point here. His domain extends even into the land of the lawless. He is impervious to the strongest proofs of disorder and sham, and can’t be manipulated by the mechanics of distraction. I doubt he had a buzz all week, or gambled a single dollar away in his nonexistent free time. He has transcendent mettle, the guy does, beyond the paws of any shyster. He’s a sort of shielded sensualist, a blazing oddball. To see Charlie in a casino is to see a speed boat through the river Styx, shearing the dead with persistence and vision.

Which is why Nobu was a strange choice for dinner this year, since Charlie does not usually pick places of inflated repute. Luckily, we showed up for teppanyaki at eight, and found the hostess prepared to treat us like ass pimples. After we were seated at the wrong table, I realized the whole place stank of blind cash, and was ready to scram after ten minutes of water refills and no waiter. Charlie was too. Bobby Flay’s place had an opening at 8:45 p.m. Finally though, “due to a cancellation,” we were able to relocate around a huge hot plate and order cocktails.

At the new location came two additional patrons, a Chinese Shrek, visually stunning in his spit-up shirt and shorts, and a white guy with a burnt face, whose pine-green sweatshirt had some sort of purposive paint spatter on it. Stitched in the center was the word PARIS. A backwards hat (flat-bill, shades on lookout) covered his hay-colored hair. Both men entered with in-progress drinks, scanned the menu like air mattress directions, and then engulfed themselves in scrolling for the rest of the meal.

Whatever the formula is that says for top dollar you can look like you had an outhouse flipped on you, these two had it. And yet despite the filth and indifference, as soon as they sat down, my adrenaline spiked. Their level of iPhone absorption and entitled dysmorphia felt like a suspended missile over the whole table. If they caught me compulsively glancing at them, I thought, things might actually flower into some kind of fracas. There was something fragile about their rebellion, a kind of glass truculence at their core, like they wanted me to mutter, “Man, they let anybody in here these days,” and then erupt with a, “Th’fuck you say, asshole?”

Long after my energies subsided, I realized that I had seen something remarkable: two boors whose wealth had reversed almost all gild of civility. They had reached a kind of slob’s nirvana. A state of almighty excrement. No remorse, no decorous pangs, nothing—just a couple reverse churchmen enjoying the sewer’s bliss. As I re-envisioned them ordering that second jalapeño yellowtail, the whole thing glowed like good coal in my mind’s eye. They did it, these two. They had achieved the status of actually radiant scum. A pure form of putrescence. A plane of transcendental soil. They deserve incomparable credit, because that evening they so completely consumed, captured through perfect offense, the look of my imagination.

Vegas will do that, without notice. It will estrange everyday vision through baffling, blinding infractions. It will spawn at some spectacular delta an enigma that cannot be reconciled in the moment, but instead matures into a belated catalyst for your conscience. It requires a true (and tardy) feat of imagination to understand it.

In a crazy way Vegas, like art, can express the unexpected. Some might argue that the town’s specialty is cheap shock, and not lasting change. That its aesthetics are grown in the bum knee of betting receipts, and that there’s no durable mystery. I wouldn’t argue with that, though I would say at Nobu I felt what’s been called a spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling. My mind gaped at the stimulus until it realized that the extent of its revulsion, the depth of its disgust, could only be interpreted later, in a time of reflection and tranquility.

They did it, these two. They had achieved the status of actually radiant scum.

If Nobu was first to perforate my innocence this year, Bouchon, a French bistro in the Venetian, was second. Walking through the Roman arcade, back to the Palazzo, we spotted a cigar senator rolled to a stop in a motorized scooter. Brooks Whittington, halfwheel’s other cofounder, had interviewed the same man two days prior, and he had walked in and out of the halfwheel booth on his own two feet. Now, he was tile-sledding with his thumb. His left leg was half-dangled from the platform, and in the scooter’s nest lay a big bottle of liquor. This forced me to assume the rig was a result of too many distillates, some kind of etherized prank. A bet gone the other way.

Turns out, I wasn’t the only one aching from the steaking. After the cherubic chair-victim waved us home—a chipper enough sendoff, as far as I could tell—Charlie said flatly, “The disease of kings.” I queried, because Charlie often likes to ellipse his meaning. “The disease of kings,“ he repeated. “Gout. Your boy’s got gout. Didn’t you see his foot?”

Apparently, the Prius was no farce, our guest no pretender. He was dealing with an eruption of the evil ankle. As at Nobu, I could not contain my backward glance. This was a hale artisan, witnessed a day or so ago rising from the interview table to bless the samples. An upright boss who strode across the shag to answer Brooks’s careful questions. A dude who even remarked that he makes cigars for the supplement king, Joe Rogan! And now he’s down with dropsy, upended from too much fudge in the foot? Did time tear? Did I fall on my head? I fulminated into so deep a funk that I eventually found myself transported to the floor of my suite doing push-ups.

This is the way Vegas erodes the greenest parts of you, consigns even the seemingly innocent to the marquis’ ugly fate. I felt the dinner that night—all martini and bread, seafood and frite and a big Bordeaux—shove forward a little harder. Charlie tried to assure me as we steered through the slots: play tennis, eat well once in while, crook the occasional fruit bin, and you’ll be fine. “Fruit bin?” I said, “Fruit bin? I’m ready to build Walden!” Plain living and high thinking. Live low and fare hard, otherwise it’s a sludge multiplier in your plumbing. Though I liked the fried foie gras, the pork secreto, and the lychee cheesecake, I can’t keep contributing to my leg’s reduction. I need a bedtime and a booze-limit, a date with some (real) sunlight, and some stated duties. Even in Las Vegas, the gut gives its auld lang syne.