When a shipment of tobacco leaves goes missing in Los Angeles, as one did recently in a downtown storage warehouse, the list of prospective owners is short. Tobacco, especially cigar tobacco, is an East Coast plant of commerce; cigar makers on the West Coast are rarer than pre-Castro robustos. The La Plata Cigar Co., a storefront that has done business for the last 20 years on Grand Avenue just south of Olympic, is the only family-run cigar business in California. It is also where the call came in to inform owner Victor Migenes Jr., who inherited the 48-year-old company when his father retired in 1983, that his tobacco was MIA.
When tobacco does reach La Plata's doorway it passes through the front room, past the humidor filled with La Plata's 30 styles of cigars, past Victor Jr. sitting at his oak desk chatting up customers, and back into what Victor calls "the original well"--the room where Gloria Gomez and Theresa Gomez, Juan Rodriguez and Juan Martinez (a.k.a. Juan No. 1 and Juan No. 2) spend the day rolling La Plata's cigars, smoking La Plata's cigars and affectionately calling Victor, a junior to all of them, "El Jefe."
All the rollers smoke cigars as they hunch over their work. (A stranger who didn't know cigars were being made in the well might think its occupants were making book.) Today, Gloria is rolling Hercules cigars--she will roll 100 by 5 p.m.--and is smoking a Grand Classic that she just finished for herself, rolled in Connecticut premium wrapper that, she says, "has a sweet taste, smooth, like the taste of chocolate." Theresa, sitting behind Gloria, also smokes a Grand Classic; Juan No. 1 is rolling and smoking torpedo-size Goliaths ("Oh my goodness," says Gloria, "those are hard--the Goliath is 9 inches long"); Juan No. 2 is rolling Goliaths but smoking a Rocket Enterprise, and Maria Pazas, who helps Victor around the office, is drawing on a 6-inch Ashford Classic, although she is known to keep constant companionship with Desert Classics on her commute home.
There is Ecuadorean 100% Leaf and Dominican Republic Leaf on Gloria's desk this morning, and before she rolls the tobacco into a Hercules--a process that looks much like a child kneading clay into the shape of a wobbly snake--she sometimes sprays it with water if the leaf is not pliant. To a visitor, the process looks like an inherited skill, and such a guess ventured out loud in the La Plata well brings on a discussion of that elusive cigar-roller phenomenon: El Tacto.
"El Tacto," says Maria, relighting the extinguished Ashford Classic in her mouth, "The Touch."
"We work only with The Touch," says Gloria, roughing out an infant Hercules on her desk. "It's how they know what they're doing," says Maria, "by how the cigar feels in their hand." "Some days," Gloria adds, "cigar makers feel they are not cigar makers. They walk into the shop in the morning and they say to themselves, 'I've lost The Touch.' " "It's like a baseball pitcher," offers Maria, searching for a metaphor. "Sometimes they just throw balls, no strikes at all." "It happens usually just for a day," nods Gloria. "Then The Touch comes back." "I don't know if it's psychological," says Juan No. 1, pulling from his mouth the tip of a Goliath for a rare appearance. "But it happens. A few times I've come in and felt it, and I just went home for the day." "It happens to all real cigar makers," says Juan No. 2 from around his Rocket Enterprise.
"It happens," says Gloria with finality, closing a box of finished cigars, "because the cigar maker is an artist, and they feel their cigars are their children, and children are not always easy." "That's right," says Maria, studying her Ashford Classic, which has just gone out for the third time this morning--evidence, perhaps, of misplaced El Tacto. "That's their babies."