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A Scent of Cigar, a Sense of Home

In a tiny L.A. storefront, Cuban emigre Gilberto Leon's hand-rolled tobacco and old-fashioned ways kindle nostalgia in a Florida native

July 29, 2002|MARIA ELENA FERNANDEZ; Photos by LORI SHEPLER/Los Angeles Times | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The elderly man on the telephone chooses his words carefully but speaks in the rapid-fire, choppy Spanish of my hometown, Miami. When he notices my accent echoing his over the phone, he excitedly invites me over: "Ven p'aca." I arrive at Leon's Cigars expecting a cultural connection. What I find is somewhat arresting.

Scraps of paper with long written sums lie on one counter next to a small calculator; a portable radio is tuned to a Spanish talk show; a Cuban pennant hangs on one wall across from a crucifix and family photographs.

The rich and sweet aroma of tobacco in the front room competes with the scent of carne con papas (meat and potatoes) cooking on a portable stove in the back. Dozens of tobacco leaves are piled on wooden desks, waiting to be cut and filled. Before the day is over in this tiny cigar shop in Los Angeles, Gilberto Leon and his two employees will roll 600 to 700 cigars by hand, the way Leon was taught in his native Cuba. It's been this way at this small shop on 6th Street for 22 years.

Growing up, I heard plenty of nostalgic stories of dapper Cuban men artistically cutting tobacco leaves with steel blades, though I'd never actually seen it done. When I arrive, Leon and his sidekick, Alfonso Machin, are rolling away, a cigar burning on an ashtray near Leon. For four hours each day he has the rolled tobacco in his mouth, he says. Ten hours a day, it's in his sturdy hands, embedded in his fingernails, as he takes a wrapper of tobacco leaf, precisely cuts it into a triangle, then takes shredded tobacco and flips it into the wrapper and rolls. Over and over.

I look beyond Leon's kind face to the back of his crammed store, wedged between a florist shop and a Salvadoran restaurant, and I am transported. For 17 years, my grandfather Jose Fernandez owned a neighborhood bodega in Miami, 90 miles from the island where Leon rolled his first cigar at 14. Small and homey like Leon's store, my grandfather's bodega--our bodega--supported my grandparents and anyone else in our large family who needed it. It is where my sister and I were sometimes dropped off after school, and where we hung out on weekends, eating candies. It is also where my family learned to be at home in its new country.

Nobody rolled cigars in our little market, but people sure smoked them. The neighborhood men all gathered there after work, cigars in one hand, cafecitos in the other, reminiscing about old times and dissecting the latest travesty of the Fidel Castro regime. Boisterous and well-informed, these men gathered around a wooden counter, just like Leon's. The radio was always dialed to Spanish talk, especially of the political variety, and mementos of Cuba hung on the wall. Like the owner of this cigar shop, my grandfather was the quiet one who did most of the listening. At Leon Cigars, Machin, 73, is the noisy one with the naughty sense of humor.

When Leon proudly shows me the paper with his handwritten calculations of the day's sales (nearly $2,000), I see something else: the same type of discarded cigarette cartons my grandfather used for his tabulations because he didn't want to be wasteful. The long row of figures, the lines and curves of the digits themselves, make me homesick. "Are you hungry?" Leon asks sweetly. "I am cooking today. I wanted to eat home-cooked food, and the old lady at home cannot cook at all."

We go into the back, where the carne con papas is almost ready and another Cuban staple sits on the other burner: the silver coffeepot for Cuban espresso. I am reminded of so many afternoons when my sister and I walked in on my grandfather cooking caldo gallego (a Spanish stew) or arroz con pollo (chicken with rice). He died in 1998, two months shy of his 95th birthday. But on this summer afternoon in the City of Angels, it is as if he is right here with me.

'The Best Cigar in L.A.'

Gilberto Leon has always lived simply, devoted to his work and family. A widower whose grown son now lives in Miami with his family, Leon shares the small house he owns in Silver Lake with a "lady friend." He works Monday through Saturday, arriving before 6 a.m. and staying until 4:30 or later if his customers need him. On Sundays he works a few hours in the early morning, preparing the cigar wrappers for the coming week. His assistants are two of his closest friends: Machin, a Cuban exile who almost died in the Florida Strait during the 1980 Mariel boat lift; and Elda Lopez, a Nicaraguan woman who rolls cigars at a desk in the back, away from Machin's banter.

"My vices are eating, smoking tobacco, drinking a little beer here and there," Leon says. He also loves to play dominoes with his sister, who carries them in her car wherever she goes. "She likes the dominoes like I like cigars."

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