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The Slow & Graceful Death of the Tobacco Leaf: Part 2
Vasquez listened from his office as the factory lector read about cannibals: They had left the body parts of their victims strewn along the beach and now Crusoe had armed himself and was waiting for his chance to attack and save the rest of the intended victims. Vasquez cut the end from a La Paz maduro and struck a match while hoping Crusoe would kill the cannibals and spark a full scale invasion by the other savages. Instead of listening for Crusoe to back down, Vasquez imagined his own version of events and hoped the lector would take the story in a new direction. To improvise a new path for once and turn Crusoe into a brutal killer. It would add some needed excitement and freshness to a story Vasquez had heard countless times. This is Part 2 of our article on the death of the tobacco leaf.
From the cigar factories of Cuba decades ago to the modern day enclave of Ybor City, the cigar makers seemed to vote for Robinson Crusoe at least once a year. No matter which factory Vasquez worked in, no matter the season or the mood, Robinson Crusoe was an eternal favorite. Vasquez had lost track of how many times he had heard the story. He knew it inside out and often imagined his own twists and turns and was always disappointed when the factory lector decided to stick with the original text.
As Crusoe went into hiding to avoid being spotted by the cannibals, Vasquez lit his cigar and walked from his office to observe the factory floor. Lines of busy cigar makers stretched thirty rows deep from the wooden platform up front where the lector’s booming voice sailed to the farthest row of workers along the south wall of the brick building.
There were little differences between the La Paz factory and Vasquez’s factory, which had burned to the ground a year ago. The shuffling of tobacco leaves as they were pulled from workers’ individual bins and rolled into perfect round dolls, the metallic tapping of chaveta blades slicing the ends from cigars, the murmur of men quietly chatting beneath the voice of the lector. Outside the factory, vendors set up fruit and coffee stands in anticipation of the afternoon lunch break. The smell of fresh leaves, the wheels of a cart grinding against the wood floor as it hauls finished cigars to the elevator where they will be taken to the floor below to be sorted and boxed.
It was very much like the Vasquez Cigar Company except for one major difference. As Vasquez closed the door to his office he read the freshly painted words on the glass window: American Tobacco Company.
Quite a difference it was, Vasquez told himself while the lector described naked savages lingering among the remains of their cannibal feast. The La Paz factory, once a competitor, had recently been purchased like so many others by the American Tobacco Company, and new ownership would bring quick and drastic change.
No longer could Vasquez plot the future of his company. The fire had reduced him from owner to foreman and now he reported to an American corporate type appointed by American Tobacco to oversee the La Paz factory operations. Sanburn was his name. A nice kid in his late 30’s with a drop of Spanish blood in his veins, but his fingers fondled the pages of economics textbooks instead of tobacco leaves. He knew the numbers but he didn’t know the leaf.
Vasquez had been slowly educating Sanburn on the intricacies of cigar making while the American moved forward modernizing the factory. As Vasquez preached the importance of uniform color in a box of cigars, Sanburn spoke of heightened safety standards and incentives for the workers. While Vasquez explained the balance of flavor, Sanburn pointed out marketing and advertising opportunities. Vasquez praised old-world traditions while Sanburn predicted how the Twentieth Century would unfold.
“These are improvements that I once fought strenuously against,” Vasquez said. “To the point where I was willing to lock my workers out of the factory and engage in a long, bloody strike.”
Sanburn nodded solemnly. He knew about the 1901 General Strike and how it had cost Vasquez the company his father had built. He knew of the shootings and lynching, the rallies and riots.
“All of that is behind us,” said Sanburn. “We have reached a point where both workers and management understand the benefits of modernization.”
“Not everyone has been convinced,” Vasquez murmured under his breath.
“Come,” Sanburn said. “A new shipment is about to arrive.”
They walked to the elevator and rode it down to the first floor loading dock where three barrels of tobacco had just arrived from Port Tampa. “Renteria family tobacco,” Sanburn grinned at the wooden barrels as they were rolled up the ramp and into the brick factory. “Purchased at a discount from a desperate farmer in Cuba.”
Vasquez knew the farmer and the farm. He had spent time there as a boy, and had been a friend to the Renteria boys. He tried not to show his irritation as he replied to Sanburn. “My father did business with El Señor Renteria when I was a boy. And later when I took over the factory, I did business with El Señor’s sons. His eldest, Armando was a close friend and business associate.”
“Of course, I apologize.” Sanburn said quietly. He knew the story of how Armando had died and he felt Vasquez was about to remind him.
“He was arrogant and he was a loudmouth but he didn’t deserve to die at the hands of an outlaw cigar maker.” Vasquez pointed to the windows, to the empty lot where his glorious factory had once stood. “The same outlaw who torched my building and burned it to the ground! He was killed in church while at prayer!”
“Of course,” Sanburn said. “I know the story. I didn’t mean to offend.”
They stood uncomfortably together while the barrels were rolled into the building and stood upright side-by-side. Sanburn smiled and held out an open hand. “Care to do the honors, Don Vasquez?”
The former cigar baron stepped towards the barrels. Taking a hammer from one of the workers he pried the wooden lid off the first barrel and pulled the circular cover aside. Immediately they were both hit with the strong and sweet smell of fresh tobacco leaves. It smelled sweeter than the best retail cigar shop, more elegant than the fanciest cigar lounge. Vasquez inhaled deeply, savoring the aroma and suddenly all memories of the bloody General strike faded away.
He smiled approvingly at Sanburn and nodded to the cigar workers. The barrel was covered and the tobacco carted away to the elevator where it was taken downstairs to the basement. Sanburn and Vasquez followed. As they entered the dark, damp basement a row of oil lamps illuminated countless bales of stored tobacco. A team of workers went through the bales and separated the leaves by quality. Then the leaves were moistened with water and set aside.
“Soon these will go upstairs to the strippers where the stems will be removed,” Vasquez said fondly. “My first job in my father’s cigar factory was stripping the stems off leaves. I used to save the stems and a few scraps of leaves and bring them home to use as pipe tobacco.”
Sanburn couldn’t help but appreciate the nostalgia. “My father and grandfather smoked pipe tobacco, for as long as I can remember.”
“Where you from, Sanburn?”
“New York City.”
“You a friend of Sam Gompers?” Vasquez joked, chuckling to himself and praising his own clever jab.
Sanburn frowned, not appreciating the irony. “He’s still up there making trouble. Trying to get every cigar maker to join the union.”
“He’d be a hero in this town,” Vasquez said. “I spent the better part of three years fighting unionization. It’s an immovable force if you ask me. Here to stay and growing. No sense in fighting it. No sense in accommodating it either, if you ask me.”
“Strange to hear you talk like this, Vasquez, with the unions responsible for the loss of your father’s business.”
Vasquez sighed and looked to the damp floor. He often wondered what would have happened to the company had he taken a different path. If he had never followed Armando and the Cigar Trust, and made his own concessions to the workers in his factory, Vasquez and Company would surely still be in business.
They rode the elevator up three floors to the factory’s top level, the home of the leaf strippers and selectors. Strippers consisted of mostly women and children. Once they pulled the stems from the wetted, pliable leaves, the tobacco was sent across the floor to the selectors who divided the stripped leaves by color and quality.
“When the market for cigars slows,” Vasquez explained to Sanburn, “we move this operation down to the second floor. We’ll have less cigar makers there in the slow season and it doesn’t make sense to haul leaves all the way to the third floor to be sorted only to them take them down one floor to be rolled, so we keep the sorters and the cigar rollers on the same floor.”
Sanburn nodded with a half smile. “A shrewd way to keep your operation running efficiently. But the American Tobacco Company hopes there never is a slow season.”
Vasquez fought to stop himself from rolling his eyes. “You still have a thing or two to learn about this business. Let’s head down to the galley.”
The factory floor. Where the lector continued Robinson’s tale and the countless rows of cigar makers worked in near silence as they listened to the reading of the classic novel. The lector finished the chapter he was on, slid a bookmark between the pages and then set the book aside. Almost on cue, the room full of cigar makers seemed to stand in one motion and suddenly everyone was talking at once. To an outsider it may have looked like a walkout, or an organized work stoppage when, in fact, it was the workers’ lunch break.
Some removed their aprons and broke for the stairs while others milled around and chatted with their friends. Some lit up their own cigars – cigar makers were allowed two free cigars per day at the La Paz factory, a practice Sanburn disagreed with but Vasquez didn’t.
“This practice of free cigars is a wasteful perk,” Sanburn said.
“You could say the same for their lunch break. They aren’t slaves.”
“Consider the costs,” Sanburn protested. “Two cigars a day times nearly two hundred workers. That’s four hundred cigars a day, or two thousands cigars leaving this factory each week. I won’t calculate the yearly costs, I’ll let you do that.”
“I won’t bother,” Vasquez said. “Because banishing this perk is something this company will never do. You and I both know it.”
Sanburn frowned. Vasquez did too as he realized he had become the type of man he once fought against. A champion of the workers. A crusader against labor injustice. He could have filled in for the union leaders he once railed against. A Spanish version of Angelo de la Parte, the famed labor leader of the 1901 General Strike.
Before heading out for their own lunch, Vasquez and Sanburn returned to the first floor and headed for the loading docks. Once the wagon that had transported the raw tobacco was emptied the workers began loading it with finished cigars.
“The La Paz Flor de Tampa cigar!” Sanburn announced proudly. The company’s signature cigar, packed in cedar bundles of 24 sticks each, tied with a black ribbon. Each bundle stacked in a case; each case arranged on a pallet and tied tightly in place with twine, then covered with a canvas blanket to protect the cases from the weather.
“Seal them tight,” Sanburn commanded the cigar workers. “We don’t want these getting wet on their journey to the consumer.”
Vasquez stood beside Sanburn and watched quietly as the shipment of cigars was hauled out to the loading dock and placed on a wagon that would transport them to the nearby train station. A cigar worker approached Sanburn with a clipboard and the factory manager reviewed a few papers, signed his name and handed the clipboard back to the worker. Then he slapped Vasquez on the chest.
“I’m hungry,” Sanburn said. “Let’s get us a plate of black beans and rice.”
In the next chapter: The cigars arrive in a retail cigar shop in a faraway city where the store proprietor uses inventive methods to sell his wares. For more background on the characters and situations check out The Cigar Maker, the award winning novel by Mark McGinty.