Editor's note: During the week of the Republican National Convention, columnist Jeff Houck will visit restaurants, shops and other places around the area to hear what people are saying about the convention and share what they care about (or whether they care at all).
t's raining like a plague outside.
But I'm dry and warm and wedged firmly in the snug embrace of a leather easy chair in the corner of a room behind the counter at Edward's Pipe & Tobacco.
There are six other men in the room, all of whom clearly know each other. A layer of freshly puffed stogie smoke lingers in the stratosphere, defying the vortex of an industrial air filter and a superfluous ceiling fan.
I've come to ask what they think about the Republican National Convention coming to town. They're busy chit-chatting and watching a rebroadcast of a Tampa Bay Buccaneers preseason game in between drags on their cigars.
Framed golf flags from the 2004 Masters and the 2006 Ryder Cup adorn the walls. So does one with a Playboy bunny head signed by Lisa Dergan, Miss July 1998. A sign over the door reads, "Bob's Adult Day Care." Bob passed away not too long ago. He was, more or less, their cigar concierge.
With all the cedar on the walls, this man cave could pass for a human humidor.
I've barely had time to light my own cigar before a guy named Mark sitting across from me on a black leather loveseat takes a shot across the bow. He's wearing an aqua Polo shirt and a pair of turquoise plaid shorts.
"Why are all the newspapers so liberal?" he blurts.
Interesting. Mostly because he used a few extra words I'd like to put in the newspaper but can't for reasons of standards, profanity and unemployment. Also because I announced no political affiliation.
Others in the room lightly protest. "Nice way to treat a guest," one says. Another explains to him that I write for the paper with opinion pages that lean conservative.
"I don't care," he says. "They're all too liberal." Again, more colorful compound modifiers.
There might be a place in Tampa less inviting to someone of the Democrat persuasion. Until that spot is discovered, Edward's Pipe & Tobacco will have to do.
That this store has become a conservative safe haven makes sense. Cigars have all but become outlaw products, heavily taxed, highly regulated and unwelcome almost everywhere, including outdoors. Tampa was once known as Cigar City for all the factories that processed tobacco leaf. Today, only Cuesta Ray in Ybor City makes product locally. Every smoke shop feels like an embassy where customers can puff without recrimination. This is a comfort at a time when pit bulls have more friends than cigars do.
In truth, the Day Care room is where sports bull gets thrown around, Out front by the counter, where tobacco is blended in the showroom, is where the political talk flows. It's been like this since Smitty Smith opened the shop in 1960.
But today the topic is the convention, so political stripes are proudly being waved. Many have been coming to Edward's for years, some for decades, so there are few secrets here among the cigar band of brothers.
The king of the cave is Casey Hernandez, grandson of the founder of the Columbia Restaurant. At 84, he has trouble seeing and walks with a careful shuffle, but he hears everything from his seat in the corner, a black, wing-back leather chair embossed with the regal crest of the Fuente Opus X cigar brand.
To his left sits Moein Marashi, a civil litigation attorney almost half Casey's age. Moe unwinds by playing dominos a couple of times a week at Gaspar's Cigar Shoppe and drops in at Edward's to check on his friends, have a smoke and take Casey to lunch every so often.
Moe is a registered Democrat. Casey is decidedly not.
"This room is a little right of conservative," Moe says. Several nervous chuckles are heard. There's a sense that he has wildly understated things. Only a few minutes earlier, one among them promised he planned to pack a weapon during convention week. It wasn't Moe.
"I'm right of Atilla the Hun," Casey says proudly.
It wasn't always this way. Casey was a local Democratic Party mover and shaker through the late 1970s until he became disgusted by party tactics.
"I worked my ass off to get Jimmy Carter elected," Casey says. "My wife voted for (Gerald) Ford. She was smarter than me."
How does Moe survive in the room, despite being clearly outnumbered?
"I like to argue," he says. His eyes fold into a squinted smile behind wire-frame glasses.
Moe thinks the convention will be good for the city, with all the increased business. He doesn't expect confrontations with protesters and anarchists will be as bad as people are saying.
"Tampa has worked hard to be in the national spotlight," he says.
"I never thought the convention would ever come to Tampa," Casey says.
A commercial interrupts the Bucs game on TV. The audio comes on: "I'm Barack Obama and I approved this message."
Casey's chin dips to his chest. He shakes his head. Moe laughs. Casey aims the TV remote and fires.
"It's all of them," Casey says. "All of the commercials. For everybody. There are too many. My mute button gets a lot of work these days."
"That damn First Amendment, eh Casey?" Moe says. Another chuckle.
"The problem isn't the First Amendment," Casey says. "It's the people."
"With certain rights, you have certain obligations," Casey says. "Just like the Second Amendment."
No shouting. No yelling or finger-pointing. Just a conversation between old friends. The views may vary wildly, but the respect is not in dispute.
Casey pulls himself to his feet. His glass is empty. "Anyone want anything?" he asks. On his way back, he hands me a cigar to smoke. It's a private label made by a local attorney.
"Give it a try," he says.
Casey shuffles back to his leather throne, past a sign on the wall that reads, "Live Well. Love Much. Laugh Often."
It could use an addendum: "And argue a little. Just a little."