Life in the Clouds

The couches in the lobby of the Sherry-Netherland are comfortable. Ditto the Algonquin. The couches at the old Mudd Club, the erstwhile punk mecca, were not uncomfortable. Once, I sat down on a couch in a Maurice Villency showroom and fell asleep. When I woke up, I said, “I’ll take it.” The ugly thing sits in my living room to this day, covered with dog hair, never as comfortable as during that first sitting. That said, the most comfortable couch in all New York can be found in a storefront on Sixth Avenue, between 25th and 26th Streets.

This most comfortable couch belongs to Martha (pronounced Marta) Bravo, who, along with her husband, Enrique Peña, is a proprietor of PB Cuban Cigars, an oasis of gentlemanly pleasure in the flower district. Yet when Martha and Enrique first opened their place on the premises of a former pizza parlor three years ago, they had no couch. “I did not think to have a couch,” says the courtly, diminutive Martha, who was born in Colombia around 50 years ago and soon moved to Santiago in the Dominican Republic, where she met Enrique, a large, smiling man. Enrique worked as a cigar roller for several big tobacco farms in and around Santo Domingo before the couple came to this country in the seventies. Here they eventually realized their dream: to slip the pale-orange-and-gold ring of their own brand around hand-rolled Cuban-seed cigars, the only kind they sell.

To Martha and Enrique, the storefront on the heavily trafficked stretch of Sixth Avenue seemed perfect. The mural on the wall was “a good omen.” Left over from the pizza parlor, the painting depicts a flock of seagulls soaring over the Statue of Liberty, the Twin Towers, and other New York landmarks. The coffee-shop-style mural celebrates a sense of giddily unabashed hometown spirit, a sentiment that Martha and Enrique, immigrants to the great metropolis, fully endorse. Still, the couple never supposed that their modest premises, where the tobacco leaves are stored in big cotton-wrapped bundles, would become the marvelously subterranean New York hangout that it has.

“We thought people would come into this small store, buy a few cigars, and then leave,” says Martha with a sly smile the Mona Lisa could only envy. But Martha, a natural hostess, was not happy to have people just come and go. “When you work hard to make something, it is a good thing to be able to see them enjoy it,” she says.

This is especially so since the vast majority of Martha’s customers are not the sort who are likely to turn up in the pages of Cigar Aficionado or talking on cell phones at Nat Sherman or Barclay-Rex, where they slavishly plunk down $13 apiece for Monte Cristos, Cohibas, and other Dominican-grown knockoffs of the famous Cuban brands. These suspenders-wearing junior brokers and their walk-in humidors almost killed cigar smoking as a regal, if marginally unhealthy and stinky, bad habit. Thankfully, none of these foul airs sully the dense smoke inside PB Cuban. Here, all cigars – be they robusto, corona, or perfecto – are $5 or less, a suitable price to the minions of the flower district, one of the few remaining local trade neighborhoods in midtown, the blue-collar stomping ground for Jamaican bus drivers, Ukrainian electrical contractors with vivid memories of the day Chernobyl melted down, and computer repairmen.

“People come in on their lunch hour and relax for a moment,” Martha reports. One day, she decided to bring a couple of metal-frame chairs from her apartment on 21st Street and set them up on the linoleum floor between the cigar display case and the storefront’s neon-lit plate-glass window. As a further hospitality, Martha soon began brewing up potent, thickly sugared espresso, which she serves to those who desire it in Caribbean-style small plastic cups. A coatrack was soon installed, so customers need not sit about in their heavy outer garments. And should a lunch-hour regular care to bring a bit of Scotch to accompany his corona, Martha has cleared a shelf, and bottles bear handwritten labels, such as ALAN’S – NO TOUCH.

But still, there was no couch under the water-stained ceiling at PB Cuban Cigars, and there’s “a funny story” about how it came to be there, says Martha. Seems that one of her “good customers,” Andrew DeForrest, formerly of Caher in southern Tipperary and currently an installer of midtown-office-building bathrooms, happened to be passing his lunch hour in the preferred manner, letting his mind go while puffing on one of PB Cuban’s “brilliant” robustos. “Nothing could be better,” says DeForrest, an impressively huge man known for carrying a five-inch curved blade on his ample belt and whom Martha refers to as “Mr. Le Florist.” That day, it occurred to DeForrest that however perfect things might be, they could still be more perfect.

“Martha,” said DeForrest, “if you only had a comfortable couch here, I’d never leave. I’d live here and sleep on it.”

Then, “like magic, with the words barely out of my mouth,” DeForrest says, a man wearing a stocking cap stuck his head in the door of PB Cuban. “Hey,” he said with a surreptitious hiss, “wanna buy a couch?”

“How much?” replied DeForrest without pause.

“Twenty bucks,” said the man in the hat.

With that, saying no more, DeForrest rose and went with the seller around the corner, where he peeled off a twenty. Then, in his Bunyanesque way, DeForrest carried the couch on his back, pushing through the door of PB Cuban. He set the couch against the wall to the right of the cigar case, sat down on it, and closed his eyes. There he slept, for the rest of his lunch hour.

More than a year later, Martha’s couch remains, as DeForrest proclaimed the day it arrived, “the most comfortable couch in New York.” Not that it looks like much. It is bulbous in the manner of a half-deflated blow-up doll, and its linty variety of fake Naugahyde is not recommended for prolonged contact with bare skin. But to sit on it! To sink into its squishy pillows! Perhaps it’s the presence of swaying palm fronds outside the storefront window (this is the flower district, after all), but sitting on Martha’s couch, bathed in the pink-and-blue light of the PB Cuban neon sign, following the curl of smoke snaking from the end of a cigar called “the Illusion,” is to be transported. A few doors from PB Cuban is a fortune-teller’s parlor bearing three awnings: One says past, the second present, and the last future; to sit on Martha’s couch is to enter a realm where this trio of temporal states is, for a nicotine-enabled moment, forever accessible.

Only the happy chatter in the storefront returns the grateful smoker to the here and now. And there’s a good group today: Alan the computer man, who broke up with his girlfriend, has arrived; Mr. Le Florist is here in his wide-brimmed outback hat; Chris the painter has come over from F.I.T.; Steve the stand-up comic is also here, commandeering the left side of the couch. Recently, Steve got a job coaching public speakers. According to polls, Steve announces, public speaking is the third-greatest fear held by mankind, right behind drowning. “Incredible,” he says. “People would rather be shot in the head than talk in front of a crowd.”

For each regular, Martha offers both cheeks to be kissed and a cigar. In her canny, sphinxlike way, she knows everyone’s particular passion. A beefy, cajoling man from Budapest, no one any of the regulars has seen before, has entered this afternoon’s gathering monoxide cloud. Speaking in the hushed but insistent tones of a former Soviet black-marketeer, he wants to find out where he might locate some “real” Cuban cigars. Told it wouldn’t be worth the trouble, the Hungarian does not relent. Finally, a regular, a software salesman named Lawrence Taylor (“L.T. to you, No. 56, Hall of Famer”), tells the Hungarian that he’s wasting his time looking for smuggled Cuban cigars. “Martha got the best cigars in New York! The best cigars on the whole East Coast. You don’t need no Cohibas!” Unconvinced, the Hungarian stalks out, much to everyone’s relief.

The assembled smokers notice that our hostess has a tear in her eye. She has been touched by this defense of PB Cuban. “I feel such a love from my good customers,” Martha says, her hands upon the cigar case. “It is such a love I feel I do not deserve.” But as the view from Martha’s couch, the most comfortable in New York, makes clear: Of course she does.

Life in the Clouds