Duluth, Minn. — It's dark, there's some mist coming down, and it's about 39 degrees. Little kids are home in bed at this hour, so the playground next to the Duluth harbor is mostly empty. But not quite. Over next to the swings, the UMD Cigar Club is convening its weekly meeting. Seven young men and three young women gather in a circle and light up cigars.
Some of them are bundled up against the weather, but others are bare-headed and without mittens. Eric Neid took the middle road. He has a knit hat on his head and a thick scarf wrapped around his neck. It's hard to tell in this light, but it looks like his only jacket might be a tweed blazer. He's the president of the UMD Cigar Club.
"We get together Thursday nights and we just talk and smoke," he says. "It's just so laid back. Just the beauty of it all. We just smoke cigars and talk. There's not a lot to it."
Neid has been smoking cigars for a few years. Back in high school, some friends got him started. Most of the club members are newer to cigars. Chris Berg is the vice president, and he started smoking cigars last year, when the club formed.
"They're delicious," he says with a contented grin. "It's a very relaxing activity. A social activity that we can do. Legally."
Most of the club members are in their second year of school. They met last year in the dorm. Andrew Kamps has been in the club from the beginning.
"We lived on the same floor," Kamps says.
A couple of them discovered they shared a fondness for cigars. They agreed to meet outside and smoke together.
"It just kind of slowly developed over time into a real club," Kamps says. "Now we go to new, exotic locales every time."
It's just so laid back. Just the beauty of it all. We just smoke cigars and talk.
They've met on the beach. They've met in a lookout tower, up on the hill, with a sweeping view of Duluth. They've met under the freeway.
Some of the club members are regular smokers, but some of them smoke only at club meetings. A few of them have discerning taste, and they make a trip to a tobacco shop to buy fancy cigars, but most of them pick up something cheap at a gas station.
"I have these Swisher Sweets," says Meryl Smith, nodding at the smoldering, slender cigar in her hand.
She's one of the newest members of the club. Some people accuse her of smoking what amounts to a candy cane in the shape of a cigar. But she says they taste "pretty good." And better yet, they don't cost much.
"I'm starting low," she says with a chuckle. "I'm working my way up."
Cigar Club members say smoking is "encouraged, but not required." About 15 minutes into this meeting, only a couple members of the club are still smoking.
"We don't want to turn away anyone who doesn't smoke," says Vice President Chris Berg.
"Yeah, our doors are open," says President Eric Neid.
Everyone's welcome to join, but the club's officers don't get around to doing much recruiting. Neid says the club's most aggressive outreach is its presence on the World Wide Web.
"It's a good Web site," Neid says. "We've got a cigar of the month. It's turned out to be a cigar of the year so far."
The Web site also has a weekly, or almost weekly, recommendation for a movie with a good cigar scene. This week's movie is "The Graduate." An all-time favorite is "Young Frankenstein."
And the Web page always has an agenda for the next meeting. Neid says the agenda for this meeting is a little longer than usual.
"Smoke cigars," he says, then pauses, trying to remember the next agenda item.
"Relax," says Vice President Berg, helping him out.
"Relax," Neid echoes. "Dress warm. And we were going to vote on something to be announced. We just haven't figured out what it is yet."
After an hour, the club members head for their cars. They never did vote on anything, but they agreed on a site for the November 6 meeting: downtown Duluth.
And this is a first -- probably because it's getting cold. They're going to walk around while they smoke cigars.