Some days stick in one’s memory. They are not necessarily defined by joy, triumph, or tragedy, either. These days can be unremarkable by their appearances except that they hold a mirror up to one’s life and tell a story. They say, “This is where you are. This is who you are. And your character—all of it, good and bad—got you here. So pay attention.”
Last Saturday was one of those days in my life where events conspired to soften and to humble me. And is so often the case when these events spill from the calendar into memory, friends are at the center of the story.
I awoke early, knowing that my friend Scott Stultz would arrive at my home in the early morning. He had planned to strike out before dawn from Baltimore where he had spent the night. Although we speak on the phone often, it had been nearly six months since I’d seen Scott in person—a long time since we used to get together a couple times a month when I traveled near his home.
Scott had driven down for the day and an overnight. We had planned to meet another friend who was in town from Arizona for early coffee and subsequently join other friends for breakfast before heading to the smoke shop for our Saturday gathering.
The day smelled like my mother’s fresh-washed laundry hung out on a clothesline over a chilly Wyoming winter night. Although it was sunny, it was chilly. The cold air had air-dried the oak leaves underfoot, and they protested with audible crunches and cracks as we walked to my truck. There was little traffic as we headed southeast toward the Air Force Memorial which towered over my Arizona friend’s hotel.
I was looking forward to our coffee together. Scott had become acquainted with my Arizona friend, Toby, but had never met him in person. Toby was looking forward to making Scott’s acquaintance. Since Scott designed my Susquehanna Pipe Chest and produced a robust series of pipe and tobaccos art (including posters for the Chicago Show), he has become a bit of a celebrity in the pipe world. Scott was intrigued at meeting Toby, too. In addition to being a fellow pipe enthusiast, Toby is an accomplished neuroscientist and physician with a catholicity of interests and the kind of easy-going warmth and modest manner one associates with a cardigan-clad science teacher.
Several weeks before, it came to my attention that Toby had acquired a fairly rare Comoy Blue Riband Extraordinaire billiard in a shape number that I had never managed to find, myself. I had been scouring the planet for that very pipe and had all but given up on finding one. It flabbergasted me that Toby found one. Moreover, he found a particularly beautiful specimen in exquisite condition.
When I saw pictures of the pipe on an online forum in which we are both members, I shook my head and composed a short post congratulating Toby, but also attaching a sobbing, lime-green smiley-icon that hinted at my sad envy or envious sadness; I’m not sure which. Not one to let such a gleeful opportunity pass him by, Toby responded with a humorous jibe that rubbed it in. It made me laugh.
Only in the world of collecting—art, books, pipes, shotguns, decoys, etc.—would grown men behave like this. We were like a scrum of 8-year-old boys scrabbling for one Matchbox Ferrarri when only one of us could have it. As I looked at the photograph of Toby’s Blue Riband billiard, I empathized in a way I never had before with Sméagol’s obsession to snatch his “Precious” from Frodo Baggins’ grasp.
Two evenings later, an email popped up in my browser wherein Toby wrote that he had been thinking about our exchange, and that he had decided that, if the pipe was one I had been seeking, he wanted me to have it. He rhapsodized over the pipe’s smoking qualities, describing it as “the best smoker I’ve ever come across.” Given Toby’s collection which is brimming with fine artisanal smoking pipes, that was high praise.
I wrote back offering to buy or trade for the pipe. Toby’s response was insistent: “I won’t sell this pipe to you. I will only give it to you.” No strings attached. In a subsequent phone conversation, Toby told me that he wanted to get together over Thanksgiving weekend when he would personally deliver the pipe to me. I felt a mélange of emotions: confusion, gratitude, happiness, concern, and guilt. I didn’t want to take a favorite smoker from a good friend, but I was damned if I would act like an ingrate and ignore the generosity and respect shown to me.
Saturday following Thanksgiving had finally arrived, and as Scott and I drove through the porte cochere to the hotel entrance, I ruminated about Toby’s and my conversations. I had related the story to Scott who, upon hearing the whole of it, was moved by Toby’s gesture.
“Dude,” Scott mused, “That’s a real friend.” No kidding, I thought. I was still a little stunned by the unfolding of events.
We drove to my favorite coffee haunt, Arlington’s Northside Social Club, where we provisioned ourselves with hot coffee and fresh scones. Scott and Toby had wrangled a table in the back room which was no small feat given that the place is overrun by computer-toting, bleary-eyed thirty-somethings almost every day, but especially on Saturday morning.
Scott and Toby were busy conversing as fresh acquaintances are wont to do. I sat there sipping my latté, thankful to be spending an early Saturday with two good pipe friends who had both come to DC from remote environs.
Few people outside our fraternity of pipe smokers understand the camaraderie that illuminates our circles. I have often wondered at why it is so easy to forge friendship among pipe smokers when it seems so elusive elsewhere. I don’t believe that we are better people, easier to get along with, nor nicer than the population-at-large, but somehow friendship takes root faster among pipe men as if our shared interests provide some missing nutrient that, when it is present, quickens community.
I was lost in my reflections when I suddenly heard Toby speak my name. He delved into a black bag he’d brought along from the depths of which he snatched a familiar black Smokingpipes.com box. He positioned the box in front of me with the precision and reverence one associates with a priest’s presentation of the host. I knew what was swaddled inside.
I opened the box to discover that the large, amply proportioned billiard was far more beautiful than its pictures had led me to expect. This pipe perfectly exemplified the exquisite character of the contrast stain that was the principle attribute of Comoy’s Blue Riband series. Wine, apricot, coal, and chocolate hues described its bowl grain. A jet-black, vulcanite stem absent scratches and toothmarks issued from the shank. A half century of aging had not compromised its fit nor finish. It was magnificent. And it was now a part of my collection. I was verklempt.
Earlier that week, I had decided that I could not proceed without returning Toby’s generosity in kind. While he had been insistent about taking no payment for the pipe, I figured that I could give him a pipe at the same time. What could he do about it? Refuse it? I doubted such an outcome.
I knew that Toby loved Bill Shalosky’s pipes, as do I. So I had selected my very favorite Shalosky—a box-elder burl-ringed Rhodesian that I had commissioned several years ago. The pipe was the first pipe I had ever commissioned from Bill and was his revival-interpretation of Comoy’s 499 shape. I knew the pipe to be not just drop-dead gorgeous, but also a savory smoker. This pipe was precious to me, and I would never have considered selling it, but I would give it to a great friend.
I took the Blue Riband from the box, reached into my Smokin’ Holsters bag, and took the Rhodesian from the elk-skin pocket in which it had rested. I placed it into the box and handed it back to Toby.
“I want you to have this,” I murmured.
To Scott, who sat to my right, this was theatre. He gazed quizzically over the rim of his coffee cup. A slight smile threatened to peek out.
Toby stared down at the pipe. He removed it from the box and gave it a long, quiet examination. He blinked and the corner of his mouth twitched.
“Thank you, Neill. You know I love Bill’s pipes.”
To those sleepy-eyed, coffee-sippers around us, nothing remarkable had taken place in that room. We were just three middle-aged men shooting the breeze on a Saturday morning. Even if they had known what had transpired, why should they have cared?
I have often remarked that it was my interest in pipes and tobaccos that attracted me to our community, but it is the people who keep me coming back. When I travel long distances to pipe gatherings and shows, I go to see and share time with my friends, not to buy pipes.
Somehow, somewhere along the way, I stopped caring so much about collecting pipes and started thinking a lot more about collecting friends. We live in a world where the distribution and obsession with stuff not only impoverishes peoples, but impoverishes souls. A dynamic where we simultaneously fear scarcity and crave status can cripple us if we let it.
Pipe-collecting is not so very different from other similar obsessions with books, art, guns, knives, or whatever. The desire to accumulate more and better and visibly can distance us from one another. Or, we can choose to make our friends’ passions our own.
My Blue Riband collection is no testament to anything about me. It is a testament to my friends’ commitment to seeing it grow and be shared. That’s why so many people in our pipe community—Toby, Arley Curtz, Ron Coulter, Andy Camire, Adam Davidson, Mike Glukler, Sam Goldberger, the late Derek Green, Jon Guss, Bob Herbert, Robert Lawing, Rick Newcombe, and Tony Soderman—have helped me assemble my collection, sometimes at their expense.