The sense of community can come in many forms – for Detra Thomas, it came unexpectedly in a local cigar shop
Written by Maggie Kimberl
In the summer of 2022, Detra Thomas’ story began to be shared in a series of Facebook posts on the Humans of New York account. What unraveled was a story of trial, survival, redemption, and, eventually, cigars.
Detra Denise, as she’s best known, grew up in a fundamentalist Baptist family and was voted “most naive” in her Bible College. She married, had seven children, and had a traveling musical ministry with her preacher husband. When the lack of control she felt in her life became untenable, she got out of her husband’s car on the side of the road in Arkansas with nothing more than her purse and soon was on her way to New York City with her son, who lived there with his wife.
She went through months of trying to find her place in an unfamiliar society before things started to click. She’d gotten a job at Starbucks, moved into a shelter after her son and his wife relocated, and began building a life and a community. After years of living in a shelter, she was able to find a job that allowed her to afford her own apartment in Harlem. As she settled into her neighborhood, she discovered a cigar shop on her block and went to introduce herself to her new community.
“We had a lot of unrest because of Covid and just a lot of things going on in our nation politically,” Thomas recalls. “My oldest son who brought me to New York to begin with was keeping tabs on crime and said, ‘Mom, I’m worried you’re there alone.’ I told my son I’m going to always nod and say good evening. The more people you know, the safer you are.”
She’d been frequenting the sidewalk dining options in the area and had been curious about the cigar smokers she saw day after day. Then, one day, she decided to introduce herself.
“One evening a gentleman came over and said, ‘You look lovely tonight,’ so as I got up to leave I went to him and I said, ‘Thank you for your compliment and my name is Detra.’ I met a couple more people and they were like, ‘Why don’t you come smoke a cigar?’ I said, ‘Oh guys I’ve never smoked anything in my life!’ And they said, ‘Well, just come sometime.’”
She’d been unsure about what to do next as her son grew increasingly worried.
“I was like, you know, God, my son’s worried. Do I need to leave New York? I am alone. If you can take care of me here, can you show me in a way that I’m comfortable and my son’s comfortable?”
The next time she visited the cigar shop, she got her answer.
“This one man was outside and he said, ‘Hey, we would like to offer you protection.’ That was literally his sentence. And I said, you know, I take that seriously. He told me, ‘We take care of family. You’re now our family.’
“I called my son and I said, ‘Fly up here, I’m about to smoke a cigar this weekend. I want to accept this friendship. I’ve never smoked but I want you with me,’” Thomas recalls. “So, he flew up here that weekend and I smoked three cigars. By this time I knew like 12 or 15 people, so I introduced my son to all of them. Every man, and this is no exaggeration, every man told him, ‘We’ve got your mom. You don’t worry about your mom.’ And so my son buys my membership here and I not only started smoking cigars, I was welcomed to a community and a family and a support system.”
Those first cigars she smoked at the Harlem Cigar Room were house blend sweet tips, but she’s since discovered she likes her cigars more full-bodied.
“I’ve smoked so many different kinds,” Thomas says. “I enjoy getting to try new cigars. When I first began I did not have means to really do much, so the house blend with my discount became a way that I could have my family and my support without getting into trouble. My favorite thing to do is sit on the corner. I have my playlist on my bluetooth speaker, I smoke a cigar, and I watch Harlem go by. It’s enchanting to me in a Harlem kind of way.”
A friend she’d known from the shelter reached out to her one day and asked if
she would be willing to share her story with Humans of New York. Within a few days of agreeing to share her story, she was being interviewed.
“I knew you got to pick where your picture was taken and I said, ‘Well I want to have my picture made in front of my cigar room with my cigar,’ having no idea what domino rally that was going to start.”
News of Detra’s story spread around the world. A GoFundMe was set up to help her build a cushion. People reached out from all over the world to offer their well-wishes.
“I talked to the owner, Felix, and I said, you know I’d like to just talk about designing my own cigar,” Thomas says. “He said, ‘Detra, I’m going to the Dominican Republic, come with me.’ So my son and I went and I came home with a line of three cigars, and we had my big launch November 17 of 2022.”
Detra’s Story Cigars come in a five-pack: two Connecticut cigars with Ecuadorian wrapper and Dominican filler, two Habano with Ecuadorian wrapper and Dominican filler, and one Maduro with Mexican wrapper and Dominican filler. They are all 7×54 Churchills. The seven is a significant number to Detra, because in the Bible it means completion, and the extreme changes she’s made in her life over the preceding seven years led her to Harlem Cigar Room, Humans of New York, and a new life.
To learn more about Detra Thomas’ story and to find her Detra’s Story cigars, please visit detrasstory.com.
Detra’s Story cigars have meaning in every detail. This is a 7×54, and the former number represents Detra’s seven years in New York that were full of tribulation, including living in a homeless shelter room that slept 30 women. The blue label Detra’s Story cigar is Habano with an Ecuadorian wrapper and Dominican filler tobaccos. The predominant notes in this cigar are cedar, espresso, and cacao nibs. When paired with Old Potrero 6 Years Old malted rye, the cigar brings out rounded, warm baking spices and leather notes in the whiskey. The whiskey enhances the cedar notes in the cigar and turns the cacao nibs into dark chocolate.
Also a 7×54, the 54 in Detra’s Story cigars represents 54, the age at which she escaped her previous life on the side of the road and headed to New York to start over after being picked up by a stranger. The gold label Detra’s Story cigar is a Maduro with a Mexican wrapper and Dominican filler tobaccos. The predominant notes in this cigar are cedar, black pepper, and cafe au lait. When paired with a Knob Creek 9 Years Old Bourbon, the cigar brings out sweet cinnamon and pie apples covered with caramel sauce in the whiskey. The whiskey mutes the black pepper in the cigar and adds a caramel note to the cafe au lait.