On the side of Jimenez Tobacco, a black-and-white portrait of Peter Jimenez Pozo, the face and personality of the family-run cigar and cocktail lounge on the edge of the Ironbound, is framed by bright flowers and dark bunting.
The site is now a place of pilgrimage, Pozo's elegant pose presiding over those who come to see him.
Pozo was usually seen inside Jimenez Tobacco in a cloud of smoke, his smile bright through the blue-gray haze. He drew you into his place on Liberty Street, literally in his family's home, and used old-school charm to make you feel like family in a way more intoxicating than the old-fashioned cocktails served.
This is why his unexpected death at the end of April makes this May cut so close to the heart of the extended family he left behind.
"I love sitting at the end of the bar, watching him control the room. Not controlling with strength, but touching people with his hand and with his heart," said Ricardo Pozo, Peter's brother. "It was just incredible, and people just loved it."
There is a lot to love about the cigar lounge's set-up. On the first floor, family members painstakingly hand-roll cigars just as they did back in their native Cuba. Up a set of narrow stairs, an oak-paneled bar and lounge awaits, with a mid-20th century style that Hemingway would have recognized just before Castro ruined the party. In the back, a garden serves to soothe the stressed-out, an island of calm amidst the cacophony of the city.
There was even more to love about Pozo, the maestro who put soul into the style he created. He did it in one way by having no TVs in the place, a way to break down isolation and encourage conversation. Pozo's wit, humor, and benign sarcasm were the spark that lit the flames of hundreds of new friendships, leaving people with a glow like the tip of a newly-lit cigar.
"Peter felt that cigars elicit conversation between people who know each other, and better yet, don't know each other," said Chris Murphy, a Newark-based attorney. "If there were 10 people sitting around, he made sure by the end of that cigar everyone was going to know each other and leave with a certain bond. Peter had that gift, something you can't teach. There's not that many people like that."
"I walked in when I heard they needed a bartender, told Peter I had no experience, and he said 'That's fine! Come in!'," said Kate, who did not want her last name used.
"He was a great bullshitter, and would always be cracking jokes with people,"said Kate, who worked for Pozo for three years, and learned to make classic cocktails under his watch. "But he also had a really big heart. You spend a lot of time with people, you really get close to them. I'm really going to miss when the lounge was dead and we'd be sitting down just talking about music or politics or history or God knows what. It was really special."
The social mix of white-collar, blue-collar and around-the-corner customers inside Jimenez attested to Pozo's skills as a curator of the lounge's distinctive atmosphere.
"If Peter was a doctor, he would've had the greatest bedside manner known to man. And instead of calling his place a man cave, I'd call it a den of power," said Anton Wheeler, a Newark native and educator.
"Men, women, Congressmen, lawyers, judges, teachers, construction workers, they're all in the lounge," Wheeler said. "The only people that he didn't like were the ones who wanted his property. But when you came in, you were on neutral ground, and you were treated with respect, he made sure of it."
"He knew me, my dad, my brother - he was a good kid. He knew everybody and their families, with all their interactions. He brought that same understanding to his place," said Joe Parlavecchio, a former Essex County freeholder, who remembers Peter growing up from the streets of Down Neck.
"Political people feel comfortable there because they feel that whatever is said there, stays there. It's not one of those places where you just go to be seen. You go because you want to be there," Parlavecchio said.
Above all, Pozo set a tone where the dividing lines of title, class, money and race fell away.
"You can let your guard down around him. Inside the lounge, you are just you. You can check your stress, and get back to normal," said Chris James, an East Orange councilman and Jimenez regular. "Whether it's your greatest day or worst day, he'd talk you through it."
"The hardest part of Peter's passing is that it's hard to comfort the family," said James, referring to the social distancing restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic. "He lived his life and enjoyed what he did. That's what we all want to embrace."
Pozo, 57, did not die from COVID-19, but rather from undetermined natural causes. A drive-by funeral procession passed in front of Jimenez last week, the line of cars stretching from McCarter Highway to Broad Street, respecting the limits imposed by the pandemic. Still, mourners expressed their grief in unique ways for a unique person. One woman walked up to the Jimenez building and just held it for a while, her way to push back against pain.
"All these people coming up to me, crying, saying that they don't know what they're going to do without my brother. I'm consoling all these people, but imagine how the family feels," Ricardo Pozo said. "When you see how many people turned out to say goodbye, you see the impact that he had."
In line with the family work ethic, Jimenez Tobacco opened this week for take-out cocktails. The drinks might give some people comfort during a very dark time. But Ricardo reminded people of a less-known and more comforting fact about his brother.
Pozo survived cancer in his early 20's, and by cheating death once, he gave people the gift of all that extra time through the life he led. And like a great cigar, Pozo's aura lingers long after the smoke clears.
"God was going to take my brother in back then, but thought about it, and said 'I need you to do some more'," Ricardo said. "When he was around, we had power. And when it comes to times like this, we need a little extra, we need to look somewhere. I believe a lot of people look to my brother during all this. We are what Peter put together, so the decision to keep going was already made for us."
"When he was alive, people came to Peter with their problems. He listened, and he answered. That's what he's doing now," Ricardo said. "I'm at peace with this already. That's what he'd want me to do. That was my brother."