SO MY OLD FRIEND STEPHEN JONES AND I ARE DOING SOME URBAN SPELUNKING deep within the "University District" of Seattle on a rainy Friday night. A couple of movie art houses are presenting bills that offer an ancient Malle flick alongside the stirring achievement of "Saw 2." The corner curry houses are doing a desultory business in over-spiced stews, and in the various coffee houses with free WiFi young couples who used to sit and have "intellectual" conversations over cappuccinos are sitting together staring at their laptop screens. Perhaps they're having "intellectual" instant messaging with each other.
The streets, though damp, boast roving clumps and clusters of drunken or stoned students, and the drunker and more stoned human detritus that takes shelter under the ever forgiving wing of what passes for institutions of "higher learning" in our cities. One young woman with a white marble complexion and wearing a hooded Eskimo coat is mistaken, in the mist, for a storefront mannequin. Hilarity and apologies ensue after a young fellow carelessly shakes his umbrella in her direction.
It's an aimless night on University Way and, aside from Twice-Sold Tales, a musty and chaotic used book store, very few shops are open except those that will give you caffeine, pho and facial piercings. Why no Seattle shop has broken down and offered all three of these things under one roof is beyond me. For a moment, I dream of starting a new international chain, StarPhoTats, to fill this obvious need of a nation with far too much time and money on its hands, but then my attention is distracted by a shop up the street that seems to be open.
I say "seems" because the entryway is dimly lit and the store name above the lintel is not lit at all. Still, the door is slightly ajar with bright white light spilling out onto the wet sidewalk. I look up and find out this emporium (since it seems to be a recycled Five and Dime ) is called "Off the Wall." It's not clear from the contents of the window what this store is selling. The window shows you only a worn and broken mannequin slumped in an ancient chair with a gas mask pulled over its head. It's the kind of display that either sucks you in or makes you turn, set your hair on fire, and run down the misted streets screaming "I got the fear!"
Naturally, we go in.
As the door swings open I see a tired, overly made up eternal female student slumped behind the counter reading what appears to be a used paperback of one of Philip Jose Farmer's porno-sci-fi novels of the 70's. She's got long hair with a bronze-red wash that appears to have been put on by a spray-can while her eyebrows and lip-gloss were being applied by an oar. She grins at us with no smile in her eyes and goes back to Farmer's descriptions of over-endowed aliens having their weird way with buxom earth women before carrying them off to the Planet Qwerty.
My pal Stephen, in his Wall Street Suit and Tie costume which is all he ever wears even while sunbathing in the Bahamas, has wandered to the back of the store to exclaim, in an unusually loud tone, "Exactly what is this store selling and should we franchise it?"
(I should mention at this point that Stephen and I have been visiting some local biotech firms that he tracks on a regular basis as the Wise Man of Wall Street financial analysts. )
Since, in our black raincoats, suits, white shirts and Ferragamo ties and shoes, we probably appear to the clerk as the Men in Black here from her government to help her, I can't help feeling what we once called a "bummed vibe" radiating towards us from behind the counter as her hands carefully move her purse from the counter into a drawer and lock it.
Then I take a look around.
From close at hand to far away in the rear of the store, in glass cases that at times are taller than I am, under intense spotlights, I can see nearly every form of bong, mass-produced or "hand-crafted," known to modern medical science. Yes, it is a vast Bazar of Bongs, a Mini-Mall of Marijuana Madness ("... wherein lurks Murder! Insanity! Death!"). I look up half-expecting to see "jewels and binoculars hung from the head of the mule," but see only other bongs hanging down from the ceiling, glinting in the reflected light.
Stephen is standing midway in the store looking at but not comprehending the meaning of a case in which over a dozen hand-blown, almost Venetian, glass bongs reside in crystalline splendor. The shortest of these stands no less than four feet high. They all boast bowls so large you could easily (at today's prices) blow through $200 worth of buds at a single sitting (Although how one could sit and still operate a four-foot bong is beyond my imagination. Perhaps it is only for couples. Perhaps toes play a role. ).
"What are these things?" asks Stephen who, since he neither drinks nor smokes, remains remarkably unclued about such matters even though he is well into his fifth decade on the planet.
"These are bongs, Stephen," I tell him. "Remarkable, over-the-top and utterly dedicated bongs. Lovingly hand-made by craftsmen; by der Elves of the Black Forest; by people who blow something other than glass from time to time. They of the caliber of craft a friend of mine once called "Ghengis Bong."
"What's a bong?" Stephen asks. This from a man who also has a teen-aged daughter. Very strong on a financial analysis of any kind in any industry, but a bit behind the curve when it comes to one of the main fuel sources of popular culture.
A bong is a super-chargable means of smoking dope, Stephen. A bong is...."
"You can't say that here or I'll have to throw you out of the store," says a stern voice from the front.
Slowly I turned.
"I beg your pardon?"
It's the clerk who is glaring at us from behind the counter. "I said you can't use the B-word in here. They are "waterpipes."
"I'm sorry but I'm still not getting this. Are you saying that one cannot call a bong a bong?"
"Yes. It is store policy. Nobody in here is allowed to use that word in talking about these waterpipes."
"I see," I say although I don't see at all. I glance about the store -- walls, ceiling and behind the counter. There's no sign to that effect; nothing that says "Those Who Call B__gs B__gs Will Be Asked to Leave."
"How," I inquire, "are people supposed to know this? Is this one of these popular American rules you are allowed to know only after you break it?"
"We've been here for years and everybody knows it," she replies.
"Everybody on the block, in the district, in the city or across the whole region? Is this something included in the Freshman Orientation Packet?"
"People just know and now you do too."
Stephen is observing this whole exchange with a deeply bemused but befuddled look on his face.
"So, just to get this straight, you can't call a bong a bong inside this store which is, from the look of display cases and the vast selection of rolling papers and incense behind you, utterly devoted to the rather singular purpose of retailing implements which, to any sane eye, are used to consume marijuana in large and almost lethal doses. Am I right?"
"Exactly and if you keep saying 'bong' I really will have to ask you to leave."
"In a way you already have. So this is really a case in which you can't call a spade a spade -- speaking of course of the standard garden implement?"
"Look," she says ducking inside the cover of... "I just work here. It's the policy."
"I'm not blaming you," I say. "It's just that I find it all, well, rather mind blowing. But okay.... Stephen?"
We make our way towards the door since it is clear our presence is disturbing what is otherwise a very quiet shift for this woman. As I reach the door I glance in a case and see several shelves of a blue plastic product that looks to be a simply funnel attached to a long thick tube. These are encased in blue cardboard packaging that proudly announces them as "The Bluewater Beer Bong."
"Excuse me, but it seems as if these products are called "bongs" right on the label here. Why is that?"
She sighs and says, as if talking to a child, "That's because they are used for liquid, for beer."
"Well, if I filled those 'waterpipes' over there with beer instead of water, could I call them a bong then?"
Stoned and stoney silence ensues. Stephen and I slip out into the night and leave the shop empty except for the clerk who has taken her purse out of the drawer and is rifling through it for something.
"Somehow," Stephen says, "I don't think that store is a candidate for franchising."
"Because of the "Don't call a bong a bong" policy?
"Nope. It has no customers at all and this is a high foot traffic location. I don't think it would do well in malls and truck stops like Starbucks. Hard to see what their business plan would look like."
"Perhaps, but then again maybe you could sell the concept to Ben and Jerry's. Seems like a perfect fit to me."
Down the street the girl with the white marble skin and hooded Eskimo jacket is back to holding so still she looks like a dime store indian. I wonder how big a roll the waterpipes of Off the Wall play in her Friday nights.Posted by Vanderleun at November 6, 2005 9:43 AM | TrackBack