May 29, 2012

Ceci N'est Pas Une Bong

hope-bong-743955.jpgSo my old friend Mr. 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 Louis Malle flick alongside the towering cinematic 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 Ferragamo ties and well-polished 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.

S-l-o-w-l-y 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 role the waterpipes of Off the Wall play in her Friday nights.

Posted by Vanderleun at May 29, 2012 1:43 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

This is like the 21st century version of "Who's on first?" Any resemblance of the clerk to Abbott or Costello is strictly coincidental.

Posted by: mezzrow at November 16, 2009 2:31 PM

Like Wow man.You lost me somewhere around the part where you can't call a bong a bong.Hey someone wanna get me a brew an pass da joint.I gotta think about this awhile.

Posted by: patrick hegarty at November 16, 2009 3:25 PM

Didn't Cheech Marin end up doing time for calling a bong a bong?

I know it's silly, but it isn't the fault of the "smoke shops." It's the fault of the law.

One cannot refer to pot or marijuana, either, in such places: it's "the material."

Posted by: Little Miss Attila / Joy McCann at November 16, 2009 3:39 PM


I bought my first bon...I mean waterpipe, at Off the Wall at the tender age of 17. They were rather simpler instuments then. Got my first Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comic as well. The name of the store had slipped my mind but I remember the manakin with the gas mask.

I had a gas mask modified into a bon...I mean...whatever, around this time. I once had it strapped on tight while driving a '62 VW Microbus when the California border station took us by surprise but that's another story.

Posted by: westsoundmodern at November 16, 2009 4:39 PM

So funny! You write so well, I could just see that sulky girl "helping" you.

Posted by: retriever at November 16, 2009 4:51 PM

It's the same here in CA. Some of the shops even sell fancy ass herbal smoke blends that look just like cannabis in the bag. But you can't buy a bong. You can buy all manner of ridiculous smoking apparatus, but everything has to be called a water pipe for tobacco. Or you can't buy it.


Posted by: jwm at November 16, 2009 5:51 PM

But in the movies and Freak Brothers comix, it's always the tight-assed conservative who's hung up the right label and the free wheeling hippy who humorously and happily bends the conservative's straight and narrow brain into frustrating knots. Damn hippies can't get anything right.

Posted by: Harry at November 16, 2009 6:22 PM


Well told.

Posted by: at November 16, 2009 6:50 PM

If you had really wanted to be a jerk about the whole thing, you could have stayed and called the bongs, bongs until she actually called the cops, if, that is she would really call the cops.

You might even be able to create a rift in space-time that way.

Posted by: Fat Man at November 16, 2009 8:10 PM

Yup. You've been there. Home sweet home.

Posted by: Pbird at November 16, 2009 8:33 PM

Ask Tommy Chong why it's like this.

Posted by: Rob Thompson at November 16, 2009 8:47 PM

Very Lileks in tone if not topic.

"Well, if I filled those 'waterpipes' over there with beer instead of water, could I call them a bong then?"

Really wish I'd been there for that one.

Dave's not here man.

Posted by: ThomasD at November 16, 2009 9:03 PM

"Stephen is observing this whole exchange with a deeply bemused but befuddled look on his face."

Bemused and befuddled mean pretty much the same thing.

Posted by: marybeth at November 16, 2009 9:12 PM

I wonder what the clerk would have thought if you had left her a copy of "The Wedding Vows"? Goths and Seattle slackerdom seem like small beer compared to those days.

Posted by: mrp at November 16, 2009 9:25 PM

I'm betting what that mannequin you saw in the store window was wearing was actually a, "Grass Mask." Me and a bud had those back when I was in college, and this is the mid/late 70's I'm talking about. Also, it's been considered proper head shop etiquette to refer to bongs as water pipes since that time too.

What started this? Glad you asked. THE LAW. Since selling, "drug paraphernalia" *spit* was illegal, people had to pretend that the devices were made for tobacco.

So, don't blame the college pot culture for this ridiculous kabuki show, blame lawyers, judges, and your representatives in congress and the senate (Who are, not coincidentally, almost all lawyers too).

BTW: If pot was legal, I think "Off the Wall" would be an awesome franchise opportunity. Think of all the jobs, "created or saved"! That would be a, "Change I Could Believe In."

Posted by: Hucbald at November 16, 2009 10:57 PM

I found out you can't call a bong a bong the same way you did, but as best I can recall, that was 20 years ago. In Calif., you can't call marijuana marijuana or pot in a Medical Marijuana Dispensary either, you have to call it "medicine."

Posted by: Sara (Pal2Pal) at November 17, 2009 12:00 AM

I'm reminded of the classic "Five Easy Pieces" diner scene.

Posted by: Five Easy Pieces at November 17, 2009 12:30 AM

Dope will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no Dope.

Or do we need to call it Waterpipe Fuel now?

Umm . . . . Naw. "Dope" is still okay. Everyone will assume you're talking about that clerk.

Posted by: bobby b at November 17, 2009 3:26 AM

Yes, Big Daddy, yes. And I'm betting the Whippet dispenser was only labelled for whipping cream, too. Lou Reed said those were different times, and I for one believe him.

Posted by: dr kill at November 17, 2009 5:23 AM

Obviously a member of the Thought Police. Good thing you didn't ask if she had a room available.

Posted by: mojo at November 17, 2009 8:36 AM

What's up with paying for a bong? You can get a large drink cup from just about any fast-food joint or convenience store along with two straws. Make sure the cup is only about half full, then put both straws through the lid, one straw going all the way into the liquid, the other straw ending in mid-air under the lid. If wanted, seal around the straws with ordinary chewing gum, and voila! Instant Bong!

Oops, I shouldn't have posted this here, as now the narcos will try to ban drinking cups, lids, straws, and chewing gum as "drug paraphenalia."

A Nonny Mouse

Posted by: A Nonny Mouse at November 17, 2009 9:06 AM

I can just hear the call to the fuzz.

"Yes officer. He was calling our water pipes bongs. And he won't leave. If you don't get him out of our store ASAP we could get busted for selling bongs."

Posted by: M. Simon at November 17, 2009 9:31 AM

"They're not bongs they're waterpipes" rule was in effect in NY at least as far back as the 80's - as others have said, it's due to The Man, not the store owners.

Posted by: Ben at November 17, 2009 10:31 AM

Anonny Mouse: Interestingly enough, I just read a story with an improvised lung-inflation device that exactly resembles that. So now I know that if somebody gets a punctured lung in a bong shop, the tools to hand to fix it are right there...

Posted by: B. Durbin at November 17, 2009 1:31 PM

Marybeth: Bemused and befuddled can have the same meaning (see bemuse definition #1 on However, I prefer defintion #3 of bemused, which has a different meaning than befuddled, to wit: amused, which seems much more applicable given the circumstances in which our two characters find themselves. Befuddled means confused.

Sometimes it is amusing to confuse someone else, and I supposed you could be amused if you were confused, but it is equally possible that you could be either bemused or befuddled without being the other.

Thank you for this opportunity to quibble.

Posted by: Charles Pergiel at November 17, 2009 4:58 PM

Didn't Off the Wall close down? Did they move? Obviously I haven't been on an Ave stroll in some time.

Posted by: The Chad at November 17, 2009 5:28 PM

Now that's some funny stuff!! Great article.

Posted by: Kirby at November 17, 2009 6:38 PM

Try shopping for dildos sometime, it's equally bizarre.

They don't sell rubber shlongs, they sell adult massaging devices!

Posted by: Daphne at November 18, 2009 6:33 PM

Who needs to go shopping anymore? Since you asked this question about 3 years ago, Daphne, we are now bombarded with commercials on television for the 'devices'.

Posted by: Jewel at May 29, 2012 6:53 AM

Ha. I buy cheap smokes sometimes in shop in Everett that has more bongs than Off The Wall, I think. Also, the Arab that runs the place doesn't care if I call them bongs. Wonder why that shop is to tender about it?

Posted by: pbird at May 29, 2012 7:19 AM

I prefer the Shorey bookstore anyway. But yes, the coffee house used to be where people would gather and discuss, to talk. Now they ignore each other and stare at screens.

Still good coffee in the Northwest though.

Posted by: Christopher Taylor at May 29, 2012 9:34 AM

Uh, I think you will find that bong is masculine, in French, not feminine; un bong, then, not une bong. Glad to be of help.

Posted by: Everyman at May 29, 2012 10:30 AM

Thank you. Now, with your copious amount of spare time, go fuck yourself.

Posted by: vanderleun at May 29, 2012 1:10 PM

Someone may have already posted this, so my apologies: The details of the recent zombie-like incident of the Florida man chewing off the face of another man this past week are starting to emerge. It's been reported that "bath salts" may be involved; some kind of mix of spa product that is sold by head shops and snorted as a drug.

Like your story of the bong shop in the U District, shoppers are asked to leave these shops if they refer to "bath salts" as a drug. Watch this smiley-faced shop manager as she repeatedly tries to insist that "bath salts" are bath salts.

Posted by: Jeannie at May 30, 2012 7:01 AM

Scary shop manager Angie Turner needs to have her little head examined in that clip.

Posted by: vanderleun at May 30, 2012 7:47 AM

Yeah, it's a legal thing. Legal to sell water pipes, but not bongs because bongs are "drug paraphernalia."

Ran into the same thing in a shop in Tucson, where they enforce the rule extravagantly. I guess I would too, if one ill-chosen word from somebody else could get me the Tommy Chong treatment.

Posted by: Joel at May 30, 2012 8:36 AM