Dude, Don't Say "Bong"

A hand-lettered, unprofessionally illustrated sign appeared in midsummer outside the university area’s Santana grocery. It said, “We Rent Hookahs.” Now, there are actually two small bodegas that bear the proud Santana name, and they are located within blocks of each other, where Interstate 35W crosses University Avenue and Fourth Street Southeast. But only one Santana has branched off in the unpredictable direction of offering hookah services. Is the Fourth Street Santana the vanguard of Twin Cities leisure? Or is convenience store/hookah rental one of those nonsensical, doomed pairings, like tanning beds/video rental? Luckily, these questions can be answered by anyone with fifteen bucks, an ID, and unobstructed airways. One recent evening, I gathered a few friends and went to investigate.

The process of renting the water pipe is straightforward; predictably, in exchange for the hookah, my driver’s license is held hostage. Unpredictably, an employee of the grocery is posted outside to monitor the situation. Although this employee is not issued a hookah, he may smoke cigarettes at his leisure. The hookah itself is suspiciously ornate, decorated with a riotous combination of embroidered fabric, hammered brass, and painted, colored glass. It’s flashy, with no sense of Scandinavian reserve, an artifact straight out of Alice in Wonderland.

An intimidating moment arises when it is time to choose the moist, moss-like flavored tobacco used for pipe smoking. The options are orange, strawberry, cherry, Jamaican rum, margarita, grape, menthol, and pineapple. Bonnie Bell lip gloss is available in these same flavors, so my mind darts back to junior high. I hazard a guess. “Cherry?” But the correct answer turns out to be pineapple.

The modest smoking area outside Santana is not what it could be. But why cheapen this relaxing ritual with gimmicks, tricking out a space with tufted pillows or draping fabric, crafting a simulacrum of some imagined Middle Eastern oasis, or maybe the inside of I Dream of Jeannie’s bottle? Honest people, puffing on a hookah with a panoramic view of I-35W, have no need for it. A set of gray plastic lawn furniture will suffice.

An attractive, lanky young Santana employee named Chris takes care of packing the tobacco into the water pipe’s bowl, carefully covering the bowl with aluminum foil and then pricking the foil with a dozen little holes, through which the heat will flow on its way down to the glass chamber.

When the tobacco is smoldering like charcoal, the hookah is ready to smoke. Disposable plastic mouthpieces are provided for the squeamish. Our young guide makes a valiant effort to explain the technique without comparing it to smoking a bong, which is tactful of him. As you draw on the mouthpiece, you pull the smoke down through the chambers, into the filtering water, and bring it up the hose and on into your lungs. Withdraw your lips from the pipe and exhale, comfortably—for the sensation is far more gentle than that of a cigarette. The smoke is lighter, and it leaves a very faint, fruity taste on your palate.

We sit, and puff, and get used to the novelty of the pipe. The fifteen dollars includes enough tobacco to last well over an hour, and there is nothing else to do but sit and watch this corner of the world go by. The air is cool, and people are enjoying the respite from summer’s oppression. The Santana night cashier, a Brazilian woman dressed like a tropical bird of paradise, visits leisurely. “Most of the hookah smokers who come in here, I think there are more women than men. It’s surprising, right?” Store patrons, bicyclists, cabdrivers—everyone looks inquisitively at the sight of the rococo hookah bubbling away on the sidewalk. As the 6C bus pulls up and a steady stream of cars come in off the highway, two women passing by on a late-night errand curiously request a trial drag. One of them gives the hookah a level gaze and offers a candid assessment: “I’d be putting a bud in that, for sure.”—Sarah Askari