You Mean Water Pipe is an excerpt from my book Down and Out in California.
My first day of work at Headz they stick me with Crystal, a short, slim redhead with terrible posture who can’t seem to meet my eyes. So far I get the feeling that everyone working here is on drugs in addition to weed.
It’s also obvious that Chuck only hires attractive women, and I don’t know what to do with that. I’ve never been hired for my looks before.
Crystal is overwhelmed by the idea of training me and has to go take half a Klonopin in the back room, so I’m fending for myself with training and my experienced help is all sleepy nods and uselessness.
The shop is a large L-shaped room with a storeroom/breakroom and bathroom through a door at the back. There’s a main counter stretching along the length of the entrance of the shop, and another circular counter once you turn the corner. We sell pipes, bongs, grinders, cleaning solutions, dilution kits to beat drug tests, legal herbs and drugs, hats, clothing, incense, tapestries, rolling papers, shisha and hookah supplies, hookahs, e-cigarette supplies and e-juice, and novelty items.
Crystal helps me muddle through working a cash register for the first time, and instructs me that polishing the glassware is the main daily task to be done between waiting on customers.
There are small, blue dust rags in a pile, and I use them to pick up each bong off of the glass shelves, polish it, dust the shelf underneath, and put the bong back on the shelf. There are rows of vertical shelving with bongs on them. They range from the cheapest wares at the bottom to the most expensive on the top shelf, similar to a liquor store. We have an Illadelph bong going for over ten thousand dollars. It’s about a foot long, and made from perfectly lathed, clear, scientific glass with cobalt blue trim on the rim where you put your mouth to inhale, and on the bowl. When I’m standing on the top step of a step ladder polishing it I think about how a slight misstep means I’ll be in debt for years.
I also think about earthquakes, and wonder why the owners don’t.
I don’t get to polish the top shelf yet, though, as my privilege comes in stages as I show that I can be relied upon to do the job correctly, and to have the eye to line the pieces up again. Some of the smaller bubblers are arranged in staggered formations on the shelving and it takes me a few tries at first to give them that picture perfect look. I’m often dragging the stepladder out of its slot between a display case and the wall and using it to clean the higher shelves, stowing it again quickly if any customers come in.
I now see why Headz has the neat, organized, orderly, OCD look that none of the other head shops in this area have. I’ll never get to dust the pieces in the front window unless I’m promoted to manager. Some run upwards of a hundred thousand dollars.
The first thing that I learn is that I am the front line of defense for the company.
It’s up to me to eject customers who use words that indicate they are using the products that we sell to use illegal drugs. The words they can’t use include bong, bowl, BHO – so “no B words” is a common refrain. The customers can’t talk about using the drug test kits to beat a drug test, they are “detox kits”. Because any customer could be a plant from the Feds coming in to see if the store is enforcing these rules, this is the number one thing that we, as retail workers, can be fired for.
The store’s ass is on the line, and we, the Headz Girls, are the protectors keeping everyone in line. That responsibility comes before any other on the job.
Soon, the manager Brittney bustles in. She’s a tall brunette who makes everything in the store her personal business. I see that she’s the reason it’s so organized. She’s also an ex-heroin addict who still has relapses frequently and will take any pills she can get her hands on, with a preference for opiates.
She sends Crystal on a cigarette break and does some actual training with me. She sits me in the back room in front of some videos while she sells. I note that she is selling bongs and vaporizers, and that she knows all the customers by name. I note that she is a professional. She teaches me about glassblowing and terminology and names of the local and famous glassblowers, and shows me example of all the different styles. I learn about sherlocks and hammers and spoons and that it’s okay to say pipe, and that I should say “well” instead of “bowl”.
I learn of wigwags and frit and basket weave and begin to understand the burgeoning art glass world, and how the different looks are created.
Of scientific glass and Pyrex and Schott glass and their durability, and then I learn of all the cheap crap from China that we have on the bottom shelves that could have toxic chemicals in the glaze, as well as being shoddily made and easily broken. Of e-cigarette mods and coils and nozzles, and of the different styles of e-juice. I learn that some of this is made from vegetable glycerin, but most from propylene glycol. The latter is usually cheaply sourced and many people have allergies to it, but the former adds a sweet taste that people object to.
I learn of the “water pipes” and their percolation, or percs, which come in tree, honeycomb, dome, straight, sprinkler, showerhead, and with each batch of new bongs that we get, there are new styles and new names for these styles. Therein lies one of the things I most respect and admire about the weed community – the innovation. I learn more and more about the products, until I know all of the brand names and the competitors and why we carry what we do.
I know more than I ever thought I would about paraphernalia.
Brittney gets me hooked up with my three free work shirts. I’ll be given a fifty percent discount on any more I buy. I also get a twenty percent discount storewide, and I can accrue two punches on the rewards cards we have where customers get one. Surprisingly, I don’t buy much paraphernalia while working here. Having access to the stock reduces the perceived value of the products and I can’t justify spending the little I’m making on the product we’re selling. I know the markups are higher than my discount anyway, and I’d be better off ordering what I want online.
I do steal a few things, or help myself to more than I pay for. Mostly screens for my Volcano and once some kratom, one of the few remaining psychoactive substances available over the counter. We’re on camera at almost every angle in the showroom and I know better than to push it. The stockroom, though, is not monitored. The male owners don’t want to look bad by putting cameras in the only room where the girls can change. They’re oddly trusting, and enabling, and blinded by beauty.
Brittney is talking a mile a minute to me, gushing about her new glassblower boyfriend that she can’t tell anyone about because her old glassblower boyfriend is jealous.
“Here you should take this shirt, it’s good for curvy figures, a lot of the girls here are flat-chested but you and I are not so I know exactly what shirts have a good cut for you. You definitely want the logo tight right over your tits, it’ll mean the biggest commission.”
I take her advice.
I still have the red lipstick from selling cherries and take to wearing it on this job. The sisterly nature of most of the girls working at the shop surprises me. They welcome me in like a long lost friend and help me out as best they can at learning the ropes. It’s a damaged group of young women, but their behavior stands out in memory as some of the kindest from colleagues I’ve experienced.
“I’m so grateful to have someone in their late twenties to talk to!” she says. “All the other girls are in college, except Erin, who really only works in the SF store she was just here when you came in that day because we were short-staffed.”
“Crystal is in college?” I ask.
“Yup. Full scholarship.” She says. I learn not to judge a book by its cover. Crystal turns out to be brilliant, but plagued with severe anxiety. She’s not my favorite person to work with.
My favorite person to work with is Angel. She’s Taiwanese American and small and spunky and wears thick eyeliner and has a nose ring.
We work really well together because we have similar music taste. We’re allowed to play anything we want that isn’t too obtrusive to the shopping experience, or that doesn’t have too colorful language. The boss never enforces the latter rule though, and Angel and I listen to a lot of gangsta rap at work.
She is brilliant, a math major at UC Berkeley, but is learning about drugs and alcohol the way that most young Americans do – trial and error.
It makes for some frequent mistakes, and I hold back on wanting to give her advice and try to just listen to her experiences so that she will trust me. She’s using Adderall and forgets to eat and one time has a few beers before work and ends up passing out, hitting her head on the counter, and going to the ER with a concussion. I’m glad I’m not on shift that day and only hear about it when we next have one together. She doesn’t tell the full story to the boss, and she keeps working as though nothing ever happened.
We talk about boys while I dust bongs and she dusts pipes. She’s in the center of the circular counter with the back of the display cases open, rearranging all the cheap spoons we have there and dusting them, working her way around the case to the most expensive pieces that we put on the floor, in the five hundred dollar range for dry pipes and bubblers. I cover for her while she goes out for her cigarette breaks. All the girls except me and Erin smoke cigarettes.