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Up in Smoke

Mike Gorman

Remember the good, old days (way back in April), when you could sit at the bar with your beer and suck on cancer sticks without freaking the fuck out about getting fined $50?

Well, those days aren't exactly here again, but there are some places in the Valley where you won't get strung up for lighting up. And I, for one, am damned grateful, because I love to smoke. Before the Smoke Free Arizona Act was placed in effect on May 1, I'd walk into restaurants and ask to be seated in the chain-smoking section. I was born with a pack of Camel Filters in one hand and a joint in the other.

Sometimes, that makes it hard for me to do my job covering music.

Although most large concert halls and arenas in the Valley didn't allow smoking even before the ban, it certainly has affected the music scene at smaller clubs, where fans now have to choose between seeing a band's entire set or settling for just a few songs so they can go outside and smoke. At the New Times Summer of Sound hard rock/metal show on June 29, I saw only about half of each band's set — not because the bands weren't good (they rocked), but because every time I finished a beer, I wanted a cigarette. And that meant going outside, where the live music onstage just translates into cacophonous thumpings and distorted echoes.

Nobody sounds good from the smoking section anymore, because the only "smoking section" is out in the parking lot. And speaking of parking lots, I've spent a lot of time in them recently, any time I go out, and not just to catch the latest act.

So I was elated when I hit up a hookah lounge in Tempe on a recent Saturday night and found it filled with smoke. I smoked so much that my lungs felt like wet sandbags for two days.

Was I breaking the law? I wish. It'd feel sexier if it were totally taboo and illegal — like if one day, the only places left to smoke were underground speakeasies, remodeled and revived from the booze prohibition days. But according to Section R9-2-107 of the Smoke Free Arizona Act, "a proprietor may permit smoking in a retail tobacco store only if the retail store derives the majority of its sales from tobacco products and accessories, is physically separated and independently ventilated," and the owners prepare affidavits stating that at least 51 percent of their gross annual income stems from the sale of tobacco and smoking accessories.

In other words, customers at businesses like tobacco shops and hookah bars that meet the requirements of Section R9-2-107 have a green light to light up. For now, anyway. Don Harrington, a public information officer for the Arizona Department of Health Services, says that the AZDHS is "presently looking into the exceptions with legal counsel."

As for the affidavits, Harrington says that any tobacco retailers who began operating on or after May 1 of this year must file them when they open for business. Retailers who were in operation prior to May 1 should have an affidavit "on hand," if and when AZDHS comes to investigate a complaint.

I'm not complaining. It's a pain in the ass to walk (or stumble) outside to smoke 20 feet away from the front door, and for some women I know, leaving drinks unattended in the bar while they go puff up has been a real concern.

On the other hand, the smoking ban has created this weird segregated social circle, and that's not always a bad thing. Before the ban, I sat at the table smoking with my friends and didn't feel compelled to talk to people I didn't know. Now, I stand outside with 20 other banished smokers, and we all bitch about the ban, strike up conversations, and get to know each other (or argue and shove each other, which I've also seen). If I were still allowed to smoke inside the bar, I'd probably never talk to most of these people. And I would have missed out on hearing all about how to properly pull wet meat, from that guy who made his own beef jerky, or getting unsolicited relationship advice from that gay boy who flashed me his boobs for some Mardi Gras beads.

The term "social smoker" has taken on a whole new meaning.

At a particular hookah bar near the ASU campus in Tempe, the smoking and the socializing almost take on an air of hedonistic bliss. You can lounge on oversized pillows, eat tasty Middle Eastern dishes, listen to a mix of contemporary hip-hop and Arabian folk music injected with dance beats, smoke flavored tobacco out of a hookah, and even smoke cigarettes to your heart's (and lungs') desire, without being exiled to the parking lot.  

On a sweltering Saturday night, I brought my friend — whom we'll call "Ishtar" — to this hookah bar. (I'm not going to name the bar, because from my observation, they may be making more revenue from food sales than tobacco sales, and I don't want to get them in any trouble.)

Ishtar, who chose a nickname taken from the Assyrian and Babylonian goddess of sex and war, is a Syrian woman I met when we were students at ASU. She's got amazingly curly, long black hair, and the most beautiful eyelashes I've ever seen — thick, dark, and long like spider's legs. She's also very socially conscious and active, having come from a country full of conflicts. Before we met up this night, she spent her afternoon meeting with the folks who run arizonarefugee.org, a nonprofit organization that provides services for refugees.

One of the reasons I brought Ishtar here tonight (besides the fact she's a great conversationalist, and dammit, we're gonna smoke) is so she can verify the authenticity of this cultural experience. As an Italian-American (third generation), I'm sometimes asked if the Italian food at such-and-such a place is "authentic" and properly reflects the cuisine of "my people" — never mind the fact that I was born in Indiana and raised jointly in that armpit of the Midwest and Phoenix. I'm expected to have personal ties to the Mafia, and to know if the Italian sausage is really "Italian," usually by the same sort of people who think all black people know each other.

But really, Ishtar knows the scene, I promise, even though she's concealing her Middle Easternness tonight. Her exotic looks and darker skin give her ethnicity away, but when the Middle Eastern waiter says something to her in Arabic, Ishtar answers in English. "I don't want them to know I speak the language," she tells me. "Because if they know I speak their language, they'll hit on me."

Ishtar orders the first round of hookah flavors, a mix of jasmine and honey, while I look around the bar.

The place is packed with the college set, not surprising since the lounge is located within walking distance of one of ASU's campuses. With the exception of some older Middle Eastern men playing cards at a table, everyone here looks like a Sun Devil. Twentysomethings hover around hookahs in small groups, talking about everything from last week's geology exam to where to buy those cool patchwork jeans somebody's friend is wearing.

The atmosphere isn't that far removed from the hash bars I visit every year in Amsterdam, except that nobody's smoking weed here. Still, it feels just as liberating to some of us — people kick back with their feet up, slowly blowing smoke in big, luxurious circles, feeling free and comfortable.

The air is filled with the sweet scents of flavored tobaccos, and fragrant clouds of cherry, grape, peach, and vanilla smoke drift past our heads while Ishtar and I discuss the idea that she's an "Arabic whore" (her phrase, not mine).

"When I went back to Syria [to visit], I wore a miniskirt and halter top while walking the main nightlife strip," she says. "And all these men were looking at me with shock and disgust. But, you know, fuck that. It's 110 degrees outside there, and I'm supposed to cover up my whole body?"

The music on the sound system suddenly shifts from a Jay-Z song playing so loud that the bass line reverberates through our seats and tickles our butts to an Arabic pop song, full of ancient stringed instruments like ouds and zithers that produce dark, forbidden-sounding scales that snake around snapping rhythms.

Ishtar recognizes the song and laughs. "All these Arabic pop songs are about women and drinking. This song is actually a really popular song in Arabic culture. It's about a woman named Miriam, and at the beginning, the singer's all heartbroken and whiny because she's not there, but this part of the song — right here where it's all upbeat — is happy because Miriam has shown up."

Women and booze. The great cross-cultural musical archetypes.

Ishtar orders some food for us off the extensive menu (some super-tasty fava bean dip, spinach puffs, and grilled chicken) and I order a mix of mango and mint tobacco for the hookah. The service is painfully slow and I have to approach the counter every time I want something, but the fact that I'm also smoking cigarettes in here makes this the coolest hangout in the Valley, in my opinion.

After guzzling my Arabic coffee, which is dark and thick like molasses and tastes spicy because of some kind of nut Ishtar says they grind up and put in there, we check the time and realize we've been hanging out here for more than three hours. And most of the people who were here when we arrived are still here, as well.  

My, how time flies when it's not broken up into cigarette breaks.


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