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Pipe Dreams

Those Cafes That Rent Hookahs Aren't Just Blowing Smoke

March 05, 2000|Leslee Komaiko

As Westwood Village become the casbah? Smelling the burnt aroma emanating around Peter, a 24-year-old UCLA history student hanging out at Gypsy Cafe on a recent Friday night, you'd be suspicious. Perched at his feet is a giant hookah. And Peter is inhaling.

"People walk by all the time and think I'm smoking marijuana," he admits. His friends Ryan and Iskander, fellow Bruins, take a break from their concentrated chess game to pipe in (literally and figuratively). "It's like a fancy bong," says Iskander. Indeed, it looks pretty luxe, what with those tufts of fur on the handle and that colorful candy cane-striped hose.

So what is Peter smoking? Strawberry-flavored tobacco, or, to use the lingo of Hookah Brothers, the downtown Los Angeles company that supplies the hookahs and the water tobacco, "Egyptian Herbs." (Coffee & Cream in Sylmar and Galaxy Gallery on Melrose Avenue also rent hookahs.) "I don't even get a buzz off it," Peter insists. "It's just the flavor."

Lynn, an 18-year-old Santa Monica College freshman who's here almost every weekend with her friend, Sanam, prefers watermelon. But not orange. "It tastes like fluoride." And the grape, according to Sanam, reminds her of Dimetapp.

Gypsy Cafe, in the hookah business for about six months, rents them for $10, with one free tobacco refill and as many disposable mouthpieces as needed. On a busy night, all 20 of its hookahs are blowing smoke. "It can't get any crazier than this," says Joseph Melamed, who runs the cafe.

Lynn has a possible explanation for the hookah hoopla. "It's an innocent way of partying," she explains, the way malts functioned in a previous age of courtship. "If guys want to meet you or go out with you, they'll buy you one."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

HOOKAH ETIQUETTE

A native hookah smoker since elementary school shares some basic rules of etiquette: *

* Don't smoke anything out of the hookah but the water tobacco it was intended for.

* Never put the hookah on a table (or anything tall). This may be inconvenient if the hookah is small, but it's meant to be placed, gently resting, on the floor.

* Never light a cigarette with the hookah's burning coals.

* After removing the mouthpiece, set the hookah down, then let the next person pick it up. Don't pass the pipe directly to your compatriots.

--Pardis Mahdavi

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