1 Rivera : A Personal Account of Working in a Headshop Rachell Rivera Abstract This is a personal account of the events that occurred during my time working as a clerk in a headshop. I hope it will shed light on the culture to which this type of workplace caters to, as well as show the uniqueness of my situation: I am staunchly against smoking. Utilizing some of the items I sold as the basis to the stories I have written here, I show a non-fictional account of my experience in working in an environment many in my position may find intolerable.
2 The Start Rivera I play the drums. I know he plays in a band. My friend told me. I knew my love for Travis Barker, the drummer for Blink-82, would come to use one day. Our love is pure. I really couldn t think of anything else to say in this job interview. My friend from high school had just told me that she was leaving her job and they were looking for someone to take her place. Two days later I was sitting on the second-floor balcony, which oddly enough, was inside overlooking the sales floor. Sitting in the usual wardrobe of my nineteen year-old self, black-on-black, this awkward exchange of interests that was taking place was only further accentuated with the realization that this warehouse did not have air conditioning. I was dying. Oh yeah? We should jam sometime, my interviewer, Travis, responded. Oh yeah, this was my in. I play the guitar. In a band. You ever hear of us? Mind Heist? He went on. Yeah! I replied. I don t know why I was responded so enthusiastically. Aside from their ska rendition of Back That Ass Up, I wasn t really a fan. Travis was the store manager, and unknown to me at the time, would be my boss for the next six years. After a full interview (where I attempted to name-drop my way into employment) Travis called the next day with a near deafening exclamation of You re Hired! into the telephone receiver. The line crackled with his over-excitement. Thus, I was immediately put off by the sudden force of energy given to me by my manager, something I would never be able to get over. I had dreams of grandeur with this job. Too many viewings of Empire Records had given me the false impression that working at record store would give me the opportunity to meet famous musicians, fall in love with an artistic, good-looking male coworker, and get free stuff. This was not the case. My co-workers were always a ragtag team of misfits, proficient with their perspective areas of expertise. The store was originally just a music store but with the current owner s guidance it had started to stock more items that soon eclipsed the music department. The smokeshop was the most 2
3 lucrative in sales and had grown from mere shelves to encompass nearly half of the store. Cheapies Throughout the years co-workers hired were nearly always proficient in the aspect of the smokeshop, and therefore not relatable to me, someone who had to convince herself every day that smokeshop items she sold were going to smoking tobacco (the Bob Marley posters and aloe leaf store decor were just accents to our renown reggae music selection!). It took months for me to get the hang of selling smokeshop items. I went to a public high school on the Big Island of Hawaii, so I knew of the culture. The smell was in the hallways. I saw the green harvest helicopters while I was growing up amongst the dense brush on the lava fields. However, nothing could prepare me for the intricate dealings of selling smokeshop items. Besides me constantly asking my co-workers what a certain piece was for, the customers seemed to sense my innocence. Nicer customers would know as soon as I handed them a pipe that I had no idea what I was selling. They d take their time with explaining to me why they had such special interest in getting the right pipe. You see this right here? He d point to the side of the pipe at a tiny hole. That s the carb. This right here, he points to the elongated end, that s the mouth piece. The hole on the mouth piece is different on every glass pipe blown. I prefer one with a smaller hole. He d pick up another pipe off the fuzzy little black mat I had laid on the glass and would hold it up against pipe already in his hand. The black mat is strategic in selling hand-blown glass pipes, so that the customer can see the intricate swirls of color invisible when the pipe is clean. Only when darkened with soot do these colors show up, making every pipe unique. Who knew a $2.50 pipe that we sold for $5.97 would wield such aspects. You see? I did see. The mouth pieces are different. That s handcraftsmanship right there. The random customer was always filled with useful information. But it was best 3
4 to always be wary with customers when it came to working at a smokeshop. While some were nice and pleasant, others were extreme cases of fringe society. These $2.50 pipes, which we nicknamed Cheapies, were the focal point of many of these misfits. Our distributors would offer our store free shipping, but being located in Hawaii meant extreme shipping rates. In order to pacify us (and the promise of our pricey orders) these companies would instead offer the store free merchandise which equaled to the price of shipping. Unable to choose which items we would get in this exchange, we would sometimes get items that were less than wanted. During one particular moment the store received an extra order of cheapies. But these were clearly flawed. In a bag full of these glass pipes, all were missing their carbs. My co-worker, Paul, had opened the box. As soon as he took out one of the pipes to inspect for cracks he noticed the carb was non-existant. I could see the alertness in his eyes, as they grew very large. He ran to the phone and called Travis. Travis! You need to come down here and see these cheapies! Paul spoke again after a slight pause.. They re incense burners! At the time I found this peculiar. Nearly every day at least one particularly twitchy, sore-skinned customer would come in to ask for an incense burner. At the start of my foray into smokeshop clerk-dom, I didn t know this term had a different meaning than the normal flat piece of wood one would burn a piece of incense on (reminiscent of an ashtray, frequently seen near hippies). It was seeing Paul s reaction to these pipes that solidified the term to the more negative of connotations for me. Alright, Paul spoke into the receiver, just outside? Paul hung up the phone, grabbed the box of malformed pipes and went through the side door. I could see him grab into the box and grab pipe after pipe, hitting them against each other. The pipes would crack into pieces, exploding into sharp shards everywhere. His speedy dedication to the task was alarming. I would later find out that something as simple as a non-existent hole on the side of a glass pipe would completely change the use and legality of the pipe. These pipes needed to be destroyed immediately. The term incense burner is a term used to call a pipe a person would smoke methamphetamines in. As a store that sells products 4
5 to smoke tobacco, the employees are on the front lines of legal restrictions placed on the business. Something as simple as seeing this type of pipe within our locked shelves would attract the wrong kind of business to the company, and with that, attention from law enforcement. Showcase Waterpipes Attracting the wrong kind of customers had always been a problem with the store. I relied heavily on the denial that the customers would use the products I sold to them For Tobacco Use Only! This warning, bold-faced and printed on each glass surface of the display shelves, uniformly a few feet apart. This type of procedure was done to insure that we would sell only to customers we were legally able to. Any customer appearing to be under thirty years-old had to show a valid form of identification. I was particularly gung-ho about this practice. When I worked at this store I was a straight-edger (a person devoted to a life beyond poisoning one s mind with drugs, smoking, or what have you) and was strictly against smoking of any kind. The thought of my being fined $800 for a slight oversight like forgetting to check an I.D. before selling a tobacco pipe to a shaggy haired teenager, was preposterous. It was something I would never allow myself to do. One morning I was driving pretty fast down the highway to work. I closed the store the night before and was running late to open. The store opened promptly at 9AM and I was speeding to get there before my manager would have called to yell at me. I parked a little ways away from the entrance of the store, behind some trees off the side of the road. The owner had said the limited store-front parking was for customers only and employees had to park in a location that turned our cars into a makeshift guardrail for a sharp turn. I approached the store hesitantly, slowly sipping on my Big Gulp (my love for Pepsi in the morning had perpetually made me late to work; I was a bad employee). My posture tightened and I squinted through my sunglasses at the store front. Or what was left of it. There ahead of me was a large gaping hole where our front door used to be. It 5
6 was completely smashed in. The normal darkness of the unlit warehouse was replaced with a huge stream of light bursting through the giant hole that was once our doorway. I remained outside for a moment, unable to process the situation. I was also slightly intimidated by the police officers who were huddled around the main cash register, going over the security camera tape from the night before. I found Paul near the side door, smoking a cigarette and sipping a coffee. He ran up to me and excitedly told me everything. Apparently I had forgotten to turn off the bottom store lights when I closed the night before (and by that I mean that my co-worker Kelly, whom I closed with, and to whom I have seniority over, forgot to close the lights the nights before). Unknown to us, across the street was a truck of adolescent boys, ages 5-8, parked in the church parking lot, watching us for about an hour until we closed. Having a great vantage point with our blunder of not turning off the lights, these boys were able to see exactly what they wanted and plan their break-in well. A few hours later, after everyone in the building was out of the store, they made their move. I was able to see the video footage from that night and saw how they taken a stolen truck to ram our front door in. I saw them run out from the wreckage wielding a hammer and proceed to go straight to the smoke supplies. What were they after? The show waterpipes; large hand-blown glass waterpipes we d sell for hundreds of dollars each. We kept at least thirty of them in unlocked display cases. Those stupid little bastards. Their proficiency at breaking the glass display cases were equal to their proficiency at breaking the glass waterpipes housed within the cases themselves. As soon as their hammers broke the glass, their hammers went through the glass waterpipes too. All that effort, thousands upon thousands of dollars worth of damage and disorder all for one $250 waterpipe (wholesale price, $40). Oh, they grabbed more than one waterpipe, but the rest crumbled in their hands from being struck with their hammer. We found them in pieces in our parking lot. They could have effortlessly walked breezily behind the counter and gotten their pick, but they failed to realize how simple all of this could have been. Or the fact that we have cash registers. Amateurs. 6
7 The owner was already at the store when I arrived. He seemed light-hearted throughout the whole thing, regaled in the fact that the merchandise warranted the highpriced insurance and he would be fine. He even laughed at me when he saw that I had shown up to work with the largest Big Gulp. Marathon? He asked. A marathon is slang for an all-day, ten hour shift. Yup. We both chuckled. Using his superpowers of being rich with connections, the owner had the glass replaced within the first hour of the store opening. The door and hole was fixed in time for closing. At the end of the day,no one was able to notice that we had ever been robbed. This happened the first year I worked at the store. It was after I had moved to another island and came only into work when I visited my family during school vacations did I learn something new about this incident. I was talking with Travis, still there after all those years (he has since moved on, recently becoming a music teacher for children) and he showed me a letter he had received anonymously. It was mailed to us without a return address, typed out neatly. It was a letter from one of the boys who had robbed the store. At the time of the burglary the local newspaper had reported that a band of runaway teenagers had been stealing cars and robbing homes. A few days after the store was robbed they were apprehended driving a stolen vehicle. Some of the boys ran but most were caught. The boys that were caught ratted out the boys that ran. Since most of them were minors, we were unable to find out who exactly robbed the store and our video footage was too pixelated to make definitive identifications on most of them. To Whom It May Concern... The letter started with an explanation as to who the author was, he was one of the robbers. It had been five years since the incident. This boy was now in his youngadulthood and was still grappling with the even. In our store s haste to fix the damage these robbers had done, we did not even ponder the toll it had taken on these boys. The letter stated that this particular robber had gotten into more trouble since 7
8 his days as a boy-hoodlum and had graduated to doing crimes as an adult. He was currently serving probation and felt the need to address anyone he had hurt in his life. This anonymous letter was one of those addresses. Retribution, he said, wasn t in this letter. He wanted to let everyone in the store know that he was trying to start over and was now haunted by what he had done as a boy, particularly to our store. He wrote that he was doing all in his power to pay us back for the damages he caused. He has a son now and does not want his son to have done the same things he had done. As soon as he was able to afford it, a check would come in the mail, he said. Detox Solutions Happy customers are the core to any successful business and with the popularity of government mandated urine tests for state workers and for other sectors, we started to stock detoxing solutions. These little vials came in all sorts of sizes and potency. Some came in pill form and others in tea bags. They all worked the same though, generally. A customer was to read the directions, perform them perfectly and they would pass any urine, blood, or hair test. What we didn't freely say was that there was more to these little vials than the directions on the box. The art of detox is extremely technical. In order to detox, you must drink gallons of water over the course of 4-6 hours. If you drink too much water, you'll flush out the detox from your system. If you wait too long to take your test after drinking the detox, your test will come out positive. If you put more toxins into your body after detoxing, then you're dumb. A few customers actually came back looking for refunds because of their failed drug tests. After selling hundreds of detox over the years we would get a few customers that would fail their test even after detoxing and blame us for the results. On one occasion, a mother clearly bought a bottle of detox for her underage son, I made sure to hear from her that she was buying it for herself before ringing up the sale; this kind of word-play is how to make this type of sale legal. When they came back a few days later, her son was livid. He came through the door and threw the empty box at my manager at the main 8
9 register. He wanted his money back. His poor, old mother came in after him a few moments later. I recognized her instantly. She looked like one of the ladies on The Golden Girls, rather than a criminal's mother. She was increasingly apologetic to us for her son's behavior. His demeanor was shaky, his eyes bloodshot and half-closed. If she needed any evidence as to why her son had not passed his drug test, she could see it on his face. He was high. Any convincing to his mother he had made about the soberness of his lifestyle was squashed. We could tell by their interactions that he had came into the store still hanging on the lies he said to his mother. My manager kept his cool. He had the usual questions for anyone that came in wanting to cash in on our detox cash-back guarantee. Besides the obvious, they failed to follow the directions. They would not be getting their money back. Customers like this always got me mad. I had my fair share of angry customers and they never got to me as much as angry detox customers. Sure we had a store guarantee saying that they would successfully be free of toxins, but we also had signs around the store saying: DETOX, NOT FOR DRUG TESTS! The detox was aimed for sale to people who were dieting. In no way in the manufacturer s packaging or our selling (using careful wording by our employees) were we to allude to the fact that detox solutions could be used for drug tests. To any customer who came in saying, "Hey! I have a drug test...," we were supposed to cut off before we were able to process what they said. We were supposed to retort, "Well, we don't sell anything for drug tests, but we do carry detox!" Detox is to be used to flush out your system of toxins, nothing else. In my head I told myself that these customers were just dieting, getting ready for a marathon, or just trying to feel good, not trying to mask their mandatory drug tests. Also, the thought that I was helping someone sidestep the law was also alarming. Somewhere in my mind I was plagued with the thought that I was helping a criminal stay out of jail even though they were breaking the law. Many of these customers were parolees, on strict rules about their lifestyle. If I were in any profession to pass judgment on these people, I would not be lenient if they didn't follow the rules of their release. How hard was it not to inhale THC? 9
10 It also pained me to think that some of these customers were having urine tests done at them for work-related purposes. I would get images of drugged out state workers with important jobs, hurting someone because they were unable to do their jobs properly. Or teachers who would use the detox to get jobs at schools teaching children. Actually, I didn't need to get a mental picture of a teacher coming in to our smokeshop. One day my eighth-grade geography teacher came in to buy a pipe from me. It's a very unusual thing to know you have an ex-teacher who is comfortable with buying a pipe from you, and even more to tell you which kind of pipe they prefer. But he was a pleasant fellow, even in my middle school days, a rebel. He likes metal pipes. Salvia When I first started working at the smokeshop it became clear to everyone very quickly how out of place I was. I mostly kept to the music section, alphabetizing, pricing down, and helping customers find things. Besides people showing me how items of the smokeshop worked, I was given the opportunity to spend some of my time reading through magazines geared towards the smokeshop culture. The store kept an alarming amount of copies of High Times Magazine in stock and I was forced to read them whenever I got the chance. I learned a lot of things. That know-how, coupled with my disdain for the culture itself, makes for some great conversation. The colloquial saying, Know your enemy is personified in me. Over some time I began to read in these magazines about the sudden craze to smoke salvia. Salvia is like a legal herb that one can smoke for "an experience." Stores don't even need to get a tobacco permit to sell salvia. Included with the allure of salvia is what happens when you smoke it. People compare salvia to the same trip they get when taking psychedelic drugs. The fact that these are legal is disheartening. When my manager brought up the idea of stocking salvia, I was mad. Our conversation went something like this: 0
11 Travis: "Paul is saying that a lot of customers have been asking for salvia. We made a small order." Me: "FUCK NO!" I was uncomfortable with the idea what we would be selling these. After my initial rejection of the idea (swearing in this working place was common, luckily) I explained my trepidation to Travis. He was responsive. We ended up at the computer looking up "salvia" on youtube. We watched numerous videos of young people smoking salvia. What was very alarming about salvia was the speed to with it would take effect. The trip would come almost immediately. As soon as one of the college kids in the video would take the pipe away from their mouth, their limbs would lose control. Their eyes would become shifty and their arms would start to move as if gravity was lost. It was scary to watch. With our initial order came bags full of samples. Apparently these companies selling salvia were having a publicity catastrophe. Our timing was perfect. Salvia had claimed it's first victim. After smoking salvia extensively a kid on the mainland had decided the trips he had made him witness the meaning of life, therefore his own life was not needed. He committed suicide. The news coverage of this event brought on nationwide attention to salvia and the companies that old it were trying to get on our good side. They needed buyers and people were apprehensive. Paul got a hold of little sample vials of bubblegum flavored salvia and brought it to a party. He and his friends sat around and smoked it. Paul did not have fun. As soon has he inhaled the room started spinning. On the wall across from him was a cloth tapestry. A beach scene with waves splashing on the rocks. He felt himself transported in to the scene, he said. He looked around and saw that he and his friends were chilling at the beach at that moment. It was like magic. He ran with it. He said there was a bonfire between them and all was pretty great. He was having fun. Then it took a turn for the worst. The tapestry's corners started to fold. His trip started to go bad. Someone was turning the corner of the tapestry over on itself, like flipping over a page in a story book. Paul was convinced that he needed to get out of this page before it was turned. Or else he would get lost in oblivion and cease to exist.
12 He ran from the living room and huddled in the bathtub until the salvia stopped its hold. It took only five minutes for the trip to be over and at that time he picked himself off of the bottom of the bath tub and resumed his partying. He had just spent a few minutes huddled in the fetal position in a stranger's bathtub, but now he was ready to party again. The next day he came to work with a whole new perspective on selling salvia. Almost coincidentally, Travis had a change of heart as well. He somehow deduced that a customer would smoke salvia and not get the instant rush they d been told they would receive. Being a customer who d find salvia worthwhile to spend $65 on for mere milligrams, the below-average-of-intelligence person would deem the salvia a dud and get behind the wheel of car. It goes without saying that the hypothetical, dumb customer would get his high during driving and proceed to mow down hundreds of pedestrians! This image (somewhat exaggerated hypothetical event ) in Travis head was enough to make us never do another order of the product. Till this day there are vials of flavored salvia samples hiding in the nooks and crannies of the store. They re hidden between cabinets behind the counter or under stacks of dealer catalogs. We just don t really care for the product anymore. Once they appeared in the magazines, brightly colored and guaranteed selling capacity, and now they had lost their appeal. As time went on the popularity dwindled, as did the want to buy them. We had made the right choice. It was a fad that I was very willing to get rid of. It was very hard to convince myself that salvia was the same as tobacco, as I knew full well that it wasn't. While in the hallway going over homework before French class, I was somewhat surprised to hear from my classmates that salvia has been made illegal. Although I wasn t comfortable with selling it personally I felt really bad for the companies that started because of it. It was a niche market and companies come and go. It brought back memories of getting salvia samples, and how hard the companies were willing to go to make a profit on it before it would be cautioned. Looking Back: The stories I ve written here all took place between the years of Since leaving initially in 2008, I have been back to the store to work on my vacations 2
13 home from college. Three months during the summer and three weeks for Christmas vacation. A lot of things have changed and none more evident than the newest department: Hydroponic Products. What was once the music department filled with CDs and DVDs of classic musical performances has been pushed up against one wall, its stock diminished since internet downloads made going to the music store obsolete. In 2004 CD orders would come in three times a week and come in two giant boxes filled with nearly $0,000 worth of music merchandise. When I left in 200, music orders came in only on Mondays and they came shipped in the size of a shoebox. Now each order is only worth $300. The owner had opened and let fall many new departments over the years. His ideas are mainly due to the trends, but his fascination with hydroponic horticulture was the only one to be so successful. Many more customers would come in to the store looking for all types of fertilizers and grow-products that I had no idea about. The owner hired a new person to order and be the manager of the department. It became harder and harder to convince myself that these products were not being used to smoke illegal products and now, with these products on the shelves, I had a further predicament over convincing myself that I was selling products to grow illegal products. It was one thing to sell pipes used for smoking tobacco, but to sell portable grow houses or PVC pipeline pushed my denial to the breaking point. Now, instead of merely helping out the smokers, it seemed I was helping out the dealers. That was where I drew the line. Throughout my time at this establishment the greatest thing I gained was the friendship of a select few of my co-workers. I still have the owner of the store as my Facebook friend. All of my co-workers were well versed with the smoking culture, but it didn t give them any advantage in working there. When it came down to it, this was a retail establishment and we were in the market of selling things. The co-workers I had that didn t last long were the ones who bought more of the products we sold than what their paychecks could afford. Some worked so they could buy pipes, neglecting to save money to pay their rent or to buy food. Moments occurred when I hated my job. Sometimes I got too many difficult 3
14 customers too quickly. In an environment where The Customer is Always Right I had problems thinking I had to serve people who smelt of marijuana smoke or twitched with the obvious jitters of a meth addict. Customers could be nice but to think that I was somehow making their lives easier to keep partaking in illegal activity made me question my whole course of employment. It took me a year to find this job and it didn t even pay well. At the end of the work week I would have only enough to sustain myself with food for the next week. It was a good thing I was still living at home because this job would not have even covered the gas it took to drive there had I been living on my own. I don t regret working in a smokeshop. I had a good four years of employment. It gave me something to do. Boredom is one of my greatest enemies. Now that I m away in college and struggling financially, I do have momentary lapses in judgment. I pass a smokeshop and I m nearly always hit with an urge to go in and apply for a job. I have to make myself remember that there is no future in a job like that. This type of workplace always carries an air of danger with it as well. Depending on the location, especially here in the city, all kinds of bad people can stumble their way into a smokeshop. When you're in a retail situation it is very easy to lose yourself to complying with the customer's needs, but when a person works in a smokeshop it's his/her responsibility to mediate the situation. At any moment a line could be crossed and a law could be broken. Given the State of Hawaii's tobacco laws any customer could be the one to test this line. This is a unique retail situation in that the customer IS NOT always right; in some cases, the customer can be all wrong and be asked to leave the store entirely. It is the clerk's responsibility to facilitate the sale and make the store a profit, but there are rules that have to be followed and if they aren't followed correctly the greatest penalty will be on the clerk. If a clerk forgets to check a customer's I.D. and that customer is actually a person hired by the police department, the clerk is handed a fine and will most likely be terminated. The store will lose their tobacco license and their tobacco merchandise can be confiscated. It is important to note that the store I worked at was the only smokeshop in the area for six years because little smokeshops, uneducated in the practices of the police department, would rise and immediately fall. 4
15 I did not have much of a problem with the things I was selling because it was easy to convince myself that the products would be used legally. The store would often get customers that looked specifically for these products for legal use: Marathon runners would use the detox before races; The digital scales would be used for weighing electrical components for a Remote Control Car Enthusiast's project. Sometimes the customers would make me hesitant to show up for work the next day because their brazen exercise of illegal activity was off-putting. I compare my dislike for marijuana to the image of the whole country being overcast with a giant NO SMOKING sign. Till this day I feel like marijuana smoking has become trendy and thus, the precautions against them have become too lenient. I will harbor this feeling until the day this activity becomes legal, which it doesn't look like it ever will. 5