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Smoke Screen

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The flyer in the window planted the first seed in my mind: “Hookah café opening soon.” On my daily walks around the neighborhood, I often notice odd sights—but a hookah café? In Bryn Mawr? The very idea of it was tinged with an air of slightly seedy mystery. I figured it must involve smoking something, but since it was right there on Lancaster Avenue, right in plain sight, I also knew that whatever was going to be smoked would have to be legal.

I charted the progress of Omar’s Hookah Café. One day, a sign appeared in the front window: “Open.” The time was 11:30 a.m., and this 58-year-old woman and headmaster’s wife was not going in—though, a few years ago, I did ride a mechanical bull at a Western-themed party. But a hookah café was a different thing altogether. What that different thing was, I didn’t know.

I Googled “hookah.” It turns out I’d seen a hookah at parties in the early 1970s—a water pipe. And like one former president, I didn’t inhale.

Tobacco is packed inside a small bowl at the top, with burning charcoal placed over that. A jar under the bowl is filled partway with water. Smoke is inhaled by everyone in the group through the same small hose connected to the pipe.

Smoking the hookah in cafés has a long and rich history in Arab countries and Eastern Europe. There are a few of these spots in Philadelphia and most major cities in the country. Even so, I knew there were a number of reasons I wouldn’t be smoking the hookah. First of all, I don’t smoke, and I’m sort of a fitness fanatic. Second, I’m a bona fide germaphobe. Passing around a shared tube—even with my own mouthpiece—was something I couldn’t envision. Third, I couldn’t see myself asking a friend to go with me.

So why did I still want to go? Was it a desire to cast my inhibitions aside and throw off the shackles of middle age? That was the case, I’m afraid. So I spent an evening at Omar’s with a younger male friend and his buddies.

At first, I sipped my BYOB wine and observed with detached neutrality. But after my third glass, I seemed even to myself to be a prude, a dullard, a party pooper of the first degree.

And so, dear reader, I inhaled many flavors of tobacco (favoring the fruity ones). I drank more wine. I conversed loudly with my five hookah mates.

Beforehand, I’d pictured myself sitting on a pillow with yoga music tinkling in the background. But the music at Omar’s was loud and pulsing. I’m quite certain I was the only person there who was older than 40.

As writer David Foster Wallace so aptly put it, it was a supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again. But I’m glad I did it.

Haverford-based freelance writer Kathy Stevenson is also quite certain she was the only headmaster’s wife at Omar’s Hookah Café that night.

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