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Zac Crain Smokes a Cigarette in Whole Foods—and Gets Away With It

Truth be told, our puffing scofflaw wasn’t actually smoking. He was just test driving an e-cigarette from Southlake-based SS Choice.
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illustration by Ryan Snook

I’ve had just about enough of this smoking ban silliness. So the other day I went to the home court of the virulent nonsmoker, the new Whole Foods in Lakewood. And I smoked. I was Max Cady in the movie theater scene in Cape Fear. I made a spectacle of myself. I walked past a cop—and then another one—breathing like a dragon, begging for, at the very least, a stern talking-to. 

But no one cared. All I got for my effort was a headache from too much nicotine.

Truth be told, I wasn’t actually smoking. Rather, I was “smoking” an e-cigarette. SS Choice (ECigarettesChoice.com)—the Southlake-based company that sells, distributes, and partly manufactures electronic cigarettes—had sent me a starter kit to test-drive.

The device itself is pretty ingenious. On one end, there is a flavor cartridge, a small tube about the size of a cigarette filter filled with some sort of nicotine-based liquid that I imagine was developed by NASA. SS Choice has a proprietary blend (No. 7, which has a vague hint of vanilla), and other varieties are available. An inhaler is inserted into the cartridge, and the whole thing screws into a battery pack, which is roughly the size of the rest of a cigarette.

And, yeah, it actually looks like the real deal—from a distance. When you inhale, the tip lights up like the cherry on, say, a Marlboro. When you exhale, “smoke” comes out, an odorless vapor that quickly dissipates. By all measures, you appear to be smoking.

Except—

In reality, you look like you just came from Spencer’s Gifts or some other novelty shop. And it doesn’t really feel like you are smoking, either. For one thing, it’s more or less the size of a normal cigarette in the same way that Paul Giamatti and George Clooney are both leading men, in that they are both humans and have acted in movies. It’s heavy, too; you can’t casually let an e-cigarette dangle from your lips, unless you have the jaw strength of a jaguar. I tried that once when I needed both hands free to check my pockets for my car keys. I couldn’t smile comfortably for an hour. It leads to a situation where you don’t use an e-cigarette the way you might the born-in-the-Carolinas version.

But I was more than willing to convince people I had the real thing. I got onto a crowded elevator at work and rode down 16 floors with a group of happily chattering women. I inhaled until the tip of my No. 7 e-cigarette glowed bright orange. I blew smoke-like vapor all over the place. No reaction. The problem was, I was so focused on getting them to pay attention to me that I failed to pay attention to them. Only when we all exited did I realize they were speaking French. Of course they didn’t say anything about my smoking. The French will smoke while taking a shower. An elevator is nothing to them.

Over the next few days, I “lit up” in various places, all of them off-limits to real smoke: bars, restaurants, closer than 15 feet to the entrances of all manner of establishments, my wife’s car. The only people who paid me any mind were other smokers, who had read about the device because smokers are as up on the current literature relating to their hobby as gun collectors and World of Warcraft participants.

The failure to provoke finally drove me to try my luck at Whole Foods. My wife went with me; though she doesn’t care much for my antics, she loves a good public confrontation. I tried to give her one.

We went up and down every aisle even though we didn’t need anything, lingering over flax-seed granola and frozen tofu wraps as I inhaled and exhaled like a Lamaze instructor. I aggressively engaged everyone I passed, doing my best to catch people’s eyes while I deeply, dramatically took in the “smoke.” I swung around the No. 7 like a laser pointer. I blew rings as I examined produce and exhaled all over the place when I removed the protective dome from the cheese samples. I sought out people with children, and I blew smoke at a kid when I bent down to compliment his Spider-Man costume. And I nodded hello to a pair of cops while I took a deep drag. I was the kind of jerky smoker people hate. Still, nothing.

There are two explanations. The first: despite all evidence to the contrary, it is in fact totally okay to smoke cigarettes inside now, so long as you own it. The second: I have apparently honed my look to the point where I am now so intimidating that I get a free pass for virtually anything. It took only 35 years, but I’ve finally grown into the bearded tough guy I always knew was inside me.

Oh, sorry—you want to mess with me? What? I thought so.

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