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Vaping in New Orleans 

Jules Bentley on how he stopped smoking, stopped caring and embraced his inner vaper

click to enlarge A customer exhales flavored vapor at Big Chief Vapors in Chalmette. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • A customer exhales flavored vapor at Big Chief Vapors in Chalmette.

Everything about vaping is embarrassing. To say cigarettes are cooler than vaping is like saying alligators are larger than amoebas — only someone who'd never visited Earth would find that useful information. But vaping keeps growing in popularity, and whatever unregulated cocktail of chemicals you're vaporizing against a battery-powered heating coil, it's probably far less harmful than cigarette smoke.

  As with "fracking," some of the negative perception may attach to the ugliness of the verb. I think the culprit is the vowel; it sounds so much like cape, gape, rape and GamerGate. Can we tweak it? Can we call it ... viping? Then you've already got your throwback slogan, "Are you a viper?" Vipe sounds hype, like Skype or dykes — it sounds like something kids could be into. Yes, "vape" is in the dictionary, but there's lots of stuff no one cares about in the dictionary. It's not too late to rebrand.

You can hold your own outdated opinion on my  constant, compulsive oral recourse to a light-up tire-pressure gauge, but you'll need to make your peace with it as a part of who I am.

  I began viping after years of unsuccessful attempts to quit smoking cigarettes. First I got a small white gizmo that looked like a cigarette and required expensive cartridges. The nubbled plastic "cherry" on the end lit up a cheerful orange on inhale. It was semi-discreet, the equivalent of orthopedic footwear trying to look like basketball shoes. It made my tummy hurt and tasted like the sky above a refinery, but it did scratch my itch for a Newport cigarette in a way nicotine gum never had.

  After weeks of shelling out to replace the tiny cartridges, I tried a friend's flavored vape outside a pro wrestling show. He was sticking something in his face that looked like a handheld 8mm camera, a plastic rectangular box with a protruding lens-like mouthpiece. I thumbed down a button, heard an intriguing sizzle, and took a gigantic hit of custard, fruit and hazelnuts. When I exhaled, what looked like several cubic yards of vapor billowed out around me; I felt like a mighty dragon. It was wonderful.

click to enlarge Vapor Eyes co-founder Mark Raeder custom-blends flavors at Vapor Eyes in the French Quarter. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Vapor Eyes co-founder Mark Raeder custom-blends flavors at Vapor Eyes in the French Quarter.

My first proper vape device, purchased shortly thereafter, resembled a fat outer space cigar. It had a vaguely medical vibe and was heavy as a roll of nickels. Since then, a friend whose partner found his vaping unacceptable gifted me his old piece. If my previous was a piccolo, this is a bassoon. It's long and segmented, like a de-winged insect; its goo-tank and battery unit were separately purchased components. It resembles the space-hookah Jabba the Hutt puffed in Star Wars, and its turret-like mouthpiece swivels on a ball joint, opening the possibility of vaping around corners. A blue digital readout allows adjustment of the device's amperage and voltage, data — as meaningless to me as cholesterol readings or summertime poll numbers.

  This may not have been everyone's experience, but there was a phase of adolescence where, having discovered the joy of masturbation, I found myself inclined to masturbate in odd or inappropriate places. This antisocial habit matured, or anyway evolved, into a fondness for having sex in locations one oughtn't. The thrill of transgression reliably compounds — or occasionally even outweighs — the pleasure of the act itself. I offer you this unasked-for glimpse of my psychogeography because I've found one of the greatest things about vaping is surreptitiously partaking in places I'd never dare sneak a cigarette, since vapor dissipates immediately and doesn't cling like smoke. It's an outlaw thrill that enhances the hit of nicotine.

click to enlarge A man exhales a large puff at Vapors Inn, which has the ambience of a cigar bar and custom-blends premium vaping juice. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • A man exhales a large puff at Vapors Inn, which has the ambience of a cigar bar and custom-blends premium vaping juice.

  Of course, notwithstanding the vape lobby's hard work, vaping is banned by law nearly everywhere cigarette smoking is. At a recent musical performance I attended, the bartender spotted me vaping indoors; she scolded me and let me know in no uncertain terms that she had a high-grade vipe-able hash oil for sale. "It smells like cardamom," she said. "Nobody can tell."

  It's true; vaping or "dabbing" THC oil is super-discreet — right up until your knees give out, because the potency is so sickeningly high. Unless I need to blot out the effects of chemotherapy, I'll stick to nicotine, though I do eagerly anticipate the availability of inhalable caffeine and have enjoyed speculative conversations about vaping doses of hormones or DMT.

Speaking as someone ostensibly in addiction recovery, there is no mistaking that this is a drug. Even if I didn't know I was getting nicotine out of the deal, no other category of hobby entails this level of fiddly obsession with the physical apparatus. It's all there: the little science-y vials of regents, the different bits that fit together laid out on a cloth, the tea-ritual prep process, the vast and limitless personalized options capitalism's generosity unfolds to the moneyed participant.

I can't help but notice everyone who doesn't vape &mdash women in particular — rolling their eyes, and my keen ears pick up ominous murmurings: "Fedora ... libertarian."

  This wonkish fetish for the equipment is a big piece of what constitutes the culture of vaping. We all know weed nerds, or at least have picked up one hitchhiking, but vaping is more like handgun culture crossed with guitar collecting with a dash of saltwater aquarium, set in a series of bubble-tea shops. There is jargon, there are innumerable ultra-fine distinctions, there are brittle opinions and the ferocious armchair expertise of the autodidact.

  As a consumer, I find the most appealing aspect of vaping the different sorts of flavored goo, also known as e-liquid or "Vape Juice" (surely, the cruelest playground nickname). It comes in as many wild flavors and jewel-like colors as sno-ball syrup or fingernail polish, both of which may or may not be ingredients of a given goo.

click to enlarge A heating coil on a vaporizer at Sweet Southern Vapes. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • A heating coil on a vaporizer at Sweet Southern Vapes.

  The sweeteners, flavorings and color agents in vape goo are at present largely unregulated, a cause of concern to some nanny-government types who don't believe in my right to place my respiratory health in the fingerless-glove-wearing hands of the vape industry. Vape goo's base is better known; it's a mix of vegetable glycerine, a sticky sugar alcohol derived from palm and coconut, and propelyne glycol, a petroleum byproduct whose consumption here in South Louisiana likely falls within the aegis of the Eat Local Challenge. Because vape goo is very cheap to make and people are addicted to nicotine, there's been a vaping gold rush. Many towns that barely have a library now boast a vape shop, and the profit margin's good enough that there are vaping billboards on the highways.

  

What you may not know is that objective scientific analysis has determined the absolute best flavors of goo are made right here in metro New Orleans. I visited a swath of the East Bank's vape establishments to sample their house mixes; the following are among the best.

Early on in my venture into vapery I would duck away from others when I indulged, wandering lonely as a cloud of atomized addictive butterscotch. Now I don't care; I just need my fix.

  At the peak intersection of flavor quality and retail atmosphere, nowhere I visited charmed me as much as Chalmette's Big Chief Vapors on West Genie, just upriver from Paris Road. Not only are the mixtures there playful, pleasurable and memorable, but the whole establishment feels like an atypically friendly biker clubhouse. Many vape spots offer seating, Wi-Fi and other inducements to hang out, but Big Chief is a bona fide social center with a welcoming laid-back vibe, a calendar of upcoming events (example: a Golden Tee tournament) and a fascinating range of hardware for sale including vape equipment with 3-D images. Their house blends run a broad South Louisiana gamut from Fais-do-do, Gator Milk and Barataria Bay to The Roosevelt, Iko Iko and Wild Tchoupitoulas. The whimsical, well-written descriptions in the menu give you a sense of what to "listen for" in the taste, and despite the humor with which they're described, these juices are seriously delicious — careful combinations that work thoughtfully and harmoniously in the mouth. Usually I don't even like tropical flavors, but the shop's Danger blend — a subtle mix of cantaloupe, pineapple and kiwi — was refreshing rather than cloying, typical of Big Chief's sophisticated mixological approach.

click to enlarge The Vaping Tiger in Metairie offers its signature flavor line with regional names and provides an inviting space for customers to vape. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • The Vaping Tiger in Metairie offers its signature flavor line with regional names and provides an inviting space for customers to vape.

  Vapor Eyes on St. Louis Street also made a positive impression as soon as I walked in the door. It's the kind of small French Quarter business I love — cozy and idiosyncratic. The proprietor's work table, surrounded by a mad scientist's assortment of bottles and implements, calls to mind the custom perfumeries that used to be a mainstay of Royal Street. Like those vanished perfume establishments, Vapor Eyes co-founder Mark Raeder is willing and eager to make a custom flavor if nothing in his catalog seems just right. My favorites at this shop were those with a cold spark of menthol — the brisk, cherry-orange-menthol Hawk Sauce, Black Ice (a menthol bubblegum) and Thug Juice, a mix of watermelon, grape and menthol that delighted me despite its troubling name. I also was impressed with praline pecan bacon, which sounded like a gimmick but turned out to be solidly yummy. "I kept toning the bacon down," Mark said. "At this point, it's just a hint of it — a sweet-and-salty mix." Vapor Eyes also offers a 10 percent discount for locals and is open till midnight.

  Crescent City Vape on St. Charles Avenue has a chic, upscale metro-politan feel. A clinic next door sells high-end intravenous vitamin treatments for patrons too busy to get their nutrition through food. While Crescent City doesn't blend in house, its hundreds of available third-party flavors include the locally produced Paradox Liquids, a premium range that nails presentation — the physical aspects of the product — in ways others could learn from. Paradox also backs up its high-end bottles and branding with quality goo. Each of the four Paradox flavors has depth and multi-dimensionality. If I had to pick a favorite among them, it would be Black Hole, an almond-glazed donut with blackberry tinge. The shop's Quantum Loop also distinguished itself among a field of many Froot Loops analogues, adding a creamy layer for the taste of milk.

  My friend and I had a great time at Sweet Southern Vapes in Harahan, once we finally found it. I love sugary flavors, and Sweet Southern Vapes has a vast, dreamy candyland of them, all laid out and easily available for sampling. At a few vape places, I felt asking to sample flavors was an inconvenience or nuisance. On the other end of that spectrum, the setup at Sweet Southern Vapes made the testing process a pleasure, as did the shop's chipper and chatty staffers.

  Vapors Inn on Veterans in Metairie feels like a small, well-appointed cigar bar staffed by friendly record-store clerks. It doesn't hurt that the shop's wide assortment of premium flavors, made to order, includes my all-time favorite goo, Fat Bastard. It's a peanut banana caramel mixture that consistently hits the spot: rich without being too rich; sweet without being treacly. Vapors Inn's menu is a great place to find a daily go-to vape blend.

click to enlarge Crescent City Vape displays its products as an apothecary does. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Crescent City Vape displays its products as an apothecary does.

  Although it doesn't create flavors on site, Herb Import's Vapor Room (listed as being on Canal Street but actually around the corner on St. Anthony Street) had the most studied elegance of the vape locations I visited. It has a meticulous steampunk/Victorian-aesthetic interior, abundant black velvet paintings (a longstanding weakness of mine) and, behind a bar, a half-dozen dispensers of Herb Import's commissioned custom mixes in the flavors of signature New Orleans cocktails. There are many vape juices named after drinks, but these excel, particularly the Sazerac and absinthe.

  The Vaping Tiger on Athania Parkway in Metairie, tucked beneath the Causeway, offers its Tiger Aide line, quality flavors with ostentatiously regional names. I was especially taken with the less-sweet options: tart, pomegranate-apple Oak Alley Pomtation; Fleur de Victoria, which combines a cherry undertone with floral, almost herbal notes of hibiscus; and Where Y'at, which is like pistachio-chai ice cream.

  In the honorable mention category is the slightly austere Vapor County on Judge Perez Highway, The shop doesn't do a lot of custom flavors, but I love its "Zebra Stripe Gum," which nails the flavor of Fruit Stripe Gum perfectly.

So, instead of smoking cigarettes or eating candy, I inhale a high-tech vapor engineered to emulate both. It's a futuristic tradeup, a new and more streamlined hybrid addiction made possible by technological innovation.

  In many advertisements, bearers of cutting-edge gadgets are swarmed by admirers, but mostly I sense the opposite from those around me when I whip out the LED-encrusted droid cock that is my nicotine-delivery system du jour. I can't help but notice everyone who doesn't vape — women in particular — rolling their eyes, and my keen ears pick up ominous murmurings: "Fedora ... libertarian." There is stigma.

click to enlarge A display of vaping flavors at Vapor Eyes in the French Quarter. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • A display of vaping flavors at Vapor Eyes in the French Quarter.

  In my early days of vaping I would duck away from others when I indulged, wandering lonely as a cloud of atomized addictive butterscotch. Now I don't care; I just need my fix. After all, we mighty cloud dragons are rapidly outnumbering the non-inhalant-device-owning dinosaurs. You can hold your own outdated opinion on my constant, compulsive oral recourse to a light-up tire-pressure gauge-looking contraption, but you'll need to make your peace with it as a part of who I am. I'm a viper, all right? It's very now.

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