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Sometimes a crack pipe isn’t a crack pipe.

Experts agree: When it comes to delivering a good steady hit of crack cocaine, nothing beats the straight glass stem. Ever since cocaine was first transformed from the stuff you snort to the shit you smoke, the glass model has been the pipe of choice.

When lit, the cylindrical 5-inch stem transmogrifies a sticky ball of crack into a blue-gray smoke that never burns the back of your throat. But why believe me? Go on home and compare it to, say, the stub of an automobile antenna or a Coca-Cola can with holes punched in the side. And unlike a corncob or a Sherlock Holmes pipe, this little number is specifically designed to hold one thing only: a little ball of crack cocaine that fits neatly in the end. Yes, glass-stem is the way to go.

Which is why, if you’re on a collision course with crack, you might be making the trek downtown to the B&K News Stand. The variety store sits just two blocks east of the White House, next to Clement’s Pastry Shop and just across the street from the Gothic spires of the Episcopal-Anglican Church of the Epiphany. On a summer afternoon there, beyond the red awning advertising videos and magazines at 1340 G St. NW, throngs of tourists dodge crisply dressed office workers.

And every once in a while, someone comes along looking for the pipe. Someone like me.

At first blush, B&K News Stand resembles any other tourist trap. Its air-conditioned comfort zone beckons me in from the heat to browse the racks of postcards, monument statuettes, and the long glass case that holds more key chains than even the most overburdened Federal Triangle janitor could want.

But beyond the tourist kitsch, a locked glass case is filled with menacingly large and shiny knife blades. And, as I approach the section with the dirty magazines, I know I’m getting warm: An assortment of colorful bongs shares space with hash pipes and hookahs. Alas, though, there’s no straight glass stem. Then again, nobody keeps crack pipes out in the open. Everyone knows what bongs are for, too, but in the world of illegal smokables, at least they’re relatively classy. Besides, tiny glass-stem pipes have a way of disappearing into pockets.

But I’ve got faith. And I’ve got my eye on the paunchy, balding man behind the cash register who’s chatting on the telephone. To get his attention, I spread my thumb and index finger 5 inches apart. As he hangs up the receiver, I ask for the “kit.” It’s a slippery euphemism but an essential one, because asking for a “crack pipe” invariably gets you nowhere. But when he hears the word “kit,” his eyes register knowingly.

“I think I’ve got what you want,” he says, pivoting to reach for a stash of stems hidden in a cardboard box on a shelf behind him. The box looks large enough to hold 20 or 30 pipes. Sure enough, he emerges with one of the small wonders. Confronting me with his product, he seems to be sizing me up as I size up the stem.

“Six ninety-five, or two for $10,” he says, twirling the pipe in his fingers.

“Fine,” I reply, “I’ll take two for $10.”

I toss in a Playboy and a Bic lighter. The big man rings me up and places the goods in a brown paper bag, which he folds over at the top.

“So how do you feel about selling crack pipes?” I ask.

He takes a step back. “Ah, as far as I know, that’s not a crack pipe. It’s not for smoking pot, either,” he quickly volunteers.

“So what, exactly, is it used for?”

“I dunno.”

“Will you guarantee satisfaction?”

The man has grown tired of my questions. He moves on to the next customer.

So have I been terribly, comically wrong? Did I impugn the dignity of a G Street tourist trap with the worst sort of crack-era assumptions? Could those little glass stems actually be something innocent and pure—a Washington memento meant for young Heartland visitors, or maybe some crucial piece of office equipment intended for the busy Washington professional?

I ponder the doohickeys, whatever they may be. Conceivably, they could have uses beyond smoking crack. Maybe they’re for tobacco. Hey, I’m willing to give B&K the benefit of the doubt. I stop in another store and buy some pipe tobacco.

It’s a bright and beautiful day, so I head to LaFayette Park. Across the street from the White House, I fill the end of one tube with tobacco. With a breeze blowing, I lower my head. I cup the stem with my hands and put the Bic to it. No luck. Because I can’t keep my chin up and light the dang thing at the same time, the loose tobacco keeps spilling out of the end of the stem. A beefy couple pushing a baby carriage stops and stares for a moment. Then they move away from me warily.

But I’m not willing to give up that fast. If the man says they’re not crack pipes, they must have some other use. Back at home, where I perch the two glass stems on the mantel, I ponder the conundrum.

Perhaps, I think, they could be musical instruments. The glass cylinders actually look very much like the slide I used to use on the fretboard of the old Fender Stratocaster that’s been collecting dust in the corner for a decade. Trouble is, the glass tubes are too small to fit over my finger. Every attempt to lay down a blues riff comes to naught.

Pursuing other musical uses of my new product, I put a pipe to my lips and try using it as a wind instrument. I blow through one end: A short, shrill sound emerges from my new hornpipe, but there are no holes on the side to sound different notes. So much for that idea.

Maybe they could be chopsticks! The delivery man from my local Chinese restaurant often forgets to include chopsticks with my lo mein. No problem. Since I had the foresight to buy two stems instead of one, I figure I’ve finally hit upon their proper purpose. I rest the stems gently between a thumb and two fingers and take a stab at some slippery noodles I have in the fridge. I manage to grasp the noodles between the ends of the stems, but they keep landing in my lap. I go for a fork.

But now I’ve got my meal in front of me—which includes not just food, but drink. Perhaps those glass stems are really beer straws! I pop one of the little guys into the opening on top of my Budweiser. For a while, the stem makes a splendid straw, the only design flaw being that it’s too short and can’t suck up that last inch or two of beer. And getting the straw out of the can proves too tedious when it falls all the way in.

That pretty much covers the home front. Convinced that there’s no good use for my stems, I decide to say it with flowers. From a street vendor, I purchase two roses and present them to a lady friend, inserting one stalk into each glass tube. The air hisses out of my romantic gesture, however, when she sees through my ruse. “It’s got a hole in the bottom,” she snorts. “It’s just a damn crack pipe.”

That does it. Pissed off and frustrated, I head back down to B&K intending to demand my money back.

But then, on the bus down 16th Street, I ball up a small, wet wad of paper from my notebook and load the spitball into one of the tubes. I purse my lips, take aim, and fire out the window. Eureka! The projectile rockets from the stem like a speeding bullet and lands on the windshield of a parked car.

Instantly, I am transformed into one satisfied customer. Who needs drugs when you’ve got spitballs? CP