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[whitespace] Like Buying Candy From a Babe: Peachy's Puffs girls look soft but sell hard.

Photograph by Farika


Puff Mammy?

Peachy's Puffs ride the line between selling and being sold

By Dara Colwell

Joel sits at an outside table under the full moon, with his pal Fernando and the girls, complaining that the singer's mic is too amped. The reggae hits the Embarcadero and gets lost on the streets, its faint beat strangled by the singer's Caribbean voice. No matter, Joel slowly drinks his pale beer and grabs a pack of cigarettes from his front pocket. Just as he lights one up, a cigarette girl approaches with a loaded goody tray. She peers over the pastel fabric roses, straight into his dark eyes, and politely asks if he wants anything. "Nope," he says, exhaling, eyeing her legs. She smiles and walks over to another table. "Wow, I bet you gotta have an extra layer of skin to do that," Joel says to Fernando. "Who would do this kind of job?"

"But who wouldn't for the money?" muses Tara O'Flaherty. It's Saturday night and she's in fishnet stockings, tall leather boots and a shimmering black number cut up to there. She's carting a tray full of smokes and sweet edibles while giving off a high-heeled feminist vibe that makes most men's jaws drop with anxiety and lust. It takes a certain kind of sass to sell candy to strangers. A cigarette girl must look sexy, cool and enticing, but also sell hard; time is money. Apart from the doormen looking out for her, she is alone in the trenches, harnessed to her goods. She's on display, but not for sale, and men, especially, never seem to understand that.

Tara has been a Peachy's Puff cigarette girl for more than a year and she's one of the best, taking home close to $200 a night for five hours work. The brainchild of Peachy D'Ambrogio, Peachy's Puffs has complemented San Francisco's growing retro-club scene and is now an institution in itself. D'Ambrogio started the business solo carting a bulky tray from club to club in the mid-1980s, but when Troy Noonan took over the business in 1989 with two stretched credit cards, he likened it to hanging onto the tail of a tiger. "The tiger just kept getting bigger and bigger," he says.

When Tara needed rent money she decided to give Peachy's a whirl. Many Peachy girls pay their way through college, balancing classes with double late-night shifts. Like them, Tara doesn't consider this her career and earns money between jobs working in clothing shops. She has other dreams, ones she needs to put money behind.

Tara claims to be 24, but stumbles over the words, before admitting she's younger. Her tray and fake ID give her access to cigarettes, alcohol and San Francisco's night life. Her nose is pierced with a silver loop and her long red hair is clipped back with translucent butterfly barrettes that reflect her creamy young skin. Similar to other Puffs, Tara has a smouldering Betty Page sexuality that makes her appear naughty but nice. She says she grew up too fast and didn't finish high school, but she's street-smart, and now she's making good money.

Tonight she's working the North Beach run, negotiating neon-cast streets packed with cologne-soaked men and tourists toting plastic bags of cheap souvenirs. Haji, who hires all the girls, drives her in his gray-green Toyota truck, as a white limousine with a fleshy penis-shaped balloon mounted on its roof pulls into Broadway traffic. At 9:41pm, Haji abruptly stops in front of a bar and it's time for business. Tara gets out and slides the velvet tray strap onto her slender neck. Though the tray is extremely heavy, she says she almost doesn't notice it anymore.

[line]

Smoke in Their Eyes: Camel attempts to burn the Puffs.

[line]

The first bar is almost empty. A band plays to a weary barmaid and a handful of rugged-looking men sipping beer, their worn denim legs tapping listlessly. A scraggly blonde Marlboro man with a thick moustache claps his hands when he sees Tara. "Lollipops, man! Hey girl!" he calls out excitedly, loosely putting his arm around his girlfriend's waist. They don't buy anything and Tara moves on. A few bars later she has only sold a pack of cigarettes, a rose, two cigars and a tootsie-roll pop. She enters another bar, this one full of men in Hawaiian shirts and cell phones tucked into their white shorts. One, who is old enough to be her grandfather, asks Tara for her phone number. She's heard every line before: "How much do you cost, darling?" "I want something, but it's not on the tray." Only when they grab her does she hit back, usually with a cigar tin.

Tara doesn't like the North Beach scene. "It's too seedy," she says. And the drunks are rude. Later, a man slurs in her face, "Your job is pointless." She angrily spits back, "Getting drunk is pointless. I'm trying to make it in this city!" She stares through him, her eyes angry and unfocused. She walks away and doesn't hear another man's blunt observation: "Well, I guess it's better than prostitution."

But it's not prostitution, Tara is adamant. A prostitute's for sale, a cigarette girl sells only image. Tara has been offered money for blow jobs and thinks it's degrading. She wants to have fun and make money, but making money at this job ultimately means being sexy. One night she wore jeans and a T-shirt and didn't sell a thing. Fishnets, tight skirts, a suggestive sway, a firmly outlined mouth and suddenly she has a guaranteed male audience.

Noonan is familiar with the male reaction, but doesn't understand it. "Maybe I'm giving the thinking public too much credit, but there is nothing sleazy about this job--the girls are empowering themselves and making good money. We hire smart girls with personality and they know how to sell," he says. Considering the prices, they have to. The girls make money on commission and tips and whatever they don't sell is returned, counted and input into a computer. Each item's price includes a mark-up for the company and the girls. So a 35-cent lollipop sells for $1 and a pack of cigarettes, normally $4.75, sells for $7.

Tara hears the same complaint wherever she goes: "What?! That's overpriced!"

She approaches a young couple, their legs wrapped around each other as the man caresses his girlfriend's face. Though Tara looks at the woman first, she asks the boyfriend, "Candy? Cigarettes?" He begins to shake his head "no" but hesitates as his girlfriend stares at the flashy rings and tootsie-roll pops on the tray. Tara shrewdly suggests, "How about a lollipop? What flavor would you like?" The woman immediately grabs for an orange one and her boyfriend reaches for his wallet. When Tara says the price, he says, "What? $1 for a Tootsie roll pop?! Whoa!" But he pays her anyway.

Haji calls out to Tara. The pace has finally picked up and she has sold a good portion of her merchandise in the last 20 minutes. She slips her tray off, puts it in the back of the Toyota and gets in. They pull into traffic and move on to another bar.

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From the March 20, 2000 issue of the Metropolitan.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.




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