"They are an institution," agrees a bartender at Bimbo's 365 Club. "Nightclubbing wouldn't be the same without the Puffs."
Started by one woman -- Peachy -- with one tray of cigarettes and candy in 1985, today the Peachy's Puffs cigarette-girl service has expanded to almost a dozen employees and 50 or 60 costumed Puffs selling their wares in nightclubs and at private parties.
"Peachy started the business," says the current owner, 33-year-old Tom Noonan, who bought the business seven years ago. "She was great at it, but she wanted to be an actress," he says.
Peachy may be gone, but theatrical ambitions live on in the new Puffs.
"It's a lot like acting," says Tabatha, a 22-year-old redhead and a Puff of three months. Adorned in a short ensemble of black and fluorescent-green satin, Tabatha stands outside the Puffs' pink office door at Third and Brannan smoking with one of the Peachy's drivers.
Noonan approaches with his shy newlywed wife who speaks very little English. Looking every bit the handsome night-life boss with his casual suit, gold jewelry, and cigar, he motions to Tabatha to give him a twirl of her dress, which she does with slow, practiced ease. The new costume -- a topic of much excitement for Noonan -- is inspected with a cool businessman's eye through a billow of cigar smoke.
"You're wearing it perfectly," Noonan says, adjusting the pillbox hat only slightly. "It's not too awkward, is it?" he asks with heartfelt concern. Tabatha shakes her head minutely.
"Your haircut looks really good, too. I have some good news. You'll be starting tonight at the Paradise Lounge." Apparently, after six years, the Paradise has agreed to let the Puffs back in the club to peddle their wares. "Some clubs want their cigarette machines to make money," explains Noonan, "but we add a touch of class."
Inside Puffs headquarters, the dressing room resembles the backstage of a cabaret. Racks of colorful costumes shimmer rosily in a corner. Several Puffs in high heels click back and forth across the black-and-white-checked linoleum talking about shoe sales and sharing mascara while primping in the wall-length mirrors.
"How do you like the new costumes?" Noonan asks the girls.
"By the way, ladies," he admonishes, "bobby pins are a mandatory part of your costume. If you want to work, you must have them."
"I'd show you our old costumes," Noonan says to me confidentially, "but I've sent them to the dry cleaner. Not something I do often. The girls don't hang them up. They must learn how to take care of them."
Noonan sidles over to Mo, a Puff of one year who looks like she'd be more comfortable working as a bike messenger.
"I've hired an image consultant," he says, bending down as Mo pulls off her sweat socks, "to work with girls on their hair and makeup. We're going to go for a more vintage look. So, I'm going to need $35 from everyone to help pay the cost."
"I won't be able to do that," says Mo without looking up. "I'll get another job."
"I'm sure we can work something out," says Noonan, standing quickly. "We'll talk about it later."
"I can't afford it," continues Mo, "not with school."
"I've spent thousands of dollars," Noonan says with obvious aggravation as he moves toward the office door. "I'm only asking for a very small commitment from the girls."
Noonan gone, talk turns to more important matters: cocktail openings, last night's route fuck-ups, and Tami's new boyfriend -- a Peachy's Puffs driver.
"I finally got some well-deserved good-man karma," says 26-year-old Tami while adjusting a knee-high patent leather boot.
"Tami's happy. There are a lot of jerks out there," pipes in Petra, whose illuminated hat twinkles like the lights on a Christmas tree. "We meet them. We get harassed all the time."
"The problem with this job," explains Tami, "is that they think we're cheap."
Harry, who is driving the SOMA nightclub route tonight in an identifiable Peachy's Puffs pink van, waltzes through the door decked out in a black suit and a loosely buttoned purple shirt. His bald head glistens as he checks the women's inventory.
"So, Harry," Mo starts in, "why are you so dressed up?"
"I was at a classy function," Harry says with put-on arrogance as he gives Tami an extra box of Marlboros.
"How'd ya' get in?" Tami says with the inflection of a Catskill comic. She finishes the shtick with a leg extension above her head, a twirl, and a plie.
On the road, Tami is welcomed by an exuberant busboy at Hamburger Mary's. "I'm always glad when they come around," beams Brian. "They're so much fun. Even if they're expensive, they add so much personality."
Tami manages to sell a pack of smokes to a 28-year-old business traveler from Boston and charms a dollar tip from him before sashaying across the street to the Holy Cow where the doorman, Chico, gives her an inviting smile. Ready with the Peachy's Puffs pitch, Tami approaches a small group of men at the bar. After 12 minutes and two twirls, she returns with 10 cents.
"I sold him a smile for a dime," she says good-naturedly.
Sympathizing, the bartender offers Tami a libation on the house, but she is apparently undaunted by the 12-minute dime. "On good nights, like New Year's, we can make something like 10 bucks an hour," she says. "Other nights you just don't make as much. I've seen girls end up owing money. They get drunk and give away their stuff too cheaply. ... They wind up paying to work for six hours."
By Silke Tudor