By Michael Gutgsell
I would arrive to open the store at 11:45. I swung my bag and helmet on the counter, clocked in, and went about unplugging the fully-powered toys and putting away the chargers in paper bags I’d carefully labeled by brand: Lelo, JimmyJane, Fun Factory. My co-workers ignored my organization, usually just dropping the power strip behind the counter, chargers still attached. Nevertheless, I wrapped the cords carefully and placed them in the proper bag. Then I put the merchandise on their stands, making sure everything was lined up and dust-free. I counted the drawer, sent my manager and the owner the opening checklist, and gave the store a quick once-over before flipping over the open sign, flicking the lights on, and unlocking the door. Then I waited.
The day yawned before me. I sat behind the counter and endlessly, obsessively, edited my work playlist. I looked out at the bright day as the parade of men in candy-colored tank tops strutted by, flashing their muscles, their white teeth, their ridiculous short-shorts and designer sneakers. They were on their way to champagne brunches, or the gay beach, or the gym. Places I was excluded from, because I worked every day in a glass aquarium, surrounded by dildos, vibrators, cock rings, and leather paddles (and I was too lazy to wake up early enough to go to the gym).
The summer before, I had just told a guy he should go to therapy as part of my “It’s not me, it’s you,” speech. I was wearing a burnout tee and tight denim shorts, not feeling too good about the way things were going, when I stopped into a shop with a window display of brightly colored silicone dicks. There was a man behind the counter–thankfully. I probably wouldn’t have stopped if it had been a woman.
Time was running out on my internship year, which I had spent struggling to teach adult refugees reading, writing, and rudimentary civics. It had been a year spent barely supervised, lunches verging on two hours because, when I returned, I had nothing to do. All in all, I had learned very little in the way of applicable job skills. This became pretty clear when no non-profits responded to my carefully put together resume and cover letter. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t starting to feel desperate, and a return to waiting tables loomed before me. I had come to Chicago so I wouldn’t have to keep doing that work. I thought the internship would open all sorts of doors for me. Ha.
There seemed something deliciously vengeful in leaving a religious-oriented service year and taking a job at a sex shop. Vengeful in the “nose to spite the face” sort of way, probably, but I was disappointed with my experience, and I liked to imagine how they’d try and twist this into a schmaltzy “And Where Are They Now?”
Flash forward to almost a year later: I perched on the rickety stool, trying to achieve a precarious balance due to the thing’s loose hinges, my face shaved clean, my hair carefully arranged, my shirt and pants form-fitting. I assumed a face of calloused boredom, channeling the shop girls in Claude Chabrol’s Les Bonnes Femmes.
I was so bored I would have taken up with a stranger on a motorcycle, if one had ever stopped to look at me.
By now I had long since lost any nervousness brought on when a woman asked which clit vibrator was strongest/best-selling/cheapest, I could slip on any harness comfortably enough to clinch the sale to skeptical lesbian couples, and I had almost figured out how to politely but firmly turn down a very explicit proposal. I was the top sales person, and the manager liked me, and I liked him. I was getting used to the sights of the neighborhood, like the men at Little Jim’s. Little Jim’s was your typical dive bar, albeit in the heart of Chicago’s gayborhood, across the street from where I worked. Soon after I opened shop, the door to Little Jim’s would open, and the smokers would line up against the wall. The interior, from what I could see, was dim, gritty-looking and electric blue from the neon beer signs. I had never been in, and though I would be tempted by a drink when I left work, I never wanted to go inside. I was too familiar with the faces of the men that frequented the place, and I was in constant horror that one of them would speak to me, and I’d have to greet them when I went to work every day. I lived resenting the insinuations that passed for pleasantries.
For example, the man who owned the gay-themed tsotchke shop next door would come in every day, this dumb smile on his face, white hair around his temples wisped out in horn-like curls, and he’d make some ignorant joke about black people or lesbians, or some sneering, lecherous joke about what I must like my boyfriend to do to me. I could never tell where these comments came from, and it was disturbing to think that he spent any amount of time thinking about what I did sexually. I sat, wobbling behind the counter, a half-hearted grin plastered on my face, stomach clenched, nails digging into my knee. His visits happened at the beginning of my shift and proved good practice for what I was going to hear the rest of the day.
But I’m making the job out to sound more exciting than it was. Really, I spent a good amount of time rearranging displays, researching product reviews and the latest releases, and seriously perfecting my work playlist. A little 90s pop, some jazz standards, lots of strong female artists, and some sexy songs, like Prince’s “Kiss.”
And every day, when my eyes would wander away from the Jezebel article I was reading, I would see the smokers at Little Jim’s lining the wall. I had just seen them…this weekend? Time blurred together. I was at the shop every day, mostly at night, but sometimes I’d open, and it was hard to remember what happened when. But it would become clear to me, and I realized I had seen these same guys just the day before. And the day before that. They always spent at least a couple hours there. Some of the guys would be there for an entire six hour shift. I wondered what they did professionally that allowed them to spend a good chunk of the workday changing money into booze.
One of the most consistent regulars was a large, red-nosed older man who seemed to know the majority of the people that came to the bar, regulars or not. He’d greet these homely men with a big handshake and smile. No one attractive ever went to Little Jim’s, and when some hot young guy would walk by, the regulars would look at them briefly, but never say anything. They didn’t seem to say anything to each other about these guys either, they just acted like hot guys didn’t exist. Maybe they didn’t, for them.
Eventually when it came time for Rudolph the Red Nosed Alchy to walk home, he would travel slowly down the block, a hand grazing the wall for support. He lived in the same building as the shop, a plain brick building, one of many across Chicago, infested with roaches we’d have to sweep into the garbage, sometimes still moving, before opening. A bleak place to live, but convenient if you wanted to live around drunk gays.
Sometimes I would put a handmade “Back in 5” sign on the door and walk by Little Jim’s to go to a hole-in-the-wall market for an orange soda, and maybe a candy bar. It always felt freeing to be in the warm summer air. As I passed the bar, the interior hummed its siren song, in a voice husky from whiskey and cigarettes. “Come inside me,” it purred, “Come in for one hot jolt, one stomach-burning shot of whatever you like.” It was alluring in its sad, downtrodden quality, but ultimately unappealing and crass. I imagined once in there I would sit uncomfortably on a bar stool, out of place, at once dreading interaction and insulted that no one was talking to me. Those thoughts held me back perhaps more than the simple fact that I should have been at work.
That being said, I took the job very seriously. I had a three-ring binder I made with pages of product descriptions, drawings, and a detailed tally of when I purchased something, how much I spent (I had a budget), and my personal reviews. I wanted to be the best at what I did. And honestly, the first few months were invigorating. I learned a lot, and I enjoyed talking to customers about sex and toys and lube. I grew as a person, too. Not just richer in experience, but I looked at people differently, and with more compassion. Every person who walked in, I said to myself: “This is a sexual person. This is someone with healthy desires.” This wasn’t a lascivious thought at all, but deeply humanizing and beautiful. It helped me connect.
It was only later, once I got the hang of the job, that I started getting bored. I realized the owners didn’t give a shit if we knew our stuff; they saw us as disposable. I didn’t get that feeling from customers, because in nearly all cases, I knew more than them. Some of the items we sold weren’t of the quality I thought should be our standard. When I would suggest bringing in a new line that was top-quality and had received rave reviews, the owner emailed me back, praising me on my enthusiasm and suggesting I check out a website for an alternative line. It was made by some long-haired, middle-aged man from his cabin in the woods, coated with a sealant most commonly used on floors and suspected to cause cancer. I was horrified, and emailed her back with my research and why I was hesitant that we sell any of his stuff. I never heard back from her.
But I didn’t know what I was doing with my life. My manager made a big deal out of a 25 cent raise after six months, which made it all the more clear that I wasn’t going to be able to make a living here. I worked every day and yet still not enough to be full-time, and there was of course no health insurance. My social life had dwindled to nothing, since I was at work when people were out, and my boyfriend had started emotionally backing out of the relationship (unrelated to the job). I liked the job almost better than any other I’d had, but still, I felt: There’s gotta be something better than this. One day I was scrubbing lube off a display shelf, and “Que Sera, Sera” started playing. There was something sad about that. “When I was just a little boy, I asked my mother, what will I be?”
What will I be?
Michael Gutgsell is a regular writer for Tumbleweed Diaries. You can read more of him on his weekly blog, Making a Mess of It, or on the blog for Tree House Humane Society, the no-kill stray cat shelter where he works.