Let me tell you about my life about a year ago.

My roommate and I –we’ll just call him “Frank”- were both porn store clerks.  We never worked the same shifts, so nightly we would get together at the bar, usually around midnight or 1 AM, and swap stories about “Da Life.”  We didn’t like advertising that we were “porn peddlers”– we lived in the middle of the Bible Belt- so we merely referred to our profession, in polite company, as “Da Life.”

We both worked for the same “Adult Novelty Stores”, owned by the same man, two of maybe half a dozen spread across Greensboro, North Carolina.  But our two stores were special in several respects.  For one, the staff was exclusively male, and save for two other staff members –an openly gay supervisor and a manager who was bisexual- most of our staff was very, um… white, and very straight, and a few were quite homophobic besides.  Beyond being the only other (open) bisexual on the staff, I was also the only one who wasn’t white.  (This will be important later.)

The story I remember best from Da Life was this time when Frank had just ended his shift and met me at the bar, per usual.  He spots me and walks over, and he’s already laughing as he begins recalling the events in his head, but he sits down across from me, puts his drink on the table, and he says: “Okay.  So I’m getting ready for shift change, and I’m checking the booths, right?”

(Frank really does talk like this, by the way.  He’s also very animated when he speaks.)

I nod.

“I head towards the back booths, and I hear this noise, like a guy moaning, but it doesn’t sound like any of the movies.  So I turn a corner, and one of the booths is open!”

(He emphasizes this but it’s hardly surprising. Guys leave the booth doors open all the time.  That’s why we have to go back there.  But I nod politely anyway.)

“This guy is on his knees, sucking another guy’s dick.  So immediately I’m like ‘Whoa, whoa, okay, guys, what the fuck, you gotta go.’”

At this point I’m laughing because I can imagine the look on Frank’s face.  Frank wasn’t homophobic, at all, but he did hate having to do this part of the job – as any rational person would.

“So the guy on his knees jumps and stands up and looks down at me, and he’s like, ‘I ain’t goin anywhere!  Whataya gonna do, faggot?’  And I’m already pissed, but I burst out laughing.”  Frank’s laughing even now.  “‘I’m a faggot?’ I said, ‘You just had another guy’s dick in your mouth!’”

Stories like this were pretty common where I worked, especially at the store “up the street” (we often referred to the two stores as the one “down the street” and the one “up the street.”)  “Up the street” was a quaint little porn shop which sat quite conspicuously besides a Toys R Us -zoning laws notwithstanding, we were there long before they were- in a rather conservative town in a rather conservative state.  In other words, not really the kind of town for established “pillars of the community” to be openly gay or bisexual.  In a lot of ways, our porn shops were like cult temples, or as one of my less sensitive co-workers put it, the “homo underground,” where anyone could just come on down and be themselves -often with unfortunate results.  And by “unfortunate results” I mean the incidents that involved drunk and/or pill-popping old men with younger… professionals in the booths, all cruising for a piece of ass either from other customers or those of us (all male, remember) behind the counter.  Naturally, it was a part of our job to kick these folks out –we’re a porn store, not a brothel!- and that’s when the hilarity often ensued.

I still own the distinction for being the only Puerto Rican (the only non-white male, period) to have ever worked at those stores.  Between that and the bisexuality, I was “exotic.”  Which meant I got hit on.  A lot.  Mostly by older white men and young black men on the down low who read my vague flirtations – or at least my non-homophobia- not as a way to generate sales (which it was), but as an open invitation for me to be their “pool boy.”

To be fair, “incidents” were actually pretty rare.  I worked five times a week, including weekends, switching shifts between both stores, over the course of three years.  Excluding the times where I got very boldly hit on (which I personally don’t count), I’ve had perhaps twenty notable “incidents” in that span of time, and there are guys who have worked there longer who have had even fewer than that.  As one could imagine, most customers at a porn store don’t usually want to draw attention to themselves.  I had entire shifts where I didn’t have to speak to anyone.  In fact, most of my shifts were like that.  Most nights, I just sat behind the counter and read comic books.

Because of all that quiet time, I eventually came to view our little shops as a sort of confessional for men and women from all over North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia (as far as I know, it’s still illegal, or at the least extremely restrictive, to open up Adult Novelty Shops in those latter two states, which meant we saw a lot of Virginia and South Carolina IDs).  I spent many a night, and made many a sale, by just sitting quietly behind the counter and looking cute, occasionally listening to men and women open up about their sex lives and how utterly boring they were, how they had all these desires they wished to express but were afraid to, mostly because of the embarrassment and ridicule they expected to come their way.

But I loved my job.  Beyond the general awkwardness of having to explain Da Life to loved ones and potential dates, I still believe that Americans, especially in the South -and I’ve lived on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, both as a child and an adult, so I’m reasonably sure about this- are extremely repressed. Unhealthily so.  I really got a thrill out of helping people open up about their “deviant” desires, helping couples, especially, open up to the idea of experimenting with this or that toy or even with a DVD from a genre that they typically avoided.  (FYI: the most sales we made on DVDs, at least while I was there, were gay and interracial, despite the latter being the fourth smallest selection in our library).  It’s the only retail job I’ve ever had where I left on good terms with the management, and I know from my supervisors that most of my customers, in the main, appreciated my “guarded enthusiasm” as well.

I quit in August, 2010, exactly three years, almost to the day, that I started.  I left behind daily, albeit dubious, flattery, a low-stress work environment, and the only retail job I ever even vaguely believed in.  I came away from that place a lot more open about not only my own sexuality and sexual practices, but way more accepting of others’ as well.  That’s the big secret of porn store clerks, at least in my experience: we don’t typically come into the job as sexual freaks, at least most of us don’t; we’re just regular people who take on a job that looks kind of cool and laid back on the surface.  The only thing Da Life taught me was that my desires and fetishes were not that very unusual at all, and that maybe I should be more open about what I want and who I want it from -if only to avoid eventually becoming that old man who comes into the porn store to hit on the clerks.