A Gay Man Explains Why He’d Rather Talk to Customers than His Family

Written by | Gay Voices

Photo by Kat Jayne

To explain why he prefers the easy interaction of retail, Sebastian remembers the more shocking things his family said to him as a child.

How Retail Is like Anonymous Sex

In order to be a writer, I have supported myself in a number of ways. Indeed, I’ve had friends accuse me of taking certain jobs in order to have something to write about.

Retail has been the easiest gig to support my writing habit. It may not sound glamorous, but it’s better than what I used to tell people (that I sold babies on the black market.)

Colleagues in retail have occasionally marvelled at how affably I speak with strangers. “I can’t do that,” they say. To them, it seem disingenuous. It’s as though – since they can’t be completely honest with strangers – they can’t engage them at all.

My answer to them? “I speak WASP.” This I mean I traffic in polite phrases and pleasant banter which is warm but not overwhelming. A few seasons ago they loved me at Williams-Sonoma. I handed out more of that peppermint bark than an army of Martha Stewarts.

I like shopping and shoppers because there’s a gentle veil of anonymity covering everyone. Sure, I could judge you for spending five-hundred dollars in an hour. However I can’t judge you for, say, pouring a bottle of pickle juice out a window on someone’s head the night before. (This is something I have done.)

Shopping banter is just compliments and observations. Generally nothing unpleasant is said. In that way, it’s like anonymous sex, which I also like.

Which Is Better Than Talking to My Family

Sometimes, by contrast, I think about things my family said to me as a child. Family favorites included answering any sentence that began with, “Excuse me…” with, “There’s no excuse for you.”

I can’t picture anyone who has come into my store telling their children to “go play in traffic.” Nor do I imagine the lady buying a pale blue blouse ever told her five-year-old, “You started out as twins, but the other one flew back to Hell after you were born.” My father said that. I used to picture my departed twin as a red cherub with a tail and bat wings.

When I was nine, my older cousins informed me I would know someone loved me when they asked to pee on me (and vice versa). For years, I thought that meant – whatever sex was – it would begin or end with urination. “But who was supposed to initiate the act?” I wondered. “And afterwards, what do you do with the sheets?”

My mother’s oldest daughter explained the changes going on in my body during puberty to me endearingly. She cornered me in a hallway at her home, and grabbed me by the shoulders. “Honey,” she said. “You smell. Take a shower.”

And then there was the time my great aunt used me as a human shield. We were walking in the woods one fine summer’s day near an uncle’s house in Verona, New York. All of a sudden, we heard barking. Much to our astonishment, we next saw several dogs advancing on us. My aunt thrust me between herself and the dogs, not seeing the chain link fence that would have stopped them anyway. “Don’t tell your mom and dad,” she told me.

Mother Knows Best?

My mother, an avid reader, began building a library for me at the age of five or so. This largely centered on stories about orphans. Perhaps this was because I was adopted. Maybe she wanted to be glad I was spared the life of David Copperfield, Oliver Twist or Jane Eyre. Of course, my favorite of them was Patrick Dennis. Who wouldn’t want Auntie Mame as their gay-child fantasy mother?

Many of these books also included a message that people were fundamentally not to be trusted. This was echoed in my family’s relations with outsiders. My family, it seemed, did not value friends. My mother actively bemoaned the idea. “Stupid men and their stupid friends,” she said on more then one occasion.

At the same time, it was expected that I – who did not have many boyhood playmates – should find some. My father would sometimes refer to the boys that bullied me as my “friends.” I don’t know how I was expected to when my role models did not value friendship and could not tell the difference between my friends and my enemies.

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The Things that You Can’t Do

Therapy has helped me realize another constant theme of my childhood. They were constantly listing the innumerable things I could not be or do.

When I was a lad of six, I expressed a desire to be a dancer. “You can’t be a dancer,” my family told me. “They get ugly feet and it makes them do drugs and be gay and die.”

Even then, there was clearly some worry that I was in fact gay. I figured this out pretty early on. In those days gay men were dying. Though it was unspoken, it was chief among the things I couldn’t be or do.

I remember hearing whispers in other rooms between my parents – things I wasn’t supposed to hear about me. “Well, if he’s that way we’ll never see him again.”

So, when I make little quips and humorous observations to shoppers coming in to ask about our turtlenecks I’m hoping that they take a little bit of that pleasantness with them. I hope that when go home, they don’t tell their children they should go play in traffic or not to do or be whatever they are meant to.

Read about Sebastian rediscovering a long-lost friend, and share a message with him in the comments below.

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Last modified: March 7, 2019

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