Don’t X-Plain

They looked like a nice young couple. I’d never seen them before, but it was a casual weekend afternoon and there were lots of new faces milling about the shop. I’m proud to say that we’ve become something of a “couples” store. By that, I mean a store that’s welcoming to both men and women. More importantly, one where husbands, wives, boyfriends and girlfriends enjoy shopping together because they feel safe and can always find something to suit both of their individual tastes.

You know that feeling of meeting someone for the first time and finding just how much you have in common? That feeling that you have a brand-new friend to share your opinions with and actually find yourself fascinated by theirs as well? No matter how old we get, I don’t think any of us can ever say we don’t enjoy the feeling of making new friends.

You get to start new friendships pretty much every day in a small retail environment. You get the opportunity to meet every type of human being you can imagine and speak to one another with mutual respect. In a comic-book store, we’re all on equal footing and we’re all given the gift of walking in one another’s shoes.

So when this well-dressed young couple approached the counter, I felt the usual anticipation of making new friends and starting our first conversation about all of the many things we had in common. The lovely young woman spoke first. She flashed a sweet smile and asked, “Do you give discounts to porn stars?”

I’ve worked for multiple comic-book stores in multiple countries. From lowly toilet cleaner to management to owner. From England to New York to California, I’ve heard hundreds of stories and been faced with all manner of human being. Year after wonderful year, it just never gets old.

I casually replied, “While I’m sure your work is very good, I’m afraid we don’t give discounts to entertainment professionals.”

She just shrugged it off as if she’d heard that line a thousand times, thanked me and introduced herself. To this day, I’m not sure if Sheri is her real name or her “porn” name, but it’s the one she chooses to go by and that’s ok with me.

“Where are the comics with naked people in them?” said Sheri the porn star.

“Physically or emotionally?” I replied.

To my surprise, Sheri laughed hysterically.

Our store is located in Southern California. The San Fernando Valley. While it’s not often spoken of anywhere other than cable television, our warm and sunny part of the city is home to more pornographic film studios than anywhere else in the world. Tucked away in small facilities, next to printing companies and shipping outlets are adult video processing firms and live Internet feeds streaming…well…you know. New York City has Donald Trump’s Dark Tower and we have Larry Flynt’s Glowing Pylon.

All along the winding canyon roads, you’ll see beautiful sprawling mansions with elevated outdoor pools and windows that go on forever. What goes on inside those houses with high ceilings and winding staircases is the stuff that some folks’ dreams are made of.

I’m by no means bragging for them, nor do I think most of our residents see it as a badge of honor. It’s just the way it is. Love them, hate them, admire them. They’re our neighbors with the right to make a buck however they like. They’re human beings like us. But people talk about it as if it’s something that goes on somewhere else. As if there’s a fantastical pornographic city on the edge of forever, where all adult entertainment stories magically appear out of thin air.

Nope. Eighty percent of them are produced in our valley and are sent out into the world for (all those who care to) enjoy. It’s a fact many don’t like to discuss in mixed company. You might say it’s the elephant in the room.

I walked the floor of the shop with Sheri that afternoon. Her boyfriend(?)/husband(?)/ producer(?) stood absently by the door, talking relentlessly into his cell phone. He obviously had no interest in her shenanigans and came in to appease her curiosity.

They’ve been in many times since that day and I’ve still not said more than a few words to him. Primarily due to the fact that his cell phone never leaves the side of his head. I’m sure he has a name. But “porn” name or otherwise, I’ve never heard it spoken aloud.

Sheri was fascinated by what she saw. She picked up books and flipped through pages. She asked silly questions and laughed at her own curiosity. The art section called out to her because of the occasional provocative female images to be found within the sketchbooks and human anatomy tomes.

I tried my best to explain things to her in simple terms she’d understand. Having discussions with a porn star is something everyone should get to experience at least once in life. Like discussing religion, there are no real answers, only an endless array of questions.

As we passed the Modern Classics section, a book caught her eye. As soon as she spotted it, I knew I was in trouble. Before I could let out a whimper, Sheri rushed over to the shelf, grabbed the book in her hands and shouted out to her boyfriend/husband/producer,

“Look honey! Pussy!!”

For those of you who have never read any of Dan Clowes’ brilliant work, by all means rush to your local comic-book dealer and insist on them ordering it for you. He’s the author of “Ghost World,” “Eightball” and a host of other classic alternative comic-book fare.

“Pussey” (poo-say) happens to be a scathing dissection of the insular world of the comic-book industry. Sheri, however, saw something entirely different in the title. Which, I’m relatively certain would have given Mr. Clowes no end of enjoyment.

She could have chosen almost any other word in the English language to loudly mispronounce in my little comic-book store filled with weekend shoppers. But that one in particular garnered quite a bit of attention from every single person within earshot. Which is to say, every person on the floor, in the back room and on the sidewalk out front.

Sheri doesn’t care a fig about what other people think about her vocabulary. When she’s happy, she damn well expresses it. In a myriad of ways that some of us may find somewhat uncomfortable. Or refreshing, depending on the type of person you choose to be. Having sold quite a few books to Sheri over the years, I can safely say that she’s painfully honest, unafraid of her own opinions and completely and utterly disconnected from the waking world around her.

That first day in my store, Sheri bought a few books off the shelf, a couple of female action figures for various ideas she wanted to experiment with and a copy of “How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way.”

I’d like to think Sheri’s learning something about sequential storytelling from the books I’ve sold her. Perhaps her aspirations mirror so many of the actors and actresses in the mainstream media. Meaning, what she really wants to do is direct. She certainly finds the time to read every book she buys and come back in to discuss her feelings.

Of “Pussey,” Sheri had this to tell me, “It wasn’t what I thought it was going to be, but I kind of liked it!” To which I replied, “Funny. I felt exactly the same when I first read it.”

Upon reading the latest Wonder Woman books, Sheri intoned “She talks too much. In my experience, hot Amazon chicks don’t really need to say much. And they’re a whole lot taller.” “Makes sense” was my reply.

She felt that there weren’t enough homosexuals or midgets in comics and that they should be better represented. She felt that most of the heroes were even more uptight than the villains they fought. She also felt confused by the fact that more heroes didn’t have relationships with one another. As she put it, “when you work around the same people day in and day out, things are bound to happen.” So true.

We’ve talked quite a bit about “Omaha the Cat Dancer,” which remains her favorite graphic novel series of all time (go figure) and she still can’t make it even half-way through “Watchmen”, but is adamant she’s going to keep trying until she succeeds.

Sheri’s admitted that her friends on the set have seen her reading comics and graphic novels and are interested in joining her when she stops into the store. She’s also admitted that she discourages them. Not because she feels ashamed of her hobby. But because it’s something that’s hers. “I like to have things that are private and personal,” said Sheri. ‘Things that belong to me that no one else is allowed to touch.”

Who can argue with that?

She’s respectful enough not to go into detail about the work she does while she’s shopping and I certainly don’t ask any questions. The only thing we discuss is what she’s reading and what she likes or doesn’t. And I’m careful to always steer the conversation in that direction. We’re a family store, after all.

But she’s a member of someone’s family, isn’t she? She’s someone’s daughter. Someone’s sister. Someone’s aunt. She’s a person and it doesn’t matter to me what she does outside my doors. While she’s in my store, she’s a member of our family. She’s the crazy cousin who doesn’t obey the rules and makes everyone else in the family blush. The one who embarrasses us all when she comes over for Thanksgiving dinner. But secretly…secretly…we admire her for her bravery. We get a kick out of her fearlessness. And ultimately, we accept her for who she is. Why? Because she’s a member of our family. She’s one of us.

Sometimes, folks will stare at her out of the corner of their eye. Primarily due to her volume levels rather than any kind of racy attire. And the fact that she’s an attractive woman, which always elevates you to Queen-like status in a comic-book store.

All we talk about are books, art and what she thinks about them. I get the feeling that it’s a welcome break from the circles she runs in. That it’s an escape for her. And isn’t it the same for me and you? Regardless of our backgrounds, our personal politics, our ages or our livelihoods, we certainly have that in common with one another.

She’s a woman who comes in to my store to talk about reading. Her family, her friends, her home, her daily routines and her sexuality are questions left unanswered. And while I love a great personal story as much as the next guy, there are limits to everything.

I haven’t a clue as to whether Sheri’s successful in her chosen profession. She seems to be very happy with her work, and based on the car she drives and the books she buys, she doesn’t seem to be doing too badly for herself.

On a couple of occasions, I’ve been approached by excited young men after Sheri’s left.

“Was that who I think it is?” they say.

“I have absolutely no idea,” I reply.

A greater truth was never spoken.


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