I love the feeling of doing something spontaneous to surprise myself. It makes me feel like Indiana Jones, venturing out into the unknown, trying to steal some crystals from some tribal group. This is exactly how I felt when I just got a spontaneous urge to volunteer for an organization I didn’t know anything about — the Brown Elephant.
With a name like Brown Elephant, you can’t help but think it’s animal related. In my head, I saw myself training elephants to do stunts, giving them crackers whenever they successfully jump through a ring of fire. The other volunteers who came with me would have to settle for cleaning up elephant poop as I waved my hands in the air like a maestro, instructing elephants to balance themselves on gym balls.
But when we got to the Brown Elephant, I was surprised. Where were the elephants? There wasn’t an elephant to be seen, let alone brown ones. Instead, what I had in front of me was a thrift store, called the Brown Elephant Resale Shop. They sold everything, from old TVs to old clothes to old posters of Marilyn Monroe. Everything except elephants. Well, they had one elephant, but I didn’t think it was for sale, because it was the one on the store signboard.
The man in charge, who wore a Jamaican patterned hat, came forward to greet us as we went in. He brought us around the store, showing us the various sections as we walked past them. As he brought us along the tour, we all wondered how these random pieces of items got collected here: there was a hookah pipe next to an old roulette wheel next to a sofa.
The tour came to a halt when he suddenly stopped in front of a mysterious looking section. It was mysterious because of all sections, it was the only with a door that obscured it from view. The door was an old wooden clothing rack, tilting on one side because of a missing leg, doing a delicate balancing act on the other three.
“And this, my friends,” he said, “is the pornery.”
The pornery. I’m not sure that word exists. But inside the pornery, all different genres of pornographic material were present. From the 1987 July issue of Playboy to gay porn flick Schlong Rangers, the pornery had it all. And compared to the rest of the store, it looked the neatest. The DVDs were arranged in alphabetical (and sometimes sexual orientational) order. And with the three-legged clothing rack in front of it, it felt like a holy temple of sorts. It was a holy pornery, a place where all men, heterosexual or homosexual, had their prayers answered. The whole thing was a work of beauty. Picasso would be proud.
“Now we need someone to be in charge of this section.”
Man-in-Jamaican-hat looked at all of us, and since I was the only guy in the group, his apologetic gaze landed on me.
“Hi what’s your name?” he asked, as if to soften the blow of what was about to come.
“So Nigel, are you ok with helping us out with this section?”
“Sure!” I said with such convincing enthusiasm that I deserved an Oscar. Or a nomination at the very least.
My job involved keeping an eye on people to prevent them from stealing porn, as if second-hand thrift store porn is something valuable. That was all I had to do.
The job soon got boring. The patrons all had the same expressions. First they would act nonchalant and pretend to come across this section by accident. They would then try their best to maintain a neutral facial expression while checking out the DVDs, but inside their heads, their brains were whirring like juice blenders blending carrot sticks, trying to utilize the photographic memory section of their gray matter.
I contemplated saying, “How may I help you?” to the porn patrons, but soon decided against it. Why? Because I have no idea what to say next. “Do you prefer Latinas? Or do you like blondes?” sounded objectifying (I respect women, so sue me). “Would you like to take a look at our vintage collection of 1980s Playboy magazines?” didn’t work either; nobody wants to look at boobs printed on wrinkled, yellowed pages stained with God knows what.
So to defuse that awkward situation, I pretended to flip through Playboy magazines when they were browsing, just to let them know I enjoy porn as much as they do, creating a healthy seller-buyer connection.
But soon, I started noticing a trend among the patrons: they seemed very attracted to magazines and dvds that featured man-on-man action. Schlong Rangers was a huge hit among them.
Schlong Rangers was the porn version of our childhood superhero movie Power Rangers. The DVD cover had several men with different colored suits climbing on top of each other, trying to combine themselves into one big robot, just like Power Rangers did.
But the most memorable incident was one involving a middle-aged man. He had white hair, combed back, and wore a polo tee neatly tucked into his khakis. A very nineties look. In fact, he looked like a character from Forrest Gump. I hereby name this man Forrest.
“Hey, do you work here?” Forrest asked, with an amiable tone.
“Oh not really, I’m just volunteering for the day,” I said. “Do you wanna have a look at the collection?”
I didn’t notice what he was browsing through because he was talking to me the whole time. I came to learn that he was born in Poland and moved to Chicago many years ago, when his family moved here. Forrest even accounted some of his experiences when he was young, “You know, back then, magazines were all we got for porn. And now we have the internet, which is amazing.”
Sometimes you make friends in really random places. In this case, it’s the porn section of a thrift store. This little gesture, this conversation I have with him, soon made me realize the joys of doing community service and giving back to society. I also began the wonder at the uncanniness of the situation: two vastly different people, an Asian and a Forrest Gump, connecting over a mutually shared interest – porn. Suddenly Chicago seemed like a place filled with warmth that seeps through even the harshest of winters.
My new friend Forrest browsed around and soon left the porn section. But after he paid for his stuff, he came back to the pornery just to say goodbye.
“Are you leaving now?” I asked.
“Yes I sure am. I got my stuff and am ready to go.”
“Well, have a good day.”
I started turning around to get back to arranging DVDs when he suddenly came up with the least unexpected line of dialogue:
“So Nigel, do you like guys, or do you like guys and girls?”
This caught me off-guard. It was like a trick question, where any option I chose will be wrong.
“I see,” Pause. “Well, see you Nigel.”
I could tell Forrest looked a bit dejected. So this was why he was being friendly to me, he wanted to ask me out! And all this while I thought it was the nature of Chicagoans to be amicable! But the feeling of giving back to the community, the feeling of making a difference still remained, despite the unexpected trick question.
It was only at the end of my volunteering session when I found out the Brown Elephant was a resale shop that benefits the LGBT community. Money got from selling second hand items all went to an LGBT health center. That explains everything, from the abundance of gay porn to the trick question of sexual orientation.
But most of all, it explained why Schlong Rangers was such a hit.