After years of working underground and putting my body at risk, I desired something more, something a little better. I had run my own music venue, enough to gain the attention of National Geographic Magazine. I started my own T-shirt and record distro when I was 18. It did fairly well until I spent all of the earnings on band equipment and pizza while we were on tour.
Despite the loss, I had the blood of an entrepreneur, so I decided, why not make a little money on the side?
I had an opportunity placed before me, a possible emergency exit from the mining industry. One of my father’s friends, Earl, and his daughter, opened a family business, a vendor’s mall, much like a flea market based on consignment. The daughter thought it would be a good idea to add a private room with adult novelties, considering Letcher County didn’t offer those goods at the time. After a few weeks there was backlash from the Christian shoppers and vendors as well as political backlash from the conservative community. She had to remove her fun little boutique room.
I stopped by one evening to see if they had any cheap crescent wrenches and was pleased when Nikki made me an offer. “Gary, you wanna make a little extra money? You sell stuff on Ebay right?” Of course I did, I was a young guy always trying to find a way out of the mine and to make an extra buck. “I tell you what, I got boxes of these adult items. You take them home, you pay me back the wholesale price and keep whatever profit is made. I just need to get them out of the store.”
This was an opportunity I would not pass up. I was quick to load the items in the back of the minivan that my band used for traveling to shows and rushed home to begin pricing the items and putting them online. This seemed like a golden answer to how to arrange my exit from underground mining. It was not nearly as heroic as mining, but selling sex novelties and toys was a much safer industry, unless I began doing in-home installations or some other ridiculous door-to-door sales approach.
But don’t underestimate the online buying habits of small-town USA. Someone local must have been shopping on eBay and stumbled across one of my many items. I could see it now, flashing across the lower portion of the TV screen as the news anchor read about the local dog warden being arrested for DUI: “Young man in Letcher County selling dildos, porn, and blow up dolls on the internet.” Everyone would be appalled and complain to the city council, but not before ordering their most desired but secret item.
Then it became apparent that the community wasn’t against the purchase of these items. They just didn’t want anyone else to know they were buying them. In a short time I was receiving phone calls and e-mails “Can we meet at the Isom Double Kwik? I want the 8-inch dolphin vibrator in blue.” I began to make house calls, so to speak, meeting the parents of my friends in the parking lots of fast food restaurants. I even received a few request for bestiality films that I could not legally order. I referred them to Animal Planet on cable television and explained that I wasn’t planning on serving a prison sentence for their kink.
It was a very interesting time in my life, but it did not pan out to be much of an exit strategy from mining. It became more of a experience you’d think of and say, “Well, this might be funny later in life.”
I was still too young to manage a business and began to spend more money on shit that I didn’t need but that satisfied my hobby of being a musician. I never invested the sales back into the business. Unfortunately for me, my bad business skills mean that I never had the opportunity to exit the mining business through the adult novelty industry. But it did give me the opportunity to meet some very interesting people and to learn things about members of my community I wish I had never known. You pick up that information whether you want to or not when a friend’s mother calls you to complain that the edible underwear she had purchased melted before her husband came home from work, or when the local florist calls to ask if the anal beads offered on eBay come in any larger sizes.
I guess the part of this that I never seem to overcome is the shame and secrecy of it all. Why were these people raised to be ashamed of who they were? Why did the community use religion to shame people about their sexuality? Some may have said that my hands were dirtier in the adult-toy business than they would have ever been in mining. But I felt different. To me, it felt like I had cleansed myself and given those in my community someone they could confide in and be open with. I was someone who would not shame them.
Gary Bentley is a former underground coal miner from Eastern Kentucky.