After years of mining underground and putting my body at risk, I desired something more, something a little safer. As side gigs, I had run a music venue that was good enough to gain the attention of National Geographic. I started my own t-shirt and record distro when I was eighteen-years-old. That did fairly well until I spent all of the earnings on pizza while on tour.
Despite the loss, I had the blood of an entrepreneur, so I was always watching for a possible emergency exit from mining.
A family friend, Nikki, had opened a vendor’s mall, much like a flea market, based on consignment. Nikki thought it would be fun to add a private room with adult novelties, considering no one in Letcher County offered those goods at the time. It didn’t take long for the backlash though. Christian shoppers and vendors forced her to remove her fun little boutique.
Soon after, I stopped by, looking for cheap crescent wrenches, and my ears perked up when Nikki asked, “Gary, you wanna make a little extra money? You sell stuff on eBay right?” Of course I did. “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.”
How could I pass her up? I loaded the band’s minivan with adult-fun items and rushed home to begin pricing them and putting them online. It wasn’t nearly as heroic as powering America with coal, but selling sex toys was safer…unless I began door-to-door sales and was met with a shotgun.
But don’t underestimate small-town USA’s buying habits. Some local must have been shopping on eBay and stumbled across one of these racy items. They reached out to me, and a headline flashed in my head: “Letcher County youth selling dildos, porn.”
Luckily, I never made the evening news, but word did spread. I expected complaints with city council. Instead, I got secret orders. “Can we meet at the Isom Double Kwik? I want the 8-inch dolphin vibrator in blue.”
I began making house calls, so to speak, meeting people I’d known lifelong in the parking lots of fast food restaurants to hand over their fleshlights and pineapple flavored lube. I even received a few requests for bestiality films that I could not legally order (and wouldn’t if I could). I referred them to Animal Planet on television and explained that I wasn’t serving a prison sentence for their kink.
For all the weirdos, I was making decent cash off adult novelties — about $600 during a good week — but I was no prodigy. Rather than investing sales back into the business, I spent the money on a guitar, amps, and other band supplies the eighteen-year-old me just couldn’t resist.
This side gig never got me out of mining, but it did teach me about my community. When a friend’s mother calls you to complain that her edible underwear melted before her husband came home or the local florist asks if the anal beads on eBay come in larger sizes, you realize how little you know about the people around you. Why are we all so embarrassed about who we are? Why is religion used to shame our sexuality?
Maybe some locals thought my hands were dirtier in the adult-toy business than in mining. But I felt different. I was giving neighbors a confidant, someone who would hand over a blow-up doll, even show them how to inflate it, and not judge them one bit.
After twelve years as an underground coal miner, Gary Bentley was forced to leave his eastern Kentucky hometown in search of a new career when the coal market declined. Today, he shares stories about being a coal miner to educate the public on the realities of contemporary coal mining and Appalachia. He is developing a book for West Virginia University Press.
A version of this post was previously published on The Daily Yonder.