(About a 4 minute read)
It occurs to me this morning you might be wondering how someone would have gone about buying a Playboy in a small American town in the early 1970s — and get away with it. Of course, that was back when buying a Playboy in a small backwards town could break your reputation, so getting away with it was key.
Now, I don’t recall how old I was when I bought my first Playboy. Older than 16, at least. So long ago some of the details that never mattered to me anyway now escape me.
I do, however, recall that I bought my first Playboy at Potter’s Drugstore, and that Old Man Potter himself rang up my purchase. Old Man Potter owned and operated one of two drugstores in my pathetically small town of 2,500 people where it seemed everyone knew everyone else. And here’s what I recall about buying that Playboy:
I recall I began sweating the moment I picked it out of the magazine rack, and I began blushing the moment I handed it to Old Man Potter at the check out counter. The only two people in the whole store at the time were Old Man Potter and me — I had carefully seen to that — but I nevertheless felt like the eyes of the entire community were upon me.
For a moment, everything seemed to go smoothly. I handed the Playboy to Old Man Potter; Old Man Potter took the Playboy; he looked at the price just like he would any other magazine: and then he entered the price into his cash register. Smooth. Normal. I was almost about to breath again when suddenly he said, “I’ll be right back. I have to make a phone call.” Then he dashed off to the back room with the Playboy still in his hands.
I didn’t stop blushing. I didn’t stop sweating. I just waited. Nothing like this had ever happened to me. No one had ever before interrupted a transaction, leaving me waiting forever at the counter. I began imaging things.
I imagined he’d gone to the restroom. I imagined he’d had a heart attack. Worse, I imagined my aunt was about to walk through the door to the shop at the very same moment Old Man Potter came back with my Playboy. For some reason, I could vividly imagine that, and the mere thought of it sent new waves of blood to my face. By the time Old Man Potter came back, I was so red, I must have looked like a fire truck in estrus. Fortunately, my aunt did not appear.
The rest was uneventful. Old Man Potter simply finished up ringing up my purchase, took my money, handed me the Playboy and wished me a good day. I thought I detected a tone of disapproval in his voice, but that could have been pure imagination.
At any rate, I left the store with my Playboy and walked straight home. I wanted to get home before mom came home from work so I wouldn’t need to hide my Playboy in the garage, instead of taking the risk of trying to slip it past her on my way into the house.
By the time I got home — thankfully, ahead of mom — I had been thinking about where to hide the Playboy in my room. Mom was a great respecter of my privacy, and she was by no means a snoop, but I was taking no chances. I wanted neither the embarrassment of her finding out that I looked at filthy pornography, nor the inevitable loss of my filthy pornography if she did find out, because I knew she’d make me throw it away with my own hands if she discovered it. Finally, I decided to hide it in the bottom drawer of my dresser, beneath my Psychology Today magazines. She never read my Psychology Today magazines, I thought.
Nowadays, it must be difficult for people who were not alive in the early 70s to realize just how scandalous Playboy was to so very many people back then. I knew, for instance, that if word got around my school I was buying Playboys, nearly half the kids in my class would think I was either creepy, or a pervert, or both. The only thing powerful enough to overcome my fears of the risk I was taking was, of course, testosterone. All conquering testosterone.
Lucky for me, I got away with it. I even went back to Potter’s Drugstore the next month and bought the next issue. And the one after that. And so on, until I left town for college. It never got any easier: I always blushed mightily and I always sweat profusely, but I also always waited until I would be the only one at the counter — and I always got away with it.
Or so I thought. Several years later, I was back in the town visiting mom. I don’t remember what we were talking about, but at some point she mentioned — as casually as if she were talking about the tomato harvest — that time Old Man Potter had called her at work to inform her I was attempting to buy a Playboy. Then as my jaw dropped she went on to say how she had shocked Old Man Potter by telling him she thought I was of an age now when it was only natural I’d be interested in girls and that he had her permission to sell me all the Playboys he could. As I sank lower and lower into my chair, she mentioned, with a wry smile, that some of her friends thought she was a bit radical once word got all over town I was buying Playboys with her blessing. Last, she thanked me for not leaving my Playboys lying around the house. It’d been her only real worry that I might.
And that, my brothers and sisters, is how you get away with buying a Playboy in a small American town in the early 1970s — you must first get yourself an understanding mother. The rest is easy.
This article was originally published September 7, 2008.