Monday, September 4, 2023

The Pornographic Ring of Hell

 When Lance Goss held auditions for a new play, it was his custom to tell the story of the play briefly for the students wishing to audition so they would know what their characters were up to.  When he held auditions for the Williams play “Orpheus Descending,” he told both the story of the play and the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, on which the play is based.  

“The myth of Orpheus,” he said, “was one of galloping romance.”  Lance liked adjectives with a flair.  In studying the Williams play, the myth, and the plays and poems that tell the story of the myth, I learned that the story of Orpheus and Eurydice was what Joseph Campbell called a monomyth, or Jung’s archetypal unimyth.  It was a story repeated in several different and divergent cultures and might have meaning deeper than what the bare facts of the story might suggest.  

To my way of thinking, you could explain why this story appeared in so many different cultures because when someone they care about is in jeopardy, young men often feel compelled to travel into the jaws of peril and rescue their lady fair.  The story of Orpheus became the blueprint for many tales of the knight-errant and a model for generations of young men with a feeling for galloping romance.

When I was young but still a man, some friends called me le Dauphin–the heir apparent.  I’m sure my behavior warranted it.  Because of my father’s place in society and my physical size, I felt like I could talk to grown men in any way I wanted, as long as I was polite and telling the truth.  When I was just nineteen, this led me to ask well-known educators why they built a school with nothing but white kids in it.  As long as I was doing it for the right reasons, I felt like I could talk to anyone like an equal because, at the end of the day, I could easily hold them over my head and throw them a ways.   I was pretty much a jerk.

There came a time when I found myself looking for ways to help a guy who I didn’t know very well because I had promised his child that I would.  That’s really about the extent of it.  Not really knowing how to help him, I cast a wide net, hoping to catch ideas.  One of the fish I caught in my net was a man named Dewey Edwards.  Edwards traveled regularly in the circles I needed help from.  He also knew the man I was trying to help.  Not knowing where else to turn, I decided he was elected, and I called him asking for a meeting.

I had a card up my sleeve where Dewey Edwards was concerned.  Whatever he had done with his life since then, Dewey Edwards was in my father’s class at Central High School.  In Junior High, my father talked Edwards into getting baptized and even attending a few Methodist Youth Fellowship meetings.  Whatever Edwards got up to before or since, my father once made an effort to save his soul, and even though it didn’t seem to take, Edwards remembered it.

In Mississippi, pornography, prostitution, methamphetamines, topless dancing, motorcycles, and gambling all functioned on the same level of society.  Originally, bootleg alcohol occupied the space where methamphetamines eventually went, but booze was legal now, and these guys had to figure out a way to make a living, so meth became a thing.  

Dewey Edwards was the king of pornography in Mississippi.  In the days before the internet, pornography was a physical product, like a hat or a chair.  You had to go somewhere to purchase it.  Edwards owned three adult “book stores” in Jackson and a pornographic distributorship that supplied all the pornographic retailers in the state, mainly on the Gulf Coast.  Edwards was a pretty good businessman and built an absolute empire out of this.  

His “bookstores” sold a lot more than books.  They had paperbacks with filthy storylines and racks and racks of dirty magazines wrapped in plastic, so you couldn’t get a peek without buying first. He also had racks and racks of what they called “marital aids” to avoid trouble with the censors, but were really sex toys, shelves and racks of sex toys of every description, all that traveled through his warehouse in the southwest part of downtown Jackson.  He also dabbled in what some people called “head-gear,” which was pipes, bongs, papers, and things associated with the smoking of marijuana. Still, his bread and butter was good old American pornography (made in Sweden.)    

This was in the late eighties.  By the end of the eighties, an engineer at Compuserve developed what he called the “gif.” Graphics Interchange Format was an algorithm that allowed your computer to store and display graphic images.  The first ones were limited to sixteen colors, but the format grew and grew.  A few years after my encounter with Edwards, I spent a great deal of time with a girl named Sue Ellen, who sat with me as I scrolled through the exciting new GIF forum on Compuserve and looked at the names of all the different GIF images you could download.  One Of these files had a particularly salacious name.  Sue Ellen said, “What is that!?” with a giggle.  

“I don’t know,” I said.  “Let’s find out.” and I clicked it.  After fifteen minutes of downloading, we had a small, black-and-white, but very clearly pornographic image on my computer screen. Sue Ellen laughed loudly.  We didn’t know it, but we witnessed what would soon drive guys like Dewey Edwards out of business or into another business altogether.  Getting pornography at home, silently and privately, meant nobody would ever again have to travel downtown to a seedy bookstore with questionable hygiene to purchase pornography.  

The City of Jackson and the State of Mississippi made a couple of attempts at running Dewey Edwards out of business.  There was no shortage of money in what Edwards did for a living, so he hired the best lawyers he could find–that would have him for a client.  In this case, that meant Sebastian Moore and a young Bobby DeLaughter in the Magnum PI Moustache phase of his life.  For a while, Bobby was a personal hero of mine.  For a while, the whole world saw him that way–and then he screwed that up.  Ultimately, Edwards always found a way to make the First Amendment protect his livelihood, and DeLaughter got his name in the papers for the first of many times.  

When I called to ask Mr. Edwards for a meeting, I led with, “You might know my father.”  I didn’t know where he currently stood with baptism and Methodism, but I gambled that he’d remember my father’s efforts and receive me kindly.  It worked.  He invited me to his office, in the same building as his wholesale operation, in a part of downtown I didn’t visit very often.

I parked my Ford LTD next to an enormous, copper-colored Caddilac.  I assumed it was his.  I laughed to myself, “Boy, you’re about to walk into a whole warehouse full of dildos.” and so I was.  

I hoped to enter quietly and, exit quietly and finish my entire business in less than twenty minutes.  Dewey Edwards had other ideas.  I don’t know how often he had visitors from my side of town, but he seemed really pleased to have the son of the man who tried to baptize him walking into his kingdom, and he was intent on showing me the entire thing—starting with the warehouse.  

Right off the bat, we passed an entire palette of plastic phalluses with a belt attached.  I assume the idea was to wear the belt around your waist and the phallus where they would normally go, but I wasn’t having any of that.  It might be funny if you wore it on your head like a unicorn, though.

An old black man was resting on a metal stool in this dimly lit pornographic dungeon.  We were introduced, and he shook my hand, saying, “Nice to meet you, Mr. Cameron.”  “Call me Boyd.” I insisted.  It was traditional in Mississippi for black men his age to call white men my age “Mr. Last Name” and sometimes “Mr. Fist Name,” but I really wanted to be just “Boyd” and leave it at that.  Also, there was the issue of Africans of a certain age in Mississippi who heard my name as “Campbell” but pronounced it as “Cameron.”  I’ve never devised a workable theory as to why this happened.  I’m sure there was a world of cultural clues and takes on our twisted history in it, but I never understood it.

Mr. Edwards continued the tour, showing me boxes and boxes of dirty magazines in antiseptic plastic bags and three different types of blow-up dolls, with their plastic faces visible through cellophane windows cut into their display box.  

There was a showroom of sorts, with a display of perhaps twenty plastic devices designed to be inserted into the human body.  Some were designed to look like human organs, others with more abstract designs, some with whimsical faces on one end.  He also had racks of his latest big money maker, pornographic VHS video tapes.  He planned to turn two of his stores into a video rental business featuring both pornographic and regular video tapes.  He was in a race to open the first video rental place in Mississippi.  Video Library, in the Deville shopping center, beat him by just a few weeks.  

In his office, he told me stories about going to Central High School and how great Jackson used to be.  All of the air-conditioned rooms in his building were covered in cheap seventies woodgrain plywood.  I felt like I wasn’t making any progress at all on the issue I’d made the meeting for, and I was pretty anxious to get out of there.  I was polite enough to act like I was very impressed with his warehouse full of dildos, but, in reality, I knew I was where I shouldn’t be and was anxious to go home.  I’d traveled into the pornographic layer of hell and even met with Hades himself but found nothing there to help Eurydice.  My mission was a failure.

Driving home, I looked back to see if anyone had followed me to the mouth of Hell, but I was alone.  I never saw Dewey Edwards again.  We didn’t travel much in the same circles.  My boldness gained me nothing, but I’d seen things I never thought I would, so maybe that was the point.  

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