In the summer of 1988, in a gas station restroom in Aynor, South Carolina, my sister and I encountered our first-ever condom machine. Sure, we had heard about such contraception contraptions, thanks to Health & Human Development class. Mom had even confirmed for us that there really was such a thing as a vending machine for condoms.
Somehow, though, Val and I had never actually seen one of these mysterious metal boxes for ourselves. All we’d ever seen for sale in a bathroom vending machine were pads and tampons. But on that nasty-humid July day in Aynor, there the condom machine was—bolted to the wall in all its mute, naughty glory.
And since this was South Carolina, where of course in the late 1980s they didn’t have a teenage pregnancy epidemic or people with STDs or anything like that thankyouverymuch, the condom machine’s offerings were concealed by a large metal flap that bore a sign in inch-high letters:
THESE PRODUCTS OFFERED ONLY FOR THE PREVENTION OF DISEASE.
ANY PATRONS WHO MAY BE OFFENDED BY SEXUALLY ORIENTED MATTER ARE ADVISED NOT TO LIFT THIS FLAP.
Which meant, naturally, that Val and I were straightaway going to lift the flap.
As we did so, the flap made a loud crrrreeeeEEEEAAAAK. There was no way that anyone outside this one-seater women’s restroom couldn’t hear it. It was a cheesy haunted-house-quality noise, too, no doubt alerting everybody in the Aynor Amoco that the occupants were most certainly perusing the rubber selection. I’m pretty sure the creaky flap had been designed that way, state public health initiatives be damned. “Better barefoot ‘n pregnant than have everybody in the store know you’re gonna get laid,” or something like that.
The four different types of condoms in the machine scandalized our sheltered teenage eyes. There were plain, nothing-special condoms, of course. There were condoms bearing the dubious claim of being “ribbed for her pleasure.” Next were the Stallion’s Pride condoms, “For the Larger Man,” secreted away and SORRY, SOLD OUT. The last offering was a random and wonky selection of “fruit-flavored” condoms. Creativity must have died a slow and painful death when the latex process engineers met up with the marketing team in Rubber Flavorings 101. Time after time, it’s the same old boring fruits, banana jokes notwithstanding. Think about it: Why don’t we ever see any new, original condom flavors? Why not, say, licorice? Why not root beer, or cornbread, or BBQ?
We tried not to laugh. But the harder we tried, the funnier it was. The sign’s if-we-can’t-see-it-then-it-doesn’t-exist mentality was just so silly. Val was 12 and I was 14, but even at those young ages we could see through the high-and-mighty moral smokescreening. (It works, too, even today. Note the plentiful public outrage whenever the topic of condoms for high school students appears in the news.)
Again, remember that this was the late 1980s—long before the advent of smartphone cameras that people could take everywhere with them. Hilarious as the whole scene was, we couldn’t snap a photo of the prophylactic tomfoolery before us. We also needed to get back to the car before Daddy started to worry that we’d tumbled off to Wonderland down a public toilet rabbit hole.
I was washing my hands, still giggling, when Val said, “Don’t look!”
“Don’t look at what?”
She broke up laughing. “Don’t turn around until I say so.”
“Okay.” I dried my hands, and stood there staring at the floor, my back to her. “What are you doing?”
I heard Val rummage through her handbag. Then I heard the crrrreeeeeEEEEEAAAAK! of the condom machine flap, the quick light ffffrrrppp of a thick notepad, and the small skrrrtsksksksk of what was either a very busy pencil or a lone mouse scurrying across acoustic ceiling tile on a Tuesday afternoon.
Then, finally, I heard the crrreeeEEEEAAAK-THUNK-THUNK! of the metal flap settling to rest. “What the—what are you—”
“All right! Let’s go.” My sister stood bright-eyed and smiling with her hand on the restroom door, her purse tucked under her arm.
I took one look at her face, then at the condom machine. Lifting the big metal warning flap, I spied a purple Hello Kitty sticky-note pressed directly over the condom logos. Scrawled upon it, in Val’s distinctive handwriting:
DON’T BUY THIS GUM!
IT TASTES LIKE RUBBER!
Photo: “Condom Cathedral Window No. 4” (LaGrange, Georgia – 28 September 2016)
© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)