Wednesday, March 5, 2008


There is a little store not far from Clarendon metro that sells "aromatherapy" products... incense, essential oils, oils for burning, body oils, perfumes, as well as incense burners, oil burners, hookas, pretty much anything you can think of that's sort of vaguely hippie and involves pleasant odors... and flame.
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The store is run by a short homosexual Vietnamese man who always has a slight cough and always seems to be wearing the same thing. He is such a nice guy and I feel guilty everytime I pass his shop without buying anything, which is most of the time. My aromatherapy needs, so to speak, are pretty occasional, and basic. I have an incense holder and I bought a little essential oil burner from him a while back that I use occasionally as a tiny sensory treat. I have no idea how he manages to keep that piece of precious real estate on the corner in Clarendon with so little business, and to be honest, I fret about him sometimes as I pass. I want to look in on him and make sure he's eating enough, and that he's not hooking up with terrible lascivious gay men in clubs down in Dupont who don't care about him or his business, or how hard it is to be Asian and gay.

I really have no boundaries whatsoever... but it is what it is. I care what happens to the gay Vietnamese incense merchant. and I will probably never read or write that sentence again in my whole life.

So tonight I left work early. It had been an emotional day and I didn't sleep very much last night due to my migraine/sinus headache plus worrying so much over the student from Togo. I got off at Clarendon and went to the post office to mail off a book I'd sold through Amazon (thank GOD someone bought Mother Angelica's Life Lessons!... I thought I'd have to pay someone to get that rather poorly chosen gift off my hands). Heading out the door, singing a little song to myself, I caught a whiff of the incense. The Vietnamese guy burns a little bit of incense outside his door in a small incense holder shaped like the Buddha. It's a great tactic because otherwise I'm sure no one would ever ever notice the store on their way to Liberty Tavern or O'Sullivans or the Clarendon Ballroom. The post office is a good block and a half away from the incense store, but the wind --bitingly cold and wiping away the last bit of early spring left in the air-- carried a bit of it over to me. I remembered I was almost out of incense, and decided to give the fellow my business.

He had customers tonight... a knot of about 5 scruffy looking white male teenagers who God knows why were in there to buy incense. Or something. Perhaps they were going to burn it and listen to death metal all night. I have no idea, but I felt very protective of my gay Vietnamese incense seller. I imagined these ruffians had come to beat him up and take away his money, or at least would make fun of him in low voices while they browsed, so I resolved to spend as long as I could in the store.

and then what always happens happened again. I looked to the right at the incense by the door and saw the word BOOTILICIOUS labelling one particular scent of incense. Averting my eyes quickly to the next type of incense, I saw the words LICK ME ALL OVER. Moving to the next display in search of some more innocuously named merchandise, I saw the same labels, plus a wide variety of other inexpicably sexually named types of incense. I primly selected the minimum 15 sticks of incense, skimming over the incense named for various body parts and states of sexual excitement and selecting ones with names like LILAC and SPRING RAIN... without thinking of possible intended double entendres for these. Then I went to browse through the essential oils, normally a relatively safe place, and immediately saw the alluring DROP YOUR DRAWERS, which I think was a new... scent... since I really don't remember seeing that and think that I would have.

I think that the incongruity of this Vietnamese guy and his x-rated merchandise is why I never remember exactly how uncomfortable those labels make me feel. I remember now on one hot and sunny Saturday last summer asking him where he got his merchandise in an attempt to figure out if he's the one making up these horrendous names. He said he buys it all from one company and basically just sells their stuff for them. In other words, it's not him with the trashy imagination... and I honestly just can't picture it.

Every time I've been in there he's made a special effort to be helpful. This time, he noticed me blowing my nose and insisted that I inhale deeply from a big bottle of eucalyptus essential oil to clear my sinuses. It did help. He didn't suggest that I buy any, either, but I asked him where it was and bought some. He insisted I put a bit under my nose right then and explained how I could spray it all over my bed so I could breathe it at night, and put it on my temples if I had a headache, and on the back of my neck if I had a cough. Maybe it was b.s., maybe it was authentic Vietnamese medicinal advice, but it was kind, regardless of its merit. I walked out feeling like he'd really tried to help me, still worried about the boys (who were still in the shop), and vaguely troubled by the perverse labels.

There is a part of me that still wants total black and white. I hate the thought that such a nice guy is surrounded by all this trashiness, and that as a gay man he is statistically more likely to have a promiscuous lifestyle than a steady, loving relationship. Despite my reminders to myself that shit makes excellent fertilizer, it's hard for me to accept that gentle people can remain in the trash and still be gentle. I want them to be free, cleaned up and presentable. I want their souls to be whiter than snow. I don't want them to be in the muck anymore... possibly this is why I worry so much about the student from Togo. I want her life to be perfect. I want her to be happy, and not to have to struggle so hard. I want her smile to reach all the way to her eyes, all the time. I want her to be able to act like the very young person she is. I want her to stop having to worry about everything all the time.

I can't control people, though. Like I told my Dad once, the best I can do is to drop my little pebble in the pond and hope my small actions ripple outward to help other people. I will keep trying to find somewhere for V. to live and I will keep buying incense from this fellow even if it scandalizes me to enter his shop. And I will pray, and try to remember what is good. That's all I can do.

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