Ben Shaberman discovered something interesting about himself when he moved to Miami Beach in the late 1990s.
Women don’t notice me. I’m short. I often have red blotches of eczema on my forehead. And, I’m not quick witted during random encounters with the opposite sex at a coffee shop or the dry cleaners. I have the self-consciousness of the Oz Lion when pursuing small talk with a woman, especially when there’s any hint of rejection. The last time I felt confident around girls was in the 1970s when I was inhaling balloons of nitrous oxide at a Black Sabbath concert — not that the nubile metal groupies could even hear my uninhibited blathering above the howls of Ozzy Osbourne.
Also, I don’t have the rugged Anglo-Scandinavian facial structure women are often drawn to. I have a narrow face, long nose, and jowls of an Ashkenazi Jew — that’s because I am pure-bred Ashkenaz. Rather than looking like the personal trainer at the gym whose pumping his fist and yelling “Go dude!” as you struggle to push up the bar bell, I strike a resemblance to the doctor in the exam room who says “You may feel some discomfort as I guide the sigmoidoscope through your lower bowel.”
Nowhere was it more evident that I wasn’t a chick magnet than in Miami in the late 1990s. I moved there from Washington, DC, for a public relations job in health care, and was excited about the prospects for meeting bronzed, bikini-clad women, covered in oil, basking in the sun on South Beach. But alas, the oppressive heat and humidity wreaked havoc on my skin and made me look like an overcooked Hebrew National wiener. So, the most female attention I got was from my dermatologist, with whom I did have engaging banter about immunosuppressive creams.
But on my first night in Miami Beach, I went out running in the warm, sticky night in little shorts and no shirt, and that’s when I heard a cat call from a guy walking on the other side of the street. Was he talking to me? Incredulous, I looked around — perhaps there were some attractive ladies in the vicinity — but no one else was in sight. When I looked back again, I noticed he was shirtless and wearing make-up. I didn’t know what to make of the moment, so I just kept running. I dismissed it as an unexplainable aberration. OK, welcome to the neighborhood.
A few days later, I stopped at a 7-11 to pick up a newspaper, when a non-descript young man smiled and nodded at me as I headed to the cash register. I didn’t think much of it and just nodded back to be polite. I then went to my car to look at the movie section. No more than a minute had passed, when I heard a knock on the window, and it was the same friendly guy from inside the store. After I rolled down the window, he asked me matter-of-factly if I wanted to have oral sex with him. I was completely caught off guard. No time in my life had I ever been asked point blank by a stranger — man or woman — if I wanted to have sex, right there on the spot.
The Spock side of my brain wanted to ask whom he envisioned being the giver and receiver of the oral sex, because he hadn’t made that clear. But the George Costanza side of my brain took over and had the window rolled up before I could process what had just happened.
What I came to realize in the coming weeks as I settled into the community was that gay men like me. They looked at me when I walked by, much like I might turn my head to catch a glimpse of an alluring woman passing on the street. Some guys were even a little chatty in line at the Whole Foods. Fortunately, I didn’t have another 7-11 moment — that was a bit over the top for me. However, I began to take pleasure in the fact that I was being noticed. I guess it’s because of my athletic build and somewhat boyish look, but until Miami, I never thought of myself as being on any guy’s “gaydar.” But make no mistake: I liked the attention.
Ironically, the small communications department I joined was half gay men, so I heard all sorts of juicy stories about gay life in South Florida — the nude gay beach, the “lock-down” all-male nightclub, and drag-queen Sunday brunches. These boys were having fun! On the other hand, I experienced the worst dating slump in my life. I didn’t have one romantic encounter during my entire year in Miami. In fact, the one time I really tried to shake things up was when I went to a Halloween party dressed as Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, not realizing that was an incredibly, iconically gay costume! The woman who went as Monica Lewinsky (i.e., wore a blue dress with white stains) appeared more confused than turned off by my attempts at conversation. At one point, she turned to me with a scowl and said, “Look buddy, I only go for girls.”
Fast forward to now. I am back in DC with my girlfriend Jeannie of ten years. The gay scene here appears to be more subdued, and I don’t get noticed quite as often. But whenever we head to the ocean for a weekend in summer, we stay in Rehoboth Beach, because of its outstanding vegan restaurants. Just so happens it’s also the favorite haunt of the GLBT community as well, so I feel right at home. It brings back fond Miami memories. When I’m with Jeannie, my orientation is pretty clear as we walk together on the boardwalk. But I must admit that I look forward to the occasional glance or hello from a gay man. It’s nice to be considered for the team, even if I don’t want to play.
Photo: Elvert Barnes/Flickr