“You’ll need a thick skin to do this work, Helen,” warned my supervisor on my first day as editor of the Metropolis Classifieds. He was right. One of those memory-erasing neuralizers that the Men in Black have would’ve been a useful tool, too. So many photos of genitals, both at rest and … erm, not so much.

Untitled-2I’m not sure anyone I know could have imagined me in such a position. I’m a known prude, the Charlotte of my high school friends—and my university friends. The girl who at first didn’t get the “Charlotte” reference because she was too much of a prude to watch Sex and the City.

I was aware of the legacy with which I had been entrusted. What long-term English-language expat or immigrant in Tokyo doesn’t have a chuckle recalling their favorite personals ad, after all? But I soldiered on, grew the extra skin I needed, and became adept at averting my eyes while manoeuvring the mouse to the “x” whenever some overzealous user attached a photo of his manhood. And yes, 99.9 percent of the time, it’s a man sending a photo of his bits and pieces. In fact, the only instance I can remember where it was a woman involved a U.S.-based escort who sent my commercial classifieds colleague over a dozen photos of herself in various stages of undress, asking us to cover up any inappropriate parts with star stickers. 

Despite the rather unusual workplace hazards—perhaps slightly because of them—it was a great job, one that inspired a wistful envy in friends and acquaintances whenever I came across an ad that I couldn’t not share. (Minus any personal details, of course. Part of the job is discretion.)

It also taught me quite a bit of new vocabulary. Sometimes, it was wonderful vocabulary. A “munch,” for example, is a gathering of people interested in kink. And then there was other, less wonderful vocabulary. “Earmuffs,” it turns out, has more than just the standard meaning of cushioned fabric to keep your ears warm. I did a lot of Googling while in charge of the free classifieds, and it would probably be a good idea to clear my browser history. Woe betide my reputation should my computer ever be confiscated.

Some days were hard. There are cheaters out there. And liars. And people who encourage self-harm in their partners. There are scammers and spammers and trolls, and it’s not always easy to tell a legitimate classifieds user from the riffraff. And I made mistakes, and was called out for them, sometimes angrily. People don’t hold back when they type fairly anonymous e-mails. A thick skin, for sure.

Luckily, there are also wonderful people in the Metropolis community who post ads. People who are sweet, and kind, and funny. And it only took one hilarious ad to cancel out all the bad ones, like the one that was accompanied by a cat’s drivers’ licence. I can’t remember if the licence was blue or gold, but the cat was definitely black and white, and it was smiling. The best part was that a cat had absolutely nothing to do with the ad itself, which, if I recall correctly, was about a fellow with superior hip- and nipple-sucking powers.

My supervisor, at the end of that first week of work, scanned the finished Classifieds copy for misses and let out a burst of laughter. “Helen, I can’t believe you let these go!” It wasn’t a reproach, but more of an outburst of appreciation that I wasn’t watering down—or rather, prudifying—the famous Met Classifieds. For the last six years, I’ve worked hard to maintain that tricky balance between hilariously shocking and inappropriate. I know I’ve not always gotten it right, but it’s been great fun trying.