Burl’s by Bernard Cooper

Intention: A young boy’s confusion over his sexual identity and how the world is categorized is conveyed through the explanation of several stories from his childhood. It is written in the perspective of the young boy as an adult looking back on his experiences (the stories) and how the awareness of his sexual feelings developed.

In his essay about sexual identity, Bernard Cooper opens with an extremely detailed anecdote about a local diner. His use of imagery creates a strong sense of setting, which helps readers understand Cooper’s intention. He says things like “rouge deepened her cheekbones” and “waitresses in checked gingham shouted ‘Tuna to travel’ or ‘scorch that patty’ to a harried short-order cook” to imply the time period. His imagery clearly shows that the opening anecdote takes place in the late 50s-60s. With their knowledge of the time period, readers can infer how difficult it was for Cooper, a young boy in the 60s, to experiment with his sexuality. Moreover, he used imagery of the time period to give himself ethos.

He also establishes ethos by taking readers into the mind of a child. He uses a recurring metaphor to remind readers how he felt when he first saw transvestites as an eight year old. He calls sexual identity a puzzle by comparing it to a ‘What’s Wrong With This Picture?’ game that he played when he was younger.

In the section where young Cooper explores his parents’ closets, readers are able to relate to him. In movies, books, and real life, going through a parent’s clothes is an extremely stereotypical and common scene for any child experimenting with sexuality. Therefore, this section is a focal point in Cooper’s story because for many readers, trying on the mother/father’s clothing symbolizes their own experimentation. The story gains tons of pathos at this point because closets are so historically common in stories about sexuality.

Lauren Wetsch

In Burls Bernard Cooper explains his true sexual feelings through the telling of multiple stories. He does this by numbering each story(1-4). By numbering each section and providing a space between Cooper gives readers a clear and fresh start with each new story he tells. This arrangement helps the reader better understand the overall message. As each story he builds on his message. The common theme in each story reminds readers of the overall purpose of the essay. By doing this he creates a more powerful piece, leaving a lasting effect on the audience. This arrangement allows readers to follow along easily and understand his message.
Cooper’s use of a metaphor enhances his essay. In his first section, Cooper describes a classic out to dinner meal with his parents when he was young. While fetching his dad the paper young Cooper becomes infatuated with two women walking towards him. He begins playing a “What’s wrong with this picture?” game, confused why their appearance was slightly different. Cooper then realizes that these “women” have Adam’s apples. Once Cooper realizes this he began to analyze everything about their appearance, noticing wig’s and messed up makeup. After thinking through the situation Cooper comes upon the realization that “any woman might be a man”. This struggle to finding the answer to this encounter is a metaphor for how Cooper felt about his secual identity. This insight into his mind helps readers fully understand the narrator(Cooper). They begin to understand that he feels his own feelings are “wrong” and understand his confusion toward the subject matter.
Cooper’s use of imagery throughout Burl’s creates a pathway for readers to see into the mind of his younger self. It also enhances the theme of sexual identity, giving both men and women the beauty they deserve. The first example of imagery in section 1 is his description of the two “women” walking on the street. Cooper states, “Eyeshadow dusted her lips, a clumsy abundance of blue.” By using descriptive verbs like dusting and adjectives like clumsy, readers feel as if they are looking at the woman’s eyeshadow and can picture it exactly. We see this descriptive imagery all throughout the essay. Whether it’s describing gymnasts or a simple facial expression readers become involved with Cooper’s essay when he uses imagery. This use of imagery allows readers to better understand his essay.

Caroline Steinmetz

Arrangement: The arrangement Cooper chose to use for this essay was effective because it allowed the reader to see the narrator’s progression of emotions. With each new section, the reader is exposed to a new feeling or understanding about Cooper’s sexual identity. In part one, the narration from Cooper’s childhood is the first time he is exposed to changes in sexual identity because he learns that “Any woman might be a man” (Cooper 166). In the second section of this essay, the reader learns that Cooper has experienced times when he wasn’t sure if his waking in the morning “would take – the body of a boy or the body of a girl”(Cooper 166). Within this section the reader learns about when Cooper hides in his parent’s closet, and Cooper explains his internal dilemma of not knowing his sexual identity. In the next section, though, his secret is exposed because his parents discover his shifting moods in sexual identity and they try to reduce these by sending him to a “manly” gymnastics class. In the first three sections, Cooper continues to question his identity, but finally in the fourth section, Cooper takes control over his sexual identity by refusing to attend the class his parents wanted him to go to. Cooper affirms that he is content doing household chores and “contemplat[ing] [his] desire for men” (Cooper 172). In the last section, Cooper returns to the anecdote from the beginning to show the reader where his questioning of sexual identity began and how far he has come since then. Each section is a new chapter in the discovery of his sexual identity as he grew up and because Cooper used this arrangement, a universal audience is able to connect with Cooper’s feelings and the struggles he experienced.

Personification: Throughout the essay, Cooper personifies many aspects of his descriptions by giving lifeless objects human behaviors. For example Cooper states “A makeup mirror above the dressing table invited my self-absorption” (Cooper 168). By giving the “makeup mirror” human characteristics, Cooper illustrates to the reader that he can’t help feeling these shifts in sexual identity and it shows that he can’t control them. Cooper uses this example of personification when he hides in his parent’s closet and tries on both of their clothes. When he does this, he always tries on both his mother’s and father’s clothes, but by saying that his mother’s feminine things “invited” him, shows that these feminine clothes and accessories were always more appealing to him than his father’s things. The detailed use of personification helps the reader understand what Cooper experienced and what caused his shifts in sexual identity.

Quote: “I sensed there was more to the story than they’d ever be willing to tell me. Men in dresses were only the tip of the iceberg. Who knew what other wonders existed – a boy, for example, who wanted to kiss a man – exception the world did its best to keep hidden” (Cooper 172). I like this quote because it is very ironic. The quote shows that when the young boy was at the restaurant, he was ignorant to the fact that a man could be a woman or a woman could be a man. Within the quote we learn that the young boy thinks a man wearing a dress or a boy kissing a man is unheard of, but then as he grew up, we learn that he, himself, tries on his mother’s dresses in secret and dreams about the pet store owner.

–Sarah Biehl

In the beginning, Cooper describes his childlike awe of Burl’s, calling it “a refuge from the street” (164). After his encounter with the transvestites, however, he immediately grows in maturity and ceases to see the world in black and white. He even wonders about his own parents: “Frozen in the middle of the sidewalk, I caught my reflection in the window of Burl’s, a silhouette floating between his parents. They faced one another across the table. Once the solid embodiments of woman and man, pedestrians and traffic appeared to pass through them” (166). This quote shows that whatever Cooper had once thought about gender and sexuality is changed forever; even the people he’s closest to may be multidimensional.

Cooper details his fixation with the pet store owner and describes an incident in which he is waiting for a bus when he sees a car drive past whose driver he thinks is the pet store owner. When the car drives by again, he makes eye contact with the driver, “a complete stranger, whose gaze filled me with fear. It wasn’t the surprise of not recognizing him that frightened me, it was what I did recognize – the unmistakable shame in his expression, and the weary temptation that drove him in circles” (171). Cooper immediately runs home and tells his mother about the man but describes him as a “grizzled pervert.” Cooper sees himself in the gay man that he encounters and is afraid of the shame, so he attempts to deny his sexuality to himself by assuring his mother and himself that the other man is a pervert. This anecdote is important because the shame that Cooper feels and shares with the other man is a common experience in the gay community, and any reader who has questioned their sexuality will relate to it. This solidifies the bond between speaker and audience.

The anecdote at the beginning is, in a way, a frame story because Cooper returns to Burl’s at the end. After encountering the transvestites and sitting back down, Cooper feels detached from his parents because he is thinking about what he has just seen and what it means. His awe of Burl’s is gone – when he looks around, he sees “wax carnations,” “phony wood,” and “plastic food.” Cooper emphasizes the phoniness of his surroundings to show his growth in maturity. The encounter has changed Cooper’s point of view and way of thinking forever, and he has begun to see the world differently.

–Sophia Dahlquist


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