December 14, 2008

Rewind to the Days Before Netflix


All you needed to do was say the words “Grateful Dead” around Andy, and he’d get this wistful, faraway look in his eye and a little smile on his face. Then he’d mumble “oooooh, the Dead.

            Of course given Andy’s condition, you probably didn’t even need to say it aloud. I never tried this, but I’m guessing all you needed to do was think the words “Grateful Dead” in his presence, and you’d get the same response.

            Hippiness aside, he was educated, extremely well-read and had a healthy respect for punk rock. He’s the one who first suggested that I read Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird, calling it “the first punk rock novel.” (Even if he wasn’t exactly right about that, it worked for me at the time.)

            Andy was a short man in his forties with a long braided ponytail. He was an unrepentant Deadhead, pothead, acid casualty and, as he put it every time I saw him, “card-carrying member of the counterculture.” He had dozens of live Grateful Dead bootlegs arranged chronologically in his top desk drawer. He was also my boss at the video store.

            That didn’t mean much—he only showed up maybe two or three times a week for a couple of hours. Not surprisingly he had a fairly relaxed attitude toward, you know, “work,” and so let me pretty much handle things by myself. His sister actually owned the store, and made him manager mostly in order to give him something to do. His sister was a lovely woman—I’d babysat for her years earlier when she was a neighbor, so one summer when I was home from college, she offered me a job at the video store—partly, I’m guessing, to keep an eye on Andy. He was a good guy himself, and we got on well.

            The video store was part of a four-shop mini strip mall located along a fairly desolate stretch of road, about twenty yards from the entrance to a trailer park. Since the trailer park provided us with most of our regular customers, about seventy percent of our business came from porn rentals. The second most popular genre was Christmas-themed slasher films—at least until the Faces of Death series came out.

            For the most part, I was alone in the store from ten a.m. to ten p.m., six days a week. Since I couldn’t leave the store unmanned, I just brought my lunch and dinner with me and ate at the front desk. After closing up at night, I’d ride my bike home past the slaughterhouse, get a few hours sleep, then get up and hop on my bike again.

            Despite the hours, I had little to complain about (except for the stench from the leaking septic tank out back). I dealt with customers, received and registered new video titles, prepared the new boxes for display (which meant I got to use the shrink wrap machine), and made sure the stock was more or less where it was supposed to be. It was a tiny storefront operation, so this was all pretty low-key. I spent most of my days watching movies, listening to music, and making bootlegs (that was a little side business Andy had going—making bootleg copies of movies for those customers who requested them).

            It was a no-frills operation. There were no computers, so everything was done with pen and paper, index cards and rubber bands. We didn’t sell nonsense like candy or microwave popcorn or two-liter jugs of Fresca. We didn’t sell anything. We just rented movies to people from the trailer park. Even the small stock was no frills. We knew what the folks in the trailer park wanted, so we didn’t waste shelf space or anyone’s time with crap like “foreign” or “art” films. We didn’t even bother with classics. Just porn (lots of porn), horror movies, action pictures, and gross-out comedies. Plus the occasional drama for those nights when the wife or girlfriend got to make the choice.

            It turned out to be a very educational job, and not only in terms of my working knowledge of popular cinema of the mid-eighties. I was on the phone with a distributor from Los Angeles one day, for example, when I learned the very important distinction between “porn” (which was bad and wrong and dirty) and “adult entertainment” (which was healthy and good for the whole country). I also learned how to quickly pick up on a customer’s tastes, so if he was looking for something with “lots of girl-on-girl action, but nothing with that lizard-faced John Leslie,” I could make some intelligent suggestions.

            There may not have been much by way of excitement at the store (except for the morning I discovered a muskrat had gotten into the back room somehow), but I had fun.

            The most excitement, without question, was the day porn star Traci Lords held that press conference to announce that she was celebrating her eighteenth birthday, automatically making all the films she’d done up to that point kiddie porn, and therefore illegal.

            I wasn’t listening to the news at the time, but back at his apartment Andy was. He immediately picked up the phone and called the store.

            “Get all the Traci Lords tapes off the shelves right away,” he said. “And while you’re at it, you’d better pull anything else back there with ‘high school’ or ‘teenage’ in the title.” (For the record, all the actors in those “high school” porn films looked like they’d been held back about ten or twelve years).

            “Okay,” I said.

            “When you’ve pulled ‘em all,” he instructed, “put ‘em in a bag and stash ‘em under my desk. If anyone comes in asking, say we never had any—they might be with the feds. I’ll be in to pick up the bag in about an hour.”

            As an interesting corollary, many years later I met a fellow who spent several years working in Hustler magazine’s art department. There was a similar panic in those offices the day Ms. Lords held her press conference, given the number of times she’d posed for the magazine. When word came down, my friend went straight to the files, grabbed all the Traci Lords negatives, slid them into his bag and, like Andy, took them home where I’m sure he, ummm, disposed of them in a proper fashion. I think it’s nice that I’ve known two people now who would go to such lengths to protect the moral well-being of our society.

            After I returned to school the next fall, the store began to expand, buying out the shop next to it in the strip mall, then the one next to that, too. They opened up four other branches around Green Bay, each larger than the last. When I visited a few years later, I was amazed. The store was bigger than any Blockbuster. They carried thousands of titles (but no porn). They sold candy and soda and microwave popcorn. It was fancy and slick and dazzlingly bright.

            Yet while I was very happy to see that Andy and his sister were having such fabulous success, I couldn’t help but miss the ratty, smelly little hole in the wall next to the trailer park.


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