Or: Tales of Human Triumph and VHS Pornography
In my younger days I worked at a mom and pop video store in my home town, where I spent my time in a state of perpetual shiftless bastardom. There, I did my best to channel my spirit animal, one Randal Graves, of Clerks and RST Video fame.
The owner was a boisterous and imposing woman, who had grown to hate movies after years of owning the store. It was 2004, but she obstinately insisted on ordering movies on VHS instead of DVD. I would see her maybe once a week when she would pop in to make sure we hadn’t set the place on fire. As a video store clerk in a small farming town, the majority of my days consisted of long stretches of unsupervised boredom.
I sat there for hours on end, bathed in fluorescent light, surrounded by aging white tile and yellowing walls. The upside of this is that it provided me with ample time to watch and re-watch worn VHS movies on the tiny television under the counter that we used to ‘check movies.’ Each day I would methodically stalk the aisles looking for the day’s entertainment, passing the shifts by watching as many movies as I could, until I had inevitably watched everything worth watching at least twice and quite nearly suffered a nervous breakdown.
Against the advice of my inner Randal, I started reading a lot after that.
My friends, who were equally mired in the unambitious laze of late adolescence would drop by the store now and again to watch movies, eat lunch, or loiter in an effort to pass the time. When several would arrive simultaneously, they would try to find the movies that had gone the longest period of time without being rented. A staggering number of them had never left the store at all. Their entire existence spent cataloged away behind the counter of a 21st century all VHS video store.
It only took a few weeks to fully embrace the teachings of my listless, fictional guide on how one properly mans a counter. Customers became an annoying interruption from my movie watching. If the door chime sounded while I was out back smoking, I would throw my cigarette down and trudge back into the store as though the customer showed up to personally offend me. Answering stupid questions became an exercise in suppressing my sarcastic instincts.
Customers became specimens to be studied. I learned their habits and observed their routines. Intense psychological study of the video store customer was one of the few ways to pass the time, so it became a vital part of the job. The general emptiness of the store promoted longer and more personal interactions with
subjects customers than in many research retail settings, which only aided my research. It was not uncommon for people to ask a long series of questions or want to discuss movies at length, since it was blindingly obvious that I had little else to do. Some of these conversations were pleasant, while others were little more than case studies in my ongoing experiential research.
The other benefit of an almost constantly vacant store is that customers were more comfortable going through the simultaneously innocuous and foreboding white door on the back wall, placed inexplicably next to the new releases. Inside, those brave enough to enter found themselves in a dimly lit treasure trove of VHS pornography, the likes of which had not been seen since sometime in the mid-nineties in any civilized place. Dozens of tapes lined the walls catering to all manner of perversions.
This was a small, religious, very conservative place. The existence of this room was controversial enough and only spoken about in whispers. To be seen entering or exiting that room, or leaving the store carrying a box labeled with bright red paper instead of the usual blue was a shameful affair, indeed. It was hands down my favorite thing about the store, and easily the thing that kept it in business (just like every other mom and pop video store).
Internet quick enough for downloading anything had yet to reach my hometown in those days, so unless a person was buying porn, renting it from us was their only option. I quickly became adept at identifying people coming in to rent porn. They would anxiously browse random sections and case the store to make sure that they wouldn’t be seen. From there, they were forced to make a blind exit back into the store. These exits fell into two categories – sneaking carefully out like it’s a game of hide and seek, or a Kramer-esque exit, barreling through the door quickly before they could be seen.
Some would keep their eyes cast downward during the rental process, feeling ashamed that I knew they were going straight home to jerk off. Others would triumphantly drop the box on the counter and ask if I had seen that particular film, as though we were going to talk about the production values or something. Still others would try to act nonchalant and slide the movie quickly across the counter like it were drugs and loudly ask some unrelated question to distract any onlookers from their smut.
My favorite interaction in the store centered around that room full of porn. In the unflinching spirit of Randal Graves, I’m going to share it with you.
There was a particular gentleman that would come into the store, who looked exactly like a person that frequented places where pornography could be purchased – sweat pants, stained shirt, balding, a bit overweight, small eyes, and audible mouth breathing.
He would come in with his family, and did not hesitate to break away and rent porn if he wanted to do so. On one particular day he came into the store solo and emerged from the porn room holding the tape with the most amusing title in the store – Toss My Salad.
He was never very social, so he got his tape and left, only to come back a couple of hours later and ask for a refund. According to him, there was no tossing of salads in the movie, so he felt mislead and deserving of a refund. After doing my best to tell him no without hysterically laughing, we finally agreed that he could exchange the tape for another, more accurately described flick for free. From there I assume he went home to masturbate again.
I never watched Toss My Salad to confirm his claims. Neither did anyone else.
By all accounts, this was a pretty miserable job, but it has always been important to me. I look back on this period of time fondly. It was important because everyone needs a stagnant job like this. A place where you can sit and aimlessly succumb to the boredom, finally realizing that this is not the sort of thing you want to do forever. In many ways it was the viking funeral of my stoned and idle youth – the laziest, least ambitious thing I could do before burning the whole thing to the ground and deciding to grow up.
Sure, I had dead end jobs after that, but I went into them knowing I just needed to pay the bills until I got my degrees. At the video store, I tried on the skin of the unambitious cynic, and although it fit better than I would like, I knew it was not for me. Trying to be Randal wasn’t the thing that kept me from being like Randal, but it was a healthy reminder that ambition was a good thing, even if it’s much harder than watching movies and making fun of people all day.