Thursday, November 27, 2008

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Exit Notes: Video Paradiso

CLAREMONT, CA Nov 25 - Video Paradiso, the eclectic Claremont video store where I worked from February until earlier this month, is quickly becoming the only game in town. Two local chain rentals have gone belly up in the last year, and the surviving Hollywood Video of nearby Laverne has been forced to cannibalize more and more floor space with video games that have no meaning for people older than 12. Netflix and TiVo are winning the war, but our local video store continues to ace the skirmishes.

The store dates to 1938 and was built in the Streamline Moderne style of late art deco. Set back from the high-traffic corner of Yale and Bonita, the building housed a Bentley's Market for almost six decades, a fact many local old-timer seem reluctant to let go. I found myself subject to The Grocery Store Speech many times during my nine month tour of duty.

"This used to be a grocery store," one of the old timers would tell me angrily.
"Yes sir," I would say.
"Absolutely sir," I would say.

The store's northern front, once open to the street and adorned with bushels of produce, is now walled, and frames a long picture window. Where other video stores have cramped back rooms or well-thumbed binders for their adult sections, VP has only this front wall. The relatively small erotica section sits below the window - eye level for any sorry toddler who strays from the main aisle - next to a slightly larger gay and lesbian section that I'd put at 10% serious drama and 90% sexy time. Those cruising for smut must stand before the great window, exposed to all.

More than one bored conversation with coworkers centered around the hygiene of this section. The germiness of video stores is something you don't really think about until you're trapped in one. No blacklight can detect the filth that children pollinate from object to object, so there was no scientific way to gauge which section - kids' or adult - was dirtier. But I did encounter stains, on used product, where the best case prognosis was blood, and more than once had to convince myself that the substance smeared on a returned DVD case was peanut butter. Although my coworkers took these assaults to public health seriously (and with great amounts of Windex), the threat of accidentally rubbing my face - and thus contracting gonorrhea of the eyes - lingered over every shift.

Customers would say the darndest things. "Do Blu-Ray discs require special TV sets?" "Is [film with the word 'blue' in the title] one of those new Blu-Ray discs?" "Do you have 'Chee'?" [in reference, I painfully deciphered, to a new Che Guevara documentary]. Then there was the pink haired, 13-year old girl whose father had to rent her "Decline Of Western Civilization". As we exchanged case for disc, she glanced across the counter at my button down shirt and ridiculous glasses and said, with her eyes, old man, you'll never understand my world.

Being on the far eastern rim of L.A. county, the store saw its share of celebrities. I managed to miss actor Tim Roth, one of the "Menace II Society" directors, and - most upsettingly - Mort Sahl, the pioneering standup who inspired Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen to become comedians (Sahl, it turns out, is not deceased, but merely a visiting professor at one of the local colleges). One night a rumpled gentleman came in during the mid-evening rush, saw a Twilight Zone episode on the overhead monitors, and walked around the store "doing" Rod Serling. It wasn't a bad impression, and the staff and customers seemed divided on whether to laugh or groan. I chose to groan. As the rumpled gentleman departed, a coworker at next door's Rhino Records came over to deliver a box of DVD cases.

"That's Charles Fleischer," he said.
"So," I said, unimpressed.
"Dude," the coworker dropped to a whisper. "That's the voice of Roger Rabbit."

I slumped, certain I'd blown my only chance to mingle with greatness. So certain, in fact, that coworker Rick C. and I were completely unprepared when Fleischer returned the next month.

"What do we do?" Rick whispered as the fantastic man approached the counter.
"Don't panic," I said, heart racing. "Stall him. Be charming, but don't let on you know who he is. The only way we're going to get him to befriend us is if he thinks we're trustworthy." I ran to the back room computer and frantically scanned IMDB. Playing "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" on the overhead monitors would have been vulgar. We needed something subtle, but not too subtle. I found 2004's "The Polar Express", in which Fleischer voices "Elf Captain", pulled the disc and popped it into the DVD player as nonchalantly as possible. Rick and I pulled off a reasonable semblance of conversation for less than five minutes before Fleischer noticed the TV.

"Really?" he said, smiling suspiciously. "Polar Express. Playing just this moment? That's quite a coincidence"
"Coincidence, sir?"
"Yesss." He studied the TV for a long moment. "I'm in this movie, you know."
"In this movie, sir?" I blinked in mock confusion.

Here's where I give myself credit: a younger video store employee would've referenced TV's "Punk'd" in a moment like this - hey guys, ok, I get it... when's Aston Kutcher gonna pop out! That clearly would not work with the Roger Rabbit generation. I waited a beat, finally smiling broadly.

"OK, guys," I said with showy amusement. "Where's Allen Funt hiding?"

My plan worked. I could see it in his eyes. We would soon be fast friends. I could almost hear his droll impersonations and cartoon quips as we sat poolside someplace far away and far more elegant than this store. Without warning, Rick exploded. "Awwwwwwwwwwww, YOU'RE ROGER RABBIT!!!" I slumped again. Fleischer laughed, but not in the friendly way of Toontown.

On a different afternoon last April, a somber fellow with swept-back hair and wire-frame glasses walked in, browsed a bit and then handed me a title from the shelves. I looked up his account and asked for ID. The computer listed no middle name, so when I matched this identity against his driver's license, I did a genuine double take.

"Are you David Foster Wallace the author?" I asked with undisguised disbelief. Just hours earlier, I'd set out for Borders to examine a particular passage in his Infinite Jest, only to run out of time and instead drive angrily to work. He seemed thinner than his photographed self, and a little startled at my tiny incursion into his personal space.

"Oh. Yeah. I am." he said, surprised.
"I'm a big fan," I said. I'd never made it through one of his books, but this seemed the easiest way to summarize the improbable coincidence that had just gone down.
"Thanks," he said flatly. "No. I appreciate it. I don't get many people recognizing me." He paid and left with the haste of discomfort.

I learned Wallace lived in Claremont as well, another visiting professor at a local college. He rented regularly. I was careful, on later encounters, not to make eye contact or further small talk or glance at any of his rental titles. Still, the interactions seemed awkward; he finessing a possible stalker, me suppressing several thousand questions on how one could find a life as a professional writer and escape retail servitude at age 39.

This word - retail - was a hard thing to get around. However I spun the situation to myself, I always reached the same conclusion. I had committed myself to stand under fluorescent lights, day after beautiful southern California day, surrounded by the fruits of other people's successes. My only consolation was that I'd chosen an industry with a guaranteed expiration. Movies will soon zap on and off tiny hard drives, each no larger than a pencil eraser and each holding many Video Paradisos worth of delightful cinema. In ten years tops, 330 W. Bonita Avenue in Claremont will be a store where old ladies can come to buy decorative ceramic vegetables. The Grocery Store Speech will evolve into the Video Store Speech. "This place used to be a video store," old-timers will lecture the sales staff. But the minimum wage employees will only smile politely. They'll have no idea what the words "video" and "store" meant together, and, what's more, they will not care.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Problem: Resemblance To Antichrist

THE ZONE OF UNEASE, Nov. 16 - What are one's options upon discovery that one's 13 year old self is startlingly similar - in attitude, bowl cut, and ID crisis - to the adolescent Son Of Satan as depicted by Jonathan Scott-Taylor in 1978's "Omen II"?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


CORRECTIONS DEPT., Nov 11 - A letter arrived last week from Laura Mac Donald, author of Curse Of The Narrows, regarding my book review from last June:


Thanks for the great review. Could you clarify something for me? I do not assign thoughts etc. to characters. All of it, including thoughts, is researched and footnoted. If there is anything added - and it's not often, I used the conditional ie. 'He must have thought...' [apostrophes added]

It's hard work getting it right. I don't want your review to mislead readers.

All my best, Laura

(Also no hyphen in Mont Blanc)


I'll take the rap for the needless hyphen. There is no excuse for slapdash reviewermanship. But I'm confused about this 'assign' business. When I told Tara I'd gotten a letter from the Curse author, she was excited, and then when I explained what the letter was about she said, 'oh no'.

Does this warrant a letter and an "oh no"? At the risk of taking the Bill Clinton defense, I must defer to the judgment of Merriam-Webster (hyphen confirmed). In the various synonyms of "ascribe", we are told that;

ascribe suggests an inferring or conjecturing of cause... attribute suggests less tentativeness than ascribe... assign implies ascribing with certainty or after deliberation

In this instance, I feel that my "assign" was mistaken for "attribute". I certainly meant the word positively, like the way a triage doctor can assign a patient to a particular wing of a hospital. History is a hard thing to engage, and I salute anyone who can thrillingly ascribe, with certainty or after deliberation, the inner workings of actors long dead. I meant no offense to Ms. Mac Donald.

A quick search tells me that I used this word combo ("assigning motives") once before, two years ago, in an article I wrote about the band Gossip. I'd probably read the phrase earlier, in someone else's copy, and unconsciously absorbed it into my writing, the same way little kids mimic adult conversation patterns. It's an easy thing to do. I've caught lots of repeated phrasings and words in my own writing before, and I have every confidence that I will continue to do so for as long as I write.

My usage in the Gossip article is pretty unambiguous, however, and it doesn't bode well for my Curse Of The Narrows defense. If I'd intended the more magnanimous version of "assign" last June, that means I used the wrong word in 2006. This is called a lose-lose situation. Although if I had to choose one article to be the wrong one, I'd go with the Gossip piece; I doubt they'll ever write me a friendly / chiding / maybe angry letter, and even if they do I doubt it'll be on stationary as classy as Ms. Mac Donald's.

ALSO - I'd like to take this opportunity to correct the resume I handed the staff of the Scripps women's college mailroom during my job interview last month. That meeting went so well - was, indeed, hands down the best job interview I've ever been part of - that I have a hard time accepting the letter I received telling me that I was "not chosen for the position". I don't want to entertain any thoughts of gender-bias (especially for a job with the word "male" in its title), so I can only assume that my interviewers Googled me, found this blog, and made it to the rather misanthropic end of the 8/20 entry. If the hiring staff at Scripps still read this blog, I'd like to state for the record that my real name is Jefferson Nopplebauer, there was a mix-up at Kinkos, I mistakenly handed you the wrong resume, and I would still very much like the job.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Review: National Black President Special Christmas Day

THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Nov. 5 - A vibrating cell phone woke me at 7:21. It was Rick, my friend and former coworker at the Claremont video store where I work part time. Rick texted feels great today, like in Star Wars 3 when Luke Skywalker defeated the Republic and the entire galaxy was celebrating. It took a moment to figure out that I wasn't irritated at being roused, another moment to remember that Barack Obama had been elected president of the United States. The closest emotional template for this feeling would have to be waking on Christmas morning. For those of us not running for First Lady, it seems safe to call it for what it is: Late Onset Patriotism. For the first time in my adult life, I'm actually proud of my country.

There are auxiliary lumps of relief. The end of the victory speech was almost as satisfying as the victory itself; as soon as Obama stepped off the stage at Grant Park, he entered the invisible, vast cloud of presidential protection that makes him exponentially more bullet-proof. He has four more years before having to plunge back into another Dawn Of The Dead crowd of outstretched arms. The two Tennessee skinheads who plotted a shoot-out in tuxedos and top hats will have to content themselves with writing angry letters to the Memphis Daily News. It's over.

This win is doubled by its matching defeat, that harmonious property of zero-sum two-party politics that has a blue line rise as a red line falls, as perfectly symmetrical as trees reflected on a shoreline. Just as important as what we get is what we have been spared; four more years of sadistic fast-food incompetence, grumpy and perky flavored. We will not have to listen to Sarah Palin's voice any more. As the morning wore on, I realized I was in my own cloud, perhaps what sports writer Roger Angell calls the "cloud of smugness" (although he was referring to November 4's direct democratic participation, and not November 5's glorious, sanctimonious gloating).

I tried to remember what I had done four years ago. 11/3/04 was rough, but details are fuzzy. I know I gave myself only twenty-four hours to sulk, that I spent the day frowning at children and giving the thumbs-down to old people, and that at one point I mooned a photo booth as a souvenir for my future self. Should I give myself only one day to feel ecstatic as well? I tried to remember my objections to Obama only a year ago. "Too young", was one. "Younger than Henry Rollins", was another. Hillary Clinton, I felt, was far smarter. That past misjudgment should inform my present euphoria. President Obama (!!) will disappoint all of us. Everyone knows this. But so what?

At one, I drove to Claremont Toyota for a scheduled oil change. I swapped my keys for a pager, similar to those given to waiting customers at Olive Garden, and found an empty table amidst the shiny new Corollas and Tacomas. CT's showroom was large and quiet, like a well-funded library. People sat reading and drinking free coffee. A grand piano rested unused in one corner. Overhead flat screens displayed silent, soothing montages of the previous night's events. I was careful not to glance up for more than a few seconds, lest I get goofy-faced and misty-eyed all over again.

It's a complete coincidence that I started reading Fritz Hirschfeld's George Washington and Slavery right before the election. If 1780's sensibilities seemed barbaric before November 4, they'd lost all meaning on this day. Washington's slaves didn't really have much to say on their own behalf in this book - being slaves, they wrote nothing and left only names, duly noted in GW's prodigious ledgers, and the impressions made on a few visiting notables (Washington's own cloud of presidential protection could be pierced with a simple letter of introduction). At several points, George and Martha complained bitterly at the ingratitude of their runaways, like parents of wayward hippies. It was both a fascinating read and, paradoxically, the kind of thing my southern friend Kelly would call a Snorey Snack. When the showroom chairs grew uncomfortable, I retired to one of the plush sofas hidden in the financing alcove, cracked open my book and promptly fell asleep.

I woke to a vibration. It took a moment to figure out it wasn't the store's pager letting me know my car was ready, but instead someone calling the phone in my pants, waking me for the second time in one day. It was Dennis, my boss at the video store. "It's the economy," Dennis said grimly. "We just can't afford to keep you on." I smiled serenely, remembering that Barack Obama had been elected president of the United States. "Come on in, and we'll cut you a final check," Dennis said. I agreed cheerfully. President Obama!

Early on in this campaign, several cynical Republicans noted that a new terrorist attack would benefit the perceived foreign policy strengths of their candidate. Just this summer, I noted cynically that Hurricane Gustav had the potential to be the opposite of a new terrorist attack, an unforeseen catastrophe with the potential to inflict maximum political damage on the McCain side. Now I understand my faulty math. Yesterday was the opposite of 9/11, almost surely the only such day anyone alive will ever experience. For one night, people across the planet covered their mouths in raw shock - a gesture eerily familiar from 9/11, but tracking to the extreme opposite end of the emotional spectrum. It was as if the Earth team had just won an intergalactic futbol championship. We're in unknown territory. Star Wars 3 ended without showing us who took over the reigns of the empire, much less how they governed.