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.