Tuesday, December 9, 2014

A Christmas Eve Videocassette

Some videos for the holiday
Only once did I work retail during the holiday season. It was in 1985, and at that time, video store clerk was a typical job for a twenty something. This was the VHS era; DVDs wouldn’t come along for another decade, by which time I was long out of working any retail job. But in December 1985, that was all in the future. Boston was covered with a light layer of snow. The air was crisp. The store was decorated with gold and silver garland, and we were playing Christmas movies on the monitors through the store.

Not that everyone wanted Christmas movies. The store I worked at was notable for a few things. First, it had a fairly extensive collection and rather than compete with the chains that were popping up, went for a broad selection of films, instead of lots of lots of the movie that had been a hit in the theaters six months before. I had been hired for two reasons: for being a science fiction fan who could identify some of the gaps in their science fiction collection, and for being reasonably well versed with computers, since when I was hired the owners were planning on computerizing everything, which they soon did.

My recommendations for films largely went unchallenged, though I knew that sometimes I might suggest a film and not convince anyone that it ought to be added to the collection. The one time I got questioned didn’t involve a science fiction film at all, but Akira Kurosowa’s Throne of Blood, which I had seen, and I felt our customers would like. One of the owners criticized me, wondering who would want to see a Japanese version of MacBeth. Then Kurosawa’s adaptation of King Lear, Ran hit the theaters. That was a busy videotape.

The other thing that was unusual was that the shelves of adult films weren’t hidden off in some corner, behind a curtain or something, the way they were in other places. This was a video store with a large urban and gay clientele, and we didn’t hide the porn; it was our bread and butter. Many of our customers came to us because the chain video stores had small selections of porn, and smaller yet of gay porn if they had it at all. A very typical rental was a couple of mainstream films and an adult film. Plenty of couples would rent a romantic comedy or two, and a porno. This was true of our straight and our gay customers.

Which brings me to Christmas Eve. The store closed only a few days of the year: New Year’s, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Of those days, Christmas Eve was the one with the biggest rush. Sure, people had rented a little more heavily before Thanksgiving. But Christmas was something else. People rented films as if the one possible opportunity for the day was to host a miniature film festival in your home.

Our usual, day-to-day way of doing things was that a customer would bring up the video boxes, the clerk would pull the tapes from the shelves, and make the transaction. For Christmas Eve, the staff took turns either manning the register or being runners, except me. My skills at pulling tapes were no better than anyone else, but I could work the register faster than anyone else. I was assigned a runner, and apart from breaks, I was there processing people’s video rentals.

For my day, I would look out over the store, it’s blue shelving units rendered moderately festive for the holiday. Remember that the first of those in my line of sight are two sets of low shelving, set at a diagonal, filled with porn, but on that day, the space between the counter and the adult films was filled the lines of people, waiting to get their movies. It was a cold day, and so everyone was bundled up, but had opened their coats in the warmth of the store. I spent my day renting people videotapes and wishing them a pleasant holiday.

Then my last customer came up. He wouldn’t have been my last customer. There were still a few people behind him, and it wasn’t yet time for the store to close. The wife of one of the owners had visited with ricotta cheesecake and brandied eggnog for the staff, but that was after my last break. Both owners were gay men (and ex-boyfriends), but one of them had married and separated from his wife when he came out. They still found their marriage mutually beneficial. I just had to get through a few more customers and I’d a little refreshment.

My last customer was a short, somewhat rounded man. I can still picture him. Olive skin. A bit of scruffy facial hair. He wore a blue and gray scarf around his neck. He pushed a box for an gay adult film toward me, which I tossed to my runner.

My runner, a young cute blond guy (with the store owned by two gay men, the number of young, cute gay men on the staff was fairly high), came back with widened eyes, spread hand, and no videotape. “It’s not on the shelf, John.” I knew how to handle this.

“I am so terribly sorry,” I told the customer. “We’ve made a mistake and the video you selected isn’t in. Please select another and come to the front of the line.” Had he done this, I probably could have done something like give him a free day’s rental (in addition to Christmas). But that’s not what he did.

“That’s the movie I want.”

“I understand that, sir, but we don’t have it in. Please select another.”

“Are you discriminating against me because I’m gay?” Him, me, the blond guy, the guy at the next register, the owners. The place was filled with gay men. I was going to be foolish enough to start discriminating?

“No, sir. We value all of our customers.” I smiled. “So please choose another movie.”

“It’s because I’m Arab.”

At this point, one of the owners came up. “What’s the problem, John?”

“We didn’t have the video he wanted.”

This did not sufficiently clarify things for him. “Did you ask him to select another? And what did he want, anyway?”

“Of course, and he wanted gay porn.” This was a conversation going on between two gay men.

The customer decided to speak up. “I work for a consulate. If you don’t treat me well, there will be trouble.”

While I was taking the position of being the smiling, friendly face of the company, trying to smooth things over, my boss didn’t feel the need to do that. “Trouble? You wanted gay porn. In your country, they’d cut your balls off for watching it. Now stop harassing my staff and get the fuck out of my store before I call the police.” When he picked up the phone, the man left. At a word from my boss, I cancelled the man’s account. Then he sent me to the back for a drink.

“Why are you still smiling?” he asked me when he came back there himself.

I hadn’t been aware I was still smiling. “I think my face is frozen this way.” Eventually, it unstuck. After that, I’ve never worked retail on Christmas Eve. The experience has stuck with me though and it’s had its effect on how I treat store clerks. I don’t want to be the guy claiming discrimination because the porno film isn’t available to rent.
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  1. But John, you have such an endearing smile. I remember it well even though I haven't seen you face to face in at least 15 years. I always wondered what you were up to. ;-)

  2. Oh, don't be a tease. Just initials? Fifteen years? Now I'm going to go crazy wondering who read my blog.

  3. That’s a great story, John—and a cautionary tale for anyone thinking about exploiting a “discrimination card”! There may indeed be a time and a place to use such a thing, but this certainly wasn’t one of them! (The person in question must not have been very observant—hello, gay staff?) :-O


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