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Tuesday, April 22, 2003
The Salad Days
For a great deal of my college and early post-college years, I worked in a video store. Professionally, it wasn't the best four years of my life (I don't even list it on my resume anymore), but I did a lot of living there. Good times all around.

I was working at McDonald's when I applied for the job. I literally walked across the strip mall parking lot to turn in my application on my lunch break (I should've been having kamikazes then, dammit). A high-school acquaintance was the acting store manager, and he hired me without an interview.

I started as a "lead clerk," which pissed off a few of the more-senior clerks who had to train me. But I'd held just about every position at McDonald's (including swing manager and maintenance), so I was more than qualified. Plus, I loved movies.

It was pretty informal when I started. The store still had a small-chain retail outlet feel. By the time I quit, it was much more corporate . . . kind-of the Blockbuster of Florida and Alabama. But in the early days, we used to be able to just watch movies in the store . . . any movie, really. Once, during the Super Bowl, we watched Deliverance. And wouldn't you know that, at half time, when everyone came to return their movies, it was time for the infamous sodomy scene. Ooops. That policy was further endangered when another lead clerk put in Platoon on a busy Saturday evening. A parent objected to her child watching the grunts shooting at the one-legged man and yelling, "Dance, motherfucker! Dance!" I mean, what's objectionable about that? Geez . . . some people.

Yeah, I wasn't the most customer-conscious one of the bunch, but I quickly rose to assistant manager. And then, when I graduated from college with no immediate career goals, I took the position of store manager. (My boss was angling for a promotion, and having me to take his place would make it easier to move up.)

By the time I was running things (dude, how Millers Crossing is that? "Leo ain't runnin' things!"), we had put together a pretty chummy staff. So, I was doomed to fail. Because as things were getting more and more corporate, I was doing less and less to make sure our store succeeded. I wasn't interested in telling my employees (my friends) to do shit I wouldn't do. I was killing time, and the new district manager (a Blockbuster cast-off) knew it. I eventually quit and took a state job. And I think that pleased her.

Here are the things I remember best:

-- One of my first permanent store managers helped us invent a game where, after the store closed (or, sometimes, just before we closed), we'd get rubber-band balls we'd made and stand at one side of the store. The object was to try and see how many movies we could knock off the wall on the opposite side of the store. He eventually quit during a witch-hunt investigation involving a customer complaint. He was the best manager we ever had, me included.

-- The next manager was a flaming homosexual who rigged the schedule so that he only worked from 10 to 5 (if that), Monday through Friday . . . a huge video-retail sin for store managers. Once during inventory, a co-worker was crashed on the floor (drunk). The manager took out a bag of cocaine and sprinkled some over his face. "This'll wake him up."

-- Yeah, we drank during inventory. I used to back my Hyundai up to the back door, and we used the trunk as a wet bar.

-- During another particularly memorable inventory, two guys were horsing around and one pushed the other through a huge plate-glass window. The guy who went through the window was about an inch or so from being cut in half. As it was, a sheet of falling glass cut the legs of his pants right down the back.

-- That same guy later became my assistant manager. One night, he was closing the store while the rest of us were doing tequila shots on the store-room counter. I was cutting the limes. One of the female clerks to his girlfriend: "Get your prissy ass in here and do a shot!"

-- Sometimes, while doing my paper work, the closing staff would bring porn into the office to watch. I all-to-vividly remember Watermelon Mama and Sumo Sue. If mind-numbing paper work can't suppress an erection, a 500-pound woman getting railed in a hot tub will.

-- We had a popular "adult" room for a while, but the Attorney General of Florida was threatening a local store with a law suit, so almost all of the area stores pulled their entire adult video selections. Three years later, we went into the storage closet to inventory the movies for possible wholesale, and most of the boxes were empty. I'm sure some of my co-workers had enviable porn collections. I promise, I didn't steal any. Not even Wife in the Fast Lane or Crocodile Blondie.

-- Once, a woman throwing a bachelorette party came in and needed advice on some good porn flicks. She looked at me and said, "Oh, I bet you know some good ones," and dragged me in the "adult" room to help her. I was kind-of afraid that she was going to put the moves on me, but she didn't. I told her that she should rent Butts III: Double Occupancy, although I'd never seen it (the cover art was suitably provocative, and you can't beat that title). To be honest, I didn't watch any of those movies, besides the ones my freaky underlings brought in while I was doing my paper work.

-- I feel really bad about this one. Only once in my entire time at the store did we have a black employee there. It was around the time when Pulp Fiction came out. We used to put movie quotes on each others' rental accounts. One guy put, "Did you see a sign in front of my house that said 'dead nigger storage?'" on another guy's account. The black girl saw it and stopped coming to work. She called the manager and reported us all as racists. As bad as I feel, though, she wasn't a dependable employee. She called in for several of her shifts with various bad excuses. She even got caught lying about being sick once when someone ran into her at the mall when she was supposed to be at work . . . or sick at home.

-- About six months after that girl quit, I was the manager. I got a phone call from a store at the mall looking for a reference. It was for her. As soon as I heard her name, I started laughing, and I kept laughing until the person calling said "Thanks" and hung up. Was that too unprofessional?

-- I once helped my assistant manager bust a guy who was stealing movies and games from our store. I was back in the office, and he was working the store. The guy came in to rent under someone else's account. My assistant acted like he was calling another store to check the account and called me in the office and told me the deal. I called the Sheriff's Department and my assistant stalled the guy. When the Sheriff's deputy pulled up, the guy tried to run. That is my most Law and Order moment to date.

-- We used to have rubber-band fights during slow afternoons. Customers were often hit. Y'know, collateral damage.

-- When closing time was near, or on slow afternoons, we'd play the music loud . . . either to entertain ourselves or to drive people out of the store. I was playing the local rock station once when Nine Inch Nails came on. An older lady came up and requested that I turn down the "head-bustin’ music." That became a catch-phrase for a long, long time.

-- The pinnacle of my time there was the payday trips to Lucy Ho's for chinese/sushi and copious quantities of alcohol. Our drink tab would often eclipse the food bill. That's where I discovered the magical healing powers of the kamikaze.

-- My last act as store manager was to sell myself a copy of Miller's Crossing.

Hope you enjoyed this detour through my early 20s. Suffices to say that my more-recent professional life has been more professional . . . and less fun.