MY FIRST SUMMER in New York, I was lucky to move into a great neighborhood at just the right time. It was after the artists had started to move east, but before the best blocks in the neighborhood turned into frat-boy rows. It was prior to the corporate chains moving in, when everyone still walked the main drag feeling like the star of their own movie.
I was starring in one about a kid who moved into town from New Jersey and couldn’t get a job. It was a fish-out-of-water story, with lots of Joy Division on the soundtrack and a totally inadequate budget. I had my resumés packed into a manila envelope as I walked the block, going into boutiques and cafés and excitedly handing them out. But no one seemed to care about my summer serving margaritas to drunken softball teams at Chili’s. They weren’t even impressed by the TV acting jobs on my resumé. In New Jersey, this was enough to get me hired or laid on any given night, but stopping in all three of the coffee shops, the cheese shop, the wine store and the rock ‘n’ roll clothing boutique, I was met with indifference. After a week, I was ready to give up. Each day, I’d pass the broke young artists, blankets laid out on the sidewalk, selling their record collections on the street in order to buy that evening’s falafel.
There was also a massive population of Hassidic Jews that lived a few blocks away. They kept to themselves with the exception of those who worked for Chabad, trying to lure secular young Jews into the fold. Each time I crossed their path they’d approach and ask, “Excuse me, are you Jewish?” I wasn’t religious, but at the same time, it inflamed my guilt to say no. While jobhunting, I made sure to cross the street any time I spotted a black hat.
I found the video store just in time.
The first time I walked inside, too broke to open an account, my childhood favorite, Little Monsters, was playing.
“This was my favorite movie,” I said.
To which Dee, the counter person, replied, “It’s good, but it’s no Real Genius.”
We watched the remainder of Little Monsters, followed immediately by Real Genius. From that point forward, any time I was job hunting and passed by the video store, I’d look through the window to see if Dee was working. If he was, I’d walk in and watch a movie. Dee’s ability to talk movies with such gusto was cherished by some customers and feared by others. He would often end up so immersed in some heated diatribe that customers started to ask me for help.
“What is the name of that movie where the guy has the radio show and kids are committing suicide?” “Pump Up the Volume.” After this happened a few times, Dee asked if I was still looking for a job. The next day I had my first shift. My boss was a tattooed woman in her mid-thirties who loved dogs and hated people. She avoided my gaze for hours before addressing me.
“Do you wear cologne?” she asked. “A spritz here and there,” I said. “Are you wearing it now?” I nodded. “My nose is very sensitive and when you wear cologne it makes me sick. If you keep wearing it to work, I will throw up on you.”
I was hardly earning enough to live, but the job had unforeseen perks. There were people who came in to rent movies and never paid for them. Over time I noticed they were the same people to whom I’d dropped off resumés those first few weeks of summer. People who worked at the coffee shop, the wine shop, the cheese shop and the burger joint. One day when I was getting an Americano across the street, the barista stopped me before I paid.
“Don’t you work at the video store?” she asked.
That’s when the perks started. Soon to follow would be my first free hunk of cheese, chili fries and bottle of Shiraz. All the places we hooked up, hooked us right back up. There were, however, limits: I never got free pie, salami or milkshakes and nobody ever got late fees expunged.
There were three categories of customers. Most common were the neighborhood newcomers who’d ask about movies just to ask. They thought that as long as they inquired about something artsy, they’d filled their quota and were then free to go re-rent Old School.
Working at the video store, I rented the French new wave classic The 400 Blows to maybe 20 people, but I was asked if we carried it about 1,000 times. The second category of customer was the normal type who went to the video store for the same reason as most. These were my favorite because they often asked for a recommendation, or tested me.
“What’s the one with the girl punk band and the British guy from that other movie?” “Ladies And Gentleman, The Fabulous Stains.”
The third category of customer was the Hassidic Jews, who always followed the same trajectory. They would walk into the store and head to new releases. They would then pick a couple of DVDs— maybe Snow Dogs or The Departed— examine them and make a beeline to the porn section. There, they’d grab a handful of DVDs without taking a moment to look at what they were getting and check out.
I had the occasional daydream, imagining where they’d go to watch it,
wondering if they watched alone or in groups, big Hassidic circle jerks,
payos bouncing. Also, every once in a while, as I was handing a copy of
Blowbang 5 to a man in a black hat, I considered asking, “Excuse me,
are you Jewish?”
My boss couldn’t stand it. When I first started at the store, she would act disgusted, groaning as she rang them up. But after a few weeks, she started refusing to ring up porn entirely.
“I’m not doing this,” she’d say. “Jon, can you please take care of this?” It never really bothered me. It was well worth my while to take care of the porn rentals because it made the boss slowly warm up. By the end of that summer a Subway sandwich shop had moved in next door and there were a lot of guys walking around the neighborhood with tribal tattoos. I kept busy renting porn to Hassidim.
And after awhile, the boss even seemed like she didn’t hate me. Now, when I think back on it, I remember it as much more that just some shitty job.
“Are you wearing cologne today?” she asked one day.
“You smell much better.”