I was hired to work at VID 2 on my 27th birthday – April 3, 1996. I was promoted to Night Manager a few months later, and went on to work there until January 2001, when I was transferred to VID 5 (more on that later). I worked as Night Manager at VID 5 until mid-July 2006, when I quit to move to L.A. Unlike other jobs I’ve had over the years, retail or otherwise, there was rarely a dull moment at TLA, so condensing ten years’ worth of memories is bound to end up being an episodic, anecdotal affair, so apologies in advance.
I was first interviewed (and given THE QUIZ) by Katie [I can’t for the life of me remember her last name] and Marc Walkow. I REALLY wanted the job, so I pushed the film geek knowledge to the brink. “I see on your application you mentioned Dario Argento as one of your favorite directors. Can you name some of his films?” Marc asked.
“Sure. His debut was The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, followed by The Cat o’ Nine Tails, Four Flies on Grey Velvet and, of course, Deep Red, which was released in Italy as Profondo Rosso but was also known in the U.S. by an alternate title, The Hatchet Murders. After that –“
Marc raised his hand. “Okay, okay.” Katie had a look on her face that read, “What the hell is this know-it-all dork TALKING about?!”
Anyway, I got the job, and became fast – and lasting – friends with Marc. One of the greatest things about my time at TLA was working with so many cool people. I worked with good friends I’d already known (mostly through Temple U.): Cher Bryant, Dan Creskoff, Mark Henry, Rich Mulhearn. But I met so many more at VIDs 2 and 5: Carol, Becky, Eric, Leno, Royal, Josh Smith, Robert Davis, Donna Kennealy, Kristin Hanson, Doug Collins, Scott Decker, James Wilson, Damon, Ernie, Max Brinck, Sweeney, Roger, Sam, Margaret, Hilary, Dave Bleiler…I know I’m forgetting a few.
Some choice memories of Vid 2 folk….
James and I were working an afternoon shift. A gentleman walked up to me and asked for “Pity-un”. I blinked and asked him what it was about. “You know, it’s about a giant killer! Pity-un!” I broke the box taboo, and asked him to bring the video box to the counter. I glanced over at James, who grinned and shook his head with a “This should be good” look. The gentleman arrived back at the counter and showed us the box for PYTHON. I caught a glimpse of James out of the corner of my eye – he was visibly shaking and scowling, struggling with all his might not to burst out laughing. Then he made a beeline for the break room, knowing if we made eye contact it would be all over.
A similar event occurred when a snooty Penn student (there’s a redundancy – oooo!) came to the counter and asked for the John Malkovich film, “The Aug-ree”. I assured him it was actually pronounced “The Ogre”. “Yeah, I don’t THINK so,” he replied like the snot he was. Several customers told him he was wrong so, embarrassed, he blurted out, “What the hell language is THAT?” Without missing a beat, Josh Smith yelled out, “Fucking ENGLISH, dude!”
Over the years, customers have asked for “Kalikular” (Caligula), “The Fay-kaid” (The Facade), “that really good Christopher Lambert movie” (???) and “the one where Martin plays a Russian” (Black Knight).
Another great Josh moment came when a customer held up the box for Boltneck, a wretched-looking tween Frankenstein riff that actually rented a grand total of ZERO times in three months on the New Release wall. “How’s this movie?” he asked innocently. Josh yelled back, “Look at the fuckin’ BOX, dude!” Everyone laughed, including the guy.
I was working with Royal one night when a perpetual thief was looking at the DVDs for sale (this was when the Sales section was right next to the rental counter). He walked past the security alarm, which went off. Royal walked over to him. “Give them to me.” He turned around, and a perfect, DVD shaped bulge protruded from his crotch. “What?” “The DVDs you’ve got.” “I don’t have anything.” By this time, customers in line were actually laughing. “I can see them.” “I don’t have anything. You can check.” Royal stepped back and exclaimed, “I’m NOT going down your pants, man!!” At this, said thief admitted defeat and dug out the stolen goods, placed them on the counter and walked out. I honestly don’t remember what lucky soul got to re-shelve those….
I loved our customer with the marvelous name of Fourth Roberts, who always walked in with a smile and some interesting new gizmo or bit of trivia. I fondly remember Carol’s tea parties. I was impressed with Leno’s knowledge of French film (the guy came to a Halloween party of mine wearing blue face paint and wrapped in dynamite – an astonishingly geeky – in the best sense – reference to Godard’s Pierrot le Fou). I used to love when the doors would lock at the end of the night and we’d rock out to Rob Zombie’s HELLBILLY DELUXE. I remember doing section maintenance after hours with Robert Davis and dancing to the “farting song” by Ennio Morricone (actually the theme from Grand Slam). And of course, hiding in the stacks while Becky was vacuuming, then leaping out at her, nearly giving her a coronary. Good times.
Oh, and then there was esteemed co-worker Bill Salmon (aka Swilly Bill). He’d regale us with tidbits of his drinkin’ nights, such as when he woke up and peed in his cowboy boots. I was not immune to his alcohol-fueled charm: one night after work, we watched Clint’s orangutan movies back to back while killing a case of MGD. We wrapped things up around 4 am, and he was worried he was going to sleep through his alarm and be late (again) for his 8:30 work time. I drunkenly suggested he sleep on the break room couch and I’d just leave the store alarm off. Next morning, Mark Wiles found Swilly dead-asleep on said couch and was enraged. Several hours later, horribly hungover me had to take SEPTA to the principal’s office – er, the main office at 2nd and Market — and face the music. Miraculously, I wasn’t fired – this wouldn’t be the last time I’d squeak by getting canned for my after-hours, drinkin’ shenanigans.
In January 2001, my friend James Wilson quit TLA. On his last night, James, Josh and I started the Yuengling-ing early. We had quite the fun time in the break room after hours. I DID set the store alarm this time, but we left the break room trashed (empty boxes strewn everywhere, beer spilled in the fax machine).
Wiles, upon seeing the break room the next morning, exploded and immediately called the main office. I love Mark and I understand why he did it, but one thing I learned in the Marines is — Keep It In the Unit.
Anyway, another trip to the principal. I was brought into Patrick Murray’s office and was seated next to the new General Manager, about whom the less said, the better (for the record, I truly liked Patrick a lot). Patrick shook his head at my sorry ass, while GM beeyatch glared at me like I’d raped her puppy. After a stern talking-to, Patrick said, “I want to show you something.” He pulled out the VID 2 security tape and popped it into the VCR. In it, James and I are sprinting around the store, chasing each other down while screaming at the top of our lungs. One of us would race through the frame for a split second, with a Doppler Effect-y bellow (“fffffFFFUUUUUUUUUCK YYYoooouuuuuu!!”) quickly followed by the other. At one point, our out of shape, drunken asses were panting and heaving at the extreme edges of the frame, like some sad ass melding of Kevin Smith and Sergio Leone.
I glanced at GM, who was frowning. I looked over at Patrick, who had a hand in front of his mouth, obviously suppressing a laugh. He looked at me for an instant, then looked away, his smile sneaking through for half a second.
A few days later, GM told me I was transferred to VID 5. This was a minor inconvenience, as VID 2 was within walking distance of my apartment and VID 5 was not. I asked Cher later, “I got the feeling that if I turn this down, I’m fired. Do you think that’s accu—“ “Oh, yes.”
So, a terrific going-away party at Fergie’s ensued. The gang got me a cake with STRANGE ADVANCE icing. Yes, my friends had a cake made with icing sporting the design of an obscure album by an obscure Canadian 80s pop band. Gotta love it. The other highlight of the party came when Josh stood up to make a toast. He was really bummed about my leaving VID 2, and he’d had a few. “I’d like to make a toast to the man who made this all possible.” Pause for effect. “Mark Wiles!!”
Even though my old friend Dan Creskoff was my new boss, I didn’t care for my VID 5 experience at first. I had bronchitis just after I started working there, I didn’t care for several of my co-workers AT ALL, and the commute was a pain.
After the first few months, however, I grew to love it there.
Some choice VID 5 memories…
There was the incident that cemented my friendship with Randall “Tex” Cobb. For those of you who don’t know, Tex was a professional heavyweight boxer who once went fifteen rounds with Larry Holmes. He subsequently became a character actor, appearing in many films, including Ace Ventura, Uncommon Valor, Ernest Goes to Jail, and, most famously, as the “Warthog from Hell” in Raising Arizona. I was introduced to him by co-worker/local actor extraordinaire Frank X, and Tex and I bonded over our love of horror movies.
One day, Tex walked in with his wife Janet and asked me for a horror flick recommendation. I was busy with a customer, but told him I’d meet him in the Horror section in a few minutes. He nodded and walked around the corner. A moment later, an altercation broke out between Ernie and a tall, irate black man in his early forties or so (It later came to light that this guy was a master con artist. He’d go to different VID’s, pay for $20 or so worth of DVDs with a $100 bill, then decide after the transaction that he didn’t want the movies. He’d then SOMEHOW get the $100 bill back. If anyone remembers this scam, and knows how he was able to accomplish this, PLEASE let me know. We never figured it out). Anyway, Ernie smelled a rat and was questioning why he changed his mind about his purchases so quickly. The guy just started screaming for his money back. I walked over and asked him what the problem was.
“I want my money! I want my money! I want my money!”
I’d had it with this dick, so I blurted out, “I heard you the first ten times.”
He tilted his head and asked, “What did you say to me?”
I leaned in and said slowly, “I heard you….the first…ten…times.”
Without hesitation, he spat right in my face. I went into a blind rage, slammed my palms on the counter and ran around to beat the shit outta this bastard. The coward – who was older than me, but much, much bigger – grabbed a metal trash can and raised it above his head.
“Put it down and fight me!” I yelled.
“Come on! Come on!” Or something to that effect.
He was staring at me furiously, when I saw his eyes move up over my shoulder. He lowered the trash can, and still looking above and behind me, said quietly, “I got no beef with you, man.”
I turned around to see Tex standing there, ready for a fight.
“Ya do now!”
As Tex stood there, ramrod straight, glaring at this guy, Janet had her arms across his chest, as if he’s an uncaged beast. “No, Randall! No, don’t do it!!”
The guy tossed down the trashcan and ran out, screaming, “I’m comin’ back with my posse!!”
I ran to the bathroom to wash off my face, then came out and thanked Tex.
“That guy woulda killed me.”
He leaned in, dead serious. “No. He wouldn’t have.”
The other major VID 5 incident occurred on a hot Sunday night in July. It was around 10 minutes before closing time, and Doug Collins and I were the only ones working. There was no one in the store, so we were both putting New Release tags back on their hooks. We were laughing about a scene from Dazed and Confused, when in walked a guy wearing a Gortex ski mask. Still laughing, I said to him, “What – are you COLD?” Doug and I laughed, but when he passed us, we exchanged a revelatory, “oh, shit” look.
The guy walked up to the counter, then made a panicked, herky-jerky move when there were no clerks there (This always reminded me of the scene in Raising Arizona when John Goodman tells everyone to lie on the floor at the bank, then a beat later, freaks out and says, “Shit! Where are the tellers?!”).
I gave a look to Doug, and he walked toward the break room. As he walked past the ski-masked douchebag, he glanced down at the brown paper bag on the counter (The local ice cream shop would always give us their day-old soft pretzels in a brown paper bag at the end of a shift).
As Doug made his way to the back (and to a phone), he said to the guy, “Hey buddy, you want a pretzel?” The guy gave a muffled “No!” then whirled around to the New Release wall. Just before disappearing into the back, Doug looked at me and gave one of his tongue-between-his-teeth, little boy smiles. I instantly wanted to hug him.
The guy, whose left hand never left his pocket, pretended to look at the new releases.
“Hey”, I said, “if you want to rent something, you need to soon. We’re closing up.”
“I’m…I’m thinking about it!” he muffle-yelled.
“The Others is pretty good.”
He sighed heavily, looked around one last time in frustration, then stormed out.
I locked up, and the cops were there not long after. They commended us on our expertise on dealing with a stickup man.
“You must’ve been trained well. It always throws ‘em off if you act like nothing’s wrong.”
Anyway, the guy was caught robbing a nearby bagel shop the next week. Until that time, TLA was the only store he hadn’t robbed successfully.
Let’s see…there was the time Nikki caught me on my break, tearing up while watching Radio (yeah, I know, I’m a friggin’ sap). She laughed her ass off at me, and replaced my name tag with one reading ‘Radio’. Not long after, a jerk-off customer got in my face over nothing, and I’d had enough. I told him in so many words that he’d better back off.
“I’m reporting you to your superiors!” (I swear he said this).
“You’re in a lot of trouble, Radio!!”
I remember playing UNO with the gang in the middle of the store after hours while consuming copious amounts of Yuengling. Every so often, a regular would walk by, do a double take, and wave and smile.
Then there was my appearance in Nathaniel Kahn’s The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan. This was a fake doc/promo for The Village. I was asked to appear on camera, at VID 5, to discuss local filmmakers and films. Max Brinck and Adrian Hickman also appeared. We’re all knowledgeable, informed, intelligent guys – and were made to come across as complete idiots in the final edit. AND we got screwed out of our payment. Mr. Kahn – you, sir, are a douche.
I remember September 12th, 2001; a customer walked in, ranting about how we should kill every Muslim we can. Sweeney glared at him and said, “The guy standing in front of you is Muslim.” That was Hakim, a laid-back co-worker who was as good-natured as they come. Still, the customer kept on ranting about killin’ ’em all, when a suddenly incensed Max Brinck descended upon the guy. “Get OUT! Get out of the STORE!!”
“What’s wrong with you people? This is America!”
Max chased him all the way out the door.
“DON’T COME BACK!!!”
A quick nod to some wonderful customers. Byron and Christina. Always arriving with a smile, always up for a laugh. Except for the one time I told Christina that most female directors suck. A look passed over her face; it was akin to Cate Blanchett’s transformation when she got close to the Ring. Frankly, I probably deserved it, but I was playing devil’s advocate, and was trying to make a positive point.
Greg Tobias. A great guy and a quick wit – one of those customers you looked forward to seeing. We bonded over our mutual love of Dennis Potter.
Miguel Davila. He was always a pleasure to talk to and frequently brought us gifts, like egg custards from Chinatown (my favorite dessert….mmmmmm….).
Christian Rozier. Fellow film lover – was always interested in my recommendations, and is just a genuinely great person. Just before I quit, he discovered I was moving to LA. He was, too – so, we lived together out here for my first 18 months in LA. A terrific roommate; I only moved out so I could move in with my girlfriend, Emily.
And last but FAR from least, there was Robert Waldman. Waldman (or Waldballs, as I affectionately called him) was a Woody Allen-esque movie fanatic who would always bring me the NY Times reviews, torn from his Friday papers. He would talk endlessly about New York and New York directors (Allen, Martin Scorsese and Sidney Lumet in particular).
He was a regular at VID 2 the entire time I was there, then the same at VID 5. As he approached the counter, he’d let out his characteristic, “Ahhhhhh!!” which sounded exactly like Fozzie the Bear. Some of my coworkers found him annoying or overwhelming; I found him quirkily charming and funny. We even went out to dinner a few times together.
I actually dressed up as Waldman for Halloween one year. I had the salt-and-pepper beard, the glasses, a map of New York in my breast pocket and a SERPICO box on my hip. When he came into the store, he had no idea who I was supposed to be.
Oh, a quick non-sequitur: I always loved the fact that dogs were welcome in the VIDs. To the extent that we always had dog treats under the counter. I love animals, and that was always a happy perk.
What else to say? I love the fact that I can find just about any movie/TV show/TV movie I want online in mere moments.
But I’ll miss walking into a video store, talking with a smart movie nut like myself, actually holding a DVD case in my hands.
As for the job itself, I’ll quote my friends Robert and Miriam. When I told them I was leaving TLA to move to LA, they said, “But where will you hold court?”
They were half-joking, but the truth is, I really was in my element at TLA. Joking around, showing off my movie knowledge, hanging out with fellow movie freaks.
I love film production, and it shares many similarities to working at TLA. But the ten years I spent there – seeing hundreds (thousands?) of films, spending countless hours talking about movies, writing hundreds of reviews for REWIND magazine, THE TLA FILM GUIDE and tlavideo.com, not to mention the sheer FUN and the friendships I made – really were a special time.
Should I have moved to LA sooner and should I be further along in my film production career? Probably. Would I give up any of those years at TLA? Nope. The accumulated film knowledge alone made it worth it, to say nothing of life experience; kinda like my stint in the Marine Corps, only a helluva lot more fun.
And – God help me, it’s true – a helluva lot more alcohol consumptive.
A heartfelt salute to VID 5 and VID 2, and to all the co-workers and customers who made it a (mostly) wonderful time for me.
This clipping from the June 23-29, 2004 edition of the Philadelphia Weekly is a photo of a music trivia quiz night at the Khyber that Dean and I mistakenly attended thinking it was a movie trivia night (Dean had won the previous movie trivia night single-handedly though Margaret and I were technically on his “team”). The caption is a reference to one of Dean’s strangely obscure guesses that night that were pretty much as far from the real answer as could be. The clipping hung behind the counter at VID 5 until its closing.