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Screen Memories

Driving past another dead Blockbuster Video the other day made me think in general about the deaths of locally owned video stores a decade earlier and then, more specifically, the death of my own little store in Brooklyn.  Far from celebrating the possible karmic backlash represented by the retail failure of a large company like that of Blockbuster (after they’d stomped on little mom and pop stores for years); I was actually in there a couple of weeks before they closed, stocking up on $1 DVDs.

For a few years in the early 90’s I worked at a video store in Brooklyn called Screen Memory.  It, like thousands of other small businesses everywhere, had a stable core staff that at least for awhile, and only while they were still employed there, considered each other to be kind of like family.

7th Avenue, The Slope

Well, that is, a family that not only fought each other over the store remote, but also over shifts and assorted duties (like splitting up the cash deposits customers had to leave to become members).  Many of us (except Bob, the general manager, who was REALLY religious) drank a little too much; every night after work was kind of like a weekend night for us.

I hung out with several of them in almost all of my time away from work too.  The day manager, Steve graduated film school at NYU and was in the middle of the production of dozens of what we called his ‘little movies.’  He enlisted the help of many slacker (Park) Sloper 20-somethings like me to appear in them.  They were 4-8 minutes vignettes, some silent, some not (but with inscrutable dialogue), which we shot all around the Park Slope area.  After work he’d go home, have some wine, and write more ‘little movies’ which he usually hurried into production by the next day.  When he was at work he controlled the remote and that meant we were watching (on the store TV) either “Koyaanisqatsi” (also known as Screen Memory ID #1992) or “The Last Waltz” (#897). Those two, that’s it.  For two years. When Steve was off I would usually pop in the Weird Al Yankovic movie “UHF” (#2890).


In between customers, Steve would analyze scenes from those 2 movies or sometimes something like “The Seventh Seal” (#110). He was a fan of directors first and genres second and was probably the closest thing we had to the character Jack Black played in “High Fidelity.”

But unlike Jack he was never mean to the customers.  But sometimes I was.

Though I hated working in general, I kind of liked it there because I could show up in varying states of lucidity and no one seemed to care.

As an actor in Steve’s employ, I was usually paid in booze; and only partly because of that, on most days I would come into work hung over, a little shaky and a lot irritable.  When I was in these moods I would challenge any unhappy customer’s assertion that there was a problem with any video’s quality (we are talking the pre-DVD, flimsy VHS era here).  One memorable incident involved a couple’s attempt to get their deposit money back.

Great hangover food.

Mr. Gold (customer #64) and his wife came in one afternoon pretty pissed off about the video quality of one of their rentals (I think it was “Freejack” #3992).  They bee lined towards me and started their complaint by threatening to end their membership.

If a new member declined to leave a credit card imprint as deposit we asked for $62 cash (why 62? Probably the average cost of a new VHS tape in those days), which we would then staple to their application on the inside of a folder.  This money was kept by us and was supposed to be available as a refund upon the customer’s wish to terminate their membership.

But some of us had probably split up the Golds’ deposit when we noticed they were “original” members of the store (from years ago) and as such probably wouldn’t be going anywhere.  Who knows, their split-up money might have even ended up in a cash register at Smith’s Tavern (proud home of the South Slope’s career drunks since 1933), down at 5th Avenue and 9th Street.

Our assistant manager Georges had originated this deposit-filching, and then encouraged it, saying to us in his thick Lebanese accent “Take that shit and put it in your pocket,” while handing us small plugs of cash.

When I got Mr. Gold’s video to play in our machine (directing his attention to the store TV with a game show wave of the hand) he became livid and told me he definitely wanted his deposit back.  I fumbled (E,F,G) to his file and found it – empty.

Oh yeah.

I pulled out his folder anyway and made a few stammering excuses.  He turned red and really started yelling, then he stuck his pointed finger in my face and said, “You’re worthless, you little asshole!”

He then tore up his membership application and threw the little pieces in my face.  I had not been mad at all, that is until then.  As he and his (up until now quiet) wife were turning to leave I jabbed my own finger back in his face and said in as low and steady a voice as I could muster, “Fuck you.”

His wife let out a caterwauling bleating sound that made me want to search her hide for an arrow or spear (that may have possibly been placed there by some hunter-of-wildebeests). Mr. Gold then replied “Fuck YOU!”  They stalked out and I stalked right out after them, in a woolen Revolutionary War costume (thankfully leaving my musket behind the video counter).

That month I had landed a starring role in Steve’s first long feature, a silent movie parody of the American Revolution (which later ended up on our store’s rental shelves – #4492) called “The Battle of Brooklyn.”  I had been shooting that day and went straight into work, in uniform.  The thick scratchy cloth probably added to my discomfort that hot day, despite my attempts to rehydrate with 32 cold ounces of Snapple Iced Tea.

The Golds and I finished our finger pointing tête-à-tête on the sidewalk in front of the store and we marched off (me literally) in opposite directions.  We never saw them in there again and I was glad for that as well as for the fact that they never called Maureen, who was a local psychiatrist and owner of the store.

In the future we made sure we were extra nice to customers whose deposit money had been “donated to the local economy” and in fact would have even talked them out of moving away in order to avoid having to present to them an empty folder like that of the Golds.’

Working at a high volume video store like this made me a little nervous because when we were busy the energy was frenetic and the transactions were very short (picture a White Castle counter where they’re all on speed).  We worked mechanically, pulling the desired video (such as “Shining Through” #4009) off the shelf behind us, opening the black plastic case and removing the tape itself.  Then we had to do something I had never seen (before or since) done in any other video store – with an index finger on each end we’d release the tape’s front grill and slide it back, revealing the tape itself.  We’d look at it for a second then snap the cover back, give a satisfied smile and pop the tape back in the case, continuing on with the actual rental.

I think the tape inspection was intended to be that little “something extra” that separated us from our two other competitors a few blocks away.  “Oh look, hon, they’re making sure the tape will play right in our VCR.”

Slide, snap, click, pop, rent.  Slide, snap, click, pop, rent.  Over and over.  On busy nights I referred to the place as “Scream Therapy” (another psychological term and pun that I wondered if Maureen could have appreciated).  When it slowed down enough, Beau or Trask or I would run over to Grand Canyon and grab a burger, or a slice at the pizzeria (which was a block closer), run the food back and consume it quickly, we diners only partially hidden behind the counter and our empty Snapple bottles.

We all seemed to have a belief (likely shared by many in retail) that because we were behind a counter, we probably couldn’t be seen or heard by customers who were only a few feet away.  Maybe because we all had seen so many movies we thought we (or they) were behind the “4th wall.”  So we’d openly discuss customers and their rental tastes, (even referring to the chronically rude as “cuntstomers”) sometimes to their annoyed and/or astonished looks.  We’d sometimes talk about how funny it would be to put a porn tape in a children’s movie box (like “Rude Dog & the Dweebs” #3665).

I’m still really glad nobody ever actually did that.

Only when they were right in front of us, asking a question or handing us a video, did we grudgingly regard them as within earshot and worthy of our attention.

The former Screen Memory – they left the drop box slot.

The morning after my confrontation with the Golds (and a late night at 11th Street Bar), I again donned my blue Colonial uniform and got ready to shoot a few scenes with Steve.  That month in the summer of ’93 many residents of Park Slope got used to seeing Red Coats or Blue Coats walking around with dummy muskets; being tailed by a rail-thin bespectacled guy with a video camera saying “Aha! Aha!  That’s great!”  Steve was very encouraging, what you’d call an “actor’s director.”

That morning Steve had Jeff (a fellow barfly who usually walked around with an Arizona Iced Tea can filled with vodka, kind of like our own version of Julian from “Trailer Park Boys”) and I shooting an extended sequence over at the 9th Street entrance to Prospect Park.   Someone had recently taken a picture of Jeff at Hogs & Heifers after he’d climbed to the top of a support pole and he carried it around in his wallet, showing it off like it was a shot of his newborn; that morning he flashed the pic to me as we got ready for our scenes.

We were in the park to do Steve’s take on the iconic Minuteman, sleeping with his musket.  We had bedding and pillows arranged for both myself and the musket.  I had to ‘wake up’ and offer my musket/mate a donut and a cup of coffee.  Later, in another sequence Jeff, as a Red Coat, chased me around the Long Meadow in a Benny Hill like sequence.  It sure was hard work for underfed hung-over people in 85 degree heat and in wool costumes.  Jeff and I resisted close-ups, we were afraid our shaky hands would show up on the film.  We occasionally wondered if we’d get heatstroke, dehydrated and overheated as we were.

After what happened the previous day at the store I made sure to change back into regular clothes for my night shift at Screen Memory, and in fact to never wear that uniform to work again.  Bad mojo, you know.

In the following weeks Steve’s little acting troupe trouped all over Brooklyn; 5th Avenue, Green-Wood Cemetery, various subway stations, and even the Promenade at Brooklyn Heights (where we befriended an old gentleman who knew Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe back when they lived on Pineapple Street in 1956).  Those summer days were busy; filming, work, bars, sleep, repeat-repeat-repeat.  We finished up in August at Coney Island, shooting what would actually be the first scene in the movie, a depiction of the sighting of Admiral Howe’s fleet off Gravesend.  We may not have had a fleet but we did have one guy in a Red Coat uniform wading ashore, and that worked out great for us.

After that it was a wrap, Steve returned the now sweaty, smelly uniforms (we didn’t wash them – we were afraid they’d come out of the dryer hanky-sized) back to the costume rental place in Cobble Hill.  He then retreated to his apartment on 8th Street to do a few weeks of editing, which gave me a little more leisure time to pump my ever diminishing funds into the neighborhood bars.

A few New Release Tuesdays after that (“Captain Ron” #4068, “Reservoir Dogs” #4101, “The Crying Game” #4133), “The Battle of Brooklyn” was ready for its premiere at Steve’s new place of employment, Two Boots Bar & Restaurant, where he was bartending (and had become a place I now had more reason than ever to hang out).

He had filmed an awful lot that summer, and after weeks of furious editing had whittled it down to about 2 hours.  A 2 hour silent movie, with dialog cards typed out on his old Smith Corona and then filmed in negative.  Steve and his loyal actors (me included) managed, through word of mouth, to fill the bar up the night of the premiere.  The lights came on at the end of the screening and the response was, like the movie, silent.  We took that as kind of ironic.  A few minutes later though, people (including Screen Memory manager Bob) came up to Steve with encouraging comments.

Indeed, Steve was encouraged enough to continue writing his next long movie, a parody of a little remembered historical tragedy called “The Schenectady Massacre” (that occurred in 1690) that we filmed outdoors in upstate New York months later (in between snowstorms).  He continued to reward us for our thespian efforts with trips to the local tavern.  For us at least, donned again in woolen (this time Pilgrim-y) rental uniforms, we were not having to worry about both hangovers AND heatstroke.

Though no longer employed at Screen Memory, Steve coincidentally held out in Brooklyn for only as long as the video store itself.  By 1997 the store had gone out of business and the site bought by a newly aggressive Park Slope toy store (which now boasted 2 locations on 7th Ave).  The same year Steve moved out to San Francisco and began to make more sophisticated movies – with sound booms, real lighting setups, and sober, professional (presumably compensated in cash) actors.

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