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Old 11-20-2003, 02:45 PM   #1
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Diary of a video clerk

The other day I realized, as a cold claw of pure fear squeezed my frantic heart, that I have been working as a video clerk for ten months.

This is a job that I took on a temporary basis for just a month or two until freelancing picked back up and I got my financial **** in order.

Ten months.

It has been a test of patience, humility, and character.

It has been a lesson in dealing with all humankind, including their personal bodily fluids.

It has been $6.50 an hour.
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Old 11-20-2003, 02:45 PM   #2
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A guy came up to the counter a few days ago and asked me if "Tae Bo" was in.

I explained that we don't carry exercise videos and he said no, no we had it - he'd seen the box downstairs. Downstairs is, of course, the porn section.

A lot of porn movies do ape titles - "David Cop-a-Feel" was my all-time favorite - but not as many as you'd think. Most follow a pattern: (A) B N, where A is the race of the participants (optional), B is the sex act or kink - sometimes this gets astonishingly specific - and N is the number of the series. Thus you get "Blow Bang 25" or "Asian All-Anal Action 15". The "Little White Chicks, Big Black Monster Dicks" (note intriguing combination of race and fetish) series has some of the most offensive cover art I've ever seen, not because of the sexual content but because it's incredibly racist. The little white chicks look at you demurely over their shoulders while surrounded by scowling African-American men. The men are repeatedly referred to as "monsters" ("monster dicks" itself doesn't bother me because it merely implies that said dicks are monstrously large, but referring to men themselves as monsters is another story) and their faces are actually mounted on cartoon animal bodies. There's no way in hell you could put that cover on, say, a book and not get your store burnt down, and perhaps rightly so. But my well-meaning liberalism can pretty much go screw itself, as the series is cheerfully (and heavily) rented by all races.

Anyway, Tae Bo. I can't find it in the computer, but that's not unusual - deliberate misspellings are common in porn. That, plus the inevitable similarity of titles makes it a real pain in the *** to look things up. Does the customer want Black Ball, Blackball, Black Balled, Blackballed, Black Balls, Blackballs, Black Ballers, BlackBallers, Black *****, Blackballz, Black Ballerz, or BlackBallerz? And does he want the one in the gay section or the one in the straight section?

But I keep looking. The Zen lesson of my job is this: just because I do not want to be a video clerk doesn't mean I shouldn't be the best possible video clerk I can be. There's no way to just pop up a partial alphabetical list of titles, so you have to pick a likely starting point and then flip through entry after entry.

"It was a weird spelling, right?" I say, still typing in variations on "Tae Bo" as fast as I can think of them.

"Yes," he says "It was spelled weird."

"Do you remember it?"

Yes, he does: T-A-B-O-O
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Old 11-20-2003, 02:46 PM   #3
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All of us abuse the hand sanitizer. I know that over-the-counter antibacterial products are bad. I know that it actually develops hideous resistant strains of bacteria. I even did the high school biology experiment where you put penicillin in a petri dish of E. Coli, then watch the zone of inhibition get smaller and smaller as the bacteria learn to eat the stuff for breakfast. I know it is bad, and I don't think it should even be legal to sell it. All of my fellow clerks agree with me, but we all abuse the hand sanitizer. We can't help it.

Contamination is everywhere. I see people sneezing onto the tape cases. They cough wetly into their palms right before handing me change. They squeegee out their ears with their pinkies. They forget about the security cameras downstairs and pick their noses with wild abandon and astonishing force. Still, the only thing that realy freaks me out is the semen. Well, OK, the lubricant freaks me out too, but I'm pretty sure that's because of the implied presence of semen.

The only thing we can do is use the hand sanitizer. I use it so much that I lose all finger traction and can't open our plastic bags. I've had days when I've used it so much that I can't even make fingerprints on the glass countertop. It freaks me out, but the thought of not using it is worse.

Sometimes people get animalistic about the tapes. For the real addicts (I'm convinced that porn is like alcohol: some people can stop at just one every now and then, some people just binge on weekends, and some people get genuinely, horribly addicted) the reptilian brain kicks in. They hit the magic portion of the tape and they're done. They pop out the tape and slam in another one, and the next day the stack comes back, unrewound and covered in goo.

Repeat offenders get a note on their file that says "LUBE WARNING". Management policy is that for $6.50 an hour, clerks should not have to deal with the bodily fluids of others. The first time we discreetly but firmly remind the customer that the tapes need to come back clean. The second time we hand him the tape, the Windex, and the paper towels and tell him to clean off the tape in full view of whoever else is at the counter.

It astonishes me that someone could actually forget to clean off his sticky and/or slippery tapes, but what amazes me even more is that people actually have the balls to argue with us about it. They always claim they got the tapes that way. They will actually claim that the spooge in question was missed by both the clerk that checked it in and the clerk that checked it back out, and that they figured what the hell, they'd go ahead and play it, even though it was covered in gel.

One guy brought back a DVD with a big white thumbprint of come on it. He actually tried to argue with me: "That's not mine. I never even played that! I never even took it out of the case!"

I pointed out that the DVD had been put back in the case with the reverse side up, which was where the thumbprint was. The clerk couldn't have checked the tape out to him that way because the serial number is on the front. The guy still tried to protest that sure, maybe he'd picked it up and looked at it but - "Sir," I said, "It's your THUMBPRINT. Do you really want to get into this?" He did not.

I hate it when people argue, but I understand why they do. I don't think there should be any shame in masturbating, but I do think there should be shame in expecting someone with whom you are not very, very close to deal with a wad of your spooge. I think they get all defensive because in that moment, they realize it too, but I think there's more to it than that.

One of my favorite concepts in anthropology is that of the polite fiction. It's something nobody believes, but we all pretend to because it makes life so much easier. My favorite example was of a Pygmy couple. Pygmy divorce involves quite literally breaking up the home: the couple tears apart their house (it's easy - the houses are made of leaves) and once it's down, the union is dissolved. One anthropologist was watching a long-married couple have a fight. It escalated until the wife threatened to leave, and the husband yelled something along the lines of "Fine!" and there was nothing the wife could do but start tearing down the house. She began tearing the roof off, clearly miserable. The husband looked wretched too, but at this point neither could back down without losing face and by now the whole village was watching.

Finally, the husband called out the Pygmy equivalent of "You're right, honey! The roof is dirty! It'll look much better once we get those leaves washed!" The two of them started carrying leaves down to the river, soon with the help of the whole village, and then washed and rebuilt the whole roof. When the anthropologist later discreetly asked how often one washes the roof, everyone looked at him like he was a complete doofus.

The polite fiction of the porn section is that, while people do generally use porn for the purpose of masturbation, there is no reason to believe that this particular customer will be doing so. He could be using them for his Master's thesis. Hell, he may not get around to watching them at all. We all like to believe that. When it becomes all too clear to everyone involved that said customer did, in fact, not only lube up, watch the tape, stroke himself to orgasm, and then grab the goddamned thing without even taking the basic courtesy of washing his goddamned hands first, we all get uncomfortable.

On the other hand, he gets angry because he's ashamed of something that was entirely avoidable and his own fault. I'm supposed to keep my temper even though I've just put my hand in a wad of his semen.

The destruction of the polite fiction is what creeps me out about one of my weekend regulars. He comes in when I open at nine, then chooses and rents two movies. He leaves for exactly two movies' worth of time, then returns them before four to get the matinee special. I hate it because there's no way to pretend he's been doing anything else. I just hope to God there's been a hand washing between him and me. I think there is, because his tapes are always clean, but it still gives me the shivvers and sends me straight to the hand sanitizer. It's just too much to know.

Mr. Glasses is the very creepiest, though. He's always very friendly, even courtly. He's too friendly, actually - he's always doing stuff like announcing "It's THAT kind of personal service that sets your store apart from the Blockbusters!" Yeah, whatever. The over-friendliness itself is creepy, as is the way he sort of doesn't blink enough and doesn't know that most business transactions don't really involve sustained eye contact. (No, he's not hitting on me. He's gay.) But of course what puts him over the top is that he's our biggest repeat lube offender. I hate seeing him coming. It's like Russian Roulette.

Rainy days are the worst. He just plunks a wet bag on the counter and we have to reach in and get the tapes. You know that initiation ritual in Flash Gordon where the guy has to stick his hand way, way down a hole and usually it's fine but sometimes there's a venemous beastie at the end that stings him? It's like that. Actually, it isn't quite. The tapes are always a bit wet on rainy days - it's just that my brain can't stop churning about what they might be wet with.

We all abuse the hand sanitizer. And I am deeply grateful that it exists.
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Old 11-20-2003, 02:46 PM   #4
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If you don't count rousting teenagers out of the porn section, I have only driven away two and a half customers.

The only one I'm proud of happened pretty recently. I was ringing up a sale and I heard a crash from downstairs. My manager was out, so I couldn't leave the register to go down and see what happened. I glanced at the security monitor and saw a guy downstairs calmly flipping through the DVD section. He had knocked down three entire shelves. Instead of picking them up or coming to get me or even shoving them over into a pile and then continuing his porn shopping, he was just standing in them and on them, flipping away.

I got on the Voice of God microphone and said, in as friendly a voice as I could, "Hi! Could you pick those up, please?"

He started, then came charging up the stairs. "It was an accident!" he yelled, "Knocking over those DVDs was an accident!"

"I believe you, sir." I said.

"And you want me to pick them up? You want ME to pick them up?!"

And without waiting for an answer, he stormed out.

Actually, I didn't really expect him to pick them up. I wouldn't have minded picking them up if he'd just come upstairs and said something like "Jesus, I'm an idiot and I knocked down a substantial chunk of your DVD section." Or put them into halfhearted little piles. Or really anything other than just standing on them while continuing to shop for porn.

I don't think he was as angry at the notion that he might have to clean up his own mess so much as he was furious that he'd been caught making it. Sometimes new customers don't see the security cameras right away, and they sure as hell don't expect the Voice of God mike. When you're scrutinizing the charming cover art of White Trash Whore the last thing you want is to be chastized by a booming voice from above.

I'm not particularly sorry we lost his business. I do feel bad about driving away Mr. Creaky, even though he used to give me the creeps. Mr. Creaky was not, technically, a porn customer. He liked the Japanese animation. The Anime section is the one that really makes me cringe. It's upstairs in the general releases since it's all, you know, cartoons, and some of it is charming fare like My Neighbor Totoro. But a lot of it is incredibly hardcore stuff - way worse than we'll allow in the real-people porn downstairs. My position on porn is that I'm fine with whatever floats your boat, as long as everyone involved is a consenting adult. Manga throws both of those rules out the window. Sure, all the boxes claim that all the characters are at least 18, but a lot of them are clearly drawn to look about 12. And there's a lot of raping. Not just run-of-the-mill raping, either - we're talking about triple-penetration rape by demons.

I consider myself a first-amendment feminist, but to be honest the anime section really makes me wrestle with that sometimes. And guys that rent the entire La Blue Girl series all at once (check out the box cover sometimes and you'll see what I mean) freak me out even worse than the guys who rent the Animal Trainer series.*

We have to watch the anime section because it's right next to the foreign films and the tags are the same color, which means a clerk who isn't on his toes could check out a ****load of hardcore animated underage rape porn to a kid and yes, once they see that there's sex stuff on some of the boxes kids definitely try to slide it past.

Mr. Creaky, as you've guessed, was hardly a kid. I would have been frightened of him if he hadn't been so old and feeble. He would rent a stack of rape manga at least once a week. He always had the same patter as he came up to the register: "Do you watch that show The Sopranos?"

"No, sir."

"I hear it's pretty good."

"Yes, sir, that's what I hear too."

"I'd like to watch that show, but I can't. There's too much cussing." Then, clever ruse in place, he would bring up his tags for Demon Beast.

Anyway, all would have been well had it not been for a well-meaning but plateheaded clerk name Dan. Dan was a sweetheart, but had an astonishing ability to **** things up. In this case Dan had rented six of our very foulest titles to a 16-year-old. To give you the idea of the level of stupidity this involves, I'll just go ahead and tell you that the La Blue Girl tapes depict a woman being raped by demons RIGHT ON THE BOX. I was horrified both at the thought of what this kid's mom would do to us when she found out and what this kid had just learned about the beautiful, tender world of lovemaking.

I talked to my manager. We didn't want to move the whole anime section so we needed a bright, easy signal for Dan who for some reason still hadn't been fired yet. Our solution was to let the R-rated stuff slide, but if anything looked more like an X I highlighted the label on the tag and wrote a big "NC-17" on it.**

Mr. Creaky never came back.

So how did I manage to drive away half a customer? Well, he's not really quite gone yet. He still comes into the store a lot, but I may have destroyed his soul.

Mr. Buddy was the first guy people warned me about when I started working at the store. He is heavily addicted to porn and a huge pain in the ***. He also desperately wants to be friends with the clerks. He wants to come behind the counter and look at the boxes when new porn comes in. We always tell him that customers can't come behind the counter and he says "Yeah, but I can, right?" No, he can't. Sometimes with a new clerk he'll try "The old manager used to let me come behind the counter," at which point any other employee in earshot will chime in with "No, he didn't." He *****es about the prices and tries to haggle with us. "I swear to you, this has been on the new release shelf for a long time. I should get it for the old release price, right?" Wrong. One time he brought back just a case, without the DVD in it. He actually expected me to check the empty case in and let him, you know, just drop the DVD by at his convenience. When I said no, he stood at the register and whined for nearly ten minutes.

His *****ing and wheedling isn't caused so much by the fact that he's a cheapskate, which he is, as by the fact that he desperately wants to be a regular. He wants to be greeted by name and not have to show ID and get whatever mythical special privileges he's imagining. The problem, of course, is that we're the ones who decide if he's a regular or not, and we don't like him.

The fact that he's an ******* is part of the problem, and the other part is that he seems to be completely devoid of social skills. Even the total dirtbags know better than to hit on me when I'm putting tags away downstairs. Mr. Buddy did not.

And again, he desperately, desperately wants to be friends with us. He's maybe 45 years old, and has a good enough job to spend literally thousands of dollars a year on porn alone. We can't figure out why he wants to be friends so badly, but he does. "You guys are awesome!" he'll say after trying to get Dustin to pay the extra $.50 he owes for him, "Seriously, you guys are the best!" Never, not once, has he received a positive response to this behavior, but he still does it. "You guys rule, you know that?" I've met Golden Retriever puppies with more dignity.

I always try to be civil to him in a distant, customer service sort of way, which is apparently the best he gets. ("You're always so nice to me! You rule!")

Round about September 14th he brought in a picture he'd downloaded from the internet. It was President Bush photoshopped so that he had a long beard and was dressed in vaguely Middle Eastern clothes. Mr. Buddy had drawn a cartoon voice balloon coming out of his mouth so that he was saying "Rent at [My Store's Name] Video!" I wasn't offended so much by any sort of tastelessness as I was by the completely failed attempt at humor. There wasn't even a vestigal joke. He handed it to me, and I made the same noncommital noise you make when you've been handed a drawing by a small child and then tried to hand it back. "No," he said, "I made it for you guys! You keep it!" So I kept it until he left, then threw it away. The next time Mr. Buddy came in he was all upset - he'd actually expected us to post it behind the register.

You wouldn't think it would be possible to drive away Mr. Buddy, but it turns out you can. As I said, I have always been civil with him, even when he is making yet another attempt to get me to waive his late fees. But a couple of weeks ago he caught me at the end of a heavy dirtball day. We'd been swamped - pervs, box thieves, scam artists, people dropping tapes and running without paying for them, and plenty of general crabbiness. And it was a new porn day, so the phone had been ringing off the hook and I just wanted to get the hell out of there. I was very, very tired. Mr. Buddy was one of my last customers. He pulled his usual ******* routine for about five minutes, then as I started checking out his tapes launched into how awesome we were.

I don't remember the exact phrasing of what was said. I just remember that one of the other clerks made a joke about closing early or closing altogether, and Mr. Buddy said something like "Aw, you can't do that - I need you guys! Who am I gonna hang out with?" "Oh, Jesus, don't say that!" I said, "We can't be your only source of emotional support!" I tried to turn my voice up into a joke at the last second, which almost worked.

"Don't say that," Mr. Buddy tried to joke back, "You make me sound pathetic."

We made eye contact before I could compose my face. In that moment, Mr. Buddy knew that I do, in fact, find him pathetic. And I'm the nice one. He still comes in, but he isn't chatty anymore. The other clerks love it. I feel like a creep.

*No, we don't carry bestiality. Animal Trainer is about training women.

**Yes, this is a violation of MPAA copyright.
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Old 11-20-2003, 02:46 PM   #5
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There are many customers that bug me, and quite a few that give me the willies. One or two set off a very primal alarm in my fear center, right in my gut. They make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and I know, on a purely instinctual level, that they are very, very dangerous.

But the only one I really hate is Mr. Pig. I loathe Mr. Pig. I hate him so much I need a new word for it.

Mr. Pig is the first customer to win a snotty note on his file from me. I refrained from the sport for months. Most of the time it's a genuine warning ("This guy might be moving pricing stickers" "WATCH OUT FOR JIZZ-MASTER ZERO") but sometimes it's just us blowing off steam or trying to crack each other up. My favorite is "Mr. Excitement!!!!!!!!!!", while others favor "Engage, Number One!" on the file of the guy who looks a little too much like Johnathan Frakes.

Funny, yes, but unprofessional. I held off until I ran into Mr. Pig. He came up to the counter with his briefcase and his designer shopping bags. The counter is designed for two customers, but he piled all his stuff across it to take up the whole space. He pulled his videos out of his bags, handed me the new tags he wanted to check out, and then whipped out his cell phone to make a call.

I have to check an ID when someone rents new videos and, of course, get them to pay for their returns. Mr. Pig took up the whole counter and made me wait through his entire conversation - about a very, very big deal and conducted at about 30,000 decibels - before I could do either. When he finally got off, he said "Sorry, I had to do that. It was a big deal," just in case I'd missed that point. Yes, important enough to hold up me and a line, but not so urgent as to, say, start the conversation before he came in. Finally, stack of porn in hand, Mr. Pig pulled his briefcase and designer bags - did I mention they were designer bags? Because he did. - off the counter and left, and thus became the recipient of my first snotty note: "THIS MAN WANTS YOU TO KNOW THAT HE IS VERY, VERY IMPORTANT."

That was all I noticed about him the first time. Over time, though, he has burned himself into my brain. He always takes up the whole counter no matter who else is waiting, he usually shouts into his cell phone, and he always makes sure to allude to how very important he is. He has a password on his account, "KITTY". It's an old, old policy that a few old customers still use, but at least they're not freaks about it. The idea is that if you don't have ID, you can just give your password. We don't do it anymore, but we let old customers keep them. Mr. Pig is very, very proud of having a password. When we ask for ID, he shouts that he has a password, then leans in very, very close so the riffraff can't hear and whispers "Kitty".

I always ask him for his ID anyway. It drives him nuts. He wants to be a regular even more than Mr. Buddy does, and he hates it when I ask to see ID. He talks about the old managers, the old policies, and how long he's been here. Then I ask to see his ID. Sometimes I wonder if he leaves the store and bursts into tears.

So far, all of this is pathetic. Who the hell is that invested in impressing their video clerk? I should be unable to summon up an ounce of human feeling for Mr. Pig at all beyond pity. But no, it's a deep, burning antagonism.

It's the punch cards that got me. We give all our customers a gold punch card each month. Each time they return a movie, they get a punch. After 6 punches, they get a free rental. After another 6, they get half off, then a free again. There's about 30 spaces. Some of the heavy porn renters make it through a few cards a month, so it's not unsual to give out a new card before the month is over.

Mr. Pig figured out that two frees in a row is better than a free and a half off, so he gets his free punch and then asks for a new card. So he's screwing the store out of $1.75 twice a month. Fine. It would be one thing if he just asked for his goddamned new card each time, but he can't just leave it at that. He's so proud of his penny-ante ****ing over the store that he has to make a big deal out of it. "For heaven's sake," he'll bellow, "Can I PLEASE have a new card?" And then he won't quite have his old not-fully-punched card out of sight, in the hopes that the clerk will call him on it so he can launch into his speech about how very clever he is.

I just want him to know that I am not impressed. I want him to know that his cellphone and pile of bags do not make him impressive, they make him a human log jam. I want him to know that renting a stack of 6 porn movies a day tends to undercut his intended dashing, man-about-town effect. I want him to know that true big-shots do not try to screw small locally-owned businesses out of petty amounts of cash. I want to have the pleasure of publicly deflating him.

There is no earthly reason I should care so much, and it drives me nuts that I do. I am a pacifist. I like to think of myself as a nonviolent and gentle person. I have actually fantasized about knocking Mr. Pig to the ground and kicking him. Once, when he was being particularly obnoxious, I had a flash of an image: Me putting a foot on Mr. Pig's chest, shoving a gun in his mouth, and blowing his brains across the New For Sale section. It frightened me, but I enjoyed it.

He knows my name now. He came in as I was leaving one day, just as the other clerks said "Bye, Ali!" So he leaned right into my face and said "Byyyyye, Ali!"

Now he greets me every time. I hate Mr. Pig.
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Old 11-20-2003, 02:47 PM   #6
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As you might expect, we get a lot of fetishists in the video store.

If a customer is going to rent porn, I actually prefer to see a mixed bag of videos - that way all I know about them is that they want porn. Someone comes up with a stack of five videos about people pissing for each other, and suddenly I know a very intimate thing about a relative stranger. (An interesting distinction in Illinois porn law: you can rent videos about people pissing for each other or near each other, but you are not allowed to rent videos of people pissing on each other. Go figure. There's apparently a Byzantine set of codes that have to do with taking a dump for each other, but I really don't want to know.)

Lots of people are hung up on a particular race, or a particular racial combination, and many straight men are pretty specific about breast size (The Nice Rack series and the Itty Bitty Titty series seem to rent fairly evenly). The most common fetish, if you can call something so common a fetish, is for borderline jailbait. This is true of both straight and gay porn. The gay series to watch are Eighteen Today, Just 18 and Gay and First Time Tryers. The straight series are Bring 'Em Young, Barely Legal, and, horrifyingly, Faces with Braces. We actually have a guy who vets all our videos and makes sure that nobody is under 18, but still, guys who bring a stack of those up to the counter make me want to hiss and warn them away from my little sisters. And it's never the 21-year-olds who rent Barely Legal, it's always the 45-and-ups. Gah. The 21-year-olds do occasionally rent the one Older Women, Hotter Sex video we have. I approve of this, in a shocking display of my own personal prejudices.

Except for the occasional too-personal glance into their psyches, most of the fetishists don't really bug us, except for those in one special category: those who fetishize the video store itself.

They can't masturbate because of the cameras, but they do everything else. They damage the cassettes on purpose. There's at least one guy in the straight section who rips pictures off the boxes, and a guy in the gay section who apparently carries an X-acto knife. People in both sections steal the boxes, which drives us nuts - a video without a display box won't rent because people can't see what it's about. It can take weeks to get a new, empty box and it's expensive. One guy in the gay section is definitely doing it as a triumphant "**** you" - he always jams a plastic insert in the DVD rack as a calling card.

One guy called for weeks, trying to get us to special order a tape called Autofellatio. (It looks like cheating - on the box cover the guy is bracing himself against a pool table. Dammit, if you're going to fellate yourself, do it on pure strength and flexibility or don't do it at all.) Anyway, it's a hard to find tape, and he called over and over. I talked to him twice, and I was pretty sure he was masturbating both times. When we finally found the tape, he cancelled the order, claiming he'd found it somewhere else. I think it was the act of calling that turned him on.

People do get hung up on the act of seeing or even just renting a particular video. One guy at one of our other branches rented his favorite literally hundreds of times, checking it in and then right back out. The staff begged him to just buy it, but he wouldn't. His life was destroyed when his tape was either damaged or sold to someone else. He came to our store looking for it, and wouldn't tell me the title - he wrote down the title and passed the paper to Jeremy, the assistant manager.

Mr. Dreadlocks's particular fetish is the naughty act of renting itself. I've always had a fine relationship with Mr. Dreadlocks, but then he's gay and I don't apply to his fetish. The male clerks can't stand him, because what he likes to do is rent a tape from one of them, go home, masturbate, (we think, based on the short time he's gone, that he doesn't actually watch the tape) come back, pay for his one tape, and then pick out another and start again. Sometimes he has an erection during checkout, and once he had semen stains on the front of his pants. He freaks the **** out of the male clerks, and I understand why - it's pretty hideous to be an unwitting participant in someone else's sex act.

A lot of fetishizing has to do with unwitting or unwilling participants, and that runs pretty hard up against my "whatever floats your boat" policy. On the other hand, the more I work at the store the more it seems like some people are just hardwired in a certain way and there may not be anything they can do about it. Which doesn't really make it OK for them to call me and masturbate or steal stuff, but what can either of us do? We're at an impasse.

But I'm still calling the cops if I catch them tearing up our boxes.
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Old 11-20-2003, 02:47 PM   #7
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Part of my job is watching the security cameras downstairs. I have a love/hate relationship with the security cameras. Sometimes they're fun, but mostly it's a pressure situation. Nobody wants to have a box get stolen or ripped up on their shift. It's easy to keep an eye on them during slow periods, but when the register is slammed, forget it.

It's frustrating, because it's easy to tell when someone is up to no good. Thieves will come right up to the register, check a small bag, and tell you that they aren't going to steal anything. Some people give the counter a long, long look before going down, while others just try to zip past, hoping you don't see them go down at all. It's weird - people really can't seem to act normally when they're planning to be creeps. The trick, of course, is having the time to watch and catch them. Sometimes when someone's weaselling around down there, I just want to get on the Voice of God mike and say "WE CAN SEE YOU."

Winter drove me nuts because everybody dressed like a thief - bulky coats and plenty of face-covering accessories. Nowadays it's warmer (well, for Chicago) and the coat, hat, hood, scarf and sunglasses combo stands out a little more.

Not everyone that acts suspicious is going to steal or vandalize something, of course. We spent a big chunk of Saturday watching a guy down there who was hoping to masturbate. It got sort of hilarious, in a disgusting way. He would study and study the boxes, then his hand would creeeeeeep over to his crotch....and then someone would come downstairs and wreck everything.

He had dressed well for his plan, if a little obviously - a huge coat with a big, fuzzy hood, a hat pulled down over his eyes, and baggy, low-slung pants. He kept hunching away from the one security camera he'd spotted - unfortunately giving us a great face shot on the one he hadn't.

So anyway, he'd find a box that turned him on and go over to what he thought was a discreet corner, but again, we're a little high-traffic for that so he kept getting interrupted. Apparently in the old days it was different - no security cameras and longer dead spells. My manager used to clerk then, and she said that having to clean come out of the corners and off the walls was pretty routine. Now there's way less masturbating privacy, which explains the upswing in box thefts. Whackers find the image they like, but have to steal it and go somewhere else if they want an uninterrupted session. And it's pretty easy to interrupt them - all the potential jerkers I've had to deal with have been huge cowards with big shame issues. Letting them know you're on to what they're up to is usually enough to get rid of them.

Finally we got tired of our visitor and decided we'd rather roust him than catch him in the act and call the cops. (Catching a customer vandalizing, stealing, or masturbating and getting him arrested means a bonus because word gets out in the dirtball network that we prosecute. So waiting to catch a guy in the act is a temptation, but then it also carries the risk that he might finish before the police arrive.) Which meant that I got to roust him - for some reason the other people at the store, including management, have decided I'm good at flushing people out of the porn section. I'm not sure why, but I have two theories. The first is simply that I am pretty much the polar opposite of the women on the porn boxes. I don't know if I am a harsh dose of reality or if I remind them of their moms or their girlfriends or their wives or just the archetypical Feminine Principal or what, but straight guys hate it when I'm down there putting away tags. They just can't seem to deal with me, so sometimes just simply going downstairs is enough to clear the area of dirtbags and legitimate customers alike.

I do like to think I'm pretty good at it when I actually have to card them and/or ask them to leave. I try to make it a face-saving situation for everyone and acknowledge that yeah, the store's 21-and-over policy really sucks. I try to be as easygoing about it as possible, especially when I have to throw out a bunch of kids.

I get sort of conflicted about throwing kids and teenagers out of the porn section. I really don't want them down there, not because I think sex is dirty or bad, but because I don't want them to think that that's what sex is about. The stuff on our boxes is sex in the basest, sometimes most brutal terms - naked women spreading their relevant orifices and making that Porn Face. Unless you're talking about the Max Hardcore series, which involves women with "SLUT" and "WHORE" written across their foreheads in lipstick. And besides - do we really need to raise another generation of men who can't deal with pubic hair?

So I don't feel bad about getting them out of there, except that I'm very conscious of the fact that I'm a woman while I'm doing it. I worry that I'm either setting up or reinforcing the idea that there are fun, bad women who like sex and good, boring women who restrict access to sex.

I always want to debrief them. "Hey, guys, it's cool that you're curious, but this isn't the way to find out. Porn is fine, but it's not real sex. Real sex is great, and even good girls love it, but it has to be a two-way street..." But I always just end up with "Sorry, guys - come back when you're 21." Perhaps I should write a children's book. Porn Is Healthy and Fine, but Only as a Temporary Physical Release.

So anyway, I started out with the Discreet Method: I went down with a handful of tags and put away the ones right around where he was, hoping to drive him out with a quick dose of Virgin/Nun/Mom/Mother-Goddess. No dice. He just kept turning his back to me - an increasingly hard prospect as I corralled him into the corner.

He actually tried the hand creep once until he glanced over and realized I was a)an employee and b)female. He decided to wait me out, pulling his pants up and his coat down a bit - I had clearly cramped his masturbating style.

He stayed hunched in the corner and wouldn't go away on his own, so I finally broke down and asked him if he had ID and an account with us. We have a sign saying you need to set up an account to even browse down there. We don't really enforce it unless we're ousting a dirtbag, but then it comes in fairly handy. As it did in this case - just addressing him directly did the trick and he dropped his box and fled as casually as possible.

My manager high-fived me when I came up. I had kept our store clean and safe for our non-masturbating porn freaks and done my little bit to keep the virgin/whore dichotomy firmly in place.

Mom would be so proud.
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Old 11-20-2003, 02:47 PM   #8
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Saturdays I open the store and work close to a nine hour shift. I start out OK, but it's hard to stay cheery the whole time, even when I'm blasting Norwegian techno music.

I used to hate opening on weekends because the early morning customers scared the **** out of me. The store opens at 9. I usually do about 20 mintues of set-up and hit the front door at 9 on the dot by the store clock. There is always someone waiting to get to the porn. Once or twice I have had a problem - a register came up short or a circuit breaker was blown - and I've opened the door at, say, 9:01 and 52 seconds. In both cases, a guy was actually pounding at the door when I got to it. Not the same guy - I'm not sure whether that's scarier or not. Both guys almost flipped out when I took the time to slide the sign from "closed" to "open" before turning the lock.

It gets pretty full at 9am on Saturdays and Sundays. I don't know if people are just getting up or if they stayed up or what. I just know they've been waiting for porn until they almost can't stand it.

As I said, they used to scare me until I got to know my regulars. If you don't count the porn addiction, they're not such bad guys. And once I thought about it, they'd be my best chance if someone tried to rob the store. They'd never let me get shot- who would give them their porn?

The not-so-regulars are still sort of scary. For some reason, I tend to draw the weirdest ones. My close friends and relatives call it the Crazy Magnet, but at the store they've gone with Freak Magnet.

The Freak Magnet was definitely on today - the phone started ringing before I was even open. Mr. Dreadlocks called early on, asking to reserve two movies. "OK, what are the titles?" "I can't recall." I invited Mr. Dreadlocks to call back if and when he figured it out, but he never did, and he didn't come in. He likes me, but I'm disappointing because he's hoping to get a male clerk. I'm guessing the evening shift will get that particular treat.

The most disturbing customer of the day called right at nine to ask when we opened. I told him we were, and he asked if the DVD of "L.A. Sex Party" was in. (A lot of our movies have "sex party" in the title. It was only a few months ago that I realized that this is because a lot of porn renters don't know what "orgy" means.)

It was in, but today we didn't have another clerk on yet, and I can't leave the register unattended to go downstairs and all the way to the back to pull a gay adult DVD tag. So I told him we expected one in and I could put him on the reserve list. He called back less than an hour later to see if it was in yet. He knew, as a member, that rentals aren't due back until closing the night they're due. He was clearly going to call back at half-hour intervals until I said the tape was in, which sounded like a long shift to me, so I told him the truth. I explained that I could go down and pull his tag as soon as the new clerk came in, which would be very soon. It wasn't a new release and not in much demand. I told him that it was a safe bet that it would be in when he got there - especially since he said he would come right over. "Well, if someone tries to rent it, could you take it away from them?" Um, no. I explained for about the thirtieth time that another clerk would be on soon, and that it was unlikely that his DVD would rent before then. And then as politely and gently as possible I refused to rip the DVD from another renter's hands.

He got to the store before the second clerk did.

He went racing right downstairs, which wasn't that unusual - Saturday morning porn renters all but throw themselves down the stairs.

He got back up behind two other renters, who made the mistake of breaking their pace to get their tags together before hitting the register. He ran around the side and cut in front of them. The three of us not-freaks exchanged looks for a second. I almost made him wait, then realized we all just wanted him out of there. No time for thought (or indeed, basic courtesy) though.

"It was here!" he crowed, "I'm the one who called!" His precious DVD was in, as were two others. I took a look at him as I pulled up his account and checked his ID. He looked like he was either a hotel desk manager or a flight attendant. He had just missed pilot. He was wearing a navy blue suit with a white stripe at the wrists. He had what looked like airline wings on his chest, as well as what may have been a small brass nametag and some sort of Masonic or fraternal pin.

He caught me trying to figure it out as I checked him out. "No, I don't fly for the airlines," he said proudly. (Because I am a good clerk, I refrained from saying "Of course not. You look like a flight attendant,") "I just have a thing for uniforms," he went on, loud enough for the whole line to hear, "I'm trying to pick someone up this morning!"

And with that, he and his homemade uniform were gone.
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Old 11-20-2003, 02:48 PM   #9
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We have a new vistor to the porn section. He's been in twice now. Actually, he's been in at least three times, as he is a registered member, but he's only stood out twice.

He comes in, goes down to the straight porn section, and whips out a hand mirror. Then he applies makeup for about an hour.

Seriously.

No browsing, no chatting people up, no whacking. In, mirror, makeup and out. And again, he's in the straight section.

No one's sure what to do yet.

The last time he was in, two clerks went down to ask him a) what was up and b) to leave. He pointed out that he was a registered member, and that he wasn't stealing, whacking off, or bothering anyone. Since he wasn't hurting anyone, why did he have to leave?

Nobody's thought of an answer yet, and we're not really sure we want to toss him for loitering. He is, after all, just putting on makeup.

But why in our porn section? It has such harsh fluorescent lighting.

I'm sure we'll find out eventually. I can't wait.
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Old 11-20-2003, 02:48 PM   #10
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I'm having another existential video store crisis. I have them every now and then, but this one is biggish - this Friday will be my one year anniversary. It isn't the worst job in the world. It's helped me plow through some difficult financial times, they're terrific about letting me take off for an audition, and they have twice let me take a full month off to go do a show. The pay sucks, but there's no dress code and you can't beat the flexibility.

But still, holy ****. I know it is exactly a year this Friday because I started the job (a year ago - have I mentioned this was a year ago?) precisely one week before my thirtieth birthday. Talk about your existential crises. That one was enormous, and it came on in a single moment: I was putting away porn tags, when suddenly I looked up and came face-to-face with the box for **** Pigs 5. I can still see the box. There was, of course, a woman on it, offering up her orifices for the pleasure of anyone who wanted a look. She seemed friendly, almost shy. And she was being called a **** pig.

"Good Lord," I thought, "What HAPPENED to me? I'm about to turn 30 and I'm on my knees in a basement restocking incredibly degrading porn."

This time around I will be about to turn 31 and I will be on my knees in a basement stocking incredibly degrading porn. At least I can laugh about it. Sometimes I have to pull my lips into a rictus grin, peel my tongue off the roof of my mouth and punch myself in the solar plexus, but a laugh is a laugh.

I've gotten numb to a lot of it over the past year - and some of it I do find genuinely hilarious - but I am still, sometimes, conflicted about the really degrading porn. The **** Pig stuff.

It took a long time for me to even admit to myself that porn can be degrading. I'm a sex-positive, first amendment feminist. I've been through the progressive arguments: lesbians enjoy it too, the woman giving the blow job is in control of the sex act, and what if they come for your porn first. I got them, I believed them, I was willing to defend to my death (or at least to my jailing) the right to produce porn, assuming all the actors truly consent. (No, I would never watch Deep Throat. Last time I checked, porn produced at gunpoint is rape on film.)

As is so often the case, I had those lofty ideals before I really had any experience with porn other than as an abstract concept. Working with porn on a regular basis, while it has expanded my whatever-floats-your-boat tolerance, has led me to conclude that yes, sometimes porn is degrading. Indeed, sometimes it's meant to be degrading. That's the whole point.

Take, for example, the Guttermouth series, the latest example of which arrived last week and triggered my current case of porn clerk malaise. In a way, it was satisfyingly cyclical moment - Guttermouth also refers to its stars, still young enough to look happy and proud on the box, as "**** pigs". They look about 19. They look sweet. They're posing in bikinis and looking right at the camera, hoping you will like them. **** pigs. The box copy is what's really revolting. It's over the top, but I don't think it's meant to be funny. There are short fake cast bios of all the girls, in the same happy tone of theater bios before the actors grow up and get hip and cynical. One of them is called a dumb slut, another a worthless ****. I'm fairly certain there was more on the other two, but it was just too depressing to keep reading.

This is the one porn impulse that I honestly don't get. (Oh, all right. I don't get peeing on each other or hurting each other, but I think I understand intellectually how one might get there.) I don't understand the need to degrade someone. But that need is definitely, sadly out there. One of our best-renting titles of long standing is called Grudge ****.* It rents right back out as soon as we can replace the tag. Every time.

Much as I hate to say it, it seems to be a straight guy thing.

There's definitely a Captain Kirk-style exploration up and down the imaginary social ladder in both the straight and gay sections. In addition to the dozens of variations on (oddly - or sadly) still taboo interracial pairings, we have More Dirty Debutantes and White Trash Whore on the straight side, Straight off the Street and The Other Side of Aspen on the gay side. You can **** rich or **** poor on either side of the invisible barrier between the straight and gay sections. But you can only **** lesser in straight.

I think it's because there's not enough otherness in gay porn. There's still bondage and S&M stuff, plenty of dominance and submission, but even the most submissive sub is still a man just like the dom, just like the viewer. How much separation can there be?

On the straight side, it's different. One of the Extreme Penetrations boxes shows a woman, legs spread and sticking straight up, with some sort of funnel or bowl shoved into her vagina. It actually has pretzels in it. Rocco's Animal Trainer series, I'm told, traditionally ends with Rocco ****ing a woman up the *** while he shoves her head into a toilet and flushes.

Some straight porn does seem to be made in sort of a happy, fun spirit: women are beautiful and fun to look at, sex is fun and good to have. Whee! And then there's Guttermouth.

Is it fear? Is it anger? Is it such an unfamiliarity in dealing with women that they don't even seem like real people? Or is it, as I'm prone to suspect on difficult days, that some people are just complete ****heads? I don't know.

What I learned in Women's Studies is that porn is not necessarily degrading. What I've learned at the video store is that sometimes it is.

My position on porn hasn't really changed. I would still defend to my death the right to produce it. I just sometimes wish they wouldn't.


*Actually, the title is Grudge F*ck. There's a picture of a guy reaming a woman on the box. Why the hell did they get squeamish about the F-word?
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Old 11-20-2003, 06:35 PM   #11
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Where the heck did you get that crap from? That's crazy man. An interesting read, but just crazy
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Old 11-20-2003, 06:37 PM   #12
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