We heard the fire engines from the kitchen table. The neighborhood video rental store, Commando Video was burning down.
My father’s pager went off. His drive to the volunteer fire hall was quick. The red Mustang zipped down our quiet street. Out in the yard, my brother and I stood under the cherry blossom tree, smelling the noxious fumes rising above our suburban New Jersey development. Thousands of plastic VHS tapes were melting. A black plume hung over the houses.
Dogs howled in the direction of the sirens.
I had mixed feeling about the fire. I had $400 in late fees, and hadn’t been able to rent anything there for nearly two years. It’d gotten to the point where I was pretending the video store wasn’t there anyway; though at one point, it’d been my gateway to the entire world beyond.
I was fourteen years-old; this was before I had a car, internet access, any glimpse of city-centric earth-wide culture. I was stuck in a strip mall-dense town, wedged between the pine barrens and the Atlantic Ocean. There was only three things to do, obsessively: read, listen to cassette tapes, and watch VHS movies.
The ten block walk to the store was a daily ritual. I’d cut through three neighbor’s yards, jumping a chain link fence to make the walk quicker.
Commando Video was heaven. It had dingy personality. A semi-creepy danger. A certain smell. It wasn’t a good or bad smell. Just, a smell.
It occupied the first floor of a bi-level house, but felt subterranean. A set of downward steps led inside, and once in, it was dark and cool, not unlike a dungeon in Legend of Zelda.
The dilapidated house containing Commando Video, was similar to my parent’s (the same contractor had built most of the houses in our development) and likewise, my bedroom was the same.
Inside the store: the ceiling was low, the light, dim. It was maze-like, and cramped. The air conditioner churned all year. A TV next to the door played Police Academy on loop, sometimes Police Academy 2. The audio on the too green TV set was all screwed up, a speaker blown out.
Laser disc had failed. DVD was a far off vision. VHS was still very much king. Commando Video had every type of film: exploitation, kung fu, sci-fi, monster, horror, black and white classics, trash, junk, b movies, c movies, soft core skinemax, comedy, crime, romance, art film, artless film, period piece, block buster, sleeper, indie before it was indie, and after too; concert film, stand up, doc, nature, war, sports, porn—you name it.
But also, a good chunk of their business came from video game rentals, and it was no mistake that the wall of video games was immediately when you entered. Every kid in town was drawn in, powerless to resist. The original Nintendo (NES) and Sega Genesis, the system and the games were both for rent. Super Nintendo (SNES) had just come out, they rented the system and the games for that too.
One of two owners (a husband and wife duo) were always at the counter. They didn’t smile or say hello. He was always sweating, which seemed to be his chief interest in life, and she was always reading (and seemingly making no progress whatsoever) in a romance novel as big as the bible. She was constantly interrupted, page for page, by a phone ring—customers in the ether trying to get added to the “hold list for new releases”. The duo seemed to survive off coffee and Slim Jims. The coffee pot was back there in some secret location behind the counter. The Slim Jims were on the rack.
Did the husband and wife duo live in the rooms above the video store? I guessed not. The van they owned came and went when the store wasn’t open. Sometimes there was a beat up maroon Toyota Tercel that probably belonged to a tenant renting out the room above.
To the right of the counter was the ice cream freezer, the rack of candy and beef jerky/Slim Jims the soda case. Down a narrow, shag-carpeted, hallway, the new releases were displayed on shelves, the boxes held styrofoam inserts to mimic the tapes, which, at the time, cost over $80 a piece, and had to be kept locked up.
Beyond ‘new release row’, the floor opened up into a ‘main vault’ where less recent new releases continued in a halo that hung above the ‘classic’ “rent one, get one free” and 99 cent rentals. Wooden bins were filled with cardboard cases, flattened and tucked in plastic sleeves.
That’s what I was there for; the 99 cent rentals. I mowed lawns and raked leaves to live in the world of Swamp Thing, Die Hard, Coming to America, Goonies, Deerhunter, Total Recall. Rambo fired a hundred explosive tip arrows into the jungle and I smiled.
In the far corner of ‘the main vault’, was a set of corral doors, separating the Adult Entertainment tapes. Pornos. In pre-internet days, the mystery of hardcore sex was revealed behind the corral doors at the local video store.
Glossy girly magazines hidden, and discovered on the top shelves of the adult closets, had done wonders for me, but there was full color sex motion and the moaning stereo sound truth back behind the corral doors, for the brave.
Being under age and trying to sneak in there occupied a lot of my waking and sleeping existence. I know I am not alone.
Still, a friend says, “Even when I was old enough to go through the corral doors, and rent whatever I wanted, I couldn’t bring myself to. Those people had known me since I was a little kid. It’d be weird.”
Those people—the husband and wife duo. I never got their names, despite many years of doing business together. She was short and he was fat. They’d gladly tell you what was good in the new releases, what was about to come out, and they’d hold a copy of anything. The phone would ring and she’d look up from her romance novel as big as the Bible and say to the person on the other end of the line, “I’ll put your name on the endless list. Yes. Yes. Got it. Only a two week wait for Ace Ventura 2. Yes. Bye.”
What I did like about her: the promotional posters piled up. She was eager to ask if I wanted any and all of them. Mostly the posters were lousy, but I did get a Reservoir Dogs poster once, and hung it in front of my bed for many years.
There was one thing that the husband and wife duo would not do, and that was—tell you when you owed them money. A game or movie could stay “out” for a hundred years and they’d see you in the store and say nothing. Mum’s the word about the tape forgotten under the couch, gathering dust bunnies. “It’s how we’ll put Pete through college,” maybe they said in private, or driving the white van through town. They’d just quietly let the late fees rack up. Coins materializing in a piggy bank.
I didn’t know their names, but believe me they knew mine. Next to my name was a little note that said, “Owes 400 fucking dollars :)”
That was Commando Video.
Now it was cinders. Dad came home covered in soot, the stink of melted plastic stuck in his nose for weeks.
For a time after, I had to get my movies from the goddamn public library. The public library didn’t have anything with topless ninjas, topless werewolves or cyborg cops. There was no smell, or pornographic corral doors. The library didn’t sell candy. The library had no Kid Icarus or Castlevania III. I couldn’t walk there after school, mom had to drive me cross-town in her minivan. It was beat.
My earliest memory is laying on a scratchy couch with my dad watching Ghostbusters on VHS. It’s amazing to recall a time when we’d both been able to fit on the same couch. I was four years old. He was working as a mechanic in a municipal garage and my mother was working night shift in an aerosol spray can factory. VCR was new technology, and we didn’t have a lot of money, so we were renting the VCR itself and the tape. My father always made a space in his budget for taking us to see films at the local theatre … now, we could see them in our own house.
On a 24” tube TV set, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Ernie Hudson and Dan Akroyd shot their proton beams at a 200 foot tall marshmallow man, and my dad said, “I can’t believe I’m seeing this in our living room.” We paused the movie in the middle and had bowls of ice cream, something else he said was impossible in a movie theatre.
When it ended, he rewound the tape and started it again from the top.
At Commando Video, the horror and sci-fi section was especially deep. My grandmother took me there whenever I slept over her house. At 76, she was an odd candidate to be a fan of gory horror, but she was. Her favorite rentals were: Nightmare on Elm-Street; April Fool’s; Friday the 13th 1-7, Sleepaway Camp, The Gate, The Exorcist, Dawn of the Dead, Halloween 1 & 2.
Grandma said, “Look at this one … Herbert West is a brilliant medical student who has perfected a green-glowing serum for regenerating life into dead things—or even parts of dead things. But a corrupt superior, Dr. Carl Hill, assumes control of West’s experiments and winds up, by ghastly necessity, using the stuff on his own severed head and body.
“Or how about this one … Upon solving the puzzle, Frank opens the door to a hellish alternate universe and is promptly torn to ribbons by a network of hooks and chains; his strewn body parts are subsequently collected by the Cenobites — grotesque, S & M-clad denizens of hell.”
“Denizens of hell!”
We watched the brutal killings in her living room, everything in it pink. I sat on the chair by the door, she reclined in her Lazy Boy.
“Oh look, the baddy is about to gut that teen!”
“Owww, ha! Look at that!”
The flickering screen went red.
I was seven years old and hockey masks, chainsaws, ghosts and fountains of blood didn’t phase me one bit. Grandma explained it was “all fake, nothing to be scared of.”
The picture on the television got warbled. “Let me fix the tracking,” she said, fiddling with the remote.
+ or –
The killer became clear. He picked up the severed head and walked into the light.
My interest in design and layout may have started from browsing the contents of the video store. Every box advertised a world that was fighting for my attention. Would I rent the one with the hockey ninja; the pirate ship on fire; the UFO glowing purple; the crime solving space dog; the team of bank robbers on surf boards.
I’d pick up a box, study the graphic on the cover, flip it over, look at the smaller graphic on the back, read the synopsis, read the blurbs from popular newspapers or if they were lucky, Siskel and Ebert, proclaiming, “Two Thumbs Way Up!”
My decision on the day’s rental (possibly 3 rentals) was based on holding a psychical object, studying it, contemplating it against others. Something feels lost now, scrolling through a digital version of that on my computer screen.
A strange thought: I miss VHS cardboard boxes. Never thought I’d say that. When I look at the pile of vinyl records I have next to my desk, I wonder if kid’s coming up now will ever latch on nostalgically to CDs.
Does anyone on Earth feel sentimental about Compact Discs?
That $400 fine, that kept me away from Commando Video for years? Well it happened like this: my cousins came to visit from New Hampshire. They wanted to see the ocean and walk on the boardwalk at the Jersey shore. That was fine during the days, but the nights were empty. They rented a Super Nintendo system, an extra controller, the cartridges for Super Mario World, Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and F-Zero, a futuristic racing game—all only card.
The system was set up in a seldom used spare room with wood paneling and floral wall paper.
We played until our thumbs were too sore to carry on. The rain came down. I was blown away by the graphics on the new Nintendo system, I’d had an original NES and been hooked on it since I broke my collarbone flipping off my BMX at 9 years old and my mom brought home Mario Brothers 3, the Japanese prototype cartridge.
When the rain stopped, we went to Six Flags, and looped around on roller coasters. The day after that it was back to the beach, the fair skinned New Englanders got severe sunburn. We played a little more Legend of Zelda, but got interrupted by a birthday party across town.
Summer crept on. My cousins went back to New Hampshire. I got hooked on Stanley Kubrick films, seeing Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket, 2001, and The Shining in rapid succession.
Time lurched forward, weeks disappeared in a blink.
One stray morning, I peeked into the floral wallpaper room, in search of the extra controller to our NES. To my horror, I discovered the Super Nintendo still tucked under the TV. It’d never been returned.
I rewound the Kubrick tapes in our red Mustang rewinder, and slipped the movies in the return box without a word to the duo.
That was that. The video store self-exile began. I kept the SNES.
Chain video stores came to town. And so, I got a fresh start. Without a hefty fine looming, I started to rent, with regret, from Blockbuster and A-Z Video.
They didn’t have as much “trash” though. The majority of the available rentals were all new releases. They’d have 10 copies of the newest glossiest big name movie, and I just didn’t care. I wanted the old weird ones. I wanted the slimy cult films. I wanted something that wasn’t sterilized.
They didn’t have a corral door either. They had a curtain. Sneaking behind the curtain revealed something, corporate porno is inferior to mom and pop porno. You could tell clearly from the boxes. The action wasn’t as raw. The blurbs on the back had no typos.
Besides, overnight, internet arrived: an AOL disc appearing in the mailbox. Porn got easier.
The corral door was nullified.
Years later, I met the kid who caused the fire that burt down Commando Video. I was at a party, and got into talking to a skinny kid, who was trashed on pills. We had similar friends at the party, but were trying to figure out where we knew each other from, if at all. I asked him if he was from the development where I grew up.
He said, “I used to live above the video store by the day care center.”
“Get outta town.”
“I rented the room above it.” I pictured the maroon Toyota Tercel.
“When was this?”
“You know that fire?” he said proudly, “that was me. I fell asleep with a joint in my hand. The bed caught on fire, the curtains went up. I had to jump out the window. Broke my foot.”
I said, “I owed them $400 in late fees.”
He laughed, and said, “Okay, now you owe me $400.”
“Sure, sure. Doesn’t work like that, though.”
I told him about the Super Nintendo.
His joke was that technically, I should give the SNES to him. He said, “In a way it’s mine.” Who knows, maybe he was right.
I use Netflix now. Spout and me, browse content to stream from our bed (watching on a large screen computer rather than a TV). It’s convenient, to say the least, and far cheaper—seven bucks a month. But, I miss something of the ‘event’ that used to be going to the video store.
Whether it was me alone wandering around, or picking out a movie to watch with a friend, or even going as a family and picking two or three titles, gathering in the center of the store to discuss what we’d each found. Comedy? Drama? Action? What would we settle on and rent? What would we watch together (gag) as a family?
Redbox and the rise of other automated DVD rental kiosks perched outside of strip mall drug stores, grocery stores, banks, etc., probably would have been the nail in the coffin for a place like Commando Video had it not been leveled by a fire. But, even the corporate rental places are disappearing. They are becoming cellphone stores, and dog spas and whatever else. A person can stream what they want digitally these days without leaving the house, or in my case, bed.
There’s not many weird video stores operating out of dilapidated houses any longer.
Sometimes, I still think of the duo. I wonder what they are doing now …
Are they selling cellphones or washing dogs in some strip mall somewhere?
Has she finished that book?
Is he still sweating?
I miss the human contact of the video store. An automated kiosk feels empty. I get the same excitement from an automated kiosk that I get from a vending machine dispensing cheese puffs. I wouldn’t cut through three neighbor’s yards and hop a chain link fence to get cheese puffs.
Some truth: those kiosks don’t give you posters to hang above your bed. No matter what happens with society, there will always be a need for free movie posters to hang above the teenage beds of the world.