Long before I discovered that a porn actress had stolen my last name, I worked at an independent video store whose cash cow was its adult movie section. I was a senior in high school. How does that Sinatra song go? “When I was seventeen, it was a very good year for small town girls and soft summer nights?” Well, when I was 18, I spent my summer nights behind a counter peddling pornography. Consider yourself one-upped, Ol’ Blue Eyes.
The store sat tucked away in a strip mall on the south shore of Long Island. It’s not there anymore, but in 2002, it was the social heart of the hamlet. DVDs were in their infancy (standard definition, not Blu-ray), and Netflix, Apple TV, and on-demand digital cable were all still years away. Though the World Trade Center attack had occurred just a few months prior, the period, for me, resonates as one of innocence. It was a time when people had to get up off their asses and into their cars if they wanted to rent a movie — especially if that movie contained sexual intercourse, as these were the days before the streaming video revolution. Yes, Millennials of 2015, there was a time when there was no PornHub or YouPorn or RedTube or xHamster or Snapchat or obscene hashtags on Instagram. When you wanted to watch people having sex on a screen but didn’t want to wait an hour for the video to download on your 56k modem (or pay for the Playboy Channel, because who had money for that?), you had to publicly out yourself as a pervert. In the City, there were the peep shows and video booths along Eighth Avenue. On Long Island, there were video stores like the one I worked at.
The store’s adult section wasn’t the reason I sought employment there (I was horny, but not that horny). In fact, I didn’t even know it had one. I was a broke high school student who was months shy of going to college, and I needed a job. I always knew I wanted to pursue a career in some part of the media industry, and working in a video rental store was a little bit of a dream come true. Most teenagers back then yearned to work in either a video store or a CD store largely because of the way Clerks and High Fidelity romanticized the professions. “Oh, to be an employee in one of those hipster cultural enclaves!” we’d pine. Such responsibility! Such authority! Such condescension toward other people’s tastes in film and music! When I heard the store was hiring, applying was a no-brainer.
The owner’s daughter was upfront with me during my interview. If you want to work here, the job is yours, but you need to be comfortable with sorting, stocking, and ringing up porn movies and dealing with the customers who rent them with maturity and discretion. I told her it wouldn’t be a problem. What was I gonna do, turn down a job? Besides, I was familiar with the product. I had dabbled in Internet pornography as most late-90s teens did — an experience that was equal parts scintillation and horrification for an unsuspecting youth. The Internet back then was a digital Wild West of skin in which you never really knew what you were going to see with each click of the mouse. The job at the store seemed pretty tame by comparison.
The store ran a nightly promotion from 9 p.m. until closing called “Happy Hour,” during which all adult titles cost only a buck (or slightly more; I don’t recall exactly). At any rate, they were heavily discounted, and the deal attracted just about every grimy, shifty-eyed dreg on the south shore. I wasn’t uncomfortable — I actually got a kick out of it — but I felt bad for the college-aged girls who worked with me. There’s something very unsavory about a 50-year-old man asking a 21-year-old girl to check in the computer system if she has Backdoor Sluts 9 in stock (spoiler alert: it’s just like Backdoor Sluts 8, but with better special effects). There was this one guy — “Fred,” let’s call him — who always wanted to give you a high-five or a fist bump across the counter, which was terrible because you always knew where Fred’s hand had been (and was going to be again, most probably, within minutes of leaving the store).
Married guys renting transexual porn, geriatrics salivating over teen porn, people I recognized from the neighborhood getting down on voyeur porn — none of it really phased me too much (or maybe it scarred me subconsciously in ways that I don’t even yet realize, but hey, that’s for my psychotherapist to sort out). The only thing that did jar me happened on my very first night on the job.
The two college girls who were training me sprung for Domino’s pizza as a welcome dinner. If you’re wondering why a group of Long Island locals would order pizza from Domino’s and not from one of the many, excellent family pizzerias within walking distance, you’ve obviously never spent a lot of time around stoned kids. We ordered quite the feast: pizza with toppings, Cheesy Bread, and Cinna Stix. We scarfed down the food, and the night dragged on. One of my duties that night was to take porn movies from the return bin and replace them on the shelves in the adult section, which was cordoned off from the rest of the store in a laughably clichéd manner by a set of swinging doors. Most people who rented movies still had VHS players at home, so the vast majority of titles in the bin were in clunky, plastic cassette cases. After a few trips back and forth, it became like shooting — err, taking — fish from a barrel. I got in the habit of just blindly plunging my hand into the bin without looking, coming up with an armful of movies, and going back out to the floor.
I was in mid conversation with one of the girls when I plunged my hand into the bin and immediately felt something sticky. I lifted a single cassette case into my line of sight and saw that my hand was in the middle of a thick dollop of white goo. Thinking the worst (I mean, what else could it be, right?), I shrieked. The noise that came out of me, to use an apropos movie reference here, was like in that scene in Robocop where one of the bad guys gets covered in radioactive sludge. The two girls launched into a fit of laughter as I writhed behind the counter, trying to get the stuff off me. My eye caught one of the discarded Domino’s boxes and I soon realized that the goo wasn’t what I thought it was, but simply the sugary dipping sauce that came with our order of Cinna Stix. I was relieved, but also kind of concerned that I had been gleefully eating a substance that could easily pass as ejaculate just an hour or so beforehand. I had to admit, it was a great prank.
I’d continue to work there right up until I left town for college.
Like I said, the store is now long gone, as too are most mom-and-pop video stores, not just in New York but also around the country. Hell, even the big chains like Blockbuster Video are gone. And with the prevalence of free smut online, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would actually pay for porn now, let alone leave their home to buy it. I’ll always look back fondly on a simpler time where undersexed, flesh-hungry T&A hounds had to interact with real live human beings in order to nab some nudie films. Every generation has its own unique source of nostalgic sentiment. For my baby boomer parents, it’s soda shops and drive-ins. For me, it’s the good ol’ adult video store.