Blockbuster Stores Folding

Another mainstay of my early adulthood seems to be going, going gone.  On the way up High St. to church this morning, I passed the Blockbuster store at High and Hudson Sts., and there was a giant GOING OUT OF BUSINESS sign in the parking lot, and all the inventory was on sale.

I can’t remember the last time I rented a video.  During the last few years, I’ve mostly borrowed them from the public library, because the wait is well worth the money I save by doing so.  (It’s very rare that I’ll go to a first-run movie.  The last two first-run movies I’ve seen are Zodiac and Howl.  This year, it will definitely be The Conspirator.)  I would try renting from Netflix, but their pushiness when it comes to advertising has been a turn-off for me.  They definitely have a product I would use, but seeing their ads pop up all over my laptop screen has the opposite effect.

Much like other technology, I was a latecomer to the world of videotape.  I bought my first VCR from my friend Ivan at Ohio University in the spring of 1987.  He owned a Panasonic OmniVision which his parents gave him as a Christmas present when he was still in high school.  Ivan was, like many students, desperate for money once spring rolled around, so he sold me his ancient top-loader.

My first VCR.  Since I’ve never had a first car, I’m likely to be more sentimental about this.

In 1987, it was not common for all homes to have a way to record television shows.  Only the newer dorms (the ones on New South Green) were wired for cable in the individual rooms, and Athens was in a valley, so getting TV signals out of the air was next to impossible.  This meant I was making many trips to the video store on Stimson Ave. once I hooked the OmniVision up to my black-and-white TV.  I showed my friends the standard issue, such as the Star Trek movies, but used it also as a chance to show some of the classics of many genres.

That summer, I lived in a rented room above the Dairy Barn in Carthage, a neighborhood in the Mill Creek Valley just north of Cincinnati.  I was working (too few) hours as a typesetter at Feicke Web, producing the Homefinder magazine, a journal of real estate listings, and The Woman CPA, a trade publication.  As soon as I was settled in my new summer quarters, I joined the fledgling video club at the convenience store a few blocks down.  After work, I usually stopped there to pick up my usual dinner fare–a pound of cold meat, three cans of beer, and a loaf of bread.  Their selection of movies consisted mostly of action films–Chuck Norris, Schwarzenegger, the various Rambo and Rocky pictures.  Occasionally, when I plowed through the detritus, I found occasional gems.  This store was where I first rented Stand by Me and Psycho III.

By the time I had returned to Athens that fall, one of my friends had bought a VCR as well.  I went to Radio Shack and bought a set of patchcords, so if one of us had a movie that we wanted to own permanently, that meant we’d bring the two machines together and dub them onto blank VHS tapes.  (We knew there were criminal penalties for doing this.  How much did we respect this?  When showing movies in my room, a pre-movie ritual was everyone reading the warning aloud as it scrolled up the screen.  Occasionally, I would dub laugh tracks onto the warning.  I thought the worst-case scenario was brief incarceration in one of the minimum-security prisons with the golf courses and tennis courts.)

I’ve owned and worn out several VCRs in the meantime, both in my bachelor days and during my marriage.  I have narrowed down my collection of VHS tapes considerably, and finally own more DVDs than I do tapes.  I should probably shell out a little money to get the equipment to convert VHS to DVD, but it’s been on my “to do” list for quite some time.  (Yesterday, I mailed a VHS tape of the movie That Kind of Woman–based on a short story by my friend Robert Lowry–to a friend in Cincinnati so he could convert it to DVD for me.)

When I lived in Cincinnati, I very briefly considered buying a Beta video recorder.  It was at a yard sale, on sale for about $2, and Beta tapes occasionally still appeared at junk stores and library discard sales.  (This was when I was first becoming interested in old-time radio, and saw people ecstatic over getting three-record sets such as National Anthems of the World and pro-Bund propaganda broadcasts of the 1930s.) In some rare self-restraint, I opted not to, although I once had a Betamax ad hanging in my bedroom as a kid:

I knew it was unrealistic to expect our family to buy a Betamax–not where my father considered trips to the doctor and dentist unnecessary luxuries–but I loved an ad that acknowledged people who loved to watch late movies on TV, as I did at the time.

In the pre-Internet area, I frequently baffled the clerks at the Blockbuster stores in both Cincinnati and Columbus with my requests for odd titles.  Many stores provided PhonoLog listings of tapes that were available, and I would go through them whenever new pages arrived, looking in vain for B-movies I vaguely remembered from Channel 3’s All Night Theater when I was a teen.  (That Kind of Woman has yet to be released as a DVD or tape.  I obtained my copy only after joining a Sophia Loren fan club through Yahoo!Groups, and someone there was nice enough to dub me a copy.)  Even the older clerks and cashiers were completely baffled when I asked if they could order Gene Tierney in Whirlpool or James Stewart in Call Northside 777.

One industry that home video practically destroyed was the pornographic theater.  I live in Weinland Park, and it is close to the one- or two-block stretch of High St. called the Garden District, so named for the now-vacant Garden Theater, which was an X-rated movie and burlesque establishment.  When home video became the norm, people could watch their smut in the privacy of their own homes, and not have to feel embarrassed when a friend, employer, or clergy person saw them coming out at the end of the show.

When I lived in Boston, the one section of town I tried to avoid was The Combat Zone, on the edge of Chinatown and near the Tufts Medical Center.  As you can read here, I was wise to do so.  (I wasn’t always 100% successful.  Since I had no medical insurance with my job at The Harvard Crimson, I often went to the Medical Center’s free clinic whenever I needed to see a doctor.)

Arriving in Boston very low on money, but very much full of piss and vinegar, I decided to jump into freedom and independence with both feet, and applied for a job as a cashier and clerk at a smut bookstore on the edge of the Zone.  (I stopped in after an appointment at the Tufts Medical Center.)  The owner was straight out of central casting.  He wore a shirt that may have been white when Woodrow Wilson was President, a green eyeshade, his sleeves were balled up around his elbows, and he had a cold cheap cigar hanging from one corner of his mouth.)  I asked for a job application, and he passed me a clipboard and a ballpoint pen, I filled it out, and he hired me right on the spot, as long as I could pass a police check.  (The Boston police was keeping an eye on the area for prostitution and drug trafficking.  The outcry about bulldozing The Zone rose to high-decibel levels starting in 1976, when Andrew Puopolo, a Harvard cornerback, was fatally knifed outside a bar.)

I remember vowing to tell my dad that I had gotten a job “in a bookstore.”  Since it was Boston, there were more bookstores than gas stations, so I didn’t need to elaborate on what type of bookstore it was.  I was also relieved that my job did not involve mopping the floors of the private video booths in the rear, where you could spend a quarter to watch about 45 seconds of grainy 8-mm. smut footage.  (The owner elegantly described my job: Keep the minors out, make sure the “jerk-off technicians” didn’t shoplift the merchandise, make sure no drugs or child pornography were changing hands.)

But my career as a ground-level pornographer was not to be.  A day or two after I was hired, the owner called me and asked if I could start the job that night.  I said sure, but I was curious about the urgency, since I wasn’t supposed to start until a few days later.  He was quite casual about why.  The cashier who normally worked that night was shot the previous night during a robbery.  Could I work his shift while he recovered?

Suddenly the minimum-wage job washing dishes in a Brookline delicatessen sounded so much better.  I’m a zealous defender of the First Amendment, but being shot in a smut bookstore wasn’t as noble as publishing the Pentagon Papers.

The big question is what will occupy the soon-to-be-vacant Blockbuster site.  I can tell by the building’s architecture that it was at one time an A&P, another dying breed.  (The last one I saw was in Queens in the late 1980s.  The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company is no longer a corporate giant.)  Vacant buildings are much more the norm than the exception in many commercial neighborhoods in Columbus, and it seems that many businesses disappear overnight.  Denise’s Ice Cream, located in Clintonville, a place where I went with Susie and her friends many summer evenings after the pool, has closed.  I learned about this only as Susie and I were headed north for choir practice at the Unitarian Church, and I happened to look out the bus window and saw a big FOR RENT sign in Denise’s front window.

The day the last brick-and-mortar bookstore closes will be a day when I will truly grieve.  Borders’ Columbus stores are selling to the bare walls.  Coming home from church today, I saw a guy on the corner of High and Henderson holding a big EVERYTHING MUST GO! sign for the Borders on Kenny Road.  I am not as unhappy about the demise of McBookstores like Borders as I am about the small, privately owned stores.  The New Yorker best illustrated the problem in this cover:

Cards on the table: Even as I take to task for driving so many independent book dealers out of business, before I began typing this entry, I ordered a second-hand DVD of Exorcist III from a dealer via, at a cost of about $3.  The other side to this coin is the Website Abebooks, which has rescued many independent bookstores from total oblivion by expanding the customer base worldwide.  Several bookstores who were barely breaking even from foot traffic saw profits skyrocket when they listed on Abebooks, when customers from around the country (or world) began ordering.

A Farewell to a Friend: John D. Solomon (1963-2010)

To quote Archie Bunker in the episode “Stretch Cunningham, Goodbye,” “I ain’t never delivered a urology before.”  This is the first time I’ve ever tried, even though this is one that is for cyberspace and the blog world, not delivered to mourners in a house of worship.

My best friend from The Harvard Crimson, John David Solomon, Harvard Class of 1985, died the first of November.  He was 47 years old, six weeks younger than I am.  I learned he had leukemia two years ago, when he mentioned it–almost offhandedly–in his blog, In Case of Emergency, Read Blog.  Even knowing that leukemia is not the automatic death sentence that it used to be, I was quite worried.  Cancer is still cancer.
Yet he seemed to be making progress toward beating the disease.  He posted regularly to his blog, usually answered my emails promptly (the blog was how we reconnected in the last two or three years of his life), sent pictures of himself with his wife and young daughters, and reassured his readers the disease was in remission.  (The only time I ever directly addressed his leukemia, after learning of it, was to extol the virtues of the Arthur G. James Cancer Center on the Ohio State campus, telling him that if he needed treatment there, my door was always open to him.  I overlooked the fact that his native New York had some top-rated cancer facilities of its own!)
I met John the first time I worked the graveyard shift at The Harvard Crimson.  I had worked during the weekend, typesetting Harvard Business School’s weekly newspaper, The Harbus News, so I had yet to experience the high-pressure, crisis-ridden, anxiety-laden atmosphere that thrummed like an electric current in the pre-hours before “Cambridge’s Only Breakfast-Table Daily” rolled off the press and began appearing in the dormitories and the streets of Harvard Square.  I was trying to learn the intricacies of the CRTronic Linotype, and keep up with the endless flow of typewritten copy as it came down from the upstairs newsroom.  Additionally, I was down to (almost literally) my last dime, payday was still almost a week away.  I was learning to swim by immersion in a tank full of starved piranhas.
John was the proofreader that night.  I didn’t know that he was taking particular notice of me or my situation–although he had let me know he was technologically illiterate when it came to my computer.  My fellow typesetter that night knew the machine intimately, and was trying to keep ahead of her own workload, and did not have time to nursemaid me through learning the procedure.
The first gesture of friendship came when Pat Sorrento, the production supervisor and foreman who had been with the paper since the mid-1960s, asked for someone to make a run to Tommy’s Lunch, the diner on Mount Auburn Street by Mather House.  John seemed to pick up on the fact that I was not flush for a meal, and probably also was aware that I had barely eaten.  Without my asking him to, he said, “Go ahead and order something.  Don’t worry about it.”
Extended periods of working together either cement or destroy friendships.  He and I became close after he paid for that first meal from Tommy’s, and talked quite a bit during the slack hours when there was little work, or when I was in The Crimson‘s building to pick up mail or my paycheck.  The true test, however, came during the summer of 1983, when he and another editor were given the responsibility of editing and producing The Confidential Guide to Courses at Harvard-Radcliffe, Harvard’s annual course guide, known informally as The Confi Guide.  The Crimson itself only printed twice a week during the summer, so the Guide consumed most of the time and energy of everyone who was staying to work on the newspaper that summer.
Many a night, I would come to the building at 4 in the afternoon after a sandwich and lemonade at Elsie’s, and not leave for nearly 24 hours.  I had sublet living quarters on the edge of the Tufts campus, but I slept more nights at The Crimson than I ever did in my own bed.  If the paper ran that night, the finished product was barely out of the building (bound for hand delivery or the Cambridge post office for mailing), then it was time for typing Confi copy, usually with the radio or TV for company.  When we all came to a stopping point, John and I would creep up to The Crimson‘s top-floor lounge, The Sanctum, and collapse on couches.
On several other nights, John would creep off to his Oxford St. apartment (his summer HQ) and leave me a batch of copy.  I’d work on it for several hours, and once the Coca-Cola didn’t have any effect, and I was unable to get my fingers, brain, and eyes to work together, I’d slink up to The Sanctum for some much-needed shuteye.  I would leave a note on the bulletin board for John, saying, “Please wake me up at such-and-such a time.”  As soon as I saw a Sanctum couch, it would be like someone taking the switch that powered my body and throwing it to “off.”  And before I knew it, I would be awakened to a hideously nasal rendition of “Reveille,” and behold John standing over me, his hands cupped over his mouth like a bugle.

We even spoke of religious issues.  John was Jewish, but not particularly devout.  I had moved to Boston partly because it was the headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Association–it was the Unitarian equivalent of Vatican City or Jerusalem.  Except on the Sunday mornings when I was too exhausted to get out of bed, I regularly attended services at one of three U.U. churches.  Yet, during the Days of Awe 5744, he dragged me–one of the few Gentiles at The Crimson–to the Conservative Kol Nidre services.  It was the only time during the year he ever put in an appearance at services, and he seemed surprised when I asked him if he planned to go to the Ne’ila service that would conclude Yom Kippur.  (We didn’t.)

I’m sorry to say that I never saw him again after I left Boston in 1984 to start at Ohio University.  There were intermittent phone calls and letters, but we lost touch altogether until I Googled him and found his blog.  We stayed in touch by emails, and we favorited each other’s blogs, and when I hoped to bring Susie to New York to visit the American Girl store, I planned to reunite with John, whose girls were also American Girl fans.

There is a scene at the end of Stand by Me where the protagonist of the story, now an adult, is sitting at the keyboard of his word processor.  He has just written of the untimely death of his best friend.  He typed:

Although I hadn’t seen him in more than ten years, I know I’ll miss him forever.

And so it is with me.  Although I hadn’t seen John in more than a quarter century, I will miss him forever.

This blog entry falls far short of honoring him properly, but since I once completely took over a story we were supposed to co-write (“Who Shot the President?”, for the special issue marking the 20th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination), it is appropriate.  I can’t deliver this from the bimah of a synagogue, so I want to honor John in the setting where we have both come to feel at home: the blog.

May he rest in peace.

John D. Solomon (1963-2010)

Nil per os; Susie and Matthew Morrison; Plywood

How celebrate Columbus Day?  I’m probably not alone in this, but I’ll kick off the day with a fasting blood draw.  I think it’s time that I have my blood sugar checked, because in the past six to eight weeks I’ve noticed that I’m almost constantly thirsty, and often find myself making mad dashes to the bathroom.  It is now just 11 p.m., and I had my last non-water at 9 p.m.

The title is Latin for “nothing by mouth,” a medical direction for patients (usually written on charts and hospital bracelets as “NPO”).  I never took a Latin class, despite two years at a Catholic middle school.  However, my dad was an English professor, and he grew up Catholic pre-Vatican II and attended the Catholic University of America, so he was fluent in Latin.  I picked up enough Latin by sheer osmosis that I had a very easy time learning pharmacy shorthand when I worked at Medco Health.  When my fellow trainees were sweating blood over the difference between bid, tid, and qid, (twice, three times, and four times per day, respectively), I just told them to remember bicycle, tricycle, quartet, and it would be easy.

I’m usually pretty good at gleaning a word’s meaning from looking at its Latin roots, although I have been off base from time to time.  (My biggest faux pas was that for years I thought a pedophile was somebody with a foot fetish.)

After they draw the pipette of blood, I’m meeting Jacques at church, and he, his almost-centenarian mom, and I will be headed to Mineral and the Feed My Sheep Food Pantry.  (I try to go whenever I have a Monday off from work.)  It’ll be good to be down there putting together food packages.  We’re not quite halfway through the month, so I don’t know if there will be a mob scene on hand or not.  Ray Ogburn, the director of the pantry, is rightfully proud of the fact that his pantry has never run out of food.  The quality of the food varies–it depends on what people donate, and what Ray can buy from the Mid-Ohio Food Bank.

I took Susie to a political rally at the back of the new Ohio Union last night.  As much as I would like to think she was eager to see our incumbent U.S. Representative Mary Jo Kilroy (D-Columbus) and Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher (currently running for the U.S. Senate), the truth is that the drawing card was Matthew Morrison, who plays Will Schuester on Glee.  She waited patiently (barely) through the speeches by Fisher, Kilroy, and lieutenant governor candidate Yvette McGee Brown until Morrison came onto the podium, and her eyes were out on springs the entire time he was speaking.  Once the rally ended, she joined the throngs (I almost typed “thongs”–do Freudian slips extend to the keyboard?) flocking around Morrison.  I spoke briefly with Fisher, since he was at Oberlin at the same time as a dear friend of mine who died in 1997.  Susie asked for my notepad and my pen, and, after almost being smothered by the crowd, she emerged a little later, victoriously waving the pad.  “I got it!  I got it!” she said, bouncing up and down.  I looked at the book.  Sure enough, Morrison had scrawled his name onto the page.

I scanned the page before I tore it out of the notebook for her, so
Susie could share it with her Facebook friends.

Susie has added it to her autograph collection (which includes autographs by Jim Davis, Lemony Snicket, and Emma Watson).  The only political signature she has is John Glenn’s, which I got for her when I attended a Democratic rally at the Holiday Inn in Worthington last month.  (Senator Glenn also signed an autograph for me, replacing the one I lost.  He signed that one in 1974, when he came to Marietta to dedicate the Ohio River Museum.)
Susie also managed to shake Morrison’s hand, and she gleefully proudly shared the news with her friends at church this morning.  The other day, I was rereading XXXIII Celebrities, an autobiographical chapbook by Robert Lowry, the Cincinnati-born novelist I befriended the last few years of his life in the 1990s.  He wrote of the famous people whom he had met (Babe Ruth held the four-year-old Lowry in his arms in 1923; Lowry rejected a story by Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin scolding him for a Time review he wrote).  If I ever wrote of such a thing, I’d have to write about the only celebrity who has ever kissed me.
It wasn’t Julia Roberts.  It wasn’t Madonna.  It wasn’t Jennifer Aniston.
It was–of all people–David Susskind.
During the summer of 1983, a skeleton crew stayed on at The Harvard Crimson to put out the summer edition of the newspaper (twice daily in the summer, instead of five days per week) and produce The Confidential Guide to Courses at Harvard-Radcliffe.  I sublet an apartment near the Tufts campus and spent almost every waking hour on Plympton St.  One day, I came up from The Shop, deserting my CRTronic Linotype long enough to get a Coke or go to the bathroom, and there was a man in his early 60s sitting in one of the swivel chairs by the rows of overworked typewriters.  The semicircle of Crimson personnel followed every word with rapt attention.  He spoke of his plans to travel to the Soviet Union to interview Yuri Andropov, and when he mentioned the coup he scored with his 1960 interview of Khrushchev, I knew this was David Susskind.  Susskind spoke of the gifts that Soviet citizens wanted most from the United States: toiletries, long-playing records, and–this surprised me–feminine hygiene products (pads and tampons), since Soviet women usually resorted to using newspaper.
When he stood up to go, I put out my hand to introduce myself.  (I didn’t tell him that I knew of him primarily from voice impressionist David Frye’s albums Radio Free Nixon and I am the President.)  He didn’t even see my proffered hand, but instead took my elbows, bent over, and kissed both cheeks.  I’m proud to say I accepted it much more graciously than Archie Bunker did with Sammy Davis Jr.:
We are currently in search of new living quarters.  As much as we love Clintonville, we feel we need to move to a place where rent is less expensive.  The reason is because wherever we move will become bachelor quarters for me (although I’ll technically be a grass widower, not a bachelor) once the divorce is final, and we want it to be affordable enough for someone who will be making child support payments.
Scotty and I looked at some places in Franklinton, the neighborhood just west of downtown Columbus where we once lived, yesterday.  (If you read my pre-February 2009 posts here, you’ll read a chronicle of our Franklinton life.)  The neighborhood seems to have borne the brunt of the tanking economy.  Houses fully occupied are sitting vacant, many of them are boarded up.  If I was in the plywood supply business, I would have a net worth in the seven figures just from Franklinton alone.  We looked at one house and were just appalled by the state of disrepair.  (The landlord told me on the phone: “It’s unlocked, just let yourself in!” when I tried to arrange a time to meet him.)  The gutters were shredded and hanging off the edge of the roof, every upper floor ceiling bore massive water stains, the tub needed to be totally replaced–it was way beyond re-glazing.  My guess is that the landlord was deliberately keeping the place unlocked, hoping that a homeless person will pass out in there with a lit cigarette and he can reap beaucoup insurance dollars afterwards.  (I doubt professional arsonists advertise on Craigslist, so I doubt the landlord would ever go that route.)

News of WALL STREET Sequel & When I Was Guilty of Insider Trading

When Steph dispatched me, shopping list in hand, to Giant Eagle last week, I indulged myself in the latest issue of Vanity Fair, and saw that Michael Douglas was on the cover.  There was a brief article about Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, which is due out this summer, and which I may actually want to see first-run.

During the 1980s, a lot of yuppies and business school grads seemed to miss the point that Oliver Stone did not mean for Gordon Gekko to be a hero.  The fact that a gecko is a kind of lizard should have been a tip-off, the same way that the movie’s true protagonist’s name, Bud Fox, shows his conflicted nature.  (“Bud” is the type of name you associate with a kid who’s just hit the ball out of the park in Little League, and a fox is often portrayed as the slyest animal in the forest.)

That being said, I have to admit that my hands aren’t 100% clean when it comes to insider trading.  In my case, it didn’t happen on Wall Street, and seven-digit sums of money weren’t going from account to account at the click of a mouse due to a whispered rumor.  (I have never had access to the amount of money that would allow me to play in that league, and I’m happy for it.)

In the spring of 1983, while I was living in Boston, I realized I needed to find new living quarters.  The couple I was crashing with was on the verge of splitting up.  He was planning to move to India to study under a guru, she was moving to Western Massachusetts, and The Harvard Crimson did not pay well enough for me to pay rent and utilities on our apartment in Brighton (which was going to go condo in a year) on my own.

Tufts University’s paper, The Tufts Daily, printed at The CrimsonThe Daily did its layout and typesetting in-house, but did not have its own printing press.  (The Crimson was/is one of the few college newspapers in the U.S. that did its entire production in-house.)  So, one evening, the copy was slow in coming down, and my fellow typesetter and I went to work helping to get The Daily ready for printing.  I had learned the basics of shooting pages, making and developing plates, opaqueing negatives, etc.

I was at the sink developing the plate for the Classified Ads page, and I was checking to make sure the copies and pictures were legible.  My eye went down the column, and I saw there was an inexpensive sublet in Somerville, on a bus line from Harvard Square, but not so far away that walking was out of the question.  (That was important, since The Crimson often wasn’t printed and finished until after the subways and buses had stopped for the night.)  Also, the walk would be through a much more pleasant neighborhood.  When living in Brighton, I walked away from Harvard Square, across the Larz Anderson Bridge, past Soldiers’ Field and the Harvard Business School, and through a section of Allston that was rather ominous at night.

Anyway… (spoken in an exasperated tone) I re-read the ad, memorized the number, and put down my sponge.  I went upstairs to the business office and called the number and asked about the sublet.  Before the paper was printed, I had a sublet.  Once we were finished for the night, I went home, showered and changed clothes, and went to talk to the people and sign the paperwork.  The guy told me they had only dropped off the ad the morning before.

Overall, it was a good neighborhood, and I wish I could have stayed there longer, but it was a sublet.  Being a day sleeper, the most annoying thing for me was a little boy who rode his tricycle back and forth on the sidewalk in front of our house all morning.  His tricycle wheel squeaked annoyingly, very high-pitched, much like Robert Shaw in the blackboard scene in Jaws (great use of Sensurround).  I had enough of it, and one morning I ran after the toddler with an oiling can and oiled the wheels on his tricycle.  (His mother, I soon found out, was furious with me, because that was how she kept track of where he was.  Now that I’m a parent, I can see her point a little more.)