I have (at least) 40 VHS tapes in my closet. Of those, I have digitized 20 of them. Of these, I’ve shown under 10 of them to other people. Here are some excuses. 1.) For the past three years, my editing machine’s relationship with my wireless internet has been temperamental at best, so uploading a video onto the internet would be too much of a hassle. 2.) When I considered showing a tape that I thought was funny, I also considered that I might be wrong. 3.) When I like something in my life, I’m embarrassed about it. Joy embarrasses me. Excitement embarrasses me. I’m embarrassed by my interests, and unfortunately, I am not interested in feeling embarrassed, which is a shame. So, quietly, a collection of (at least) 90 VHS tapes from thrift stores has emerged.
I like the journey of a thrift store. A thrift store book of poems is bound by the random circumstances that THIS book of poems has found its way into your hands indirectly by someone else’s hands. Skim, read a couplet without context, scan for doodles. You can read the notes that another reader has written down, following them while sifting through pages of indifferent ideas, skimming to discover one sentence beaming in highlighter where the rest of the book had only small notes. It’s an epiphany, shining neon yellow, collected in a thrift store’s bookcase which is collected by a book section, which is collected within the media section, which lies adjacent to the furniture section and the even larger clothing sections which make up the entirety of the complex’s experience.
Naturally, I bought that book. It’s a copy of Adrienne Rich’s “Dream of a Common Language,” and the fact I can’t find it right now is mildly irksome. I have been going to thrift stores for most of my life but I started with Pass-It-On Thrift Store in Crestwood, Il, at the age of 11. I’d walk there with neighborhood friends for movies and music. Then in high school, it was the search for ironic t-shirts and blazers. When I wanted to find alone time, it became my library. Thrift stores clothed me through college. When I needed a side job, thrift stores were the ore mine of flipping items on ebay and craigslist. It’s where my urge to therapy shop has a healthier outlet. It’s where I’ve bought an overhead projector that I want to use and will find a use for I swear.
Now, and on and off over the last six years, I’ve combed through thrift store VHS collections for curios. I love finding and watching movies I’ve never heard of, the weirder the better. AirBud with a Sasquatch. Escalator safety guides rap song. Alarmingly racist kids movies. Witchcraft 5: Dance With The Devil. Robot in the Family. Kid Pilot. And the unfortunately named Catholic sermon “Jesus wants your body.”
“But what if I found a tape that no one else has found? Or at least, find something that I love that no one else has given love to? Wouldn’t I want to share that love?”
In the winter of 2014, I spent 10 hours re-editing footage from a found VHS cassette called “Joy Trek” a kid-focused Sci-fi production by a Catholic company, hosted by a singular mid-30s white man with brown hair in a silver spacesuit and his robot companion JT, traveling through the stars on the JoyShip Energize. It’s the sci-fi Blues Clues Jesus would want. Spaceman talks directly to the camera and says things like “Are you ready to participate in the vigorous earth activity of exercise?” The actor is stilted in the first episode, but he hits his stride in episode five and the episode six finale, where spaceman and robot affirm that everything will be okay even if we “Make the Journey,” and found heavens reward. The message is told with small interruptions, like music videos of jumpsuited kids, confused in choreographed song and dance. In reediting it, I originally wanted to create something… fun. Then I find myself alone on a project. My mind becomes awash in the panic to make “important work.”
“Important work” in my lexicon is a small idea that grows rapidly, then quickly overcomes me in a panic of potential failure. I’m a sucker for “important work.” “Important work” is the one thing I want to make, and here I am lolling about frustrated about not making “Important work!” It’s this mental state where one small project isn’t enough. Hypomanic me develops a dynamite pitch for “important work” and won’t shut down unless A.) the impossible has been accomplished B.) I am heavily sedated.
While I feel like I must say I’m better medicated now, back then was a different story, and after three nights I abandoned the project and got very drunk. In one file on desktop, our narrator, our spaceman, is stopped in time, looking like he’s about to speak.
A story is an inevitability, I tell myself. A story will be told, and my story will naturally be one of them scattered throughout journals and projects, a sequence of fragments arranged by narration more controlled than my own. A story isn’t what I tell, but it’s the choices in telling it. In my own choices, I must ask “In telling this story, do I have my shit together?” In my editing of raw materials, do I have the patience to tell a story? A patience within myself? Can I broker a truce with my inner critic of form, wherein we together outline the confines of this experience, locked in debate over high standards and whether I can allow myself the freedom from having a grounded scene where the story can be “shown” instead of just told.
I wanted to tell a story of faith, my own doubts of faith after Catholicism was imposed on me without a proper understanding of faith. In this story, I was grazed Catholic. My dad was the youngest of six in a first generation Irish immigrant family settled on the Southside of Chicago. He grew up across the street from his church and Catholic school. He was compassionate. He was a man of faith. He made us go to mass every Sunday. And in our life together I wish we talked about belief more. And I wish I was able to tell this story. I find myself rearranging the fragments to create the narrative, and it’s not working.
A thrift store puzzle is always a gamble. Usually I’m an optimist about thrift stores: I consider a pile of crutches for sale inspiring. Puzzles I have trouble finding faith in. I don’t care if they taped the box close and swear all the pieces are there, I will assume a 60% chance that even just an handful of pieces are missing. But that’s probably about the journey of doing the puzzle no matter what.
This journey is embarrassing. This journey is joyful.
About the author....
Mike Haverty is a writer and performer living in the Southwest suburbs of Chicago. He has had his work purchased by McSweeney's and curates the found-footage YouTube channel VHShambles.