The video store on Jamaica Avenue charged us a dollar every time we returned a tape un-rewound. When I say “we” I mean me and my older sister, as it was our responsibility to return the tapes anybody in the family borrowed.
The walk to the store wasn’t long -- just five or six blocks under the elevated tracks of the J-M-Z train line that wound through our neighborhood in Queens. The journey wasn’t exciting or scenic, so a round trip to return the old tape and borrow a new one was not what either of us would consider a privilege. But it wasn’t a total chore either. For in those blocks we would encounter a whole world of things upon which we could spend the dollar that would otherwise be spent on a video store fee.
For that price, the pizza place would give you six zeppoles, fried balls of dough thrown into a brown paper bag and buried under an avalanche of brown sugar. You could also get a plain slice so big that it spilled over the edges of the white paper plate upon which it was served as it dripped orange grease onto the ground (and your feet, if you weren’t careful).
Across the street, the bodega sold quarter waters, ice cream sandwiches that were always too hard, puffed up bags of Utz Potato Chips, and stale candy. You could buy a few loose cigarettes, and the clerk would throw in a white book of matches for free. But the bodega also had creepy looking men of various ages who liked to loiter outside and hiss.
A dollar could get you in the door of Lewis of Woodhaven, one of a dying breed of mom-and-pop general stores that was endangered by the Woolworth’s chain and then made extinct by Duane Reade, Rite-Aid, CVS, Walgreen’s. Lewis was huge with shelves and bins full of anything you could think of. Tube socks. Toothbrushes. Flip-flops. Bags of rubber bands and boxes of pencils. Decorations for Christmas and Hanukkah would be out all year. You could spend hours walking a slow circuit through its narrow aisles, humming along to the Muzak that was piped in for your shopping pleasure.
But there was still the question of that rewinding fee.
The video store sold machines that did nothing but rewind tapes. Save that dollar, save the heads of your VCR, and leave the rewinding to a contraption that would only set you back $19.99 plus tax. The investment would pay for itself in no time. Or at least in the amount of time it took to borrow, watch, rewind, and return twenty VHS cassettes.
It wasn’t that hard to convince our parents to invest in one, though there was little money for frivolous video rentals let alone a device that could only rewind tapes. Because Mom and Dad liked toys. They liked having things around the house that reminded them of when life was a little more comfortable. When the money Dad made stretched further in rural Japan, where he had been stationed by the United States Navy, than it did in New York City, where he moved the family upon re-entering civilian life.
Instead of a ranch-style house set in the Okinawan countryside, we now lived in a three bedroom apartment, the second floor of a two-family house on a shabby street. It was always dark and being that it contained two grown-ups, five children, and a whole house worth of furniture and toys and clothes and household goods and weird smells, home felt crowded and small. My parents refused to throw anything out so we navigated mountains of clothes, or sometimes tripped and fell into open cardboard boxes that were only half unpacked, and would remain that way, for the six years that we lived there. Like oases in the desert, we tended to crowd around the few places and landmarks in the apartment that were not blocked by an avalanche of old t-shirts and towels. The dining room table, covered in a crocheted tablecloth then topped by a sheet of plastic, was one. The overstuffed velour couch, scratchy so our mother covered it with old sheets, was another.
Despite the piles and boxes, things had a way of migrating. A fork or a watch or a library book or a video was never lost but simply unavailable for a period of time. Nobody else moved it, you were simply not paying attention when you left it somewhere it didn’t belong. Stop whining, stop looking with your mouth and look with your eyes. What were you doing? Retrace your steps. Go back to where you started.
None of us had much in the way of chores, as our parents seemed to accept our laziness as a given instead of a result of overindulgence. We weren’t bad kids, but we weren’t exactly good. We frustrated and angered our parents, disappointed and frequently embarrassed them. I think they must have sometimes looked at the five of us and wondered where the hell we came from.
The five of us were almost autonomous, governing ourselves so our parents didn’t have to intervene and end disputes with a long lecture, a whipping from our dad or a truly awful tantrum from our mother. As the oldest, my sister Joseline could make decisions but it was up to me to enforce them. I didn’t love rules but I was interested in fairness. It spoke to my nascent nerdiness.
Which brings me back to the video store.
I abused the video store membership, borrowing the one copy of Merchant-Ivory’s A Room with A View, every Friday night and returning it reluctantly every Sunday afternoon. I liked to watch certain scenes over and over again. Particularly, the two kissing scenes, one in the middle of a barley field in Italy and the other on a tennis court somewhere in rural Edwardian England. Also the one where three naked men prance around a pond before leaping into the water and wrestling. These moments were stolen, illicit pleasures.
I had to be careful about watching the movie, and those scenes in particular, because there was only one television in the house. I could never watch anything in total privacy because at some point a parent or sibling would shuffle past, no doubt in the middle of retracing their steps to look for the bracelet or McDonald’s apple pie or porcelain figurine in the shape of an eighteenth century French noblewoman, squint at the television, and say “You’re watching those naked White boys again?” I was never forbidden from renting the movie, but instead subjected to my mother calling me a “pree-bert” or my sister sighing and telling me I was so corny and why couldn’t we rent something fun like Gleaming The Cube. If I didn’t get my weekly viewing of this movie, I would instead be made to watch something the whole family could enjoy. The Care Bears Movie.
We held onto the rewinding machine longer than we should have. For something that only had one job — a job which, admittedly, it did very well — we kept it around more for its potential than its actual usefulness. There may have been laser discs and DVDs and cable television but these things were expensive. Who cares if nobody watched our collection of tapes anymore, or that the video store began to stock more laser discs and DVDs on their shelves. We could buy the tapes the store was discarding, build our own library, keep the rewinding machine busy until, at some point, it too got lost, mislaid, shoved under the couch or buried under a pile of sweatshirts. Somewhere it simply did not belong.
About the author...
Jasmine Davila is the co-host and co-producer of Miss Spoken, a monthly lady-centric live lit series. She has appeared in venues small and medium sized for live lit shows such as Tuesday Funk, 20x2 Chicago, Funny Ha Ha, and Feminist Happy Hour. She currently resides in Andersonville. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram as @jasmined.