Monday, March 30, 2009

Where Have All The Video Geeks Gone?

The summer I turned 17 my family moved from Georgia to the suburb of Lake Zurich, far northwest of Chicago. This means I spent my senior year in a different school than the one I went to for the rest of high school. Not that I had some sort of love of high school before that, but still, what a crappy thing to have to deal with. Being 17 sucked in so many ways without having to deal with being a new kid in school.

And Lake Zurich sucks major ass. One of those horrible, white bread, middle class, pedestrian, homogenized suburbs that make me want to puke. When we first moved there I had to count down the number of houses on the street to find ours at night because they all looked alike.

(OK, so I did meet the girl that I would eventually marry in Lake Zurich, so one good thing came out of living there.)

Senior year was a rough thing to get through, and two things saved me that year. One, I've written about before, was music. Specifically, Document by REM kept me from going crazy and I listened to it at least once a day.

The second thing was my after school job. I worked at Jed's Video, the only video store in Lake Zurich in 1987-1988.

In Lake Zurich in the 80s there were very few options for part-time jobs for teenagers. They either worked at McDonalds, Burger King, Kmart or Jewel. Maybe a couple of guys worked at the car wash. There was really only one cool job for a high schooler in town and I had it.

I loved being a video store geek. I got to watch a ton of movies for free and I got to know pretty much every film buff in town. I knew the tastes of all our regulars and had many conversations about movies with them. Customers would turn me on to movies I never knew about before and I would do the same for them. I introduced many residents of Lake Zurich to Spike Lee and the film Fandango.

Don't get me wrong, I wasn't pushing She's Gotta Have It on the family who rented Top Gun or Dirty Dancing every weekend. You have to know who you're dealing with. I also remember steering customers away from things I knew they wouldn't like or would be inappropriate for their kids. One time, I remember this really well, a woman came up to the counter with the movie Watership Down. I asked her if it was for her or for a kid and she said her kid. I asked how old her kid was and she said something like six or seven. I explained to her what the movie was like and that there was a reason it was rated PG. I did tell her she should rent it and watch it because it is so damn good, but too violent for a young child, with all of the bloody bunny fights and whatnot. I like to think I saved some poor kid a really traumatic experience that night. There is a 28-year-old guy out there somewhere who is really well-adjusted and probably very successful because he didn't see cartoon bunnies getting killed in a horribly violent and bloody way when he was seven. Man, he really owes me.

Those kinds of things made video stores really cool, both for us geeks working there and for the clientele.

I was thinking about this lately because of our neighborhood video store here on the Upper East Side, York Video. A small place run by the owner and a few movie geeks, it is a lot like the store where I worked as a teenager. Except with DVDs instead of VHS and Beta tapes. (Yes, I worked there when Beta was still around. It would die soon after.)

The guys in there are typical movie geeks with varied taste, as proven by the "employee picks" section. And the owner is a great guy you can stand around the counter with and shoot the shit about movies.

Places like this are why I don't do Netflix. But Netflix probably has a lot to do with why York Video is closing.

We went in last weekend and the store was filled with people and really hectic. We couldn't figure out what was going on, there are never that many people in the store. Then we saw the sign that announced they were closing after 20 years and the entire inventory was for sale. We were so bummed. That, of course, didn't stop us from buying some cheap DVDs, taking advantage of the situation to get Iron Giant for four bucks, among others.

It felt like we were picking over a corpse.

I dread the death of the independent neighborhood video store. Where the hell are the movie geeks supposed to work? I don't think it is as fun stuffing DVDs in to envelopes over and over at Netflix is quite as cool of a job. In fact, I'm willing to bet working at Netflix is just as shitty as working at Wal-Mart.

And what about being turned on to a movie you might not have ever considered because the video store dude suggested it? And don't try to tell me that Netflix suggestions are the same thing. Internet programs that make suggestions based on past purchases or rentals are just generic, genre-based matrix programs that have no nuance whatsoever. It is why Amazon continues to suggest Radiohead albums to me even though I hate that fucking band.

And no web site will ever care about what movie you suggest to it. They're such smug ass-holes that way.

We're still lucky we live in New York right now, there are a couple more video stores we can rent from. But who knows for how long?

And will there be any cool gigs for suburban high school kids once the video and record stores are all gone? There's gotta be something better than bagging groceries or working the fryer for teenagers who are already cursed with growing up in the 'burbs.

I imagine when my kid is older and she's curious about things I did when I was younger, I'll tell her about the jobs I've had through the years.

How long will it take to explain to her what a video store was?

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Cars Shmars

I will never understand people who assume that their situation in life applies top all other people. My life is not yours, we have different circumstances, stop assuming my reactions and decisions will be the same as yours just because we have a similar vague demographic.

People seem to love to tell me what I'm going to thing, feel, believe, etc; because of them having gone through a similar thing even if nothing else about their lives is like mine. This has really become a lot more prevalent since I had a kid. I don't know what it is about breeders that make them think they know everything. I've been told by a lot of parents what I was going to feel and think after my baby was born and pretty much all of it was bullshit. The best one was my own mother telling me I was going to start believing in god.

The reason I'm thinking about this is because of a conversation I had the other day with a colleague, a physician on faculty at a New York medical school.

My wife, a physician herself, is in the process of interviewing for jobs. Her stint is up at her current employer, so come this summer she has to have a new job waiting for her. It is looking very likely that we will be leaving New York, our next destination as of now unknown. The current possibilities include Chicago, Baltimore, the D.C. area and Albany. Cleveland had been in the mix as well but now seems unlikely.

I was talking to this colleague about the issues of moving to any of these places, with the big one being that I'm an anti-car person. Now, we live in New York at the moment so anyplace else in America is going to be a step down in public transportation options. But I know from experience that you can live in many cities without being a car owner, especially if you are open to bike riding.

During this conversation I mentioned my not wanting to own a car and she seemed to have the attitude that you couldn't live outside of New York City without a car. I explained that I was only worried about Albany being the choice, as that one would be the hardest. When I mentioned each other city she would basically say the same thing, "Oh you can't do (Cleveland, Washington, Chicago, Baltimore) without a car."

I explained to her that I had either investigated or spent some time in each of the places and knew what I would need to do to live without a car, explaining that I had even lived in Seattle without a car for the bulk of the 90s.

And then came the big "I know better than you bullshit answer."

"You haven't done it with a kid."

This is, of course, a person with a few years on me in being a parent. This is not the first time I've heard that same thing from a veteran parent. And yes, it is true that I haven't done a city outside of New York yet with a kid.

But here's the thing. This doctor I was talking to grew up in the New York area, went to med school here and now works here. She's never actually lived outside of this region.

And she also had something in common with every other parent who has told me I can't go without owning a car in whichever place they've named. I asked her if she has ever tried to live without a car. The answer was no, just like all the others.

And there it is. Somehow they all think that their parenthood experience trumps my no-car philosophy and wide-ranging experience living without one. I've never met anyone who says you can't live with a kid in (blank) city without a car who has ever even attempted it. They really underestimate my dedication to a car-free life and my extreme dweeby knowledge of how to do so.

I have lived most of my adult life without a car, which included taking up residency in Chicago, Seattle, Boston, New York and the small Illinois town of Macomb for college. I have traveled extensively around the country and almost always use public transportation in cities I visit. I even tooled all over the Atlanta metro region as a kid from the age of 12 to 16 on the Marta almost every day. And that was while living in the suburbs.

I have discovered over the year through my own travel and research that there are so many more options out there than people think. I have even started charting out a way to travel across the country by taking only local public transit, by way of light rail, subways, buses and commuter rail, that I hope to take one day and write about. I have already figured out Boston to Chicago with only a couple of small gaps.

I think I know a little bit about how to do this. Having a kid does not change this equation in such a drastic way that I'm going to give up on something I so very much believe in.

The problem with so many Americans in today's world is that we see modern conveniences as needs for survival.

I'm not saying I don't ever have to use a car. Sure I do. But the number of times this last year that I've had to rent or borrow a car can probably be counted on one hand. And I'm sure that number will rise once we leave New York. But that doesn't mean I have to surrender to the car culture that has ruined the quality of life in this country and is the reason for the lack of good public transportation in America to begin with. Even if it is Albany I'm hoping we can do something like Zip Car and not full-on ownership.

Public transportation is better in America right now than it has been in my lifetime. The more we use it, the more we'll get built for us.

I keep being told that having a kid is a reason to have a car. I couldn't disagree more, that's exactly why I'm even more dedicated to not owning one - so she doesn't get indoctrinated into car culture.

There is more to life than our personal conveniences. That's something I want to teach my daughter.