Ellen Jo Roberts
The last video rental store in the Verde Valley is closing after 18 years.
As frequent customers of Cottonwood’s Planet Video, we were bummed. Sure, the “box” rentals outside the gas stations and drug stores will provide a steady stream of the new release hits, but what about less mainstream films? What about that vast middle of the store? The library of indies, television series, documentaries, and the 20th century comedies and thrillers? Now we’d never be able to catch up with the current season of Mad Men, and never even get our chance to begin Breaking Bad. Our TV set is sparsely equipped with bunny ears and network channels because we like our movies served supplementally and need no constant diet of them.
Being witness to both the dawn and demise of the video store age, I understand why its 30-year heyday is now going the way of the dodo bird and the dinosaur. Growing up in the 1980s, going to the video store was a big deal. My brother and I would spend an hour pouring over the titles trying to outdo each other’s choices of schlocko horror films and bad B-movies. With video stores gone we’ve got one less reason to leave the house. We see our friends in virtual neighborhoods and work from home offices. Folks go to school online now. Movies are streamed to devices, watched on laps or in the palms of hands. TV is watched on the internet and no one is ever limited by any network schedule ever. Times change, and as they do, an event like the closure of your community’s very last video store, will punctuate that change.
In 1979 I was in first grade. My school underwent a renovation that year. All of the vintage wooden desks, bolted to the floor in rows of cast iron, were yanked out and left in a heap in the schoolyard. These well-worn desks, complete with ink-wells (which we’d never quite understood the use of), had been used by several generations of students since the school was built in the 1920s. The ceiling’s pendant lights were removed in favor of dropped foam-core and florescence. We were given independent, ergonomic desks with plastic seats in a variety of colors. Everyone was very excited about this change, as excited as we would be a few short years later when computers made their first appearance in the classroom. In 1979 I stood in the schoolyard looking at the mountain of old desks before they were carted off. Even at age 7, I knew this meant something huge. My Scorpio-rising sign gives me a deeply sentimental bent and I recognized we were standing at the beginning of a new age. We had one foot in the past and one foot in the future! And I was a part of both! Casting off the ink wells and the incandescent lights of our parents and grandparents. What would the future hold? Oh, sweet silly 7 year-old, you had no idea.
As the technological revolution speeds up ever more rapidly, devouring itself like a hungry black hole, I wonder what current cutting-edge things will someday end up in the schoolyard scrap heap. Most of them probably. There was a time, not long ago, when we didn’t have wristwatch smartphones and our cars didn’t park themselves. Here are some 20th century scraps, gone but fondly remembered…Let’s rewind shall we?
Complete Lack of Rules
When I was a kid, there were far fewer safety rules and regulations. We all joke about it now, the rudimentary and ridiculous contraptions we risked life and limb on, sans helmets or air-bags. Safety regulations were almost nil, or in their infancy. It was like the Third World. Seatbelts? They were considered an “optional” feature on most autos until the 1970s. Like FM radio, or cordovan leather seat covers.Not only were tots not trussed into car-seats, my peers remember not even sitting in seats at all, instead driving around in lawn chairs in the back of their folks’ van, standing on the front seats or sitting in the back-back of station-wagons, no seats, no seat belts, inexplicably making peace signs at the drivers behind them.
There was a time when most farms were not owned by corporations, when GMOs were a distant fantasy in some evil scientist’s lair, but this doesn’t mean our food was always safer. When my grandma asked me what I thought the initials of the "A & P" grocery chain stood for my completely serious response was "Additives and preservatives?" We were pumped full of chemicals. We blew "Super Elastic Bubble Plastic" toy bubbles made of toluene and other brain-melting ingredients. My friend Lisa grew up in the 1960s, “Our dentist gave us mercury in a bottle cap instead of a lollipop. We'd play with it until it disappeared.” So I’m not saying it’s better to have less rules. Teachers can’t spank their students anymore. Drunk driving, once a common behavior, has become an extremely serious violation with zero tolerance.Perhaps the biggest change to the rules involves cigarettes. Up until not very long ago, cigarettes were smoked everywhere, on airplanes, in restaurants, at the grocery store, by pregnant women. You could buy them from vending machines. My cousin remembers being able to buy cigarettes for my aunt at the corner store, “as long as I had a note signed by her.”
Leafing through a Rolling Stone magazine from 1990 I laugh at the wealth of “chat-line” ads in the back. This is how people met interesting strangers before the internet! They called 1-900 numbers hoping for a chance to lucky! Or meet the loveboat of your dreams! For just 99¢ a minute.
Nowadays we know who is calling us the moment the phone rings. But there was a time the only way you could tell who was calling was to 1. Answer the phone, or 2. Let the answering machine pick it up to screen the call. "Caller ID", originally a special feature that cost extra bucks, changed that and now every call is identified as soon as it rings. Kids will never again know the clever joys of “crank calls”. The “Jerky Boys” could never happen today. We’ll also soon forget all about payphones. I relied on these until fairly recently when I realized there were none left .On the topic of cell phones, my friend Ellyn, born in 1969, is reminded of watching the 1993 film “Dazed and Confused” (set in 1976) with her 20 year old son, “He was very confused about the scene where the kids plan to meet up at the Moontower that night. He asked me, ‘How did you all know where to go and what time? How did you arrange for rides?’ Ha ha.”
I grew up in a bedroom that had yellow wallpaper. This was because there was a time people decorated their baby’s rooms in green, yellow or other gender-unspecific colors because no one knew in advance if the little tyke would be a boy or a girl. It was all a big surprise until it arrived, squealing and thrashing about in its birthday suit.
Home computers were once as big as washing machine, and as slow as molasses.
My friend and fellow Clarkdalian, Sarah, born in 1978, says, “I remember when Macs could only do, like, on one process at a time! I mean, if you had the computer trying to run something, and you switched to a different window, it sorta put the first action on hold. I swear. Macs were famous for being buggy, delicate machines, back in those days.”School chum Sabrina recalls, “Computers loaded from a cassette tape in a cassette player, and made horrible screeching noises.”
In college in the early 1990s we still used reference books and microfiche for research. We pounded typewriters for term papers because only rich kids had “word-processors”. And before the internet, if you'd asked me if there was ever a chance of reconnecting with every single one of my school and summer camp friends, from kindergarten through college, I'd have laughed in your face. No way! Those people are long gone!
Besides the late great video store, other objects littering the scrap yard include the black & white television set, the drive-in movie and cassette tapes. Though they're still around and often times still work. Capturing special events for posterity began with a bright eye of light blinding everyone and burning us to film as the Super-8 camera made the rounds. It evolved to a big, clunky video machine on the shoulder which got progressively smaller and smaller until now someone just holds their phone up and next thing you know you’re on Youtube.
Movies and music have followed basically the same trajectory, recorded on analog materials like celluloid and plastic cassette tape before going digital on CD and DVD. Now the code is mainlined directly to devices, skipping the packaged good entirely. Sitting in a movie theater I am always amazed the tradition of sitting in the dark and eating popcorn with strangers still survives into the 21st century.
There is still a smattering of drive-ins throughout the U.S., most of them labors of love with limited seasonal schedules. The only drive-in movie I ever went to I attended in my pajamas, ' cause I was only 3 years-old and my parents were expecting my brother and me to fall asleep. But I didn't. The film was a scary mess called "Bug" about atomic cockroaches that set a California town on a fiery path to disaster. Seeing this at age 3, in my jammies in the back of a big orange Chevy Suburban explains my lifelong penchant for silly movies.
Music recycles itself so concerts remain nearly the same, but the tickets and the t-shirts were once much cheaper. Up until about 10 years ago concert security used to confiscate your camera if you tried to bring one in. Today many spend the whole show watching the stage through their phone.
Atari's "Pong" was the first video game, circa 1972. Games have since become so sophisticated that their early forms seem like a different thing entirely, but in their 1980s dawn we played "Frogger", "Centipede", "Galaga", "Pole Position" and "Space Invaders" feeding quarters into machines at places called "arcades", often times adjacent to "roller rinks". P.S. There was a time every town had a roller rink.
Many of the classics, like albums on vinyl, Chuck Taylor sneakers, watching movies with strangers, seem to hang on. Other analog fashion like film photography and hot rod cars thrive on in small subcultures. Savor the era in which you live. Enjoy the sweet filth of newsprint on your fingers as you read this. You will always have one foot in the past and one foot in the future, and that is a magical thing indeed.
Ellen Jo Roberts was born with her sun in Aries, moon in Libra, and rising sign in Scorpio. She remembers Han Solo telling Chewbacca to “Laugh it up, fuzzball” as one of the great cinematic joys of her childhood.
Read more at ellenjo.com