Monday, May 3, 2010

Coming of Age in a Video Store

I have watched some porn. It makes me feel queasy, because watching other people have sex is not one of my things. I have not, however, rented porn. Even if I wanted to watch it, I just cannot imagine walking up to a clerk and dumping an armload of my sexual fantasies on the counter in front of her.

Just because I don’t do it doesn’t mean I’m not fascinated by the people who do. Because I always ask the same questions: What? closely followed by Why? If you are curious too, I am about to review for you another of those books that are not for everyone.

If you’re not the least bit curious about why people like porn, if you don’t like to read about other people’s dirty jobs, if you have no sense of humor, or if you don’t like sex talk, don’t read this book. Don’t even continue reading this review.

True Porn Clerk Stories by Ali Davis

Paperback: 160 pages

Publisher: CreateSpace (August 27, 2009)

ISBN-10: 1448685249

ISBN-13: 978-1448685240

What would you do if you found yourself working in a video store in Chicagoland, checking out and restocking porn for $6.50 an hour to pay the bills? I know what I’d do. I’d take notes.

That’s pretty much what Ali Davis does too. She starts a blog to report on her shifts at the porn rental store. And after the job ends and the blog ends and she goes on to the next phase in her life, she shares this diary with readers like me in the form of a book.

Because I wasn’t cool enough to have even heard of the blog. I mean, this blog was one of the first blogs to really explode internationally, after Ali read from True Porn Clerk Stories on This American Life. But I missed all that. I discovered the book by following Ali on Twitter.

I studied some anthropology in college, and back then we were still reading about tribes in far-off lands. Ali Davis has written a modern anthropological study about a tribe in our midst, a subset that intersects every other subset in the country. A heck of a lot of people are renting porn, and I was interested to find out why.

Ali is a self-described “Freak Magnet,” but she also makes us see some of her customers as real people with real needs. She has a talent for drawing brief but unforgettable portraits. She introduces us to

Mr. Creepy with the shifty eyes

the Symbiots, perhaps related, perhaps not

the jerkers

Mr. Gentle, who became a friend

the box thieves

the dirtbags

Mr. Pig, the only customer she really can’t stand

She’s not just holding these people up for our amusement, although there is plenty of amusement to be found. Ali offers us her perspective on why people rent porn, what happens when you get down to that hardcore core of your being, where the right to view porn fits into her personal philosophy, and how that philosophy changed as it became informed by her experiences in the rental store.
I never thought I would be the sort of person who would mentally categorize people as “dirtbags,” but I am and I do. In a way, it’s part of my job. Dirtbags rip up boxes, tamper with tapes, and try to steal the DVDs. They try to peel off pricing stickers and put them on movies that aren’t for sale. They claim damages on tapes that are fine, they try to scam us with the punch cards, they keep movies for weeks on end and try to weasel out of the late fees… Sometimes I don’t even know what they’re doing—I just know that they’re dirtbags and need to be watched.
I found it touching that all the time she is reporting on the general and specific weirdness connected with her job, she also believes that she should be the best video clerk she can be. She helps a man in a wheelchair find the porn he needs, she worries about the teenagers she kicks out getting the wrong idea about sex, and she makes her customers seem human, like your uncle or your neighbor or your boss.

Ali’s use of language delights me: “Some straight porn does seem to be made in a sort of a happy, fun spirit: women are beautiful and fun to look at, sex is fun and good to have. Whee!” After she thwarts a “jerker,” she writes, “I felt like a jolly, middle-aged madam in the Old West—ready to take care of my customers’ needs in a friendly and straightforward manner, but with a strict policy against taking any guff. Shoot, they’re just men.”

She shows us the humor in porn marketing. For example, the names of films, very few of which can be mentioned here (because I don’t want to have to check that little adult content button on Blogger).
Does the customer want Black Ball, Blackball, Black Balled, Blackballed, Black Balls, Blackballs, Black Ballers, BlackBallers, Black Ballz, Blackballz, Black Ballerz, or BlackBallerz? And does he want the one in the gay section or the one in the straight section?
Ali is a bi-sexual, open-minded, logical, and sensible modern woman, a “sex-positive, first amendment feminist”—the only sort of writer I’d want for such a study. She walks us through her own discoveries about porn and people and work with good cheer and gentle snark. “In a way, I keep learning the same lesson over and over again: just because people’s tastes don’t match mine doesn’t mean they’re wrong. Soon, I hope, it’ll stick.” She categorizes customers, clerks, and the porn itself in an attempt to understand the attraction. About a third of the way through the book, Ali notes that the job is changing her. About this time, I realized that the book was changing me. I mean, I noticed that I had developed a little empathy for the porn renters and no small amount of respect for Ali’s talents.

Before I read this book I never spent a moment thinking about porn or why people like it or what was beyond the bright yellow rope that was clipped across the 21 and older room at my local Blockbuster. So, did you know that THE ROOM where they keep the porn is more like a surgery than a bordello? “Our porn section is a completely white room with a white linoleum floor lit by bright white fluorescent lights broken up by security cameras and wall-to-wall orifices. It hits somewhere between futuristic alien clinic and porn carnival.”. And did you realize that video clerks make notes in your electronic file? Yes! And the best feature of the video store is what Ali calls “the Voice of God mic.” What job wouldn’t be improved by a chance to say over a PA system, “Sir, you need to keep both hands where I can see them”? And did you know that porn stores have “New Porn Days” that drive some customers wild with desire for the film that no one has watched before them?

You know how I tell a really good book? As soon as I read the last word, I return to the beginning and start reading the whole thing again. I loved this book from the splash page to the last page. I frequently laughed out loud.

It’s a good thing Ali could fill me in on this dirty job, because I could never do it, not for research or money or hunger. The thought of encountering the bodily fluids of people I don’t know just creeps me completely out. I once stuck my hand in a rabbit nest and found a hot mass of maggots instead of the bunnies I was expecting. I imagine a similar gut-twisting shock should I ever find my hand in a bit of spooge from a stranger.

A mid-size publisher should pick up this book. It would be ideal as a secondary text in human sexuality, anthropology, psychology, or writing classes. Those sorts of books can be trouble-free little bread and butter projects for a publisher. People with a deep curiosity about human nature and those with a taste for biting wit and realism will love this book.

Ali is witty and her tone is sometimes sympathetic and sometimes—just often enough and no more—sarcastic. But you feel her heart in the stories too. The backbone of the narrative is the narrator herself, a stranger in a strange land, a young woman the age of my son who is doing an odd job to pay the bills. We’ve all been there. Ali was a really good clerk in a video store that rented a hell of a lot of porn back in the days of “Be kind. Rewind.”

This book is full of too much information. More than I can ever forget.

One more thing. There was a time when Ali wrote, “What happened to me? I’m about to turn 30 and I’m on my knees in a basement restocking incredibly degrading porn.” She’s come a long way since that realization, and today is the anniversary of that blog post. Happy birthday, Ali.

Ali Davis was trained in the Chicago improv scene. She’s a founding member of the musical improv troupe Baby Wants Candy, and she has performed with Second City's National Touring Company and Second City@Sea. Her writing has appeared in Fresh Yarn, Salon, and Swivel. Until recently, she wrote the daily RachelWatch column on AfterEllen.com and 365Gay.com. "And I'm working on a screenplay," Ali says, "because that's what we all do in L.A." She's also the genius behind Tweetin4Palin on Twitter.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

ItStartsWith.Us!

Okay, taxes are filed and spring cleaning never ends, so I'm here to tell you something about my past. What's new, huh?



When I was a young woman with a hungry little son to feed, I found myself in a tight spot: no money, and very little food in the house. Crying doesn't do any good in those situations, but I found myself doing just that on Thanksgiving morning. 


I heard a knock on the door. I didn't hurry, having no reason to feel enthusiastic about a visitor.




I opened the door a crack, and no one was there. A cardboard box sat on my front step: a frozen chicken, a can of yams, a box of stuffing, a bag of homemade noodles, and a few potatoes. That food lasted my son and me for a whole week, and I never found out who left it.

That's why I'm a part of ItStartsWith.Us. Click here or on the Change the World button at the top right of this blog and read. I'll give you a brief summary.



If you want to change the world, use 15 minutes of your time each week, combine it with the 15 minutes of thousands of others around the world, and give someone in need of support a lift. Every week the mission is different, but it's still just 15 minutes of your time.




I can tell you that your kindness grows exponentially. I'm not a fan of math, so I don't use the word exponentially lightly. Just think about it.


Someone left a box of food on my doorstep in 1978. I left an electric heater on the doorstep of an ancient neighbor who was using his oven as a heater in 2008. I did a lot of little things for people in between. That box of food started a quiet little landslide. And I'm sure that the person who left the box of food helped others, who in turn went out and passed that along. And I hope that the people I helped when they were in a better position helped others. See how it works? How many tiny miracles is that? And I've gained much more than I've given.




Here's a little tangent I'd like to explore. Recently I heard a radio personality saying that he expects a thank-you wave when he is polite in traffic. He secretly wishes he'd never done the good deed when the person receiving it is not sufficiently thankful.


That's not how it works for me. In fact, I usually prefer to remain anonymous. That I do for myself. To remind myself that giving is not the other end of receiving. Giving is a reason in itself. I get credit where it counts: the heart.


I really hope I haven't been too preachy. If you feel you'd like to change the world, please click the links and read about a young man named Nate and his ideas, which just blow me away with their simplicity. If you don't care to participate, I'm fine with that.








P.S. Next time I'm going to post one of my "not for everyone" book reviews. True Porn Clerk Stories, a anthropological study by Ali Davis, on whom I have a bit of a girl crush because she is so damn cool. And smart. And she has caused me to make a teeny pee in my pants more than once on Twitter. Follow her if you twitter and are a broad-minded liberal thinker. Otherwise I suspect you won't enjoy her that much. She is also the genius behind Tweetin4Palin.


Will you please follow my blog? I like to see all your tiny faces there. I miss the people who followed me on SugarCain. Shall I put up a sign over there?! *smacks forehead* I begged my former followers to come over here. I told them that when I look at that little block of avatars I imagine that you are sitting in dusty red velvet fold-down seats talking quietly among yourselves and waiting for my show to start.


I've reviewed for you another "not for everyone" book: Bete de Jour: The Intimate Adventures of an Ugly Man by Stan Cattermole, and I told you what Frank McCourt means to me. I should write more about books, considering that is what I was originally trained to do.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Where I work


Today I'm offering you a lazy post; I'm busy with taxes and spring cleaning. My wish for you is if you have to file taxes and clean for spring you've already finished. I love that feeling when I sit down and look around and feel proud of my work. Not: How does this place get so dusty? What's that on the floor? These windows are filty!

So I will show you where I work. I love my job, and I love the campus. I feel so fortunate to like what I do and where I do it.








P.S. Do you like what you do?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Family curses

My dad said the usual classic cuss words: damn, hell, and shit. When my mama used them--usually for some kitchen calamity--she whispered them or just said the first part of the word: shhhhhhhhh! It had been clear to us since we learned to talk that those were grown-up words and we weren't allowed to use them.

Sister never said bad words. She was afraid of anything that powerful. I loved them.

But our parents used a lot of words that weren't quite polite, and they didn't alert us to that fact. Piss, pee, bitch, and pecker were pretty regularly used, and no one batted an eye. So who was to know that some people frowned on it?


I was ten and a half when Mama went to the hospital to deliver Second Sister. Our aunt Hootie stayed with us at our house. Dad worked second shift, 3 to 11 p.m., and after he left for work, Aunt Hootie made us some dinner and agreed to play a game. We chose Scrabble, which was always fun at our house because my parents knew so many more words than we did, and they made some up too.

The game was moving along fine until about my sister's third turn. She already had her word ready, and she was excited to put her four letters on the board. Snick snick snick snick went the tiles as she snapped them down like Mama did. B-I-C-H.

"Bitch," she said. She sat back and sighed. We always said the word after we'd put it down. It was part of the pleasure of the game.

Instead of scoring the word, Aunt Hootie grew pink and a lot larger. It seemed as if the breath she was inhaling was going to suck in the whole room including the curtains. She grabbed the board and dumped the tiles into the box. "The game is over," she told us. "If you're going to use words like that."

We looked at each other. WTF? Bitch is a bad word? My dad said it daily. In our house, it was a verb that meant the same thing as "complain." We tried not to roll our eyes at each other, because grown-ups had no tolerance for that.

Sister burst out crying.

"Time for bed," Aunt Hootie said. She flapped her hands at us. "Go on."

We started shuffling toward the staircase as if we were disappointed, even though we loved being sent to our rooms; Mama never did that. If you got in trouble with her, she'd give you a shitty chore.

As we started up the stairs, Aunt Hootie called, "You didn't even spell it right!"

I could always make Mama laugh with that story later. I probably still could. Are you laughing, Mama?


The word fuck never entered our house. I heard it at school. And the meaning? I knew that it meant the same as doing it, but exactly what doing it entailed was a mystery. I never used it until I went to college and learned how to smoke and write poetry and be cool.


Fuck is like a grenade for a short red-haired woman. I keep one in my pocket.

Saying the word to Mama would have been as bad as saying it to the preacher. It would have never entered my mind to ask her about it. Kids have an unexplained sense about what you must never ask adults. But I said it in front of her one time.

After I was grown, I was driving in downtown Mattoon when a car cut right in front of me, forcing me to stand on the brakes. "Oh, fuck!" I shouted as Mama grabbed the dash with both hands and braced herself.

No crash. My heart was beating hard enough that I could hear it in my ears. We both let out a big sigh.

"Oh, Mama, I'm sorry," I said.

"That's okay," she answered. "I was thinking the same thing!"






P.S. If you're into random acts of kindness, as I am, check out the new button at the top left. It starts with us.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Red cartoon birds of love

I am an excellent marketer. Not only can I get someone to eat bird poop, but I can make them beg to do so. It's nothing to be proud of. It's something you'd do if were secretly full of rage and mistrust but so cowed by your parents that you'd bring them an implement to hit you with. Something you'd do if you came from a family with generations of insanity genes.

As you know from reading my previous complaints, my parents birthed and raised me until the age of eight in a tropical paradise. Then they shipped our whole existence to the middle of Illinois in the middle of the winter in the middle of the school year, and I got a bad attitude. Who wouldn't?


I didn't even know I belonged to this big mean family of pranksters until we arrived. I knew my mama's side: my sweet porcelain grandma and my two giggly aunts, a couple of uncles and some cousins. But the other side: a bunch of loud uncles who looked just like my dad, a sour mean granny who made noodles wrong, and a gaggle of aunts who yelled or cried when they were the butt of some joke. Let's not even talk about the cousins.

This situation did not improve my mood.

The more tricks that were pulled on me, the meaner I got. My best trick was to do absolutely nothing. No matter if one of the loud uncles picked me up by my ears, or somebody decided that one of the boy cousins should kiss me for the movie camera, or my dad told me to take a real big drag off his cigarette if I thought I wanted to smoke. Nothing. Wet willie, wedgie, or Dutch rub. Nothing. These giant children did not understand my lack of reaction. But they also quickly learned to bother someone else, someone who screamed or cried or got mad to their satisfaction. So, along with the toenails and the artistic bent and the fair skin and the hatefulness and the red-brown hair and the insanity, I inherited from the big ugly family the most natural poker face in the world. I love that poker face, the most versatile tool I own.


These people liked things in an uproar. I did not. The granny, who looked like the George Washington from the dollar, kept alluding to some monsters at the top of the stairs and swearing that if we went up there Old Scratch would surely get us. Add to that the fact that I'd never before been in a house with radiated heat that singed your skin if you stepped too close to the stove. I thought I was in hell. And this hell made me what my mama called "the hatefullest child in the universe." Fuckin' A.

So... with all these cackling tormentors, who was I to torment? Because you know that's how it goes: Dad pisses Mama off, Mama slaps me in the head, and I look around for someone smaller and more innocent to take it out on. I was a kid. I'm not taking responsibility for the way I was then; someone else created that mess, which I still haven't cleaned up completely. Mostly I played my tricks on Sister, and if they were real good I took them on the road and used them at school.

This particular day, I was old enough to know better, and Sister was four years younger. Mama told us to get in the car and wait for her. She was slapping on some lipstick for a quick trip to the store. Something distracted Mama and she didn't come right out like she said she would. Even though the Valiant was always parked in the drive under the big oak, it was going to be hot in there. I opened the doors but didn't get in.


Sister always jumped into the driver's seat and pretended to drive. I stood outside the open door and encouraged her. She was not supposed to pretend to drive, and she had been smacked a million and two times for it, but she jerked the wheel left then right then left, made a little puttttpututt noise, enchanted by her fantasy.

I forgot all about tattling when I saw on the roof of the car what looked like a single layer of Cheerios as far as the arm could reach. Well, actually, I guess my thought would have been a single layer of Oatey Ohs, because we always bought the cheap cereal. Cheap everything. That's another story.

So for some reason I'll never understand, this magical day the birds pooped little bitty rings that had hardened into something that closely resembled breakfast.


I reached out my hand and scooped up a whole fist of bird-shit Oatey Ohs. Yes, I did. I wasn't sure yet what I was going to do with them. I got in the back seat and thought for a moment. I was almost sure my first idea would not work, but I went with it for lack of anything else.

I quietly smacked my lips.

We were always hungry for snacks, which we never had, and with her dog-ears Sister immediately noticed. Someone's eating something.

I kept my fist closed and pinched two fingers down in it, tipped my head back and pretended to drop in something delicious. I fake chewed. Fake swallowed. Smacked my lips a little more.

"WHAT ARE YOU EATING?" said Sister.

"Nothing," said me.

I made her ask a few more times before I stuck out my fist and opened it. "These," I said.

She snatched a few birdy-ohs and tossed them in her mouth. She chewed three times before her nostrils flared and her mouth slowly opened. She stuck out her tongue and let the poop drop off of it into the floorboard.

"You're gonna get smacked for that," I told her.

She pawed at her mouth and then squeezed her neck like she wanted to strangle herself.

"What was that?" she asked.

"Bird crap," I answered. Dad said crap, so I did too--out of Mama's hearing.

"Huh-uh."

"Oh, yeah," I told her.

Sister began to cry. That face is still frozen on a slide in my brain. Her skin flushed and little tears popped out of the corners of her eyes. I think it was the first time I stepped into someone else's shoes, and what I felt was not so good. Sister put out her hands, her face a mask of tragedy, and our souls clinked together like champagne glasses. Little red cartoon birds rushed out of my heart in a noisy cloud and made me see: This is the person I love. Not Mama. Not Dad. Sister. She's such a pitiful thing, but she's all I have. You know how a moment like that can lodge itself inside you.


Mama got in the car, and Sister jumped up on the hump and hung over the front seat. "Nanny made me eat bird poop," she tattled.

Mama smacked her right across the head and said, "Don't you know better than to eat anything your sister tells you to?"

My parents were a couple of screwed up kids. I don't think they meant any harm.






P.S. Tomorrow I'll tell you about a surreal couple of days we spent with my aunt while Mama went to the hospital to have a baby.

And let me tell you briefly about Rose. She was my writer's block angel these past months when life punched me in the guts and I was trying to get my breath back. I couldn't write. I couldn't even keep up with other blogs. Every once in a while, out of the blue, I'd get a little message from Rose reminding me ... of me, and letting me know that someone likes to hear what I have to say and laughs at the way I say it. It was a kindness I didn't expect. Thank you.

Have you ever had your own personal angel? If you have, pass it on because it can make a real difference to someone.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The fixer

My sister is very sick, and I am very far away. She says she doesn't need anything right now, but when anything in the past has been dangerous, frightening, or overwhelming, she has always turned to me. Growing up, she needed me for everything; she was always so fragile and so afraid.

When we were kids, I thought of her as a small twin growing out of my ribcage. She was born with absolutely no protective covering. I kept her safe from the dark and the evil. I rescued her from panic. I taught her to cross streets and read and do psychic Kreskin tricks, and braid hair. For years, I had anxiety dreams in which, in a variety of heinous situations, I lost my sister to some vampire or pervert or car. She cried a lot: when our parents were yelling, when we had to go to bed while the other kids were still playing on the street, when Mama said something mean about her looks or the friends she brought home.


I made up stories for her. Brave girls with super powers and no parents. Curious girls who saved a town or worked their magic for good or were not fooled for a moment by the divine in disguise or came into their own when they learned that they were royalty or rich. The world was a dangerous place, and I'll bet you money that Sister still thinks of those stories I told her and holds her suspicions about the nature of the world in front of her like a shield. But now she is able to assert herself, at least with me. And although I have told her all of her life to do just that, I can't say that I like it because I don't want her to do anything hard all alone.


When my mama was pregnant with Sister, she also had a tumor in her uterus. By the time the growth was removed, it was larger than the baby. Add to that the fact that Mama was given thalidomide for morning sickness, and my sister was born a little stunted. Not slow, just... unformed somehow. The way a baby bird is so vulnerable and needy. And Mama just wasn't a comforting, warm mama. So it was Sister and me. And I'm not saying I was a great mentor, either, only that I was all she had available.

After our parents took us from paradise to the frozen tundra, we were sick all the time. They fed us cod liver oil and penicillan pills the size of Brach's mints and Vicks Vaporub down the throat and up the nose. We spent so much time wrapped up in historical quilts and navy blankets, drinking warm whiskey with lemon and honey, and making up songs about people we hated at school. Mama was an excellent nurse, and was sometimes known to let us come downstairs to watch her stories with her; she was so nice when we were sick that we had no reason to get well soon.
uring one of our bouts of tonsilitis, we were sitting in the doctor's outer room waiting to be called in for more pills in tiny paper envelopes, and Sister asked me to read a word from a brochure she'd found on the coffee table. "Cancer," I said. I didn't even like saying the word out loud. "OH!" Sister said. "I had cancer once when I was a big man, and Dr. Diphold cured it."

Mama was embarrassed that such a non-Christian statement came out of her six-year-old, and she told my sister loudly enough that the rest of the people in the waiting room would know that she didn't approve. If only we had dear Dr. Diphold now when we need him.

Sister and I slept in the same bed for so many years that I still can't sleep alone. We curled together like spoons and always turned in our sleep at the same time. When we moved to the god-forsaken prairie, my parents tried to excite us about having separate rooms, but we weren't having any of it. Until I left home and found someone else to sleep with, one or the other of us crept into the other's room every night as soon as Mama stopped bitching--I mean tucking us in--and went downstairs.

The last time I saw my dad, he told me to take care of my sister. He knew he was going to die (and that is another story), and he took my promise that I would keep an eye on her. We always believed she needed that. Now she won't let me, Dad.

This time she says she doesn't need anything. That she is too tired to think. That I need to be patient. That she doesn't plan on dying. This is little comfort to me. I'm not patient. I want to DO things. I'm the big sister. I make things right. I've talked her through bad marriages, and kept her from making what Dad always called "idjut" decisions, and settled her down when her dreams carry her off on the wind, as they do sometimes. She'd have been married as many times as I have if it weren't for me.

We once saw a TV program with a man who claimed to be cured of cancer by laughing. After that we used to say, "We'll never get cancer because we laugh too much." Not true. Not true.

But just in case, I'm going to stir around in my story bag and pull out those old moldy tales that always make my sister laugh. Because even if laughter isn't the best medicine, it's the only thing I can do.

Tomorrow I'll hit a lighter note.

Until then,
P.S. My friend Rose should continue to call me Sugar.