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 and "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.


leslie (crook) said...

Wow! Great review! Hmmm, I wonder if I'll be given the evil eye if I buy this book, or if they'll leave notes in my Borders or Amazon file. ;-)

Mary Dawn said...

i love porn, just sayin'

Lisa - papergrace said...

Fantastic review.

I can kinda, sorta relate. I used to work at a Wherehouse Records & Video store when I was a teenager. I worked in the video section, where we did have "Adult" films.

Wow...there was strange folks that wandered up to the counter wanting to rent those flicks. Some really normal people, too. But you always had the guy would return the movie in a brown paper bag and it was all though covered in lube. Gross.

So thanks for the trip down memory lane. ;)

Tristan Robin Blakeman said...

great review - I don't feel as if I need to read the book now! LOL

Sweet Pea said...

Great review. I think I need a smoke!

ackstay said...

I think I need to read this book, you have a way with words as well my dear.