Thursday, January 31, 2013

Charisma Helps in Intimidation Rolls, Too

Four days after the ill-fated attempt at littering perpetrated by That and VHS Guys, the schizophrenic weather decided to swing back to the “cold” side. The winter had been one of bounding extremes, with sub-zero temperatures (Fahrenheit, of course, since Fernando lives in a country filled by ignorant boors) followed up by topless-sunbathing-level heat waves in the thirties and forties. This pendulum teetered back and forth over the span of two weeks and in the end of it all, the snow which remained was no longer fluffy wonderment but a flat pancake of dirty ice.
Fernando does his best to keep the Dominion's front clear of life-threatening obstacles, but there are some things a plastic snow shovel simply cannot deal with, and smooth ice clinging to the sidewalk or road like the latex bodysuit on a saucy dominatrix certainly falls under that umbrella. He threw down salt, removed the slush when he could, and hoped for the best when the weather was too cold for salt to function effectively.
It was on this particular day that the chimes above the door jingled. Fernando heard the rustle of a paper bag and the clomp of boots worn by a heavyset individual. VHS Guy's face appeared around the corner, all but guaranteeing that Fernando would suffer nightmares for the next week. It was puffy with cold and wore a combination glower and smirk.
Y'know I about slipped and fell out there front of your store,” he says as he sets his brown paper bag atop the counter and sets his body so he faces Fernando directly.
Fernando does not rise from his seat. “I'm sorry to hear that. Fortunately you didn't actually slip and fall, so no harm was done.”
A guy could though, just sayin'. Like I almost did. I'd have ta sue ya if that happened.” Whether this is meant to be good-natured advice or a piss-poor attempt at veiling a threat is a mystery. Fernando chose to take it as the latter because of VHS Guy's history and personality.
That would be no good. The walkway's clear of snow, right?”
VHS Guy looks out the front door at the storefront and parking lot. “Yeah, seems like it.”
Well, and I've got a bag of salt right there next to you that I've been putting out there. There is salt sitting out on top of the ice, right?” While it would not serve to melt the damnable solid under the current temperature conditions, the crunchy granules would provide some small level of friction for people brave enough to cross the wasteland. It wreaked havoc on Fernando's carpets, since people left dusty white trails behind them wherever they went in the store, but these are the trials of the Dominion's Keeper.
VHS Guy seems a trifle uncertain at this point but nevertheless assented. “Yeah, I guess so.”
In that case, I have little to worry about it seems.”
VHS Guy mulls that over in silence for about twenty seconds. Then he grabs his paper bag and departs.
Fernando returns his attention to his computer screen and pays no heed to VHS Guy as he stumps past the office windows.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Round Peg in Tiny Rectangular Hole

So That Guy and VHS Guy became BFFs, united by the fact that they were both pariahs in the community, for Saladolsa is a small town and word of misdeeds spreads quickly. Fernando has no idea what they do during most of their day, but not having a job probably affords much free time for porn and sleeping.
That Guy also makes his regular pilgrimages past the front of the store with his dog in tow. Once in a great while an imp spawned of malfeasance stabs the tines of its pitchfork into That Guy's ass, and he encourages the dog, a husky, to leap up onto the exterior windowsill of Fernando's office windows while a punchable, shit-eating grin spreads across his face.
Oh, did I say there was a windowsill? I misspoke, as there isn't one. So he encourages the dog to lurch at the Dominion's wall, scrabbling at and scratching up the glass with its claws.
VHS Guy, meanwhile, pretty much vanished off the face of the planet, and that was more than okay by Fernando. The last time Fernando had seen him was about half a year prior, and for all Fernando knew it was quite like the time that a gentleman rented a couple of movies back in Fernando's days of playing cashier jockey. He had failed to return them, and, when an inquiry was made, it turned out he had died suddenly at home.
Awkward. One supposes that's as good a reason as any for allowing one's movies to go unreturned, though.
One evening in early January, around five, Fernando sat at his computer. It was a slow and boring day and so there was little else for Fernando to do than to play The Binding of Isaac. He looked up from his task when he heard the shee-klak of the drop box being opened followed by a series tinny blows. He saw That Guy and his dog standing in front of the store, using his frumpy bulk to block Fernando's line of sight from his chair to the area in front of the drop box.
After four or five metallic timps, the drop box swung back into its closed position. That Guy shifted, turning to address someone else. His face carried the same shit-eating grin that always accompanied the instances when he goaded his excitable dog into damaging Fernando's property. Then he moved, crossing Fernando's windows at a stilted, unnatural pace.
That Guy did his feeble best to coordinate his movements with the individual he attempted to shield, but it accomplished jack-shit because Fernando could clearly see VHS Guy skulking behind him. He held an aluminum can of some sort in one hand, not in the way normal people hold such objects when they drink from them, but by enveloping one end in his palm.
Fernando watched the pair go by. Neither of them met Fernando's gaze.
The Dominion had successfully repelled the first assault.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Another Character Tale

VHS Guy is his name. Fernando is uncertain from whence he originated. He has no relatives in the area, to Fernando's knowledge, but he has nevertheless been here since time immemorial, an immortal custodial haunt which drifts about the area sowing woe. What Fernando does know is that he once ran afoul of the law for preparing trouser calamari in public around some girls of somewhat less than legal age. This has rightly tainted his reception in and around Saladolsa. He, far as Fernando is aware, lacks a job because, well, who would hire him after such a fiasco? Instead he spends his time alone, being That Creepy Guy.
Fernando, as is well-documented, does not carry pornography at the Dominion, but once upon a time the back room was a lair for videos of an erotic nature. One of the prior Keepers removed them after outcry from moralists threatened to sink his profits, and they had never been reinstated. This never stopped VHS Guy. Back in Fernando's days serving as a register slave, VHS Guy would come to the store fairly frequently and actually rent things, always the newest ten-seconds-of-tit unrated “college comedy.” Fernando and the prior Keepers shunted dread thoughts into secret corners of their minds and took the guy's money.
Fernando has no idea how much of VHS Guy's caddishness is brought about as a reaction to the community's mistrust and how much of it is instinctual asshattery. He tried, even back then, to connive favors of the Dominion's wardens—things like extra stamps on his card by affirming that the last time he had been in the person behind the counter neglected to stamp his card, or claims that his movies (always a less-expensive older release) were dysfunctional and that he deserved to get a free rental (always a more expensive newer release). Once Fernando took over, most of his previous plans were rendered fruitless. Fernando was the only guy working, so lying that he had forgotten to stamp one's card on the previous visit is basically welcoming Fernando to unload on you with both barrels. Fernando, likewise, has all the time in the world to make sure that claims of faulty discs are legitimate, but he only does this when goaded or when he's dealing with someone whom he knows is less than trustworthy.
It seemed as though all ties between the Dominion and VHS Guy were severed after The Great Boxes of VHS Tapes Fiasco happened. VHS Guy's presence took a sharp dip in frequency and visiting the store, let alone spending money there, became a rarity. Instead, VHS Guy used the Dominion as an eatery.
Things change.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Forging the Alliance

There's a guy in town who frequents the store, and that specifically means he walks past it multiple times per day, usually with his dog. He has been into the store exactly one time and he did not rent anything upon that occasion. Instead he regaled Fernando with tales of woe and dread, how he suffered unwarranted hardships in life which wrested away all his worldly possessions after being fired from what he described as a supremely cushy job (and this is comparing the position to Keeper of the Dominion, in which one sits on one's ass and reads Fark most of the day). That Guy had relocated to the Saladolsa area to regain his footing and to try once again at forging his prior aeries of success from nothing in a true display of Algerist prowess, notwithstanding the Saladolsa area is an overall a wretched place to attempt that.
Ronaldo, Fernando later learns, has a great deal of experience dealing with That Guy, for That Guy is responsible for a significant amount of drama in his life. Ronaldo's father and That Guy were old comrades, and That Guy invoked the age-old friendship when his shit went south. He resided at Ronaldo's dad's house, ostensibly for only three or so months until he found a halfway decent new job and place to stay. While there are not many “good” jobs in the area, there is no lack of tolerable ones that keep a roof over one's head and the larder stocked, and then some. Notably, the nearby casino is always seeking new employees and pays a decent chunk more in wages than the average small business elsewhere.
Rather than seek out a place to work, though, That Guy crafted a xenomorph's nest of clutter in the spare rooms at Casa del Padre de Ronaldo. Bridget, one of Ronaldo's relations, an introverted and socially misguided sort which makes Fernando look like the prom king, was often forced from his concentric and protective spheres of nerdish comfort to take haven at the Dominion as the 2 AM fridge raids and That Guy's ham-fisted attempts at small talk burrowed into his sapience and patience like a particularly malicious candiru. The three months grew to almost a year and the promises of finding a job, any job, were never fulfilled.
That Guy, it turns out, is something of a modern drifter-slash-grifter, without any of the romantic charm that surrounds the hobos from days of yore. His modus operandi is to mooch off one of his acquaintances (it is far too inaccurate to call them friends) until that person is sick of his shit, whereupon he moves to the next one. He has become something of a professional bullshitter without the prowess or drive to find a job as a talking head on any major cable news network. The vaunted and cushy job he had once described at great length to Fernando was as a middleman and broker of antiques and other items of high value, stuff like vintage comic books and baseball cards. Supposedly, his personal baseball card collection's value was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But, no, the last time he has a “real” job was over a decade prior, and it was as a janitor or something.
Eventually Ronaldo's father tired of That Guy's bullshit and evicted him. Police were called and everything, for That Guy really did not want to leave. He leveled baseless accusations at Padre de Ronaldo, his wife, Bridget, anybody he could, claiming they had damaged or stolen this item or that one from his horde and that it was tantamount to a war crime that they were tossing this helpless and bereft soul and his dog out into the street. He threatened to file suit against the family (never did) for breach of contract or some malarkey, I don't know. He got to stay rent-free at a place for eight or so months and rather than be in any small way gracious, he, like all the great parasitic assholes in history, scrabbled for whatever scraps he could reach once the gig was up.
He took up residence perhaps half a mile from his previous lair, and it is there that he met with a kindred spirit, another skeevy sort who attempts (quite poorly) to guile the more successful into funding his ways by making “amazing” barters and offers to them. Longtime readers of the Chronicles might recognize him; he's the gent who tried selling Fernando a multitude of boxes of VHS tapes long ago and has only returned to the store when he thought he could get away with something on Fernando's watch. As one might imagine, these opportunities were few and far between, and a great long while passed between visits, and Fernando was more than okay with this arrangement.
Things change.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Recursive Marketing

A pair of young ladies enter the store one evening. One of them drops off some movies she'd rented the day before and the two of them fan out into the store to peruse Fernando's wares. They select four tags and bring them up to the counter.
It being part of Fernando's job to engage in merry banter with his customers, he does precisely that with them. The topics include Fernando's age and how he looks “about forty,” and how the Ice Age movies might be best served by stopping to make more of them before they suffer the fate of Land Before Time. In the midst of this conversation, one of the girls peers into the office and asks, “What paper are you writing back there?”
Paper?” Fernando looks over his shoulder at his monitor, where Open Office is up for all the world to see and his Chronicles are spread over the LCD screen. He was putting finishing touches on another of his tales when the girls entered. “I haven't written a paper in like a decade.”
After it dawns that his answer is enough of a stretch as to constitute an outright lie, Fernando amends his response, “Okay, maybe six years. Since I graduated from college, anyway.”
Oh, so what is it then?” she asks. “I'm sorry, I'm just nosy.”
Oh, it's nothing. Just a thing for my weblog.”
You have a weblog? What's it about?”
The crazy things I experience on a frequent basis. You wouldn't believe some of the people I deal with.”
You should give me the address so I can check it out. Maybe I'll get a couple laughs out of it.”
More than a couple, I hope,” Fernando answers as he jots down the website for her. “I like to believe I'm wittier than that. That said, not all of the stories are bad ones.”
The second girl chimes in at this point. “Do you have many video games here for newer systems?”
Uh...just some stuff for the X360. Nothing too new.”
Do you have Dirt or Skate?”
W-what? Are...are those drugs?”
The girls look at Fernando, who looks at the girls. Then the second girl breaks out in laughter. “They're games! Oh my god, 'Are they drugs?'”
Okay, you know how I just said that not all the stories are bad ones? Stuff like this, where I look dumb, these get put up too.”
So cheers, ladies!

Sunday, January 13, 2013


I had the good fortune to stumble across an inexpensive copy of Good Bye, Lenin! recently. This is a profoundly German film, despite the gratuitous English title, a sorta-comedy sorta-drama about a young man living in former East Berlin during the tumultuous reunification process which occurred in the early 1990s. I first watched it back in 2005, not long after its release in English-speaking lands. As I was the only person in my then-circle of friends to understand German, or to have any personal experience with the nuances of its language and culture and history, I merited the film more highly than the rest of them. Having the maternal side of my family hailing from the Fatherland helps.
I was too young to care about or understand my mother's and grandparents' opinions on the reunification at the time, but that changed once I matured mentally and politically. Even twenty years after reunification, former West Germans looked down at the former Ossies. The way the East Germans were treated by some (including my grandfather and to a lesser extent my mother) was seemingly paradoxical and profoundly patriarchal. On the one hand, East Germans didn't deserve any kind of assistance in getting a leg up on the pile. Using West German resources to bring the East up to economic speed was the worst kind of pandering. The incredibly generous currency exchange given to bearers of the East German Mark was seen as tantamount to robbery, or perhaps more accurately a financial scam, by the West Germans. On the other hand, the worthless ex-commies had nothing worth contributing to greater German society. That their manufacturing base was in the shitter was their own fault, not the fault of the centrally planned economy under which they existed for 40 years.
To anyone who follows American political discourse with any regularity, these arguments may sound a little bit familiar. Different players and different words, perhaps, but overall the same out-group ostracization that happens whenever the topic of using collective funds or political power to impact, for better or for worse, someone not of one's own social group comes up—North vs. South, urban vs. rural, Caucasian vs. non-Caucasian, male vs. female.
It's only natural for people to place the greatest emphasis on their local identity—the community to which they most immediately belong—because that is the social group with the greatest impact on one's daily life. People are the most forgiving towards, even ignore, egregious deeds which would make them scream bloody murder if anyone else asked it of them. Local taxes are a good example; people bitch about having to pay them, sure, people bitch about anything (*cough*), but how common is it for anybody to flip out over them when compared to state or, Osiris help us, federal income taxes?
Gender hypocrisy is another big one that I'll nudge with a twenty-foot pole right now. Things which are socially acceptable for men to do or for women to do are not okay when done by the opposite sex, and that's not even touching on the great twisting ball of one's social gender. That damnable, mysterious Other rears its head once more, and opacity of comprehension gives way to revulsion and indifference and no small amount of ignorance. I didn't know until about three months ago that I ought to refer to myself as “cis-sexual” in gender theory circles and discussions as opposed to “normal”; the rudeness and connotations of using that particular word never occurred to me.
One thing I perhaps ought to mention at this point is that Good Bye, Lenin! does not portray all of the former Ossies sycophantically, and that there is a great deal of nuance within the characters, particularly the protagonist's mother, who is an ardent believer in the socialist state and whose coma and recovery therefrom drives half the film's plot; the other half is, by necessity, a love story, but it's kept from being overly cloying because it is treated fairly realistically and the conflicts within the blooming relationship tie into the other half of the plot. The street of cultural acceptance (homogenization into the social majority collective?) runs both ways. As the old adage puts it, the horse can be led to water but cannot be forced to drink. Does the horse have a right to be as stubborn as it wishes, even if it will clearly result in a death by dehydration?
People much much smarter and wiser than me—Hobbes, Locke, Rawls and Nozick among many many others—have tried tackling this problem. That we as a species have not come to a consensus could portend that we never will come to a consensus. That does not, however, mean that we should not work towards such an end. One individual will never be capable of totally understanding another person's point of view and way of life, but not striving for at least some degree of understanding is tantamount to throwing our hands up in the air and resigning ourselves to not accomplishing anything seeing as perfection will never be had in pursuit of any endeavor.
What is it that prevents us from embracing a larger understanding of community, of opening our minds to the social and psychological Other? Is it merely cultural, the persistence of a clannish or tribal social upbringing that is passed on to successive generations through word and deed? Or is it something deeper, something more primal and biological, a style of social organization hardwired into our brain chemistry like pack behavior in canines or schooling among some types of fish? The constructivist in me believes it to be the former. The cynic, of course, tends to the latter. Sadly, there is no way to definitely, let alone ethically, prove which is the correct option, or if there exists some third (fourth? Fifth?) explanation.
But even that style of thought, a black and white nature vs. nurture sociological debate, falls into a zero-sum trap. The quest for absolutes, for a Platonic purity of logic and structure in understanding, drives most scientific discourse. The need for conformity, while understandably laudable given the methods and philosophy of science, seeks to compartmentalize the disparate flora and fauna, the varying geography and strata of geology, of the sprawling forest which is existence into a perfect solid, a thing which perhaps has many disparate and flavorful bits trapped within it but which, in the grand scheme of things, is as sterile as any modern medical lab.
I've been to parts of the former East Germany. Even twenty years after reunification, there's a distinct difference in the air, a unique visual and cultural flavor that two decades of Western integration has not entirely managed to stamp out. It's most prevalent in and around the small towns. The rail lines are iller-kept, the roads are more worn and prone to potholing, and the buildings are dingier compared to sibling villages in the former West. The dialects of German spoken there have a curious, generation-long lingual diaspora. The younger folk I interacted with were perfectly understandable, but I struggled a bit to understand older men and women, ones that had lived in and through the DDR, on the occasions when I spoke with them. Of course, they were eminently surprised when I revealed that I was an American student-tourist rather than a visitor from elsewhere in the country. Apparently it's rather uncommon for lone young Americans to pay a visit to Leipzig, let alone the Nietzschehaus in the cozy hamlet of Naumburg; the wonderful old lady who manned the ticket table at the museum's entrance told me that she thought I hailed from somewhere around Frankfurt once we got to talking.
For better or for worse (personally I feel it's for better), people are not all one uniform culture or creed. We'll have arguments over the “proper” way of doing things. Usually those arguments will be hashed out with harsh language; other times the situation will sadly devolve into an exchange of bullets and missiles rather than ideas. I don't hold to much of the Marxist (though technically it comes down from Hegel) thought I once embraced in my na├»ve university days, but one bit which I do cling to is an idiosyncratic interpretation of dialectical materialism, the notion that conflicting ideas can be resolved into a greater, more complete whole. The world and all its bits are not inevitably destined for Marxist-style communism, no, but they are destined for something different from and greater than what they are right now. It happened in the reunification of the two Germanys in the early '90s. Some places, like North and South Korea, may rejoin into a political whole, peaceably or maybe not so much, in the coming years. Other places have been and will continue to break apart along ethnic or cultural lines, like the state of Kosovo from Bosnia; or South Sudan from Sudan, also for the better.
Fighting change merely for the sake of fighting change leads to stagnation and frustration. Nothing can hold back the tides of progress; it is as inexorable and relentless as wind and rain shearing down a mountain range, and may need to act over just as long a span of time. Mindlessly going with the flow is likewise not the appropriate reaction. Being swept up in a gamut of new ideas without grounding oneself in the familiar is as short-sighted and suicidal as yelling, “Hey, watch this!” and diving into a tsunami's riptide.
As for the what proper ratio between the two ought to be...well, if I had the answer to that, I wager I'd be doing something with my life other than running a video store.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Try the Other Place

The phone rings one morning at around eleven. It is an hour before opening, but Fernando picks up anyhow. “Hello, Dominion of Movies.”
There is a woman on the other end. She sounds old. “Do you know where I can buy Christmas movies?” she asks without any preamble.
Answering that question blunt- and honest-like would get Fernando into a heap of social trouble, so he works to ensure he's giving the woman an answer which she'd find palatable. To do this, he fishes for more information. “Any particular ones that you have in mind?”
Just Christmas movies.”
How specific. Maybe it's time for the honest answer after all. “Well, aside from retail stores--”
No, I've tried there. Other places.”
May as well try to make a buck. “I could order some in, if you wanted to give me specific titles--”
I want to look around on my own.”
May as well be as helpful as possible. “In that case, the best place would be online, Amazon or eBay or sites like that.”
I don't trust 'em.”
Oh okay. “Perhaps Goodwill, then?”
I've tried there. They don't have anything.”
Then I'm afraid I don't know where else, no.”
This statement does not meet with a warm reception. How can you not know about any other places or have any? You're in the business, aren't you?”
Fernando had awoken late that morning and hadn't yet consumed the necessary ration of coffee to fortify his willpower and avoid transforming into an snippy dick in the face of a crabby woman. “Sorry, I can't yet cast fabricate. I'm not quite ninth level. If I find anything I'll be sure to let you know, though.”
Either the woman comprehended Fernando's deep foray into nerdery or she didn't care. “Okay. Call me then.” She hangs up.
Fernando replaces the phone in its cradle, then starts resolving his deplorable coffee situation.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Advice, Dog

It had been such a long time since one particular gentleman professed words of boundless wisdom at Fernando. Like all good things, this came to an end on one afternoon not long after opening.
I see you've got some boxes there,” he says.
Fernando looks over his shoulder and into his office, where large boxes crammed full of VHS tapes lay. He was finally ridding his inventory of the outdated technology, simultaneously freeing up much-needed shelf space and lowering his property tax burden (for the laws of his state allow for tax levies on inventory kept at a business). Someone was coming by later that evening to pick up the boxes and rather than waste time and energy hauling them into the back room only to haul them back out, he just stacked them in a corner of the office until she could arrive to relieve him.
Yeah, I'm clearing out some space,” Fernando says.
What are you gonna do with them all? Sell 'em?”
That's the plan.”
I don't know if anybody would buy them because nobody really uses the players anymore. You should bring them up to the Sound Shelf and maybe you'll get your money's worth.”
Actually, someone's coming by later today to take them. That's why they're cluttering up my office.”
Oh. Well I don't know if that is better for you because you might get a better price up there. How much you selling them for?”
I'm not concerned about getting the highest price; I just want to get rid of them. Besides, I'd rather they go to one of my customers rather than one of my competitors, oblique as the overlap between our respective businesses may be.”
I see,” he says. “What are you gonna do with all the empty space then?”
Use it. New movies keep being released and I will need to put them somewhere.”
Oh.” His view rotates around Fernando's lobby, though he does not look at anything in particular. “Well, have a good day.”
You too.”

Thursday, January 3, 2013


A lady comes into the store one evening. “Which movie is better, Dark Knight Rises or Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter?”
I preferred The Dark Knight Rises myself,” Fernando answers.
Oh, why is that? The other one not very good?”
Fernando shrugs. “I'm just more a fan of the Batman franchise, I suppose. Abe Lincoln is by no means a bad movie. It's one of those that realizes its premise is so absurd that it has no choice but to embrace it, and the movie becomes better--”
The woman asked a question of Fernando but did not seem to have much of a desire to hear his answer, for she pulled out her cell phone and started doing things on it during his response. Once Fernando notices that she is thoroughly ignoring him, he returns to his computer and his work, tuning out the woman's presence in his store as she converses with her compatriot.
After a few minutes she finishes up and expects Fernando's attention. “Hey, you never answered my question!”
Actually I did.”
No you didn't. I was on the phone.”
She gives Fernando a look of profound confusion, then understanding spreads over her face like the creeping sunrise over the land, then she walks out.