It was 1984. I worked in a video store in Northfield, New Jersey.
I was back from California. I failed as a musician in Los Angeles. The angel that rose up in Philly in 1979 as a singer, then a guitarist in Wildwood was cast asunder. It was over. I was back in Wildwood. The place I left in 1982 that I never wanted to return to I sadly came home to. I was back living in my parents house. The first of many failures in my short life. Like Icarus who flew too high, my wings melted and I fell back to the Earth.
Making the transition to being back at home with my parents was brutal. I remember at first I was welcome, but in time my father was filled with disdain for me. Why hadn’t I ever written a letter to my mother while I was away? I don’t know. Maybe I was too busy having the time of my life for a few years without any of you. I learned about life, and how to cook and look after myself. All the while struggling with severe anxiety and depression.
My father got me a job in a video store. It was one of his accounts at the bank. He knew the principals of Home Video Centers in Northfield and Vineland. It wasn’t a little mom and pop video store that used to exist back in the ’80s. It was a massive store, with 500 titles on VHS and Beta and all of the other things you needed to have your own home movie experience. (Does anybody remember rear projection big-screen TVs? What an abortion of an idea that was.)
I was hired as a salesman. I remember when I got my first business cards. It felt good. But I used the name Chaz, and my father didn’t like that. I should have my proper name on my cards. Now it feels like my father might have been part Asian based on the amount of shame in my life growing up. (No offense to the Asian culture, but it is a patriarchal society, and honor and respect are paramount. Hence, much of their porn, like Germany is all about shame and humiliation) But I digress…
I liked the job and the people I worked with and for. We were all a bunch of young guys and girls working in relatively new retail industry. We had a massive rental business but also sold VCRs, TVs, and video cameras. When I think about it now, the technology was so heavy and clunky back then. Massive machines that weighed a ton. Video cameras that almost seemed absurd, because of all of the gear you had to carry just to make a video of your family at some outing. When I think of all of the set up my father did a decade before all of that when I was a kid to shoot home movies on 8mm, super 8, and eventually 16mm, it boggles my mind.
Now it’s all in our phones. Not much bigger than a deck of cards in our pocket. You can do all of that and better now. Better technology but the content hasn’t really changed. You can just stream it now.
I remembered I saved up for my own VCR. I wanted to take movies home from work and watch them for free. I loved the movies. My father taught me about film as a young lad. He even dabbled in making his own creative films for a while when I was a kid. I’ll tell those stories in a future post.
I loved movies and having grown up in an age where you could only watch what was on TV at a specific time or go to a movie theater. So home video was king to me. Now I could take a movie home and watch it when I wanted.
So I purchased a used, refurbished Sanyo Betamax top-loader VCR from my company for about $300 which was a fortune back then. Maybe it was $250 but who knows? But I thought it was cheap for what I got. I didn’t care. I was so happy to bring it home and attach it to my little 13 inch Sony TV in my bedroom and watch all the movies I was dying to see as a kid. They were all mine now! I had the keys to the kingdom.
There were two formats back then. Beta and VHS. Sony invented both formats. But Beta was the better format. Better picture and sound. They kept the superior format for themselves and sold it to who they wanted, mostly other Asian electronics companies. Sanyo, NEC, etc. They sold the VHS format off to I think RCA or Sylvania. I actually have no idea. But what happened was, more companies made the VHS systems. VHS machines were more accessible to the general public and the inferior system actually won as the victor of what people watched movies on. Beta died. It was sad to see the superior format lose to the inferior format. But there is simply strength in numbers. Those sort of statistics hold up today. If you have enough money and guys, you can crush your competitor. I’m sure Sony didn’t really care because they probably made all of their money back on patents. (And now look at them!)
Anyway, my dad would ask me about some of the films we had at the store. (video rentals) He would ask if we had specific films and wondered if I could maybe bring them home and we could watch them together.
I leaped at this idea because for most of my life with my father things were strained. Here was an opportunity for us to hang out on neutral ground, and do something together that we both loved.
I don’t remember what the first film was that I brought home. Maybe 3 Days of the Condor, Straw Dogs, or Kelly’s Heroes. My dad would give me a list and I would let him know what was on tape. He would always pick them because he had a history of films in his head that surpassed my brief life. He would pick these amazing films that I would never have known about without him even thought of. I worked in the store with 500 titles but there were so many great films now on tape that had been silent for years. Videotape brought them all back to life. It was an exciting time. The humble beginnings of all access, all the time, that we enjoy today.
Let me tell you what it was like.
I would come home from work at the video store with a film. He had already set up the night we were going to watch it.
Now let me give you the lay of the land here.
We had this giant house at the shore. My dad had this cool space that was upstairs in the front of the house. This was his man cave long before man caves were a thing. This space worked for him because he could have his own little world in there.
This is a guy who worked his whole life to build a life for his family. He worked in a bank as a manager, had four kids; three daughters and one son. His wife never worked and was a full-time homemaker. Yea, things were different back in the ’50s, 60’s and 70’s. But the man needed his space and he built the shore house to create his own little private space there. In our old house in Philly, the basement was his space.
He loved Christmas so much he would have his own tree up there in the apartment. Yes… he would buy two really good Frazier Fir trees and one would be the family Christmas tree downstairs and he would have his own tree up in his little lair. He even ran a string of mini lights down the hallway. So basically upstairs was always Christmas in our house. Not weird, just his happy thing.
So, I would come home and we’d set up our night. I would set up a little TV snack table next to his television. I would carry my VCR from my bedroom and wire it up to his TV.
Let me describe my dad’s cave. He had a living room. a bedroom with an attached bathroom and a kitchen with ocean views. Amazing space. He even had a Franklin stove in the corner of the living room. I always wondered why he had that, and then one time the power went off during a storm and he tossed some wood in that thing and it heated the whole second floor of the house. Genius.
So, we’ve got everything set up, and I would sit at his kitchen table and chat with him while he cooked a special dinner for the two of us. I would drink a beer and so would he. Normally we both liked light crisp lagers or pilsners. He would give me a little fresh bread to munch on but not too much because you never want to eat too much before dinner because you never want to spoil your appetite!
The windows would be open and the fragrance from the sea would waft in. The air is just so fresh and cool by the sea. I love living in the city but there is nothing like it.
He would get ahead of fresh lettuce and cut it up. Simple. That was the salad. just lettuce. He would mix and make his own Russian dressing. Thousand Island? Is that ketchup and mayo? Whatever it was… it was delish. I was with my dad having a beer and noshing on french bread and for once… he wasn’t mad at me.
He had bought two fresh Delmonico steaks. Bone-in. Apparently, if the bone is in, the meat is sweeter and more savory, because the marrow in the bone lends itself to the flavor. There is nothing in the world like an amazing steak. My daughter is vegan and I respect that, but there is nothing on Earth like men ripping into grilled steak and devouring the fired flesh of those who would devour us if we weren’t such killers. Hell-bent on being number one on the food chain to the point where we kill so much we are no longer in the food chain… but again, I digress…
He would have these inch and a half thick delicious steaks. He would put them in the broiler in his oven and cook them there. I know before he put them in he did something with some secret seasoning that includes garlic and some other potions not revealed to me. While the steaks were cooking, and it didn’t take long, I would go quiet. I don’t like anyone talking to me when I’m cooking, so I knew my father needed silence to make his food art for us.
Halfway through, he would slide out the tray, and reach for two shots of Remy Martin cognac he had sitting on the counter. He would douse both steaks with a flash of brandy, and they would both ignite in flames as he pushed them back into the broiler. He told me that this would sear in the juices and glaze the outside or something. (It worked!)
I always wanted this part to go on longer than it ever did. I liked sitting peacefully in my father’s kitchen just chatting with him. We talked about everything. Work, life, music, films, girls, everything. Whatever was going on in the moment we would cover. But as some of you know, when it comes to steak, your window for chatter before dinner is always fleeting.
We would sit at his table and eat the steaks and the little brown bowls of salad. He said that we shouldn’t have a potato because he wanted the focus of the meal to be on the meat. He was completely right. They were some of the best steaks I’ve ever eaten. They were cooked to perfection, and I loved every bite. He always served an amazing cabernet with every meal. But more than that, my father and I were sharing one of the oldest rituals in history.
We’d put on some cool classical dinner music. My dad was a master of classical music and opera. He owned so much of that and loved it so much. I think he heard his own passion, pain, and triumph in that music.
A father and son breaking bread together. Like in times of old, the father sharing the day’s kill with his only son. He would tell me stories that were only for me. Tales that were only for men. Things and deeds that my sisters or my mother could never hear.
I felt so close to him then.
After dinner, we would retire to the living room. I would fire up the Sanyo top loader and the film would begin. I’d make whatever adjustments were necessary so that the film would play properly, and off we’d go. (Does anybody remember tracking?)
For the next two hours, we’d disappear together into the film. A world we could both control. Two completely different guys that somehow got thrown together in this life, and we got along. We found our thing.
He had a really nice padded wooden rocking chair in the room. He liked to sit in a hard chair as he called it because it felt better on his back. So, I got to sit in his comfy rocking chair to watch the movie with him. I loved it!
There were times we’d both feel so much emotion that we’d both tear up a little bit during a movie. Terms of Endearment worked on both of our hearts! There were times he would reach over and grab my hand as we both felt the pain of the characters in the film. It meant so much to me that I was this connected to my father at this moment. Brought together by a film we both loved. I know whatever was happening on the screen was a feeling we had both felt in our own lives. Even though we were sometimes worlds apart, we connected in that moment.
After the wine, we would dabble in a bit of the cognac, and he would offer me a bit of bittersweet chocolate from Rauhauser’s Candies in Ocean City. It was the best damn candy in the world. The butter cremes were like kissing the face of God.
I remember during Straw Dogs one night I thought the snifter of cognac would burst in my hand from the suspense. My dad could really pick the films that rocked!
My father said that those were some of his fondest memories of me. He said for a brief time when I was between women in my life we spent some wonderful, simple times together.
I think maybe at some point my dad realized I was really different than him. I was more like his wife and her side of the family. I know I disappointed my father so many times. I’ll never know what it was like for him to grow up in the world he was born into. A world he never made, or could control. I can’t imagine the grinding frustration of his life with so much responsibility, all in the name of maybe finding peace of mind. That, and trying to build a family the only way he knew how from the ashes of his own fractured childhood.
At the end of his life, I convinced him to let me set up a Netflix account for him. There were so many films I wanted to share with him. After some reservations, he finally let me. We had a few years there where he let me to pick all of the movies and shows for him to watch.
So I guess it went full circle.
I’m grateful for all of our conversations about all of those great movies.
I think my dad found peace of mind eventually when he settled things with my mom and they both got along. But I know once she was gone he lost some of himself.
I’ve been thinking about him lately and felt compelled to write this.
I like it when my dad occasionally taps on the window of my mind and asks me to let him in. He’s always welcome.
Thanks for letting me sit in your chair, Dad.
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