Sound and fury at video return deadline are like something out of a bad movie

February 22, 1996|By Kevin Cowherd

IT'S LATE ON A Sunday evening and I'm lying in bed, pleasantly anesthetized by a National Geographic special on TBS, coyotes in Yellowstone Park or something.

Suddenly I sit bolt upright, feeling a familiar stab of panic that can mean only one thing: the videos! I gotta return the videos!

Within seconds, buckets of epinephrine are coursing through my system as it throttles into full panic mode.

The clock says it's 9:51 p.m.

The video store closes at 10.

Can I make it?

Or is this the time I die trying?

"THE VIDEOS! WHERE ARE THE VIDEOS?!" I shriek, throwing off the covers and jumping into my clothes like a fireman leaping into his gear.

I grab the videos and sprint to the car, a blast of arctic-cold air momentarily rocking me back on my heels. Then I bang the key into the ignition, slam the gearshift lever into Drive and go fishtailing down the road.

Six minutes to closing time. This one'll be close.

The truth is, I have done many stupid things in my life, things so astonishingly dumb they would take your breath away if I told you about them.

Nevertheless, there is something singularly stupid about racing to the video store at closing time.

It has to do with simple mathematics.

If I fail to return the video on time, the store will charge me a late fee of $2.

Whereas if I get pulled over by a cop and given a speeding ticket for driving like a nut, I'm looking at a fine of, I don't know, 75 bucks.

Of course, as I stomp on the accelerator and feel the thin layer of perspiration forming on my forehead, the last thing I'm worried about is a speeding ticket.

Instead, I'm consumed with one thought: Did I rewind the video? Think, man, think! Did you rewind it? God help me, I can't remember. I'm stressed out. My mind is a blank, a vast, puffy expanse of nothingness.

In the world of video rental stores, there is no sin as egregious as failing to rewind the video.

Even losing the video is not considered as serious. Report a lost video and the young, intensely-blond surfer-type at the cash register will accept your replacement check and say (not unkindly): "Dude, these things happen."

But return the video unwound -- especially for the third or fourth time -- and suddenly all action ceases behind the counter as everyone turns to stare at you.

Suddenly three or four blue-shirted thugs with overly-cheerful name tags ("I'm Alex!" "I'm Melinda!") leap over the counter and scream: "HOW MANY TIMES DO WE HAVE TO TELL YOU ABOUT THIS?"

Now, with three minutes left until the video store closes, with trees and houses shooting by in a blur, all I care about is this: please don't let the Rewind Gestapo hassle me.

In contemporary America, there is no scene like the parking lot of a video store at closing time on a Sunday evening, when all the weekend rentals are due back.

Cars scream in from every direction, a cross-section of motor vehicles that cuts across socio-economic lines: solid Ford Broncos, haughty Mercedes, Camaros with furry dice and high school graduation tassels dangling from the rear-view mirror, boxy Volvos with tired "Mother-in-law in trunk" signs affixed to the rear window.

One by one they lurch to a stop in front of the store and a solitary figure bounds from behind the steering wheel to the entrance.

There is a signature look to each of these people: jangled, hastily-dressed, some so freshly-disturbed they have pillow marks still creasing their faces.

At 9:59, I take the turn by Safeway on two wheels and come flying into the video store parking lot, the car screeching to a halt in a spray of gravel.

A little old lady on the sidewalk looks up, her eyes filled with alarm. But there's no time to stop and reassure her.

In the window, I can see one of the blue-shirted thugs reaching for the switch that will flick on the "Closed" light.

Now I'm out of the car and running for the entrance, elbowing a hard-breathing, 40ish man for position amid the panicked pack of humanity running with us.

I make it just before they lock the door. One of the blue-shirted thugs takes my videos and chirps: "Have a good night!"

Now I can, pal.

Now I can.

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