My first and only job during a disastrous year in New York was at the DVD Funhouse. Little storefront on 6th avenue between 21st and 22nd street. Flatiron District.
The place sold bootleg DVDs, Canadian imports mostly, with the ISBN barcodes scratched off. The first floor was for walk-in customers, people coming off the street to peruse the racks.
I worked in the basement. The place stretched on forever. Pallets and pallets of junk. Crates of old Blockbuster rentals. Books on tape. Useless novelties galore.
I was in charge of online sales. I turned the place around. When Victor hired me, there were two sales a week. By the time I finished, we were selling hundreds of units daily.
Every day I took the J train from Bed-Stuy into Manhattan. I’d buy a coffee at a corner stall for a dollar. I’d get to the Funhouse, print packing slips, pull the orders, stuff them into envelopes, and cart everything to the post office around the corner.
I got pretty friendly with the old guy who worked the dock at the post office. Thirty years with USPS, he told me. A few more years and he could retire. Wonder if he made good on his word.
I had a few guys working for me. Eli was a wannabe stand-up comedian. He’d practice his routine. “My buddy’s wife had a miscarriage after they baby-proofed the house. It worked. A baby didn’t get in.” I started wearing headphones.
Then there was Eric. He had a beard. He was a die hard Giants fan. All I remember.
A kid named Jose ran the register upstairs. “New York City is the greatest place on earth,” he’d say. “Cleanest tap water in America.”
Victor’s older brother Mike was the manager. He never did much besides sit in the bathroom playing games on his BlackBerry.
I worked with another guy named Mark Kamins. His apartment had been leveled during 9/11. He got a big settlement check from the government. The money ran out. So he worked for me at the DVD Funhouse.
Victor told me Mark used to be a bigshot in the music industry. I didn’t buy it until I googled his name. Turned out Mark produced Madonna’s first single, “Everybody.” Launched her to fame. The two even used to be a couple.
I asked Mark about Madonna while we were shelving DVDs one day. I wanted to know what she was like in bed. He thought about it for a minute. “Her pussy hairs were like a brillo pad.”
Mark was a terrible employee. Couldn’t do anything right. Didn’t know how to work a computer. He kept fucking up so much I demanded Victor fire him or I’d quit.
I got what I wanted.
I never knew what happened to Mark until I started writing this. He moved to Guadalajara, Mexico. Started teaching. Died 2013. Heart attack. Fifty-seven years old.
In Mark’s obituary, Madonna says, “If it weren't for him, I might not have had a singing career. He was the first DJ to play my demos before I had a record deal. He believed in me before anyone else did. I owe him a lot.”
The Funhouse was full of rats and roaches. Biggest roaches I’ve ever seen. We’d set glue traps and sprinkle green poison pellets along holes in the walls. It got to be like a game, killing roaches. We’d fling discs that were too scratched for sale trying to slice the pests in two. I got pretty good after a while. Joey was the best.
Joey was the only guy I worked with who I had any respect for. He used to make fun of my shoes, a pair of boots that clacked when I walked. He’d laugh and say, “You sound like a chick.”
Joey and I were the same age, about twenty. That’s where the similarities ended. He was an ex-con who’d served time for dealing coke. Nearly died after some punks he’d robbed decided to get even. They jumped him, bashed Joey’s head in with an aluminum baseball bat. He showed me the dent in his shaved head.
He lived in Queens with his father, who was a bus driver. Joey had to share a room with his sister. I always thought that was weird, but Joey didn’t mind. When he wasn’t at the Funhouse, Joey was at the gym. He was always giving me tips about weight lifting. I never listened.
Joey’s dream was to join the Navy. We both knew with his criminal record there was no chance in hell of Joey becoming a sailor. The dream kept him going.
On our lunch break, Joey and I would go to McDonald’s across the street. He loved putting BBQ sauce on his McChicken. “I’m a fast food connoisseur,” he’d say, lips smeared deep red.
Joey was so strong. He’d move whole pallets single-handedly, carry hundred-pound boxes on his shoulders like it was nothing. Sometimes we’d take our rolly chairs from the desks and send each other rocketing down the endless concrete floor. If Joey was the one pushing, you’d always win the race.
I remember his biceps bulging with veins. I remember him chugging protein shakes and energy drinks. I remember him encouraging me to quit smoking. I remember him breaking wooden boards with his bare hands.
I don’t remember Joey’s last name. I can’t look him up, see what he’s done with himself this past decade. I like to imagine he’s on an aircraft carrier somewhere in the Pacific, off the coast of Polynesia maybe, or the Port of Siam. He’s got a chest full of medals and a girl waiting for him back home. He’s asleep in his bunk, dreaming about a ten-story funhouse mirror. He smashes the massive glass monolith with his fist. He laughs, cracks his knuckles, and says, “Punk ass bitch.”