Barry Smith: Irrelativity
July 31, 2011
‘How much for the VHS tapes?’
The guy tells me that if I fill up the big cardboard box with as many as I want, he’ll give it to me for $5. That’s around 20 cents a pound: a good price for antiquated media.
But I don’t want an entire box of VHS tapes. I only want the one I just found in the bottom of the pile. The one labeled, with a ballpoint pen, “First Tape.”
I happen to know that “First Tape” is what everyone wrote on the first VHS tape that they inserted into their first ever video camera. This, of course, was back when shoving a VHS tape into a camera was the only way to make a video of something. My family’s “First Tape” dates back to 1983. It, too, says “First Tape” on it. Just like everybody’s does. What else can you call it? Also like everybody’s, it contains six hours of mundane family footage, mostly people saying, “Stop filming me, Barry!” It’s a precious archive if you’re a family member, but for a stranger it would be pretty tedious.
And not only do I still have my “First Tape,” I have all of the subsequent home movies shot since then. I also have everything leading up to the “First Tape.” Film, video, faded pictures from the ’70s, oversized black-and-white negatives from the ’30s. I am the self-appointed keeper of my family’s personal archives. It’s a job that suits me well, because I’m clearly a little bit obsessed with it, and I’m OK with that.
But what I didn’t know is that this obsession doesn’t stop with videos of MY family. Because when I saw the words “First Tape” on that VHS, I felt that tingle that people feel when they know they’re about to get a garage sale treasure for a quarter. I was disproportionately excited, like I’d just discovered handwritten notes for the first draft of the Gettysburg Address: “Everybody throw your hands in the air! Come on, get ’em up there! Fourscore and seven years ago … “
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Why would I suddenly want to have someone else’s “First Tape?” I don’t even like reality TV, so why would I want to have hours and hours of mind-numbing, poorly lit, shaky camera footage of people I don’t know?
Good question. I don’t know the answer, but if I did, I suspect that it wouldn’t be a short one. So, lucky you: You’re just going to have to believe me when I tell you that I really, really wanted it.
Oh, but there was one little moral complication: The guy in charge of pricing, the one organizing this sale, was the brother of the “First Tape” creator. His brother just died, so he’s come to town to sell off his stuff. This was confirmed by a conversation I had with him earlier. Also, the ad that led me here read: “Giant yard sale. Owner died. Lots of stuff.” Subtlety has no place in advertising.
As much as I wanted this “First Tape,” I just couldn’t do it. I knew that the brother, an older gentleman, didn’t realize that a precious family artifact had gotten mixed in with the home-taped episodes of “Murder, She Wrote.” And I couldn’t just walk away with it.
So rather than quietly pay my quarter and leave, I handed him the “First Tape” and explained everything I’ve just told you, even acting out the Gettysburg Address joke. I then told him the tale of when I once discovered an unknown cache of home movies, and how important I thought it was that people have such things. He listened politely and said “thanks.” I get the feeling that what he’d like to have said was, “I’m really not very interested in your story, as I’m incredibly busy and you’re clearly a little bit strange, but I’ll pretend to be engaged in the hopes that you’ll stick around and maybe spend an extra 75 cents.”
He set the “First Tape” on his cash box table and went back to what he was doing.
Years from now, when people are pawing through the crap at MY estate sale, (“Ewww … what’s in this jar labeled ‘My Baby Teeth?'”) at least nobody will have reason to say, “Hey, look! This guy had somebody else’s ‘First Tape!’ What a weirdo!”
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