Blockbuster Video- Rentals So Hot, They're On Fire!

Back in the late 90s, I worked at Blockbuster Video for a few years.  It was a great job in terms of co-workers; I made some good friends there and had a lot of fun working with them.  It was a shitty, shitty job in terms of pay and dealing with corporate bullshit and customers. I won’t get into the stupidity of dealing with customers, because we’ve all seen Clerks (if you haven’t, I don’t want to be your friend).  So let’s deal with the corporate side.
Blockbuster Video was an incredibly cheap and frustrating company to work for.  Minimum wage slave-like salary aside, the store managers and staff had to fight for simple things to keep the store running on a day-to-day basis. Things broke and we couldn’t get money to fix them or replacements. 

  • We had a vacuum cleaner that created sparks when you plugged it into the outlet, and you put your life at risk every time you did vacuum duty when you were closing the store, God forbid you didn’t vacuum because the district manager may write you up.
  • The refrigerator in the break room probably hadn’t worked since 1988.
  • Roaches the size of hamsters would casually saunter out onto the front counter, heedless of the light and people and just chill. 
  • In winter time there was no heat, but you couldn’t wear a sweater because it wasn’t part of the uniform.
  • The store gates would stick and require you to hang off of them with your full body weight to get them to close. 

As I said, incredibly frustrating.

But then there was the summer that Blockbuster’s cheap ways came to a head.
The pinnacle of corporate WTFery.

Let’s talk about The Day Blockbuster Caught Fire.

I was working one Saturday in July, and I was the one of two of the “A” staff on that night.  Now, if you’ve ever been in retail you know what I mean. There are the good employees and the ones that are made of fail but are just there because you need bodies.  The manager usually pairs the two to balance out the shift.  I was on shift with the new assistant manager that spent her shift fighting with her boyfriend on the phone, a nice but clueless young girl who moved in slow motion and one of the other “good” employees.

Welcome to Blockbuster.

That night it was hot. I mean it was fucking HOT.  The air conditioning had never worked properly in the store. Previous summers had been disasters, with the store manager begging, pleading for repairs, while the staff brought fans from home when they were on shift to survive.  Some nights we just gave up and shut the damn thing off.  This summer there had actually been attempts to repair it, but it hadn’t been working. We’d been complaining and the complaints had been falling on deaf corporate ears. It wasn’t working that night and it was probably 20 degrees hotter in the store than it was outside.  I took random cigarette breaks just escape the heat.  I was sweating like crazy and my makeup was dripping off my face.

Customers were walking into the store and getting hit in the face with a stifling blast of hot muggy air.  Some just turned around and walked out, saying “fuck this”.  Others braved the heat for that copy of Jerry Maguire that they just had to have. 
While checking out customers, they complained about the heat, sympathized with me, some stupidly asking me why we didn’t have the AC on but most of them wondering why the AC was always broken.  A lot of them voiced opinions that the working conditions were unacceptable and I agreed and offered up the 800 number to Blockbuster's customer service line and urged them to by all means complain. 

So many people asked me that I started tearing off little slips of receipt paper and writing down the number during lulls so I had a little pile of them to hand out.  I figured it would get a response if customers complained. I was right.  A few hours later, the assistant manager got a call from the Blockbuster customer service line.  They had gotten so many calls from customers about our broken air conditioner situation that they were responding:

They told us to stop giving out the number.


The night went on, slowly, oh so slowly.  I was hot, I was tired, I was cranky and I probably smelled bad.  It was around 10, 10:30 PM when a customer came up to the counter and said something to the effect of: “I smell smoke in the back of the store.”  The assistant manager was waiting on a customer, the "good" co-worker was checking in tapes and the other girl was on the floor running tapes, so I finished my sale closed my line and my coworker and I went to the back of the store, sniffing along the way.  We walked along, warily *sniff sniff sniff*.  Yup, that’s the smell of smoke.  We looked around for a cigarette, which wouldn’t have been the first time some customer did something stupid like that but, no cigarette. We kept looking.  Then we noticed smoke coming out of the air vents...


My co-worker went to the front to grab the key to the back room.  We tested the door for heat just like GI Joe taught us.  There was no heat so we gingerly opened the door.  No flames.  But it smelled like smoke. We went to the break room, but nothing was there.  Then we turned and noticed the room to the air conditioning unit. It was partially ajar, and we saw smoke.  We approached it, and opened the door with a broom handle...and saw flames shooting out from the air conditioning unit.

(The following images are accurate interpretations of our reactions upon seeing actual fucking fire):

First we were...

And then we...

We ran like fuck out of there, arms flailing, screaming like little girls.

We ran to the front and quickly told the assistant manager to call 911 now because there was a fire in the back.  She was fairly useless but at least she got that right.  We sent the other girl out of the store immediately as the assistant manager nervously called 911.  We proceeded to run around the store in laps and pretty much just yell at customers: “Fire in the store! Leave your shit! Get out! Fire in the store!!!”

We pushed, shoved and cajoled customers.  We grabbed tapes out of their hands and threw them on the floor and herded them out.  As we herded them like cattle, the smoke was getting slightly worse.
I was at the exit, making sure none of them stole anything and one of them was holding a tape and said “Can’t you just ring this up? I’ve been waiting for it for two weeks.” I slapped the tape out of her hand and growled “The Store Is On Fire!” and pushed her out.  The last of the customers was out.

 I grabbed my purse.  We left the store, and waited across the street for the fire department.  I went to the payphone and called my best friend, who was another assistant manager.  I spoke with her mom, whose first language was not English and tried to explain that my friend had to come to the store right now, and call to the Manager and District Manager.

We then watched at the lights slowly went out in the store as it lost power.   FDNY showed up rather quickly.  Oh, FDNY...how I love them.  There’s nothing like a New York City Firefighter.  They showed and we quickly explained what was going on and where the fire was.  (And I totally didn't gawk at any of them because they were really hot. Nope, not me!)

They wanted to go in through the back door and the assistant manager offered them the key.  As she offered them the key in vain “Key..I have a key here…anyone..?” they marched past us, axes in hand. 

 (Wanted: Firefighter, must hate doors.)

As they were in the store, doing their thing, my best friend who was an assistant manager showed up with her cousin, who was also an employee. I explained to them what was going on, the both of them having rushed there having only been told by her mom “Trixie called, she said, oh, I don’t know, something, I think the store, is on fire…?”.
 She called the other managers, who showed up slowly. Other employees eventually showed up too, since they lived in the neighborhood, and gathered to watch and to prevent looting.   When the District Manager finally showed up and asked what had happened, I stepped forward and said, as smugly as I could, “The air conditioner caught fire.”

I dun told you, bitches.


So the fire was put out. They explained that the actual store part wasn’t damaged but the back room was and air conditioner was toast (finally a reason to get a new one!) and the electrical system was fried.  There was no power in the store at all. This was going to cost the company a lot of money.  The District Manager was getting paler and paler as dollar signs went through his head.
Then the Fire Marshall arrived to question the employees on duty.  They asked if anyone on shift was a smoker. Everyone on shift pointed to me, immediately.  The Fire Marshall looked at me sternly.  I was like “What? I wasn’t even on break! PLEASE BELIEVE ME! PLEASE BELIEVE ME!” They quickly ruled me out as a suspect.  (If I was going to burn that store down it, would not have been standing.)

They let us in to assess the damage.  We stood guard since there actually were looters gathering, looking for a chance to score a free copy of Pulp Fiction (stay classy, Astoria). As the managers looked around they realized the store was fucked.  There was soot everywhere. The back room was a disaster.  What hadn’t burned has been axed by the FDNY, and it was a mess of water and burned shit. This was gonna cost corporate a bundle to clean up...

Or maybe not.  Not if you use your Blockbuster employees to do a job at $4.85 an hour that you should be paying a qualified OSHA clean up crew to do. And they did just that. The store was closed for two weeks and we spent them cleaning up the store, shoveling out debris from the back, cleaning air vents, shelves, video tapes, all in an airless, lightless store.  I would blow my nose and black soot would come out.

That's due back Friday, before Midnight.
But we all needed the money.  I was poor and was resigned to let Blockbuster bend me over and go in dry because we were actually getting 40 hours a week, unheard of for a part-time employee. I was making extra, much needed money, black lung be damned. And for our efforts, we each earned a $25 Blockbuster gift card and a “Wow” pin, which is a pin. That says “Wow”. 

And “Wow” just about covers the moral of this story.



Anonymous said...

YOU had to clean up? Good god!

Anonymous said...

Well it was either that or not get paid for two weeks. It was sort of a lose lose situation.