From the Fires
The local video store wasn’t just a staple of my childhood, it was the most important building I could visit, given my surprisingly limited sphere of travel. Now grown, I remember the everyday things about the space: blue carpeting; a row of horror VHS tapes that seemed endless and terrifying, but beckoned with cover art that burned itself into my memories as something exotic and frightening; a wall of NES games at the rightmost corner; the checkout area that, like a vault, had rows of cartridges and tapes and test units; and the ever-changing collection of two arcade stand-ups alongside a never-the-same-twice pinball machine. Much like in a bookstore now, I would wander the rows aimlessly, peering at actor stand-ups, searching for new releases, watching impossibly-tall teens play for ages on a single quarter. Most of all, I remember the place expanding, adding a service window that processed photos for passports, sold bus tokens, and performed services that I didn’t have a use for, becoming a place that – in my mind – rivaled the larger chain-stores that were too far to be of any real use. It was a vibrant bubble of concentrated escapism that I loved to visit.
I like to think that the store, Video Hot, would have continued to expand and take up more of the strip-mall that it sat in. I like to think that it would have kept a great collection of NES games as the new gen creeped in, that it would have created a small section for Laserdiscs, or that it would have dedicated a section of the store for more arcade games. Or maybe it could have included vending-machines along the foreign and classics nook to build up traffic there.
I like to think that these things might have happened, because the store never got a chance to live up to the potential it was building. It never expanded its collection of games. Never again featured arcade cabinets. Never grew out. It never did this, because in the middle of the day on April 30th , 1992, it ceased to be the space I remember — because, by the morning of May 1st, there was a giant, charred wound where the checkout counter once stood.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was living through Los Angeles history, courtesy of the Rodney King Riots. I didn’t understand that it was just the latest in a history of social uprisings that have graced the city of angels; didn’t know about the economic catastrophes that had turned South Central from a modest aerospace-powered suburb to a punchline in the national consciousness. The reality of it, the history of it, didn’t penetrate the bubble-life of my nine year-old self.
And so, the day of the verdict, April 29, 1992, came and went with not too much importance in my mind. At mid-morning, we were hastily pulled into the multipurpose room — the sleek linoleum-lined cafetorium with the orange pull-down tables that served as refuge on rainy days — to sit and busy ourselves. Back then, the air quality in Los Angeles could become so poor that school children would be forbidden from playing in the smog-soaked air. I was soon notified that my father had come to pick me up. I could only guess that the quality of air was downright industrial to prompt my father to not only stay home from his construction job, but to also come and retrieve me. We met at the reunion gate and took off for the strenuous 1-and-a-half-block walk home.
Only, we took a small detour, took a left to hit Beverly Boulevard (one of the main arteries of Los Angeles’s congested urban network) and swing by a liquor store. If it was his day off, dad was going to make it count for something. If I was lucky, that would include a trip to Video Hot, our growing video rental shop, and a game to take home. I was going to make my day count, too.
We crested the hill leading to the main street: dozens and dozens of pedestrians, gliding through the middle of the street where cars should have been whizzing by. I felt my father hesitate for a moment, stop, then grip my hand. He looked down and said “vamos” with a quick snap of his head. He took off in a light jog as I tried to keep pace. “Follow me, and keep running,” he said in Spanish. I had no idea why we were plunging headfirst into a marathon. No idea why he said not to talk to anyone, not to lose him, only to keep running. It didn’t make sense to run, given the air.
As we joined the crowd, bodies rushed past us, eager to get somewhere, breaking off into the shops that lined the boulevard, flowing westwards, always westwards. The scene was surreal, like the panic scenes from a Godzilla movie. I looked around, half expecting something to be chasing the mass of runners, maybe an errant glob of creeping smog, but I only saw eager faces. We crossed an intersection that would normally be teeming with cars, but the signal lights were blinking a monotone, uniformly broken red. For the moment, it seemed like a wonderful parade route. A young man smiled happily, said something to my father that I didn’t catch, and laughed heartily. My father nodded then used me as an excuse to slow down and put some distance between them.
We ran past the Video Hot. There wouldn’t be a game rental for me today. The doors were closed. Lights were off, the security gate was crossed over the front windows. The place seemed abandoned and slightly sad. In fact, the entire strip mall was closed down. The florist, the photo development shop, the chinese take-out shop: All were done for the day. We passed the side street that would have led us home. I looked up to my father for guidance. “Let’s keep going,” he said in Spanish. We jogged a few blocks further, slowing to a thin part in the crowd. Turning the corner, we kept the stride until we were certain no one was following our lead. The circuitous path home (right, then right, then right again) gave me time to catch my breath, to note the stillness of the neighborhood. A block away, a teeming mass of humanity ran their bacchanal. Here, the birds chirped and the leaves swayed.
We entered the home quickly, as naturally as we could. The curtains were drawn, lights were out. My mother and sister, in the kitchen, were fixed to the television, watching the flow of people from downtown, spreading westwards, pouring out of grocery stores and electronics stores carrying as much as they could bear. Aerial footage (coming to you LIVE from the corner of …) cut between firefighters, blazes, police, people standing on top of their businesses with guns. The city was displayed in its glory. “They’re taking everything,” she said.
I recognized my teeming mass of marathon revelers was a crowd of looters.
The television anchored us for the rest of the night. There were no video games that night, no movies, no distractions. Only the glow of the television — the hope that phosphors would be the only glow of concern to us. Only quiet conversation, and the occasional call from a friend, ensuring sanctuary were things to go south. In the late evening, our horizon was tinged with distant orange and the sounds of sirens. Against my mother’s wishes, my father stepped out to look. He returned, stoic, sucked in a bit of air (the way he did before delivering bad news). “They got the video store, but we’re ok.”
Over 3,700 buildings burned. Businesses, livelihoods, community beacons, all went up in a pyre of char and amber over a period of four days. My family stepped out the morning of that fifth day, Sunday, into a new city. Armed members of the National Guard lined Western avenue. They sat on the curb in clusters, in front of blackened buildings, spray-painted walls and rubble. As I walked with my father later that day, I saw the soot-stained walls that formed the back of my familiar video store. As we walked around to the front, I noticed the afternoon sun beaming in through the newly-formed skylight in the store. It cast highlights on melted rows, darkened walls. I thought about all the games and movies that had been rented the day before. There wasn’t a place to return them now. Would those people keep them forever?
“They didn’t hit Video Hot,” my father explained in his gruff Spanish as we walked home. “Someone started a fire in the photo shop next door. It hit the chemicals and ‘fwooosh’ — it all went up. No one got hurt, but there wasn’t anything they could do.” I asked him if he thought it would come back. He didn’t know.
Video Hot did come back, in a fashion. Los Angeles, in the years following the Rodney King uprising, was full of buildings that were little more than burnt shells. I saw as garbage containers filled with trash and debris, emptied, and were filled again by workers, until the buildings themselves were emptied. I saw fresh carpentry fill the blackened voids, knitting smashed bones — scar tissue closing around a gash as stucco and veneers were applied to the finished product. What returned wasn’t always as it had been. The Blockbuster by the junior high returned as T-shirt Warehouse. The photo lab that started the fire by my house? A trinket shop. The Video Hot? Gone were the ID service, the stand-up arcade games and NES carts. It returned as a shop half the size of the original, its spacious blue aisles now tight burgundy rows, with a games section that was one tiny wall, split between SNES and Genesis titles, with a neon Mario soaring in the window, sporting his raccoon suit.
The shop treated me well in the years that followed. It was Video Hot that allowed me to play through Tiny Toons: Buster Busts Loose, Super Mario RPG, and a smattering of good-to-terrible games for the SNES and Genesis. It was at Video Hot where I rented Earthbound religiously, day after day, for a week. It was at Video Hot where the clerk waived the $25 New Game deposit for me, and held a copy of Mortal Kombat II. But still, every now and again, I would remember the awe that its former incarnation inspired.
I still remember the evenings spent playing with the arcade games, walking to the counter with the dollar that my father handed to me, asking for four quarters. Remember the talking stand-ups that advertised new movies. I remember the dark space that was left in the wake of April 30th, the long rebuilding, and I remember the sense that the city was never really fixed (only patched, tenuously).
There was so much more to those few days than the loss of my favorite game shop. The causes and effects were deep, knotted, and well outside my 9-year-old grasp of the universe. The city would feel the reverberations of that event well through my childhood, and into my adolescence. On that day, reality touched my palace of escapism, leaving a reminder that it would never quite be the same.