The joy of the moment-no more failure-to-rewind fees!-was tempered by two realizations. First, we had not rented a videotape since 1999, and thus had managed to avoid the heartbreak of failure-to-rewind fees for six straight years. Second, and more emotionally charged, our relationship had been sealed over the whirring spindles of a VCR.
We met in 1983, I a would-be writer, she a trade-magazine editor. At the time, I was able to offer something no other boyfriend could: my weekends away in rural Princeton, N.J., where I was house-sitting for a real author whose property included a swimming pool, a tennis court and a new, chalet-like media room with two Eames chairs and a videocassette recorder.
Back in the day, renting videotapes was a chore, but we gamely drove the 12 miles to the nearest store to sup on the latest fare ("Diva," the Bonnie Bedelia biopic "Heart Like a Wheel") before braving our way back to the rental bistro somewhere west of Cranberry. Usually, we arrived with only moments to spare before the late fees kicked in.
Once the housesit ended and we found ourselves, on weekends, consigned to her apartment in Hoboken, we discovered that life without a VCR was ... bare. Still struggling (the advance for my first book totaled $10,000), we were unable to afford the $300 cost of a VCR. Fortunately, the video store a few blocks away on Monroe Street rented machines as well as tapes. A year later, with a shared apartment; a secure freelance contract and a shiny consumer-magazine editing position replacing the trade gig, we celebrated our new financial wherewithal by purchasing our first videocassette recorder, a Magnavox.
You can see why unplugging the VCR inspires such reverie. It is my transistorized madeline: I remember the blinking "12," the VCR+ codes, the film-noir section at Kim's Video in the Village, the failure-to-rewind fees. Always, the failure-to-rewind fees.
How many other devices have we so inspirationally unplugged? The eight-track player? That belonged to my brother, who only used it, as I recall, around the summer of '76. The turntable? Truth be told, it's still wired out at the house, although we use it only to listen to old Belle Barth comedy records and other vinyl from the '50s and '60s not yet consigned to disc. The Victrola? It's not mine; it's my father's name for his record player, a word as antiquated to my childhood ears as the term "record player" must sound to my nieces and nephews.
It's hard to imagine that other devices will later inspire such Proustian reflection upon their future unplugging. The little ELPH camera was replaced almost as soon as it was purchased; megapixels are the stuff of emotional attachment. My Treo 600 I'd just as soon smash against the wall. The HP Media Center m7070n Photosmart PC? How can you love something whose name is too long to remember?
True, we do have my Osborne I and her Kaypro II in the attic at the house. But the VCR hasn't joined them yet. It still sits in the corner of the living room, unplugged, but a reminder of a relationship that set us reeling.
Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is director of intellectual capital at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton