ADULT VIDEO: A Small Town Story

Ah, memories! Here’s a personal anecdote about some small town sordidness:


I remember when I first saw it. I was coming home on the Long Island Railroad after visiting a friend at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. It was a newly opened business, the first storefront returning commuters saw when pulling up to the Merrick train station. Other passengers pointed it out with widened eyes and gaping mouths. The store stuck out like a bad tattoo on perfect skin.

Merrick was, and still is, a conservative small town. Located on the south shore of Long Island, it is primarily home to middle to upper middle class nuclear families. Its Jewish and Christian houses of worship are well attended. Its PTAs carry a good deal of clout. At the time (the late 80s), the county executive, a Republican, lived there. The town’s roads and utilities were well maintained year round, its police and firefighter departments well funded.

Merrick was for the most part the ideal idyllic suburbia. Which was why it was such a shock when the adult video store opened on Sunrise Highway.

It wasn’t even one of those classier erotic boutiques one might expect for such a neighborhood. Its front windows were covered with silver aluminum foil, its entrance door curtained by long strands of gold tinsel. Its sign simply read ADULT VIDEO in blocky red letters over a stark white background.

I didn’t know what to feel about it. Such a place appearing in my hometown was surprising, but I wasn’t in any way appalled. Then again, I was a rebellious, anti-censorship, morality-flouting teenager who wasn’t especially worried about the negative effect on property values. But I knew many who feared the store would attract a “bad element,” presumably those who would rob us, assault us, vandalize us, then rent a dirty movie before heading home.

This was not the first instance of a porno establishment popping up here and outraging our largely unsuspecting residents. Several years prior, the town’s single-screen movie theater, located on Merrick Avenue, changed management and started showing exclusively X-rated fare. (Caligula and Jack and Jill are two titles I recall playing there.) The venue abruptly shut down about a month later, meriting a front-page article in the Merrick Life community newspaper featuring a prominent photo of the theater’s offending marquee.

Fascinated even then with all things decadent, depraved, and debauched, I naturally paid a visit to ADULT VIDEO — that was the business’s licensed name — to see what all the fuss was about. Its selection consisted of more than two hundred VHS tapes spread out across several white plywood shelves. In fact, aside from the video boxes, everything in the store was white, from the tiled floor to the fluorescent lighting. I speculated this was to make the space look more antiseptic, i.e. less dirty, to browsing customers. It only succeeded in accentuating the full-color images of exposed and manipulated private parts.

I met the store’s proprietor. He was the only one who worked there. His name eludes me, but his face does not. It was covered in small bulbous growths, like warts or polyps. His hair was jet black and greasy-looking. His smile was crooked, as were his nicotine-stained teeth. But he was astonishingly articulate and passionate about what he believed to be a constitutional, if not fundamental, human right: the freedom of expression. He had the right to sell/rent adult material, and adults had the right to view it. And, according to him, many Merrick residents shared this sentiment; within two weeks of the shop’s opening more than one hundred of them had signed up for memberships.

But many others were less than thrilled with the vendor of vice.

A priest from Sacred Heart Catholic Church and a rabbi from Temple Israel had each dropped by to convince the owner that Merrick was no place for his place. He begged to differ. He felt he was, in a way, performing a public service, was contributing to the town’s economy, and he wasn’t hurting anyone, morality excluded. I myself signed up for a membership, more out of tacit support than prurient interest. (I never rented anything from him. Really. I swear.)

A few days later somebody drove by the store in the middle of the night and threw a brick through its window. The next morning the owner, unfazed, boarded it up, reported it to the police, and still opened his door at the usual time. I got the impression ours wasn’t the first town he had tried to plant stakes in. (I later found out he had previously opened the same kind of business in at least three other respectable Long Island communities.)

I learned about an “emergency meeting” town officials had called together at Old Mill Road elementary school. I managed to finagle my way in under the pretense I was writing an article for the local paper. Most of Merrick’s municipal leaders were there, including the aforementioned priest and rabbi, every representative of the Chamber of Commerce, and the property owner who — allegedly — had unwittingly leased the space to ADULT VIDEO.

It was a rather surreal experience for me, by far the youngest person in the room. They first tackled legalities. No laws had yet been enacted in Merrick banning adults-only establishments, only those specifying the distance they may operate from schools and churches (500 feet). The following topic of discussion was just how pornographic was the store’s pornography. It amused me to hear these dignified town officials, both men and women, utter such terms as “full penetration” and “bestiality.” One attendee even corrected my pronunciation of the latter word after I’d chimed in on the matter. All of course agreed ADULT VIDEO had to go. Not one conservative voice there spoke up for this small business.

How to get rid of it was still undetermined at the meeting’s adjournment, but I sensed an ominous, conspiratorial vibe in the air. I suspected there would soon be another, more clandestine dialogue between the town’s bureaucrats.

Just one week later ADULT VIDEO had shuttered up overnight, the proprietor taking all his wicked wares and minimalist vinyl sign with him. I didn’t have his contact info, so to get the scoop I drove over to the computer repair store I knew to be operated by the property’s lessor. He was a short, sweaty man wearing a yarmulke that didn’t sit on his head quite right.

He remembered me from the emergency meeting and promptly expressed his triumph at running the “smut peddler” out of our decent town.

I asked him if the town had paid the guy off.

“No comment,” he said and gave me a sly grin.

Indeed, no one talked about ADULT VIDEO after its welcome departure. The closure wasn’t even mentioned in Merrick Life. It was as if it never happened, a nasty pimple completely healed. The space was next rented by a popular yogurt shop where folks, both righteous and reprobate, could fatten themselves up to their heart’s content. I’ve wondered ever since which posed the more harmful temptation.

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