"There are only two ways of telling the complete truth—anonymously and posthumously."Thomas Sowell

Thursday, March 03, 2005

No Return, No Deposit

Across the fruited plain, a circus of yellow-and-blue blazonry proclaims this monument of momentous manumission: THE END OF LATE FEES. Not all Americans are devotees of Blockbuster; some surreptitiously snag their videos from competing outlets. But the national imagination, the cultural iconography (and perhaps a touch of iconolatry), has been in the thrall of Blockbuster for some years. Birthed by the obstreperous Huizenga and adopted by the ubiquitous Redstone, this chain has enchained - some say enchanted - the popular conception of video entertainment for two decades. If they sign the death certificate on the late fee, you can be sure that the Hollywood Video lateness mulct can’t be milked much longer. Look closely at the long placid stream of the Public Library overdue fee and even there you will see a seiche, hear a susurrus; times they are a’ changin’.

No longer the midnight ride under a pall of reverence, the midday screech of anguished tires. Gone is the daredevil dash with one eye on the dashed road and the other on the dashboard clock; gone, too, the dashing of hope of 12:01. Never again the tortured conscience of watching the rewind machine languidly do its thing at 11:51, and the awful temptation to stop at the halfway mark to race out the door. Forgotten is the role of the clerk as cleric, looking sagely at the second handle with solonic solemnity, holding in his underpaid hands the key to your mortal fate. Now you can stride up to the counter at 12:09 of the next day, flash your smuggest smirk, plop down your movie and swagger on out: they can’t lay a hand on ya. No more Midnight Cowboy. It’s High Noon and you’re Gary Cooper, baby.

Whoa, what’s this? Trust your conscience to show up at the most inopportune times. Can’t leave well enough alone. It turns out, thinking on it a tad, that you liked it better the old way. Who’d ‘a thunk it?

The fact is that consequences, when delivered with some immediacy, are a component of civilization that comfort even as they collect (or connect). When you pay that traffic ticket, you buy absolution. All the cumulative guilt of endangering the citizenry with your recklessness has been whitewashed with a faint splash of green. Take your licks, pay the piper, do your time, then you’re clean. You have paid your debt to society and your scars are your receipt. You’ve been purged and cleansed and mitigated and expiated. The books are closed up tight.

You know the joke about the new guy who shows up at the pool in the Miami development, and a lady asks him why she hasn’t seen him before. He says, “I just got out of prison after twenty years.”
“Really, what did you do?”
“I killed my wife with an axe.”
“Oh, so you’re single.”

That’s you, a new man with a fresh start. Sure, you kept The Longest Day a day long; you held Another Twenty-four Hours… well, another twenty-four hours. But you got off your high horse and ponied up for Seabiscuit, and you can get right back on track with your head held high.

Perhaps that is what King David meant in Psalm XXIII when he said, “Your rod and your staff they comfort me”. And maybe that was what the nuns had in mind when they used a ruler to rap your knuckles. They were trying to teach you that a measured punishment is a desert to clean your palate – and your slate.

The tough ones are the unpunished kind. The cases that you tuck away in the ‘Open’ file. An inner voice says that you did wrong and the bill has not been paid. You walk through life with a sense of unfinished business, of inadequacy, of being less than all you can be. If you fear a Hell or a karma there may be a sense of looming fate that haunts your every step forward; even if not, there is the irresolution of unresolvedness. Even those billionaires who marry some zero in Las Vegas and later have to give her seven zeroes to unburden themselves look relieved, almost happy, when it’s finally over. At least they have – I know you hate this word – closure.

The video store still sets a due date. But it has no teeth. No enforcement mechanism other than annoying reminder calls. No aftereffects if you abuse your privilege. You can sit in your Lazy Boy and toy with your drink on the lazy Susan while the clock tolls midnight. No one will be the wiser nor your wallet the lighter. Ah, but you… you will be a lesser person.

So if Lola wants to loll around and take advantage, that’s her business. But I know what you will be doing. You will make doubly sure now to honor that return date, and that’s why you’re my hero. Only, please: no more busting down the block at eighty miles per hour.

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