Copies of Memories of Copies

“If anyone wants a piece of crap, four head VCR, I just tossed mine in the trash can outside.”

This was the announcement my friend Rae had made from the open doorway that lead to the computer arts room. There were five or six of us in there at the time so I didn’t waste a moment. In vein, I attempted to not look too eager, as I lunged at the black barrel that sat in the hall and reaching past the debris of cut off bits of foam core and mat board, I nabbed the unit it and gave it a quick look-see.

“It wasn’t cheap, actually.” Rae had followed me after I had bolted past her to snatch up the failed bit of technology before someone else decided to break it apart and make a mobile out of its guts. This was, after all, an art school, so the danger was real. “It worked well for a while but then it just stopped playing or recording tapes correctly. If you can fix it, it’s yours.” After a pause, she added, “Actually, it’s yours even if you can’t. Either way, good riddance.”

Anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that I’m a totally unrepentant scrounge and at the time, a four head VCR recorder was nothing to sneeze at. They were fairly pricy and for a college student who routinely checked under the cushions in the common areas for loose change (The trick was to beat the other guys to the cushion mining expeditions) so that he might order a horrible, little pizza from Dominoes, this was a huge win. Well, a potential win at any rate.

I’ve always loved taking things apart. Mechanical things, to be specific. Getting into some critter’s innards in biology class never made me feel sick, but it didn’t get me very excited either. That’s probably a good thing since I doubt seriously that I have the mental aptitude for professional science and so if I had that gory interest… well, it would lead me to decidedly creepier waters. A good thing all around, for all parties involved, so far as I’m concerned.

Gore? No.

Gears? OH, YES, PLEASE!

I loved finding free technology to vivisect. My feeling has always been that if it was already broken, then there wasn’t much for me to loose. The possible gain was worth the time tinkering around with screwdrivers, soldering guns and pliers. In this particular case, I got lucky. Within moments of opening the case, I spotted the main drive belt, stretched and distorted as it snaked through various pulleys in the VCR.

I replaced it with a large rubber band, and oddly enough, it worked perfectly.

What this got me was not only the satisfaction of getting a new VCR for the price of a rubber band, but also the ability to inflict… I mean “share” a newfound insanity with my classmates.

Mystery Science Theater 3000

Back in the late eighties and early nineties, the concept of viral marketing was virtually unknown. If you wanted to get your product, TV show, or what ever, to go over big then you needed big corporations to shepherd the way. There was no other real way to break through.

Then came MST3K.

The show had nothing to do with Mystery, Science, or the number three thousand. The theater part though, oh… it had theater. The premise of the show was simple and bizarre. A guy is shot into space by two mad scientists. He is a prisoner on the “Satellite of Love” with a variety of strange little marionette style robots and each week, he and the robots are forced to watch bad movies.

No. That’s not quite right.

HORRIBLE movies. Movies that people wish had been forgotten… and here, I’m talking about the people IN the movie. These movies often redefine the word, “ghastly” or at least set the bar that much lower.

When you watch the movie, you watch it with the prisoner/astronaut guy and his robot friends. They will appear as little silhouettes at the bottom of the screen and mock the actors, the plot (if any) and anything else through the length of the entire thing.

This, in essence, was college humor gold.

Here’s where the marketing comes in. MST3K, as it was lovingly known, started out as an “on the cheep”, cable access show out in the Minnesota. If you didn’t live near by, there was no way to see it… except for the tapes.

There was no way, back then, that any major broadcaster was going to touch MST3K with a ten foot antenna and video streaming over computers was not even close to on the horizon. If they wanted distribution, it was going to have to happen the hard way. Knowing their audience, the minds behind the show not only turned a blind eye to taped copies being handed around campuses all over the nation, they actually promoted it! In the end credits, a message appears reading, “Keep circulating the tapes, guys!”

Talk about appealing to your fan base! When it came to marketing, these guys were at least fifteen years ahead of the game.

So, with my new VCR, I happily introduced MST3K to the dormitory and, as expected, it went over as well as you’d expect juvenile and often esoteric humor would on a college campus. No. BETTER! We’d sit up late at night watching, “The Cave Dwellers”, “The Phantom Creeps” or “Manos, The Hands of Fate,” all the while laughing our heads off at the cutting remarks made by the professionals in the front row. It was great!

Eventually, we all moved on. College ended, jobs were found, connections with old friends were lost and MST3K, which reached its zenith by finally being picked up by Comedy Central and then briefly, the Sci-Fi network, ended its time on TV and as most shows are, was finally canceled. To all good things…. Ah, well.

A funny thing about technology today is that it often seems to all be focused on ordering our lives. We, as a culture have become obsessed with keeping track of everything that we have or will encounter, be it friends, appointments or nostalgia. Facebook has reconnected me with many individuals whom I thought I might never again speak to. My computer calendar attempts (and mostly fails) to keep me apprised of when I should be doing something I scheduled and, as I have just discovered, Hulu and Netflix have brought me back MST3K.

So, I sat down this evening with my laptop to see if the old magic was still there. The verdict? Hmm.

It’s not quite like I remember it. To watch it again all these years later, and this time in a crisp, clean resolution was a little… odd. The shows that I recall were grainy to watch and the sound was often distorted as well. The tapes had been copied so many times, that to have the show fail for a minute or two was not unheard of. It was even expected, to a degree. This time, it was so… so… perfect. Too perfect. The lack of a room full of drunk or otherwise decision impaired college friends also dragged the laugh-o-meter down a bit. It may have something to do with a change in my own tastes as well, I suppose.

Still, the fun (at what ever level) is there to be had and if you’re in the mood for some seriously horrible cinema, there is no doubt in my mind that this is the way to watch it.

In my basement, somewhere, no doubt in a very dusty box, sits my old and neglected VCR tapes. Among them is my own ancient collection of bootleg Mystery Science Theater 3000 shows. Copies of copies of copies, in all their blurry finery. Somewhere, I might even have that old VCR player as well. Who knows? The overall lesson though seems to be that some memories are best left as just that.

It’s great to reconnect with friends and relive some of the good times over a beer or three, or even over a computer if that’s the only way you have available, but I think I’ll leave it at that. Someday, I might just get around to tossing out all that old stuff saved for years for God knows what reason. We’ll see. It’ll wind up at the local dump here and perhaps, just PERHAPS, someone will find it and think, “SCORE! I can’t believe someone just threw this all out! I’ll go get a box!”

Yah…

I doubt that too.

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Do not take the night train from Munich to Prague. Conclusion.

…So we had gotten seats and the train was just about packed. Not only were there no open seats to be seen anywhere, It became increasingly obvious that there weren’t any anywhere. Slightly and not so slightly panicked looking Koreans drifted by our doorway, each with a look like that of a child looking for their lost mom. The whistle blew, the train lurched and we were on our way. As I sat in my lucky seat, I very shortly became aware of a few things. First of all, this was a nine hour train ride on which I would be surrounded by nothing but the Korean language. I prayed that SOMEONE here spoke english and wouldn’t mind chatting a bit. Second, that with the heat and the humidity and now the crush of an overloaded train car, it was turning into sauna here. Fast.

I still wasn’t too keen on getting out of my seat even for the thirty seconds that it would take to open the window lest someone leap into it behind me. The seatless still prowled the hallway looking for the weak of bladder or the very, very foolish who went looking for the snack car. Eventually, I asked out loud if someone could open the window. The guy across from me quickly replied in flawless english, “Good idea” and nodded to the guy on my left, who looked a bit like an Asian Elvis. The hair product alone was impressive, but the clothing choice of unbuttoned while shirt, necklaces and tight black pants really set the image off nicely. Being closest to the window, Elvis managed to get it open and back to his seat before a squatter moved in on the vacancy. The stagnant hot air was replaced with blowing hot air and we listened to the train groan its way out of the marshaling yard. After tickets were checked but before we all got too comfortable, I decided to see if we could improve our seating arrangement. I turned to Elvis and explained that my wife was in the next car and would he be okay with switching? We’d all have seats but that way Action Girl and I could be together. He looked at me from under his moussed mantle and quickly responded, “Okay.” I was delighted. I smiled. He smiled.

He didn’t move.

Uh Oh.

The english speaker across from me started to laugh and then quickly explained to Elvis in Korean what he had just said “Okay” to. Elvis’ smile vanished. Apparently, Elvis didn’t speak english and had been bluffing with his best “Okay”.

He was a man of his “Okay” though. The switch was made and Action Girl joined me in the compartment that was the lap of communist comfort. About this time, the sky could hold the humidity no longer and suddenly, it was like we were traveling under a waterfall. The open window let in sheet of rain and someone sprang up to slam it shut, whereupon he compartment quickly reverted to a steam bath. Ugh!

After about five hours of this joy we finally pulled into a siding and awaited a new engine to take us the rest of the way to Prague. I dared to leave my seat and go out into the hall to stretch my legs and my translator came to join me. The hall way was disgusting. The floors were soaked from the rain and up an down them there were Korean students sleeping or trying very hard to sleep, mostly lying on bits of soaked cardboard. Oh and did I mention the bathrooms? You don’t want to know the state of the bathrooms. Honest.

As it turned out, the nice guy / translator spoke perfect english and had previously spent quite a good amount of time in the states. He explained that this was a package trip from his university and that they had been traveling together for about a week. He was really a nice person to chat with and as my wife did her best to convince her self that she was sleeping, the Nice Guy and I had some good chats. Most of them started with a, “Holy Sh1t! it’s hot in here!”. After an uncomfortable hour or so, the train wobbled with the coupling of the new engine and we were off. I had really gotten to like the Nice Guy. He was a chess player, a scholar and had a really good wit. In short, just the kind of person you’d want to be trapped with in a smelly, wet, steel tube for nine hours.

We were in the home stretch now. The Koreans however were in trouble. Czech ticket agents came through the cars with way too much bluster. They did not look happy and other than the fact that it was something like four in the morning, we quickly found out why. The Koreans had the wrong tickets. All of them. Everywhere you looked, panic was spreading. They all needed to buy new tickets for the Czech part of the trip but to do this you needed money, and money is what most of them didn’t have. They didn’t have it in droves. Our tickets, thankfully, were correct and the ticket collector let us off with only a severe glare. We were, after all, foreign. There was much horse trading and begging amongst the group for loans and the tour operator trying to get the ticket collectors to see reason. It must have all worked out because the collectors finally disappeared and only came back to bother us seven or eight more times. Essentially, just enough to keep anyone from sleeping.

As we rolled into the outskirts of Prague, Action Girl pointed out bonfires dotting the woods. Gypsy encampments, we decided. A little over an hour later we squealed our way into the train station and squirted off the Hell Train on to the main platform. We looked around in a haze made of sleeplessness and being in an utterly unfamiliar place. All the signs were written in cyrillic and we had no idea where to find The Doctor. Then his voice piped up behind us. “Right now,” he stated dryly, “You are saying to your self ‘What the hell did I do to deserve that?'”. We boggled. Did we look that bad? Well… yes, I suppose we did. He took us to breakfast and over what was possibly the most lovely food we had had in months (or at least the most appreciated), we told him our story. He smiled and took a drink of orange juice. “That’s interesting.” he finally said. “Because for me it was exactly the same except for the Koreans. On my train, they were all Japanese.”

I will never take the night train from Munich to Prague again. I don’t care if I have to walk. The really best part of all this is that a friend of ours went to Prague via Munich just a few years ago. She told us her itinerary before she left and we warned her in the strongest possible way. She naturally did it any way and though her experience didn’t include the asian tour group, she told us later that she regrets not following our advice. It’s refreshing to know that some things in the world never seem to change.
prague.jpg

I’ve run out of room to get to the bit with the Evil Eye, but I’m sure I’ll mention it later in another post. Suffice it to say that gypsy’s can be a real pain when they are trying to rip you off but if you shoo them away with too much vigor, get ready for a hex.

Any way… That was the worst night ever for us. A cranky two year old at three in the morning is the minor leagues in comparison. I just have to remind Action Girl about it from time to time when sleep seems to be illusive. “Well, at least we’re not going to Prague by train”. That usually adds some good perspective.

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