Why are sudden celebrity deaths so shocking and sobering? A few years after the fact, I still remember where I was (walking to my car in my parents’ driveway) and who told me (my mom) of Michael Jackson’s death. I, like many others, recently heard about Robin Williams’ passing via social media as Facebook unexpectedly blew up with lamentations of the late actor’s death. I stayed silent that night and into the next day, preferring instead to spend those hours in private thought. Last night, though, the fondest memory I have relating to the brilliant actor returned to me in a flood.
I can literally envision the scene like it was yesterday. It was the Summer of 2001, a new day had just begun, and I busied myself behind the counter of a little video rental shop on South Cooper Street in Arlington, Texas.
In truth, I hold a host of incredible memories from the Hollywood Video that closed its doors a year or so after that strange day in June: I held my first managerial position there, worked 82 hours during my first week on the job (on salary, no less), suffered through five break-ins over the span of five days, sat up all night with a blunt pair of scissors as I awaited the inevitable return of said burglar, heard stories of ghosts making appearances to multiple coworkers… Yes, many significant memories were born in that little video shop, but one has always stuck out as the most impactful all these years later:
The Old Man.
He shuffled slowly into my store early one morning on a Wednesday or Thursday and stopped right at the counter like it was some kind of fast food drive-thru window. He didn’t even pass through the security gate, just stood there waiting for me to greet him and take his order. “I’m looking for a movie,” he said as I turned my attention from the piles of returned videos to my newest customer.
“Okay,” I answered. “What are you looking for?”
“I don’t know.”
While this answer could be construed as incredibly annoying and frustrating to those in sales or customer service, it was always a joy to hear such words from a customer who stepped into my store. Over time, I became quite good at nailing down that perfect unknown film the customer had never heard of and would easily fall in love with. It was a skill that always left me excited and ridiculously proud, video store employee or not.
The Old Man was a bit different, though. Most of my customers didn’t hover around the seventy-five year old mark. He wasn’t a movie lover. He didn’t even have a list of movies or genres he enjoyed. To put it simply, he just didn’t have a clue. At all. He was, however, a recently retired schoolteacher and decided it was time to delve into the years of films that he had missed from all the time-consuming work and grading-of-papers-at-home that comes with the territory. “So where do I start?” he asked.
How daunting. I’m pretty sure I stared at the ceiling for a moment or two, rubbed my chin, and shook my head once or twice in utter befuddlement. The only things that seemed to come to mind were classics that were a bit too obvious and would quite possibly offend him. He was on a new path, after all, not a retread through his youth.
“It can be anything,” he assured me with a smile.
Then it hit me from out of nowhere. Oh yes, I had the absolute perfect movie for The Old Man. “Wait here just a moment,” I instructed him as I made a beeline for the Drama section and returned just as promptly with a film that was, in my mind, sent directly to me from the mouth of God Himself.
“Dead Poets Society. What is it about?” he asked in distaste, the skepticism apparent in his creased brow, squinty eyebrows, and unbelieving smirk as he studied the title written across the white sticker stuck to the black VHS tape.
“Just trust me on this one,” I answered with a silent laugh to myself. “And when you bring it back in five days, let me know what you think.”
I was waiting for him that morning. I had emptied the night drop box, found the title was missing, and soon saw him slowly pull his beat up car into the parking lot and climb out looking very much like The Old Man he was. It was a few minutes after 10:00AM. In one hand, he held the VHS; the other hand busily wiped at his eyes. He walked in, looked me in the face with rivers of tears streaming down his wrinkled cheeks and thanked me. “That was the perfect movie, son,” he said as he placed the video down on the counter and laughed despite his tears. “How did you know?”
I shrugged it off. It was my job to know.
“So what’s next?”
I was never able to top that first perfect choice of Dead Poets Society. Aside from hitting the nail on the head upon our first meeting, I just didn’t have the time to make many more choices for the aspiring film critic teetering toward the last years of his life. Although The Old Man came in once or twice a week for the next couple of months, I was suddenly relocated to another store down the interstate without so much as a chance to say goodbye. I was, however, fortunate enough to have developed a relationship with him before getting shipped out and soon learned that his story echoed much of the plot in the first movie I recommended to him: he was a retired English teacher who still suffered from the trauma of a student suicide that took place toward the end of his career. It was, in fact, one of the reasons he eventually decided to retire from teaching once and for all.
Today, two days after Robin Williams’ passing, it’s quite easy to remember which movie had the greatest impact on my life. Aside from being a great movie in its own right, the lesson I learned in that now-nonexistent Hollywood Video was enough to make Dead Poets Society the most special movie from an actor with a long list of wonderful films to choose from. As I look back upon the Summer of 2001, I am reminded that each person – much like Williams’ character in the film – has an opportunity to impact the lives of others in great and startling ways- ways we could never fully comprehend from our own perspective. Whether it was an actor who embodies a role so perfectly it makes you weep, a guy in a video store who recommends that perfect movie at just the right time, or An Old Man who crosses your path like a ship in the night, we are all capable of being used in mysterious and powerful ways.