Philadelphia: Ruby in Paradise, 1993



I wanted to escape to New York. Hiding out in Philly would have to do.

My main hangout, besides cheap bars like Dirty Frank’s and McGlinchey’s, was TLA Video, where Kieron and I rented art house films. Tape boxes sorted by director or themes (“Jane Campion,” “Noir,” “Women In Trouble,” “Eisenstadt”). With the ankle settlement money, I could live cheaply while I shelved books, and watch movies.


In Ruby in Paradise, Ashley Judd plays a woman who moves to a small resort town in Florida to make a new start. There are scenes where she walks around in a nightie, listening to nothing happening, the sound of the waves. I watched it over and over the first week in Philly.

Looking back, I should have done more with this time—written “The Waste Land,” perhaps, or plowed through Proust. Instead, I watched movies and drank beer. I’d walk around 1614 Spruce and rearrange furniture, put a spider plant on this table or that, play Miles Davis’ Down on the Corner or Jack Johnson.

In my alternative universe, the abusive redneck man she left was Deena, my psychotic ex, and I was Ruby, who wanted to decide for herself who “she wanted to be.” She went on motorcycle rides with bad boys. I was Ruby. Ruby c’est moi!


In the movie adaption of my life, Crystal will play the part of Sassy Black Video Clerk. Crystal worked at TLA Video. She played obscure Prince songs on the stereo, and I’d compliment her choices.  She wore a biker jacket, had a huge afro, smelled of patchouli and had ribbons in her dreads. She raised an eyebrow whenever anyone said anything to her. It was easy to make her smile, but difficult to get her to talk. I know the dynamic of customer and counterperson: the person has to interact with me. I can make jokes and they have to react. Most of the time laugh.

She was also the only person whose line I got into at TLA Video. I did this because Crystal did not judge me for renting adult movies. I’d hide the fact I was doing this by renting a trio of tapes: the highbrow movie, the movie I’d actually see, and the one I’d spank off to as soon as I got home.

I’d approach the counter with a Derek Jarman film, Blazing Saddles, and a Busty Broads Compilation, and Crystal didn’t flinch. She just got me my tapes. Years later, I saw her on the L train in Brooklyn and introduced her to my wife. I felt the need to do this.