Friday, September 2, 2022

Annoying Adventures With The Tape Trading Taskforce

this column originally ran in 2003 at Mike Toole’s “Anime Jump” website, and has been amended with minor corrections, slight alterations, and additional annoyances. Names have been changed to protect the innocent and guilty.

Back in the pre-DVD. pre-streaming era, when you had to swap stuff with strangers through the mail to get any kind of decent Japanese cartoons, brave nerd pioneers would find ourselves having to get too close for comfort to certain specimens of the genus “anime-fannus North Americanus.” These are but a few of the many tales that make up the warp and woof of the rich tapestry that is your anime nerd heritage, and they should serve both as amusing anecdotes and cautionary examples. 

actual anime VHS tapes received via the US Mail
 

Oh so many. The person who created his own home-made flyers for our anime convention and posted them around town. The guy who spent weeks arguing on BBS message boards about how Masamune Shirow invented manga as we know it and then tried to track us down at Project A-Kon to argue about it with us some more but got thrown out of the con due to the weed and bong he brought to the staff room he was crashing in. The letters about 60s cartoons that segued quickly into being letters about sex acts. But let’s focus on a few.

1.

Back when I was copying tapes for people through the Anime Hasshin tape traders list, a California fan got in touch with me with an aim to getting copies. He sent his list, I sent my list back, he replied with a large letter back commenting (negatively) on the contents of my tape list and asking why I didn’t make copies in 6-hour EP mode. I replied that (1) EP sucks in terms of video quality, and anyway, (2) they’re my VCRs and I’ll do with ‘em what I want.

lists of anime tapes in the collections of anime fans circa 1990

 

His reply letter more or less agreed with me, or at least admitted that we all have our own preferences. I figured I’d never hear from him again, Well, a week later a tape arrived in the mail from him, along with return postage and a request list that was almost exactly six hours long. A movie, two OVAs, some TV episodes, just cram it all on there, please.

I’m like, whatever. The tape goes on the pile of tapes to be copied. You see, at the time I was copying a lot of tapes from people both through the mail and right at home. I’d come home from the local anime club with a stack of blanks and a list of requests, and I spent a lot of time violating copyright law so Bob McBobbob and his pals could watch Project A-Ko or “Dirty Pair Does Dishes” at their leisure.

One week later, I get a long, pissed-off letter from the guy, asking where the hell his tape is, how dare I treat anime fans in this way, where do I get off behaving in such an obnoxious fashion, HE always makes sure HE gets HIS tapes done quickly, etc etc.


So this gets my full attention. What I do is I dig out my oldest, funkiest, top-loading 2-head VCR that only records in black and white. It was a Panasonic that suffered a drop onto a concrete landing after I tripped on some stairs while carrying it to a Saturday night let’s-copy-anime-and-eat-pizza gathering at a now demolished apartment complex at Lindbergh and Piedmont in Atlanta. I used this Panasonic as the recording deck. Every so often as I passed the machine I gave it a mighty smash with my hand or other suitable blunt instrument. Talk about hashtag VHS Artifacts! They got all six hours of anime, though. Was it watchable? I don’t know. I never heard from them again. 

 

meet you at Zesto's on Piedmont

 

2.

A few years later we were fan-subtitling Captain Harlock though the auspices of Corn Pone Flicks. A VHS, a SASE, and a request for episodes arrived, as per our guidelines. We put the Harlock episodes on the tape, which was placed into its already-stamped return envelope, and mailed back.

 


A month later the emails started – that tape never arrived. Which is a thing that happens sometimes. Mail gets lost. It’s a thing. What made this email special was the demand we replace and mail this person their replacement tape on our own dime. Because, as the email stated, we were running a business and as such had a responsibility to our customers. Since we were most definitely NOT running a business, we actually had NO such responsibility. By that time we’d learned just ignoring the kooks was the best plan of action, which is what we did to the increasingly angry emails that continued to arrive, eventually accusing Corn Pone Flicks of running an elaborate swindle, stealing blank VHS tapes from an unsuspecting public. The perfect crime!

3.

Speaking of copying tapes, it was the custom of the time for anime nerds such as myself to have lists of their available anime titles photocopied and available to send out, because it’s difficult to ask for tapes you don’t know exist. If you were a member of an anime club or two, you might have access to the anime lists of five, ten, twenty anime tape traders. You might not consider these lists themselves a valuable commodity, but a Pacific Northwest outfit known as Kinosei Anime thought otherwise! For a small fee of six dollars, they would send you the tape lists of fans and clubs who were willing to copy anime for strangers! I found out about Kinosei when I started getting letters from people who had acquired my name and address from them. And no, Kinosei Anime never asked permission to send anyone’s name, address, and list of tapes out to the world as part of their low-stakes unethical behavior game. I mean, it’s not a big deal – I’m sure this scheme netted them, what, thirty, forty bucks, max – but ask first, people.

"Dear Dave, I have sold your name and address to strangers. Do you have any Kimba The White Lion. Thanks, Jeff"

 

4.

So back in, like, 1989-1990, our phone rang. It was the operator, asking if I would accept the charges on a collect call from a person whom I didn’t know. I figured it had to be an emergency, or at least really important, so I said “yes”. BIG MISTAKE. The mystery caller is a guy who fished my name out of the C/FO Directory. He figured he’d call me collect and ask lots of questions about Japanese TV shows in general and the live-action superhero show Spectreman in particular. No emergency, no crisis, not even a very interesting conversation. Definitely not worth my dime or my time. 

a mystery with a name

He wanted to know this. He wanted to know that. He wanted me to mail him tapes. He wanted me to mail him fanzines. He wanted everything as free gifts from the goodness of my heart and the bottomlessness of my bank account, the extent of both having been greatly exaggerated somewhere down the line. I gathered from his rambling conversation that his caregivers wouldn’t let him call people unless it was collect, and they also wouldn’t give him any money for fanzines or tapes. So obviously, collect-calling to panhandle from strangers was his only option. I finally got off the phone without agreeing to send him anything. Sure, I should have just hung up on the guy, but I was raised to be polite.

the 1988 C/FO Membership Directory - personal information redacted
 

He called right back the next day. I refused the charges. He called back several times over the weekend. We refused the charges. About a year later he called AGAIN. I heard the operator ask if I’d accept the charges from this guy’s name, and I threw the phone across the room while hollering “NOOOOOO!!” in slow motion, just like the movies.

Found out later I wasn’t the only person to get the collect treatment. A pal of mine in South Carolina also got nailed, and at least one former C/FO generalissimo was on the receiving end of who became known as “The Collect Call Bandit.” My guess is that the guy was in some sort of managed care or group home situation and whenever he got a chance, he leaped to the nearest telephone and started collect-calling people like a maniac until the white coats could pry him loose and get that straitjacket back on him.

Anyway the moral of the story is never, ever accept collect calls from strangers. Those 1-800-Collect people are LYING TO YOU. Oh, and also, never let anyone print your home phone number anywhere.

 

don't do it

Of course, these days we’re deluged by scam calls and robocalls from duct cleaning services and extended warranty salesmen and important messages threatening imminent arrest from the IRS, Immigration or the Social Security Administration. Compared to all this, simply being desperate for Spectreman sounds downright wholesome.

5.

The hands down most annoying guy I ever swapped tapes with was a person I’m going to call named “Bert Ernieson.” He’s another someone I got in touch with via anime club trader lists. Where do I begin? His video lists were handwritten in barely legible pencil on three-hole lined notebook paper. These letters were typically five or six double sided pages filled with scores of trivial questions. Tape requests from Bert would be for odd, hard-to-dig-out titles – in the VHS days this meant fast forwarding to the middle of a tape to find the exact requested episode of Urusei Yatsura or whatever. Let me tell you after four or five tapes, all this cueing time adds up. His mail would include various right-wing pamphlets, for instance the famed, completely bogus urban legend alert about how a cabal of atheists, led by Madalyn Murray O'Hair herself, were going to get all religious programming banned from TV. This right-wing Christian material seemed at odds with some of the selections on Bert’s own tape list, which, to be fair, featured a lot of obscure anime titles, but also included hard-core triple-X American adult films.


But all that was just mildly annoying. Bert, however, took it to the next level. For one thing, he shipped EVERYTHING Media Mail® (Book Rate), the cheapest, slowest, most error-prone way to mail anything. Nothing could induce him to ship things first class, not even sending him the extra postage. Invariably he would use and re-use and re-re-re-use cheap, fiber-particle filled padded mailing envelopes. Items shipped thusly would wind up covered with tiny bits of paper and fiber. This might be OK for books. However, trying to play VHS tapes covered with tiny bits of paper and fiber will result in a VCR mechanism coated with tiny bits of paper and fiber. This is, shall we say, contraindicated by the operating manual.


And then we have the VHS tapes themselves. The tape trading custom of the time was that you’d buy brand new tapes and copy trade requests onto the brand new tapes. But Bert had another plan. He’d copy YOUR requests onto whatever tapes he happened to have lying around. Brand new from the store, or used over and over again, didn’t matter to Bert. Quality brands like Sony, TDK, Fuji or Maxell? Awful house-brand K-mart tapes or clearance bin rejects? It’s all videotape to Bert. He explained his method was to re-copy every incoming video onto 6-hour tapes, apparently to save space in his closet or dungeon or whereever. In practical terms, this meant every single movie or TV show you requested from him had already been transferred to one of his grab-bag mystery-brand video tapes, at a recording speed ensuring the worst possible audio and video quality.

Avoid these brands
 

This tape-recycling meant leftovers at the end of tapes, just in case you enjoy being surprised by, say,13th-generation English dubs of partial Cream Lemon episodes at the end of the super robot cartoon you were showing friends while parents were in the room. Try it, it’s embarrassing and fun! Or when you agree to swap three tapes, and he sends you four, the extra one full of unasked-for junk, just so he can say “hey, I sent you four tapes, now you owe me four tapes instead of the three we agreed on.”

And yet, I continued to swap tapes with him (there were a LOT of obscure titles in his Crawlspace Of Questions), until one day he tried to pull a fast one on a friend, let’s call this friend Lisa Black. He couldn’t or wouldn’t follow Lisa’s simple requests for “new tapes” and “no fiber mailers,” so she refused to copy any more tapes for him. In order to get around her embargo, he started to send her blanks under a different name, utilizing the concept of “sock puppets” before the internet was really even a thing.

I dunno. Maybe it WAS his cousin, like he said. I don’t care. Anyway, she saw through the ruse, because Bert wasn’t smart enough to change his distinctive ordering habits, or his distinctive handwriting. Around this time I happened to mention Lisa in a letter to Bert and his reply was that he was disappointed “I was still dealing with that Nazi, Lisa Black.” Well, I replied that I’d been trading with Lisa for 10 years, that she was, to the best of my knowledge, not an adherent of National Socialism, that she was one of the few truly decent people in a hobby full of obnoxious jerks, and that Bert and I were done swapping tapes. Goodbye to shitty copies of obscure robot anime, to ripped fiberpack mailers, to 4th class book rate, to letters full of questions and demands. Somehow, the anime fan world survived without these things.

 

Life moves on. A fandom of tape-swapping nerds evolves into a fandom of convention-going nerds. Anime became something we watched in theaters, bought at Best Buy, and eventually streamed on computers. Of course, annoying fans still exist, but their annoyances are new and exciting, in ways we could only have dreamed of back in the day. And let’s be honest, the truth is that for every jerk there were and are ten or twenty non-jerks; reasonable, friendly, generous anime fans ready to show up, help out, and bring snacks, fans who send surprises in the mail and bring gifts back from their Japan trips, fans who build friendships that survive decades. Without fandom, my life would have be considerably lonelier, be much less exciting, and would certainly be bereft of many Japanese cartoons and their related paraphernalia and accoutrements.

Yes, there are a few times when I’m exceptionally maudlin or temporarily addled, when I reminisce about the “good old days” of swapping tapes through the mail. Who doesn’t love to get packages in the mail? Those were exciting times, learning about a whole new art form and sharing that knowledge with anyone who’d sit still long enough. Certainly those tape-trading networks proved their worth, educating a continent and forging powerful bonds And yet, if the harsh modern world of the 21st century means I’ll never again get bitched out by total strangers over copies of Japanese cartoons, then I’m all for progress.

-Dave Merrill