11 Secrets of Former Blockbuster Employees

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Getty Images

For nearly three decades, Blockbuster was the friendly neighborhood video store for movie-lovers around the United States—and its employees were our friendly neighborhood movie gurus. Though a few independent Blockbuster franchises are still bravely soldiering on around the country, the company had its heyday in the 1990s to mid-2000s, when video tapes and DVDs were still the dominant way to watch a movie. Doling out recommendations and patiently dealing with our late fee complaints, Blockbuster employees were a crucial part of our movie-watching experience, and frontline observers of the changes in our movie consumption. Mental_floss talked to a handful of former Blockbuster employees about what it was like to work at the video rental franchise from the company's heyday through its decline.

1. THEY RENTED MOVIES FOR FREE.

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Working at Blockbuster had plenty of perks if you were a movie lover. Employees not only received five free rentals a week, but got to watch new releases a week before they became available for rental. Matt, who worked at a Blockbuster in southeast Michigan from 2004 to 2009, explains that the free rental policy was really a win-win for Blockbuster and its employees. “This was actually a necessity because you’d have movie buffs and store regulars come in and ask for recommendations,” he explains. “It was a good way to catch up on movies I missed or had never heard of. I definitely dug up some oddball gems this way.”

2. THEY HATED IT WHEN YOU COMPLAINED ABOUT LATE FEES ...

Over the years, Blockbuster experimented with a range of policies regarding late fees. For a while, the store tried a “no late fees” policy, which, according to former employees, replaced late fees with a confusing “re-stocking fee.” Regardless of policy, employees say dealing with late fees was among the most annoying parts of the job.

“People proved to be astoundingly bad at math, and though they’d agree on how long they kept the movies they had and how much each of them cost for the night, they were just unable to comprehend how they owed us the amount they did,” explains Lex, who worked at Blockbuster in Scranton, Pennsylvania, from 2012 to 2013. “Dealing with people trying to get out of what they owed was basically how we interfaced with 40% of our customers on a daily basis.”

Brie, who worked at a Blockbuster in Salt Lake City from 2007 to 2008, during its “no late fees” era, explains that customers would always fight her on the store’s $1.25 restocking fee. “I would say 95% of the customers would fight me on paying them 100% of the time,” she says. “Customers would argue, ‘What is this restocking fee if not a late fee?’ You’re totally right, I know, it’s a loophole to get around saying it’s a late fee. I didn’t make it up, please don’t fight me on it.”

3. ... BUT THEY'D TRY TO HELP YOU OUT IF YOU WERE POLITE.

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When it came to getting out of late fees, there was really only one strategy that worked: Be nice. “Once I hit Shift Lead status, I would make deals with customers and try to waive a fee or two here or there if customers were regulars or particularly nice,” says Brie .

“We were able to minimize some late fees, eliminate others,” says Tim, who worked at a Blockbuster in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, from 2004 to 2007. “Come in calm and respectful and apologetic, poof, you owe $0.00. Come in hooting and hollering and it’s ‘I’m sorry, sir. There’s nothing I can do. You cannot rent another movie until you pay your $3.75.’”

4. THEY KEPT SECRET NOTES ON CUSTOMERS.

If you ever caught an employee giving you a strange look or holding back a laugh when you tried to rent, there’s a chance there was a note left on your account. Blockbuster used point of sale software that let employees look up your account information, and leave little warnings for each other if you habitually tried to worm your way out of late fees or misbehaved.

“People would constantly complain about late fees, so we had a system where you could write a note in the computer, like ‘Forgave one late fee, don’t do it again,’ or ‘This guy constantly turns in tapes late and says he paid his fees,’” says Mike , who worked at Blockbuster in Malden, Massachusetts, from 1999 to 2003. “Depending on who wrote the note, it could be very professional or sometimes it would just be like, ‘This lady is crazy.’ It would be flashing in yellow and you’d be keeping one eye on the customer, and one eye on the screen, trying to read it, and sometimes trying to keep a straight face.”

5. THEY COULD SEE YOUR ENTIRE RENTAL HISTORY.

If you rented anything embarrassing, you can bet your local Blockbuster employee noticed. “When customers brought up tapes, you’d see their previous rentals automatically,” explains Mike . “So, you’d see like, a thirteen-year-old girl renting Titanic for the twentieth time. You wouldn’t say anything, though.”

6. THEFT WAS A BIG ISSUE.

Customers were constantly finding creative new ways to steal merchandise. Matt remembered the “slashers” who would “show up with a boxcutter hidden on them and sneak around the store, slitting the spines on DVD cases and stealing discs,” while Lex recalled a guy who figured out how to remove the magnetic locking strips from DVD cases. “He’d always steal the weirdest, most arbitrary movies,” she explains. “He’d steal sequels of things and not the originals, or individual discs of TV show season collections. I don’t know if he was just trying to tear down the system slowly from the inside, or if he just had very specific interests.”

Mike, meanwhile, says the most notorious criminal to terrorize his Blockbuster location turned out to be a 10-year-old boy. “We had the full security system at Blockbuster—video cameras, security gates, magnetic locks on the cases—but somebody kept stealing video games. Our manager was totally baffled. He started to think it was an inside job,” says Mike. “It turned out it was a little ten-year-old kid. His mom found all the video games under his bed and turned him in. She brought the games back and we promised not to press charges, but the mom wanted us to scare the kid straight, like Maury Povich-style. So the manager and I ended up in the back room with this little ten-year-old kid who’s crying his eyes out. We had no idea what to do. It’s like, there’s our master thief who’s outwitting our corporate security system, and he’s just a kid.”

7. CORPORATE LOGIC WAS A BIT OF A MYSTERY.

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The employees at individual Blockbuster locations didn’t get to choose which products they ordered to rent or sell. Everything was decided by corporate headquarters, whose logic could sometimes be difficult to discern. Back in the early 2000s, that often meant receiving hundreds of copies of new releases to rent, which stores would later struggle to sell off, or receiving books and magazines that customers never even noticed were there.

Gladiator was the biggest movie that came out while I was at Blockbuster. We had so many copies, just walls and walls of Gladiator. Then, later on, we couldn’t sell them. We had like 200 copies left and nobody wanted them,” recalls Mike. “We’d also sell video game guides and magazines, and they would never sell. At the end of the month, we’d rip the cover off and throw them away. Sometimes instead of tossing them, I’d take them home—to this day, I have so many books without covers.”

8. THINGS REALLY STARTED TO UNRAVEL TOWARD THE END.

By 2012 or so, when the chain was really struggling to stay afloat, Blockbuster locations would often receive seemingly random shipments of movies to sell off, says Lex. They’d set up large tables around the store covered in DVDs for sale. “It was a completely random assortment of stuff,” recalls Lex. “We’d have, like, 50 copies of some mediocre 5-year-old romantic comedy, and then two copies of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (and none of the rest of the series), and then 12 copies of some obscure art-house film. There was no curation.”

“The most bizarre thing,” he concludes, “is that we had 135 copies of Dinner For Schmucks. I made it its own table. On the Black Friday I was there, we had a ‘door busters’ sale, with select, new DVDs for $5 a piece. We got 24 DVDs to sell—not 24 titles, 24 individual DVDs. Of those 24 DVDs, six were Dinner For Schmucks. The 135 copies were already selling for $3 apiece. We didn’t have much of a Black Friday rush that year.”

9. THE SWITCH FROM VHS TO DVD WAS PURE CHAOS.

Long before Blockbuster lost its showdown with streaming video, the company was faced with another seismic technological shift: the transition from VHS to DVD. According to Ben, who worked at a Blockbuster in central Pennsylvania from 2001 to 2002, the company struggled to get rid of its excess VHS tapes once the medium became obsolete. "We pulled them by the hundreds and put them on sale," he recalls. "After a few weeks, we started pulling them for destruction. It was kind of a shame, but it was fun at the same time. We just smashed the hell out of them behind the counter. I was washing through an ankle-deep layer of black plastic and magnetic tape … Later destroy pulls were authorized to instead send to local charities, but that first big one was fun.”

10. BEING A MOVIE BUFF WASN'T A JOB REQUIREMENT ...

You didn’t have to be a cinephile to work at Blockbuster. Most managers were more interested in hiring people who were reliable and punctual than employees who could recite the entire filmography of their favorite director. “You didn’t need to love movies at all,” recalls Mike. “You just had to get there on time.”

11. ... BUT MANY EMPLOYEES REALLY LOVED MOVIES.

Nevertheless, many Blockbuster employees really did love movies. “My interview basically amounted to them making sure I was a human that could read,” says Lex. “But everyone I worked there with was pretty big into games, movies, and TV, and we spent a lot of time talking about them.”

11 Secrets of Tour Directors

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iStock

Tour directors get paid to travel the world, dine at incredible restaurants, and sleep in comfy hotel beds. Of course, there’s a lot more to the job than merely hoisting a brightly colored flag and rattling off pertinent facts. Some would even describe the work as exhausting, both physically and mentally. Unlike tour guides—who provide local expertise about a city or attraction and generally don't have to travel far—tour directors book gigs across the country or abroad via tour operation companies, handle the pre-trip planning, and conduct the tour, all while fixing the problems that pop up along the way. To find out what their day-to-day work is really like, Mental Floss spoke with three tour directors (or managers, as they're also known). Here’s what they had to say about an occupation that many label a “dream job.”

1. FORMAL TRAINING IN TOURISM ISN’T REQUIRED.

While some tour directors hold certificates in tourism and hospitality management, this isn’t a strict requirement, and professional directors come from a range of educational backgrounds. Kimberly Fields-McArthur, an American tour director based in Australia, has a degree in biblical studies and archaeology, and Anne Marie Brooks, a former tour director turned cruise ship worker in Orlando, has a background in musical theater.

More important than education or training: their skills. Tour directors must be highly organized, adept at speaking in front of large groups, and people-oriented. "A lot of it is a personality thing versus a training thing," Brooks says. "You can’t train someone to have a personality to work with people.”

2. WHEN THEY’RE ON A TOUR, THEY’RE ON CALL 24/7.

While they might get to spend the night in a nice hotel, the sleep of a tour director is often interrupted. Brooks, who used to lead city tours for high school performance groups, recalled a time when a large group of rowdy, drunk men stayed on the same floor of a hotel as the girls in her group. Although she was staying on a different floor, she received word around 3 a.m. that the boozed-up bros were making some of the girls—and adult chaperones—uncomfortable, so she went down to the front desk to sort it out. No other rooms were available, but the hotel agreed to hire a security guard to sit in the hallway for the duration of their stay.

Similarly, Fields-McArthur says she’s been forced to respond to issues in the middle of the night quite a few times. “One of them was a gentleman who made a very bad decision about what height he could jump into the pool from and ended up breaking his foot,” she says. “That was 2 o’clock in the morning.”

3. THEY HATE IT WHEN YOU CALL THEIR JOB A “FREE VACATION.”

“There’s nothing about what I’m doing right now that is me on vacation,” Fields-McArthur says. “If I am on vacation, it means I am not doing my job and you are probably not having a good time.”

Kathi Thompson Cullin, a tour director based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, adds: "I was up at 6 o’clock this morning and didn’t go to bed until midnight doing my paperwork.” When they're not traveling, they're handling all the pre-trip arrangements: crafting the itinerary, ordering tickets for activities, taking care of transportation and lodging, and following up with venues to make sure they haven't forgotten about their reservations (a common problem). Plus, there's the added challenge of shepherding dozens of people around a city that's unfamiliar to them, which isn't exactly a walk in the park, either.

4. THEY GO THROUGH A LOT OF SHOES ... AND LUGGAGE.

If you’re looking for a job that forces you to stay active, tour directing might be the profession for you. Thompson Cullin and Brooks say they walk so much they burn through three or four pairs of sneakers per year. (Pro tip: If you’re looking for comfy travel shoes, they both swear by their Skechers.) Suitcases tend to be another casualty of the job. Thompson Cullin says she stopped buying expensive luggage because it would just end up “beat up and broken with the wheels off” by the end of the year.

5. THEY’RE TRAINED TO ANTICIPATE THE WORST ...

People get lost. Accidents happen. Natural disasters strike. Tour directors have to be prepared for the worst-case scenario. “If I’m leading a trip to Indonesia, I need to know volcanoes might be part of the process of being there, and earthquakes might be part of the process,” Fields-McArthur says. So educating herself about potential disasters—and how to deal with them—is part of her pre-trip research.

Things can go wrong with the guests, too. "I’ve had trips where people have gotten very sick," she says. "I had one trip where I had seven people end up in the hospital at different times for completely different reasons. I’ve seen broken bones and illnesses and hospital stays for days on end, where we ended up having the trip continue on to a different country and we had to leave them behind.” (In those instances, the tour director notifies the tour company, which follows up with anyone injured and left behind to ensure they have travel arrangements once they recover.)

6. ... BUT IF SOMETHING LESS SERIOUS GOES WRONG, YOU PROBABLY WON’T KNOW ABOUT IT.

Problems arise more often than you’d expect. A misspelled name could result in the hotel not having any record of a 50-plus person reservation—this once happened to Thompson Cullin—and businesses often forget that large groups are scheduled to come in on any given day. “So many things go wrong on a day-to-day basis that our guests will never know about,” Brooks says. One time, a restaurant she took her group to was understaffed, so she stepped in, grabbed a pitcher of soda and plates of food, and started refilling their glasses and serving them—all while playing it off like she was merely mingling with the group.

The job is hard work, but tour directors never let it show. Fortunately, Thompson Cullin was able to fix the hotel reservation error before her guests ever found out about it. “Think of me as a duck floating on the water,” she says. “To the human eye I’m looking very peaceful floating along, not a care in the world, but underneath my feet are paddling like crazy just to stay afloat.”

7. THEY REALLY LIKE TALL PEOPLE.

While guests do get separated from the group from time to time, tour directors do their best to avoid it. In addition to holding a flag or umbrella at the front of the line to help guests find their way, they have another trick up their sleeve: “What I usually do is try to make friends with somebody who’s very tall in the group,” Fields-McArthur says. She'll ask if they'd mind being the last person in line; that way, when she looks back and sees their head bobbing above the others, she knows that the group didn’t get split up. (Of course, this doesn’t stop the occasional straggler from ditching the group any time they get distracted by a gelato shop or chic boutique.)

8. SOMETIMES THEY HAVE TO BREAK UP FIGHTS.

When you take a big group of strangers from diverse backgrounds and send them on a trip together, it doesn’t always end well. Thompson Cullin said part of her job involves playing mediator and preventing disagreements from escalating. The most extreme example of this is the time when she had to physically break up a fight in the hotel lobby between two women who weren't getting along on her tour. When tensions reached a boiling point, one woman raised her arm to hit the other, but Thompson Cullin arrived in the nick of time. “I grabbed both of their arms and said, ‘Come with me now,’” she says. They did cooperate, but only after they received a warning that they’d be kicked off the tour if they continued to quibble.

9. THEY OFTEN DEPEND ON TIPS.

The median wage for travel guides—those who "plan, organize, and conduct long distance travel, tours, and expeditions for individuals and groups"—is $25,770 annually or $12.39 hourly, according to 2017 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor. However, Fields-McArthur says many U.S. tour companies pay directors by the day, and wages range from $100 to $300 per day (on the lower end of the scale) to roughly $400 per day for higher-paying jobs. For directors in the former camp, tips are essential. “On some of the older adult tours, sometimes they give you $5 in an envelope and say, ‘That was the best trip of my life,’ and you’re like, ‘Great, I can’t pay my bills now,’” Fields-McArthur says with a laugh. If you’re on a tour and you're unsure how much to tip, check the information packet provided by the company. They usually include tipping guidelines.

10. THEY MEET SOME INTERESTING CHARACTERS.

Tour directors see a steady stream of fascinating people from around the world. One of the most memorable characters that Thompson Cullin ever encountered was a “sweet little old man” from New Jersey on a tour of Sedona, Arizona, who happened to be an ex-con and “retired” member of the Mafia. “He said to me at lunch, ‘You know what Kathi, I like you. You got moxie. Here’s my card. Anybody ever gives you trouble, you call me and I’ll take care of them,'” she says. She thought he was joking at first. He wasn’t.

11. THEY NEVER GET TIRED OF THE AMAZING SIGHTS.

Sure, they may get sick of certain activities—Brooks, for example, has had her fill of Radio City Music Hall—but awe-inspiring sights like the Grand Canyon become no less impressive with repeated viewings. “I never get tired of it. That’s probably the one question I get asked all the time,” Thompson Cullin says. She also enjoys witnessing how her guests react to the sights they’re seeing. “My biggest perk is to see people’s faces transform into childlike wonder when they see things for the very first time—things that they have always wanted to see.”

10 Secrets of Subway Conductors

Chris Hondros, Getty Images
Chris Hondros, Getty Images

Despite listening to their announcements every day, there’s a lot the average rider doesn’t know about being a subway conductor. The men and women at the front of the train are the eyes and ears of the subway system, and they often act as the only line of communication between passengers and the greater transit authority. We spoke with conductors who work for two of the country’s busiest transit systems to learn more about what it's like on the rails—including the real meanings behind the phrases they use, how dirty trains really get, and the one thing they wish more riders would do.

1. IT CAN TAKE A WHILE TO GET A JOB ...

Aspiring transit employees often have to be patient. Candidates must first complete a written exam, and if they pass, their name is added to a list of people waiting to fill whatever jobs open up. The time it takes to reach the top of the list varies: Joe Benton, who's worked for Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) in San Francisco for 10 years, tells Mental Floss he was hired a year after first submitting his application. Tramell Thompson, a New York City subway conductor since 2013, says he waited nearly four years after taking his civil service exam to secure the job. Once hired, subway conductors must undergo a training process that can take two to three months. This involves riding real trains in the yards, and learning the various signals, regulations, and procedures.

2. ... BUT STAYING IN THE POSITION PAYS OFF.

The typical base salary for a New York subway conductor is $67,000, Thompson says, but both pay and benefits become more appealing the longer a conductor works for the transit authority. As Victor Almodovar, a New York City subway conductor for 15 years, tells Mental Floss, "seniority is everything." After 12 years, he was able to get weekends off, and he now has the freedom to choose which train line he works on—something most conductors just starting out aren't allowed to do.

3. THEY MIGHT TALK ABOUT THINGS BLOWING UP—BUT DON'T PANIC.

If you could eavesdrop on the private conversations between subway personnel, you probably wouldn’t understand them. All transit conductors speak in shorthand specific to the systems they work for: “BART has literally its own language,” Benton says. That language includes a lot of numbers, like track numbers, platform numbers, and train IDs. But other bits of lingo are more colorful—and could potentially cause panic if they were ever broadcast over the wrong intercom. As an example, Thompson notes they sometimes might say "the railroad blew up." While it may sound terrifying, he explains that it means the trains aren't running on their proper schedule.

4. THERE'S A GOOD REASON THEY'RE ALWAYS POINTING.

If you live in New York City, pay close attention next time you’re waiting on a subway platform: When the train pulls in, you should see the conductor pointing a finger out the car window. The object they’re pointing at is a black-and-white strip of wood called a zebra board. It hangs above the center of every subway platform, and when the train pulls into the station correctly, it will line up perfectly with the subway conductor’s window. If the conductor notices the board is a little too far behind or ahead of them when they point their finger, they know it’s not safe to open the doors. The gesture is also a good indicator that your conductor is paying attention.

5. THEY WORD ANNOUNCEMENTS CAREFULLY.

There are a few phrases regular subway riders are used to hearing—“sick passenger,” “police investigation,” and the standard “we are experiencing delays,” to name a few. These may sound like obvious euphemisms, but Thompson promises that using carefully worded language is in the passengers’ best interests. A police investigation, for instance, could refer to someone causing a scene on a train, but in some cases it’s a lot more serious. “If God forbid there’s a terrorism or a bomb scare, that’s not something you want to put over the public address system,” Almodovar says. “It becomes self-preservation and you don’t want that on a packed rush hour train. So instead you say, ‘We have a police investigation,’ which is basically the truth but you’re not telling them the whole truth.”

“A passenger seeking medical attention” is another example of masking something that’s potentially disturbing without being dishonest. Thompson says, “I’m not going to say, ‘Attention passengers, somebody jumped in front of the train and it’s causing delays.’ I would say, ‘There’s an injured passenger on the train ahead of us,’ or ‘There’s a passenger seeking medical attention ahead of us.’” However, with the MTA now pushing its employees to be more transparent, riders may occasionally get conductors who make no effort to mince words.

6. SOMETIMES PASSENGERS KNOW MORE THAN THEY DO.

Passengers aren’t the only ones who are kept in the dark during delays. When a conductor doesn’t give a specific reason for the delay in their announcements, it may be because he or she doesn’t know why the train stopped in the first place. “In that case, I would tell them we’re investigating the issue,” Thompson says. Usually the control center—the hub that keeps New York City’s subways moving—will inform conductors of the problem before too much time passes, but in some cases transit news travels faster by phone. “The information will get to passengers through all these MTA apps before it’s even relayed to us,” Thompson says. “So sometimes I ask them, ‘Hey, can you check your phone and see what’s on the [MTA] website?’” (Conductors are forbidden from using their phones for personal reasons on the job, but the MTA is experimenting with giving employees work iPhones to better keep them up-to-date.)

7. MOST DELAYS AREN’T THEIR FAULT.

For better or worse, subway conductors are the face of city transit systems: That means they’re usually the first people to receive complaints and abuse from passengers when a train isn’t moving fast enough. But if your train has been stuck underground for what feels like forever, there’s only a small chance one of the system's employees is to blame; the much more likely cause is faulty equipment. According to WNYC, signal problems account for 36 percent of extended subway delays (eight minutes or more) in New York City, followed by mechanical problems at 31 percent, and rail and track issues at 19 percent. “When you get mad you have to understand that we are not the ones who made the schedules; we’re ones who have to work with the tracks and the signals which are over 100 years old and they break down,” Almodovar says. “We have to work with what we have."

8. THEY HATE DELAYS MORE THAN YOU DO.

A signal malfunction might mess up the average passenger's morning commute, but it can ruin a subway conductor's whole day—so despite being blamed for them constantly, it’s possible that no one hates train delays more than subway conductors. “I didn’t really have a lunch today,” Almodovar says, recalling how he fell behind schedule when the automatic brakes were activated on the train ahead of his. “I had enough time to run downstairs, get a slice of pizza, then I’m right back on the train.”

On some days, conductors are lucky if they get to eat at all. “With all these signal issues, track issues, and all types of other issues, it’s hard for the schedules to work,” Thompson says. “Sometimes we gotta choose between using the bathroom and eating.”

9. SOME WON’T LET THEIR FAMILIES RIDE.

Staying on schedule is a priority for most subway systems. That means employees might rush through jobs where they would ideally take their time—like cleaning a subway car that a passenger has been sick in, for instance. Thompson says the lax sanitation procedures he sees up-close have convinced him to never let his son ride the subway. “It’s like working in a restaurant—you know the other-end stuff that the customers don’t know,” he says.

10. THEY WISH YOU’D LEAVE THE HOUSE EARLIER.

If you want your commute to go smoothly, subway employees will tell you the best thing to do is plan ahead. This means finding out how delays or construction might impact your preferred route before stepping outside the house. Almodovar recommends downloading a navigation app called Citymapper, which integrates the latest data from city transit systems into one spot. Official transit system websites and Twitter accounts are also good places to go for service updates.

But regardless of what your apps tell you, it’s always safer to assume your train will be behind schedule. “We all know that the transit authority isn’t the most punctual service,” Thompson says. “Leave an extra five to 10 minutes earlier from your house, because things are always happening.”

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