This column originally appeared in The Huffington Post 1-8-14
I’d heard rumors about the small, dilapidated single-family structure at the end of my street. During the housing bust it sat vacant, weeds and trash littering the porch and surrounding lot. But almost overnight, the abode sprang to life. Faint, bluish glows flickered in various windows; cars came and went at all hours; strange delivery trucks idled in the driveway. Occasionally a police car pulled up. Two officers would enter the premises and emerge with an occupant, radioing, “We found him,” to headquarters.
“Level with me,” I said to my cop friend Marv over beers one evening. What’s in there? Heroin? Meth? It’s a crack house, right?”
His eyes scanned the room and he lowered his voice. “It’s far worse.”
“What could be worse than having a shooting gallery in your neighborhood?”
“Take a ride with me,” Marv said. “But I could lose my job for this.”
I entered his unmarked vehicle and we parked in an alley behind the dwelling. We approached the front door cautiously.
“Should I be armed?” I asked. “Or at least wearing a vest?”
“Nah, you’ll be fine. Just don’t talk. Even a whisper is likely to get you hurt.”
The front door was unlocked. Marv opened it slowly.
“Oh my God,” were the only words I could muster.
From my vantage point, I counted at least seven flat screen televisions in various locations. Three were mounted to a single wall, giving the area the feel of a Vegas sports book. I recognized the characters from Breaking Bad on the 80-inch model. Below and to the left, a smaller plasma was tuned to Scandal. Bleary-eyed occupants desperately in need of food, sleep and hot showers were sprawled in anything that passed for seating. A dilapidated couch that screamed fraternity yard sale contained two middle-aged men and a twenty-something woman, eyes glazed yet affixed to the exploits of Walter White.
“I’ve seen this one,” I said. “A fly gets into the meth lab and…”
“SHUT UP DUDE!” came the reply from the woman.
“We haven’t seen it,” her companion added. “Make another sound and we will seriously mess you up.”
I glanced at Marv, who shrugged and arched his eyebrows, giving me his best, “I-warned-you” look. He gestured for me to meet him in the kitchen.
“What IS this place?” I said.
“It’s a binge watching house,’ he said. “These poor people man, they enter, they get a taste of Sons of Anarchy and they’re hooked.
“Why can’t they just watch these shows at home?” I asked
“You don’t know anything about addiction, do you?” Marv said. “These people can’t just watch their show once a week. Oh sure, maybe they THINK they can but it never works. They always want more. They’re on their third Homeland episode when their kids start whining about wanting to watch Dance Moms. So they come up with some lame excuse like ‘I’m just going to run to Target for a few things,’ and they end up here.
“Pardon me old chap but would you be so kind as to lower your volume? The other lads and I are having a most difficult time hearing the telly.”
“It’s the Downton Abbey addicts,” Marv said. “Much more polite than the Breaking Bad crew.”
“Who started this?” I said. “I mean, do you have any leads?”
“All of our sources point to the evil Netflix cartel,” Marv said. “They control about 80 percent of the country’s binge watching activity. Oh sure, there are other players…Hulu Plus, CinemaNow, VUDU…but Netflix is ruthless. Sooner or later they crush everybody.”
A knock at the door interrupted our conversation. A gravelly voice exclaimed “Best Buy.”
“Jackson, we got another delivery,” said a 60-ish grandfather type, sprawled on a beach chair watching Mad Men.
A college-aged surfer dude, who I assumed was Jackson, rose from a beanbag chair. “Everybody hit ‘pause,'” he commanded.
The action on all the screens froze in unison. Jackson approached the delivery man.
“What do you got today?”
“A 50-inch Sony plasma, a TV stand and a Roku box. Sign here.”
“Put it in the basement,” Jackson commanded. “We’ve got a House of Cards gang coming in this afternoon and we’ll need the space.”
“Are we done? We’re done, right? We can press ‘play.’ Tell me we can press ‘play,'” came a hysterical plea near a TV where the characters from The Walking Dead were motionless.
“Yeah, everything’s cool again,” Jackson replied. “You know the drill. Let’s see some green.”
Carrying a Tupperware container, Jackson walked the room, stopping near each resident. Tens and twenties soon filled the container to overflow
“Five bucks?” Jackson asked one bearded binge watcher. “Dude, you’ve been here sinceArrested Development was available for live streaming.”
“Jackson, you know I’m good for it. Just let me finish Season 4.”
“You got ’til Friday,” Jackson replied and moved on.
“Who’s this Jackson guy?” I asked Marv.
“Don’t know much about him other than he used to be a Starbucks barista. But he rented this place, added the TVs and now these people pay him each time he signs up for another Netflix subscription. Sure it’s $7.99 a month but we hear he’s charging $20 and pocketing the rest.”
“And they pay that?”
“You’d pay it too if you wanted to watch Orange is the New Black uninterrupted.”
“Can’t you arrest him?”
“For what,” Marv replied. “It ain’t illegal to watch TV.”
“But he’s ruining lives. “You said most of these people have families.”
Just then the door opened. “Donald are you here?”
The woman swept into the room, bypassing The Following, Bones and Weeds until she came to the Dexter couch.
“I warned you what would happen if I found you here again,” she said to a man I assumed was her husband.
“I promise you baby, this is the last episode. I got 15 more minutes and then I promise I’ll get clean. Now could you move? You’re blocking the screen.”
She turned on her heel. “My lawyer will be in touch.”
“It’s hideous,” Marv said. “And it’s only gonna get worse.”
“Girls resumes this month.”
A chill ran down my spine.