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Beware the Barbies and Other Plastic Playthings
When cherished childhood toys come with additional baggage
My parents never acted like we were poor. They always made sure we had new school clothes in the fall (put on layaway in May and paid for in installments over the summer) and bikes and Hot Wheels and board games, puzzles and books. Of course, the toys that everyone wanted were the painted plastic action figures and detailed replicas of Star Wars TIE Fighters. But I never had any of those.
Two years younger than me, my little sister had several My Little Ponies, Strawberry Shortcake collections and a basic Barbie. We concocted our own games, practicing a Wonder Woman spin and lassoing one another to tell the truth, but I’d also braid the ponies’ manes (much better than Barbie’s unruly blonde locks). Care Bears were somehow the gender-neutral toy choice; we both received a few at Christmas, helping us to imagine an alternate universe where little bears with special powers saved the world again and again.
Everything changed when we went to visit Uncle Buck. We’d moved our mobile home from the Air Force base in Tampa, Florida to a trailer park in Wichita Falls, a small town in north Texas. This trailer park felt very different. Here, we’d sneak into abandoned trailers with our parents to scrounge around. As they’d look for spare parts, my sister and I fished green pennies from the heating grates or listened for kittens in the insulation below the hollow floors. The drunk next door tossed out empty bottles along with wooden whiskey boxes, which we collected for our colored pencils and crayons. We wandered through the mesquite trees and scrub, picking up rocks for my collection, until I got stung by a scorpion and became scared of the weird wildness that could suddenly become too real.
By this time, my fourth-grade friends were amassing shoeboxes full of G.I. Joes and keeping Mattel in profits by buying up Skeletor’s pals to battle He-Man’s crew, and Transformers had captured our imaginations. I told everyone I didn’t need the junk.
“It’s just marketing,” I said. I’m not sure how I figured this out, but I’d discerned the scheme behind the cartoons and commercials and decided I would be above it. “I’m not going to waste your money on that plastic stuff,” I told my parents, letting them off the hook before they even tried to provide me with the toys all the kids coveted.
Perhaps it was a way to be the mature one, sensing that cash was tight, to avoid any potential shame upon them. My parents had four kids by the time they were 30. Mom had applied for WIC, which paid for some of the groceries each month. We learned to like Kix cereal (the “healthy” choice the welfare coupons covered) instead of Trix, and I decided I’d even try to make my own money, so I began selling wrapping paper, cards, and other novelty items offered by a catalog that conscripted me into its army of sellers.
Buck wasn’t actually our uncle. He was my mother’s mother’s cousin, but we called him Uncle Buck. He and his wife Mickie, both avid collectors, lived about two hours away in a suburb of Dallas-Fort Worth. As our only kin in the region, we began to visit this childless middle-aged couple, who enjoyed the new energy under their roof. They had a condo, which seemed extremely modern and cool, with its trash compactor instead of a garbage can, plus a fitness center with a steam room and jacuzzi.
Mickie’s mass of clowns dominated their two-bedroom condo. Clown memorabilia covered two floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, organized and dusted and arranged in neat rows. There were sad clowns, happy clowns, hobo clowns, circus clowns and Italian harlequin court jesters. The expensive Lladro pastel porcelain pieces were on lower shelves at eye level. Lithographs of “Weary Willie” were hung with care. As the adults droned on about some current event, my sister and I would scour the shelves, careful not to touch or tumble, since we’d been warned time and again: “Don’t break the clowns!”
The first time Uncle Buck gave us toys, we didn’t know what had happened. It wasn’t our birthday. It wasn’t Christmas. But suddenly my sister had seven Peaches ‘n Cream Barbies and I had a handful of GoBots. The sentient robot toys were like Transformers but seemed slightly cheaper since their details weren’t as defined and their names were less complicated. They still took some skill in manipulating—which impressed the clumsy adults—so despite all my previous denials, I was thrilled to get these toys.
“Say thank you,” my mom instructed. We did, hugging Uncle Buck and Mickie, who beamed with wide grins of pride. More and more toys showed up—a Rainbow Brite doll and a bunch of plush Pound Puppies—but we never questioned our boon. We had moved out of the mobile home and into a two-story townhouse on the military base. Now, we were inviting friends over to play with our bounty of treasures.
When it was time for the next show-and-tell, I decided I’d take a few of my GoBots to school to brag. Mrs. Thompson, my fourth-grade teacher, was my favorite. She was new to the profession, a pretty blonde Texan eager to shape young minds. I spent hours doing extra credit, practicing my cursive on pages of notebook paper since Mrs. Thompson always rewarded our hard work. She handed out stickers for grades, oversized chocolate bars for perfect attendance and no misconduct. We got pencils, erasers, even crisp one-dollar bills for doing good. I loved the praise Mrs. Thompson heaped on me and, as a young overachiever who joined the morning crossing guard crew and recruited my pals to Young Astronauts, doing extra homework was a no-brainer.
Previously, I brought in prized polished stones or one of my mayonnaise jar bug habitats. But today I was proud to exhibit my gang of GoBots. “My Uncle Buck lives in Irving, a part of the Dallas-Fort Worth area,” I began, invoking the metropolitan moniker that was sure to impress everyone, since Wichita Falls didn’t have much claim to fame other than being in the path of the Terrible Tuesday tornadoes a decade before. “His wife has a humongous collection of clowns, and he got me these GoBots that he discovered at his job at the landfill.”
I’d been told about the landfill, and it seemed like a magical place. I imagined Buck, a big, grizzled man with a salt-and-pepper five o’clock shadow and wraparound shades, maneuvering his bulldozer through grassy mounds. He poked around with his machinery and uncovered buried treasure. As he explained it, lots of the department stores discarded tons of perfectly good toys and other things because their boxes were slightly damaged. They ended up at this landfill, and Buck was lucky enough to salvage them. It made perfect sense to me: My toys were even more special because they’d been rescued from destruction.
I don’t remember if the class reacted to my story; most likely they were bored and jealous and didn’t much care what I was saying. But after I finished, I saw the look of concern in Mrs. Thompson’s eyes.
“Jerry, do you understand what you said up there?” she asked. “Do you know what a landfill is?”
“Sure,” I replied. “It’s the place where all these toys are just sitting for someone to find.”
“Not quite,” she said.
I was confused, squirming in the uncomfortable position of having disappointed my teacher in some unfathomable way. I’d said something that was neither going to get me a sticker nor a chocolate bar. I was afraid to find out my error, felt ashamed that I’d somehow violated some unspoken rule.
When I informed Mom after school, she didn’t seem too concerned, but she also wasn’t happy with me either. “Don’t share things about the family with other people,” she instructed. “That’s our business. You don’t need to tell other people about anything that has to do with the family.” It was a lesson she’d tried to teach before, but I was all about sharing. Until I began to surmise that sharing the wrong information with the wrong people could somehow mean you would be judged—or worse—a lesson that would plague me for years to come.
The GoBots seemed tainted now. I couldn’t play with them without thinking that they’d come from some dirty place, gotten by ill means. I noticed that they were slightly chipped, not quite perfect. I felt betrayed by Uncle Buck and didn’t want to accept any more of his ill-gotten plunder, explaining that I’d outgrown such childish trinkets. My sister’s collection ballooned, and I wanted to warn her: “Beware of the Barbies!” They also had defects, but we’d managed to overlook them, not worrying that the makeup was smudged or a taffeta skirt ripped. Now, everything seemed sullied. It had all been transmuted into what it had always been—just junk.
Jerry Portwood is a writer and editor living in West Harlem in New York City. He was recently the Digital Editorial Director at Rolling Stone, Executive Editor at Out magazine, and Editor in Chief of New York Press. He's a long time instructor at the New School's writing program.
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