Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Toys


When you existed in that precarious and desperate landscape between the ages of eight and twelve, you were keen on collecting pocket-sized note pads and toy premiums from breakfast food box promotions and inducements from afternoon radio serials.  You also devoured as side dishes to your normal reading tales classified as boys’ adventures and historical narratives.

The 8” x 12” cardboards that came from your father’s laundered shirts became covers for your own hand-made notebooks, which also made use of the stationery from the slew of insurance companies from whom your father tried, with varying degrees of success, to wrest a living.

You’d intended the notebooks to be places where you could transcribe your own adventures, which at the time disappointed you for some of the same reasons boys of that age are disappointed about so many things, and which explains why, in addition to the adventure books you read, you thought to create your own.

In retrospect, you have romanticized the toys you got for box tops or post cards or some proof-of-purchase label, but at the time these toys spoke of the same adventures you read about, jealous of the boy and girl protagonists for having the fortune to be part of such exotica.  At one time, you had decoder rings, magnifying glasses to burn holes in the most stubborn of papers or leather.

You had mirrors in case you needed to signal distant friends, warning them of a menace you could see but they could not.  Some of the adventure serials you followed, notably The Lone Ranger and the Green Hornet, broadcast coded messages, which you took outside to decode away from prying eyes.  Of course there were no prying eyes; you had to manufacture them.

Favorite targets for prying eyes were the maids employed by the more affluent families in your neighborhood to shepherd five- and six-year-olds in addition to their other cleaning duties.  For a time, your notebooks included reports of these maids’ activities, including your suspicions that they were up to no good, meant to kidnap and ransom off their charges, then flee to Arizona, where they would begin life anew with their wealth a mystery.

You had the good fortune of living in close proximity to a wide swath of undeveloped acreage extending more or less from Sixth Street northward to Third Street, and from Cochran Avenue to Fairfax Avenue in west central Los Angeles, the same area long since the residential sweep of a development called Park La Brea, augmented in later years to include apartment buildings of ten or twelve stories, now known as Park La Brea Towers.  Until you were well launched into your teens, you shared a double life with that relatively flat but nevertheless undeveloped acreage.  To add to the potential romance of the area, it directly abutted the area known as the La Brea Tar Pits.  In your double life, you were alternately a guide, a safari leader, and an archaeologist, your notebooks reflecting your suspicions that the area was inhabited by various predators, among whom was your favorite, the saber-tooth tiger.  When more adventurous exploits claimed your imagination, you were convinced you could hear the dying pleas and agonies of prehistoric animals, mired in the mud and tar pools.

In these adventures, you at last found use for the signaling devices, the decoder rings, and the whistles guaranteed to achieve a pitch beyond human capability to hear but not so high that dogs would fail to hear them, alert to the coded notes you would send them, bidding them to rescue you or protect you against some unseen menace.

Life is different now; the dangers and menaces are quite different, but surely nostalgia for those times causes you to ply the supermarket aisles where the cereals are shelved.  From time to time, you browse the shelves, looking for some trace of some magical toy being offered.  From time to time, this nostalgia reminds you of the advertisements on the back pages of comic books, offering a variety of magic such as pet chameleons, ventriloquism apparatus, instruments offering X-ray vision, fake blood stains, pocket-sized telescopes, and magic tricks any boy could perform with minimal practice.

You could find complete tool kits for private detectives, devices that allowed you to listen to conversations in the next room, and that ubiquitous prank for the unwary, the joy buzzer, a device small enough to conceal in the palm of an eight- or nine-year-olds hand, guaranteed to cause the next person whose hand he shook a convincing quasi-electrical shock.

For those years, you were in a world where you could be the life of the party (by slipping an impossible-to-detect powder in a sugar bowl which, when subsequently spooned into a cup of coffee, would cause the cup to froth over), an inspired practical joker (itching powder), a super sleuth, or an imaginary big game hunter.  You could signal imaginary friends, warn untold multitudes of rampaging elephants, solve crimes.

Then you entered your teens and your imagination, already as eager to slip free of its bounds as an impatient puppy, took you in other directions, away from some forms of magic and careening full tilt toward others.  But enough of that bored, eager explorer who was you remains, and you seek adventures yet as though they were toys in cereal boxes.


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