BC SealBoston College Magazine Fall 2004
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. Prologue



Toy stories

My most distressing adult encounter with the toy business took place in a multiplex theater at the Assembly Square Mall, beside the Mystic River, in Somerville, Massachusetts. The mall, which stood on the site of a defunct Ford plant, is itself now defunct, a post-apocalypse scene of plywood-covered entryways, wind-blown plastic bags, battered chain-link, and weed-sprouting pavement. At the time, it was simply a long, narrow windowless building with a mammoth parking lot that was said to be the statewide epicenter of car theft, as a result of which visitors tended to huddle their vehicles near the various entrances, like herds of two-ton sheep.

The encounter occurred early in the spring, an afternoon during school vacation week, when I took my children—then 12, nine, and six—to see a matinee of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie. Like many homes in the early 1990s, ours was a repository for the plastic masked turtles. For readers who need a refresher course in TMNT, the main characters (so to speak) are four sewer-dwelling turtles who were turned into vacuous, skateboarding, pizza-craving teenagers as a result of a swim in radioactive waste, and who were subsequently trained in selfless virtue and martial arts by "Master Splinter," a sewer rat whom the same radiation spill had turned into a wizened, robed sensei with a charming Japanese accent. (I know this does not do justice to the complete TMNT saga, which is as detailed as Beowulf, and to which true devotees apply the respect, consideration, and powers of meaning-making that other kinds of believers reserve for Genesis or the works of Ayn Rand.)

Not surprisingly, the movie was loud, slow, and dim. I mean dim literally as well as figuratively: The director (so to speak) may have been chasing a noir look recalled from film school days, but produced a print that seemed to have been filmed through an oil-stained rag or a pair of drugstore sunglasses. The plot (so to speak) was itself a seamless, cynical, and transparent commercial, with every prop, character, story turn, special (so to speak) effect, and pizza-centric meal an opportunity to project a larger-than-life image of something that was for sale somewhere. Nor was any of this improved by the audience: a mob of children animated and emboldened by buckets of sugar- and caffeine-laced drinks and the absence of parents who'd dropped them and fled.

I spent about 90 minutes watching the movie. Or so I understand today. At the time, it seemed weeks of weight shifting, leg crossing, glaring into the darkness at 12-year-old hoodlums, recoiling from Dolby-enhanced tumult, and attempts at deep breathing; but I do remember that as I stepped from the lobby into the chill night that had come on, I felt enervated and at the same time murderous, as though I'd been in a long fight that had been called on account of my opponent wanting to eat a pizza. In the van on the way home, I snapped at the kids. They probably don't remember. I do. I also remember that we entered the house in silence, as though I were returning them from an enforced trip to the bottle redemption center.

I SUPPOSE I should not be so hard on TMNT. It was certainly not the dumbest unnatural phenomenon to follow our children home. That honor goes to Wacky Wall Walkers, plastic orbs that looked like skinned tomatoes and were covered with a sticky substance that allowed them to cling to the walls at which they'd been flung and then slowly roll down to the floor where they mingled with dog hair and dust and came to resemble mouse corpses. Nor was TMNT the first toy line to make persuasive claims on the Birnbaum family purse. That award goes to He-Man, the shaggy haired blond warrior with thighs so amply muscled that a bar clamp could not have brought his knees together, who turned out over time to require Castle Grayskull, a pet tiger, an ample-bosomed and miniskirted sister named She-Ra, a nemesis named Skeletor (who, Freud would be pleased to know, turned out to be He-Man and She-Ra's paternal uncle), and a range of weapons, grotesque sidekicks, drinking cups, comic books, stickers, and size four Underoos.

In the end, we came out fine. Hucksters have their weapons, but so do parents, including love, mulishness, experience, cash, and the ability to teach children the ways of irony. And whatever else may have breached the walls of our home, my wife and I can say that over two decades we held the line at Cabbage Patch Kids, Furby, Pokémon, and Chuck E. Cheese, to cite but a few would-be invasives.

And now we're out of it, our kids flown and free to plow their own earned incomes into My Little Pony accessories, if they wish, or to make entire meals of Lucky Charms washed down with Skittles. Meanwhile on the home front, in the abandoned and silent bedrooms, die-cast cars, plastic lances, beauties and beasts, Beanie Babies, and pony accessories may not be in view, but they are easily enough turned up, like spent cartridges and uniform buttons on an old battleground.

Our coverage of contemporary huckster-parent hostilities continues here.

Ben Birnbaum


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