“Collect Them All”
Ballad of a Fanboy, part one.
“My name is Joe and I’ve been collecting stuff since I was five years old.” (sits down)
It started with Matchbox cars, two-inch die cast vehicles rather crudely rendered by today’s standards, but fascinating to small eyes and tiny hands. I loved trucks from an early age and possessing miniature versions was irresistible. Lining them up on the floor and bringing my eye to their level made me simultaneously feel large and small—effortlessly traversing the space between child and adult and back again.
“Matchboxes” quickly became my treat of choice. Little Joe needs a polio booster? Promise him a car from the drugstore afterward. Got a good report card? Here’s your four-wheeled reward. Grandpa K took to selling them in his corner grocery store and I was soon tempted by a stack of fifty different blue and yellow boxes, from the green Singer van to the orange Refuse truck.
It didn’t take too much wheedling on my part to pry an occasional free sample from his shelves. I certainly didn’t have the 55¢ to buy one of my own…
It was satisfying to shake the flimsy paper packages that each tiny truck was packed in. The titular boxes were all the same dimensions, but each vehicle inside varied and had their own resonance—larger ones felt solid, smaller ones rattled about. Even though they seemed like perfect little garages, more often than not, the empty container became so much ephemera and all eyes and fingers were on the car inside.
Basically a metal shell bolted to a set of wheels, each miniature, as they were respectfully called, sported a few plastic details to add realism. Automobiles might include a full set of seats, almost within reach through the empty window frames. A Coca-Cola truck, in addition to sporting the familiar yellow and red livery, might include tiny cast bottles. The detail was endlessly fascinating.
The Lesney Corporation, the manufacturer of these little zinc beauties, introduced me to a larger vocabulary—apparently, a car’s trunk was a “boot” and a truck was a “lorry”. Who knew there was a difference between speaking English and American? Their stuffy prose was probably an influence on my writing to this day. But this obscure British company really sparked my nascent collector’s fever by publishing an annual 40-page catalog of all its vehicles, accessories, and playsets.
I lived a world dominated by black-and-white newspapers and duotone supermarket circulars. But here was a glossy, technicolor publication, every brilliant page of which hit me right between my baby blues. Filled with a hundred beautiful renderings of the most desirable (yet accessible) commodities of my young life. I poured over the description of each model, fetishizing the curves of their bodies and absorbing every detail from their concise but alluring captions. I even recall sampling the strangely tangy, yet ultimately bitter flavor of their unpainted chassis.
Hey, I hadn’t discovered girls yet, but I was a sensualist from the get-go.
The biggest lesson learned from this phase of my development was not expressly stated. By comparing the latest catalog with the previous year’s worn and dog-eared edition, I quickly noticed that there were new cars introduced at the expense of the old. Where was the Milk Delivery Van? I was going to get the Mercedes Tour Bus—but it’s gone now! Why did they change the color of the Unimog? The models that I had stared at and plotted to acquire had disappeared, presumably never to be seen again.
But I thought toys were forever! That they would always be with us!
Apparently, the friendly slogan printed on every box carried an ominous subtext. “Collect Them All” was not just a suggestion, but a directive that you ignored at one’s own peril. My tidy suburban home life was suddenly called into question. I had accepted the capricious whims of bullies on the playground and unpredictable knuckle-rapping of nuns at school, but I thought I could count on the consistency of my handsome Matchbox Collectors Case, “made of scuff-resistant vinyl and finished with nickel-plated clasps,” to be filled with my favorite metal models.
Suddenly I was introduced to the idea of scarcity. Nothing was guaranteed, especially my most prized possessions. Much as I loved my toy trucks and cars, they endured a lot of wear and tear. Rolled off of tables, scuffed by errant vacuum cleaners, buried in the sandbox,—I always believed they could be replaced if necessary. But those assumptions were now called into question. And new behaviors would need to be adopted.
Accumulate. Catalog. Preserve.
Be careful what you teach an impressionable child—those are the lessons that last a lifetime.
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