I became a consumer in 1967. Like those women appearing with alarming frequency on the cover of the National Enquirer who tell of having been penetrated by aliens with laser probes and sucked dry whilst hurtling through outer space at the speed of light, I remember the exact time of my induction into the consumer hall of fame.
I lost my innocence when I bought my first Beatles’ wig. That and a stick of bubble gum accompanied by playing cards backed by pictures of The Monkees. I remember the day I told my mother I’d rather die than miss an episode of Batman. From then on all I thought of was things I had to have.
I remember the frenzy of desire. I want, I want, I demand. I’d shake and foam at the mouth. I’d pout. I’d sulk. I’d turn red in the face and refuse to breath until I got my way. I did, in short, exactly what I’d been told to do by my instructors on my favorite shows; the MC of the children’s hour, Happy Hal, who taught us all to want a “Slinky” as badly as I might now dream of receiving a masterful blowjob.
Birthday presents of boys’ underwear didn’t quite cut it. That’s what I got for being born one week before classes started in the early fall. Birthday shopping got all mixed up with fall specials. Notebooks, Flintstone’s lunch pails, and Crayola crayon sets dominated mother’s shopping list, never mind the recoiling bazooka and the cheesy hockey set that shimmied and blinked when plugged in. There was no Toys R’ Us on the agenda. It was Woolworth’s all the way, down aisle 6 where back-to-school specials were displayed in 12-inch, yellow block-lettering, hanging by a string from the ceiling. I looked up and saw myself strung up, left dangling by a set of jump ropes as jacks and lint fell from my pockets. I even wet my pants.
There was so much to buy. Silly Putty loomed large, I can tell you. I even wanted things I’d never use. I craved a leather baseball mitt and a first-class Spalding ball. I wanted clothes, a sombrero, and a souvenir like my friend’s set of bull horns he’d picked up in Laredo on his trip across the Texas border into Mexico. I wanted a Timex watch. I wanted a new pair of sneakers, high-top Keds in black. I wanted to shop for my girlfriend. I wanted to pick something up for my teacher, Mrs. Moore. I wanted to stop by KFC and then get a cherry snow cone at the stadium. I had my heart set on a set of fruit-flavored jellies called Chuckles. I wanted a box of Dots. This was just for a start.
I watched TV every afternoon and learned all about things to buy. These were my favorite shows and when they were over, I’d start to think of how I could get what I had seen on TV. I had grown rather fond of model airplanes. I hated my parents because they wouldn’t get me what I wanted. I figured they were shit.
The kid on TV had a brand-new Jap Spitfire and I had to have one, too. What the fuck was the matter with my father that he couldn’t afford one? What a loser. I wanted some shoes like my friend, Mike. He’s gotten a beautiful, red guitar for his birthday, so I was convinced my parents were flops. I swore not to attend their funerals.
About that time, I discovered God. I figured that if my parents wouldn’t give me what I wanted, I’d better to pray to God. I made complete lists just in case. The list was long by now, but I’d read it from my bed at night and make all sorts of promises to God in preparation for His generosity. Hell, I even promised to stop playing with myself if He’d deliver a new set of drums. I asked for all kinds of things after hearing in church that God was great. I figured, what the hay? I knew by now my parents would never come through. Hey, God, I said, while you’re curing me of the flu, why don’t you get me one of those neat train sets shown on Happy Hal’s yesterday afternoon? You know, the one that has working lights and makes steam? Go ahead, prove to me that you exist.
I got nothing.
What I wanted now was a hobby. First, I would have to buy a uniform. If it was sports, baseball, tennis, or whatever, that would be easy enough. I wouldn’t even have to think about it. It was all laid out. But I wasn’t into sports. How about the violin? Now there was something I could sink my teeth into. After looking into the matter, I discovered that my parents couldn’t afford to rent a fiddle, let alone buy one. The best I could do was to practice in the school’s band room with the music club. They wouldn’t let me take it home. No, that wouldn’t do. I wanted to own something. What about horseback riding? Now, there’s a thing to do. I talked to our neighbor who offered riding lessons and taught jumping out at Wildwood Farms. She must know what she’s doing, I figured; she even kept her blond hair in a pony tail.
I signed up and told everyone about it. Yes, horseback riding was an excellent hobby for a young man like me. I could boast about riding horses without actually having to own one. It suited me just fine and helped me feel that I would fit right in with my parents and their friends who couldn’t sing but were always bragging about attending the opera. Tickets were so high just listening to it on the radio bestowed prestige. Now that’s the sort of thing I wanted to be part of.
I rode on the weekends for several years. In the end there were all sorts of things to buy. Riding boots for one were expensive. I bought a used pair off a family friend who owned her own horse. Boy, did I envy her until hearing that her boots had become available because of injuries she’d sustained when she entered the stall and had gotten kicked to within an inch of her life. Her father sold the horse and then let me have her boots for next to nothing. Dear Peggy took years to recover.
Next, I got into cars. Now I had a chance to spend some real money. By this time, I had a job and couldn’t wait to waste my salary. The choice was, well, endless. I ended up with a Honda Accord LXi, a rather attractive little thing with all sorts of fabulous gadgets. This was back in 1990 but the car was 4 years old. It drove like a dream. I took it out for a spin from the used-car lot. I bought it on the spot and let the salesman talk me into getting a warranty for several hundred dollars. Why the hell not? One week later the trans fell out. The whole system would need replacement. When I called the salesman to complain, he asked me what the hell was the matter. After all, I’d gotten the warranty, what did I think it was for? I disliked the car after that and was absolutely done with cars when the thing was stolen some time later while I was having a pastrami sandwich at my favorite deli.
I was learning gradually not to fall in love with objects. Years went by.
A while later I learned that a new Shakespeare company had opened downtown which the school district had contracted with. I was teaching freshman English and figured the kids might like to see a live performance. Tickets were available and transport could be easily arranged. I was thrilled by the emergence of a revitalized downtown. The success of any project in the area was not guaranteed as it was hard to get Westside audiences to come east. They’d come for basketball, but not for Shakespeare. The auditorium was packed that afternoon, over 800 screaming kids filled the place and never settled down. The house lights remained on and candy vendors hawked bags of Skittles and M&Ms. The show started and about 10 minutes in, the chaperoning adults abandoned the auditorium to have a smoke. There were no ushers. It didn’t take the kids long to find other uses for their bags of candy so in short order they began pelting the actors. As the actors batted away the flying objects, they recited their inaudible lines. The place was a madhouse. This went on throughout the performance.
When we got back to the school, I placed a call to the executive producer, an English gentleman who seemed to listen patiently as I described the scene. Actually, he was bored. When I finished, he launched into a defense of the lack of supervision. “Who are we to decide how the audience should behave? The kids, as you call them, are meant to enjoy themselves.” “And what of those of us who couldn’t hear the play? Do we get our money back?” Nothing I said mattered to him. The place was pre-booked, paid in advance by the city. Word-of-mouth was irrelevant. He had his contract, so customer satisfaction meant nothing. “The M&Ms are a revenue source.” His position seemed to be that ghetto children couldn’t be expected to behave otherwise. But there was more. He defended what he called cultural populism, the right of the masses to ransack the citadels of privilege. He was as eloquent as he was condescending. I was a bug representing regressive values. He loved disorder. He seemed disappointed the kids hadn’t defecated on the floor. I tried to sort out his responses, which seemed to be: 1) “Why are you calling me?” 2) “My hands are tied.” and 3) “Aren’t you just a little teacher?”
It all comes back to the M&Ms. The kids had been invited to eat not to watch the production of A Winter’s Tale. Surprise, surprise. The kids’ pockets were already stuffed with Skittles, which they were deemed too tasty to throw away. They’d stuffed themselves while on the bus and were no longer hungry by the time we arrived so why not toss the lot at the lousy actors? And the producer was probably right. What was I going on about? The whole enterprise was no different from a ballgame or a traveling circus. What’s all this shit about culture?
It was my generation after all that had brought this about. It was we who were the food and sex addicts. My parents’ generation didn’t snack. They weren’t allowed to. My father’s mother had a padlock on the refrigerator door. She’d knock the boys over the head with an iron skillet if they tried to sneak into the kitchen between meals. There was no spending money, no afterschool shopping, no bags of penny candies in the classrooms, no cans of soda or anything like it. We were the ones who watched TV all day and compared notes by telephone at night.
I’d clearly been asking for it. I’d helped train the kids. I would bring a bag of penny candies to the classroom and keep it locked away in the cabinet until rewards day when I offered Tootsie Rolls to my top students for work well done. Naturally, word got out; no doubt the kids told their friends and many who were not included felt left out. One day, after school, at about 3 p.m., a group of neighborhood toughs came to my classroom door demanding their share. There were about 12 boys, I’d say, 14-18 years of age, bored drop-outs and gangster wannabes looking for a hand-out and maybe a little trouble. I had stepped out of my door and was standing on the paved walkway leading to the car park. The boys surrounded me. One said, “give us some of that candy, motherfucker.” I was not at all ready for this sort of thing and had no idea how to respond. There was no one to call, nowhere to go really. The campus cleared out daily right after school precisely because of this sort of thing, but I had been a bit delayed. “There’s nothing left. I gave it all away. I’m sorry, but…,” I replied. “Shut up” was what I heard in response. I figured that a kid who could say that to a teacher could just about say or do anything. I realized now that I was in trouble and began to wonder how the whole thing would end.
Just then little Willy, one of my 9th-graders, showed up. He came over and stood beside me. I don’t remember saying anything to him, nor do I remember exactly how I felt upon seeing him. Was he part of this? I didn’t know. Then I heard him say: “Get back in the room.” I hadn’t seen his mouth move at all, but I recognized his voice. I followed his advice and closed the door behind me. We had no cell phones in those days and the classroom had no phone. I stayed in the darkened room for about 30 minutes, just standing there with my briefcase in my hand. I was afraid to reopen the door, but when I did the coast was clear and I walked quickly to my car and drove away, out beyond the eight feet high fence that surrounded the school grounds, down past the seedy housing project where Willy and his friends lived. When I stopped at the red light, I lay my head on the steering wheel.
I decided that day to stop offering kids little rewards. I had helped train these thugs and would do so no longer.
I look into the mirror and whisper quietly to myself, getting increasingly louder, and hear myself declare that anyone who could vote in an election is a shit, that Hamilton is a piece of multicultural garbage and that people who gush over Game of Thrones are virtual cocksuckers. I’m not confident of my aesthetics but I like hearing my new voice. Behind it all I wonder why my friends have become such saps. When people start to think that musicals on Broadway represent cutting-edge theatre, it is truly the end. It’s like believing the evening news is news. They might hear the plop-plop fizz-fizz of Alka Seltzer and believe their troubles are over but I’m not buying it. Throughout this diatribe I can sense that I am finally becoming free of my lifelong addiction. After years of wondering what I can buy, I am finally beginning to think of things I can sell.