Friday, March 16, 2018

Toys 'R' Us is closing

I never heard of Toys 'R' Us until I was nearly a teenager. That was probably around the time one was built in Wilkes-Barre in the early 1980s. It wasn't a place I went to back then, but some of my fiends in high school worked there.

I can't remember when I first went there. It's possible it wasn't until sometime in the mid-1990s, when I was shopping for a present for some friends' newborn. After that I went there a few times each year, usually looking for toys or stuffed animals as gifts. One year when I was flush with money and in a generous mood, I went there to stock up on Barbies and Barbie clothing and accessories for a little girl whose name I had pulled off our company charity Christmas tree. (That was a surreal experience in the pink Barbie aisle. "Well, here's a traditional Barbie, but...she's white, and blonde. What if this little girl isn't white? What if she looks more like this Barbie, or this Barbie...well, better get them all, just to be safe, And Barbie needs clothes - professional clothes, casual clothes, party clothes, and she needs shoes - SO MANY SHOES - and a case to keep everything in, and...oooh, here's a Barbie Veterinarian office, with a redheaded Skipper doll and a cat and dog..." That was a good Christmas for a little girl, I hope. And I hope she shared her toys with friends who didn't have Barbies, so they could all play together.)

Sometimes I would go there just for me. Wander around and look at the games, the models, the Todd McFarlane toys, the dinosaurs...usually I wouldn't buy anything. Sometimes it was just a chance to decompress on my way home from work.

In 2013 one of my friends was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a double mastectomy. I wanted to get her a gift for her recovery, something unique, something that, when she looked at it, she would know had come from me. I thought of various things that fit her personality, reflected my personality, and would be situationally appropriate. After a lot of thought, I found myself wandering through Toys 'R' Us. Eventually I headed to the plush toys section. I looked at the stuffed animals. A bear? A monkey? An elephant? What would be the best gift?

Then I came across the stuffed dinosaurs.

There were a few options to choose from. I tested each for heft and cuddleability. Finally I selected a cute little triceratops. It was cuddly and friendly and strong and brave, and when my friend saw it in the pile of gifts given to her for her recovery, she might remember that it was from me and that I loved her and was pulling for her.

About a week later I was driving someone to a poetry reading. She was a fellow member of our writing group, someone I had met online years before, a full year before I met her in person in 2011. She was seeing someone by the time I met her in the writing group - the shock of recognition threw me for a bit, when I realized this was the person I had been exchanging messages with a year before. She had since dumped him and left the group, and I had been spending quite a bit of time trying to persuade her to come back - she was one of the best poets and writers I had ever met, and I wanted to get to hear her and see her again. By the Fall of 2013 she decided it was time to come back. There was more to it than this, and I was about to launch upon an odyssey with her that would have all the drama of a Mexican telenovella, but for now I was happy to be able to bring her back to the group and have her, for a little while, in the car with me.

As we drove to the poetry reading at The Vintage in Scranton we talked about - stuff. Her mom, who was showing the early signs of the aggressive cancer that would kill her in a few months. Her classes at a local two-year college. Tattoos, which neither of us had. Dinosaurs and dinosaur art - she volunteered that her favorite dinosaur was a triceratops. And that got me thinking.

The poetry reading was fun. It ended with a somewhat traumatic trip to the Waffle House at the urging of someone who seemed very eager to get to know her, accompanied by his girlfriend. (I managed to get a horror story of sorts out of the incident - "Performance Review," at the bottom of this post.) In the aftermath, we  made plans to go to an upcoming poetry reading, a special Halloween edition where many of the readers would dress up in costume.

I decided I would get her a gift for the Halloween reading - a stuffed triceratops like I had gotten my other friend. But I never actually went out to get it before the day of the reading. I had that day off, and I spent some of the first part of the day assisting with a plumbing project. Finally, with a few hours to spare, I got dressed, got my material together, and headed out to Toys 'R' Us to pick up the triceratops.

They didn't have any.

That's not exactly true. They had a much larger, much more expensive version, but that wasn't what I was looking for. Crapcrapcrap.

The clock was ticking. I plotted out a route to the Dickson City Toys 'R' Us, worked out the route from there to her house, and calculated that if I drove very quickly I would have about five minutes of shopping time.

I rushed in, wild-eyed. I've always hated shopping at other Toys 'R' Us stores. The layout is never the same, and, combined with the white-painted cinder block and glaring fluorescent light ambiance, the entire experience is just unsettling. I had no time to figure out where the stuffed animals were. I grabbed the first clerk I saw and told him what I was looking for.

He had no idea what a triceratops was.

With the seconds ticking by, I frantically described it to him. Together, we went to the plush dinosaur display, which was now devoid of triceratopses. He went into the back room and came out a few minutes later, triumphantly showing me the much larger, more expensive version - the only version they had. I thanked him, grabbed it, and raced for the checkouts. With seconds to spare, I ran out to the car, hid the triceratops under a blanket in the back seat, and got behind the steering wheel.

I glanced at the rear-view mirror and realized I had conducted my entire frantic shopping trip with devil horns glued to my forehead.

She lived in Scranton and the reading was in Wilkes-Barre. The reading went well, although it was not without the typical trauma and drama that surrounded so many of these events. After the reading I took her on a quick tour of Nanticoke, mainly so we could drive and talk. Eventually I turned north to head back to the house where she lived with her mom.

We kept talking after we got there. I pulled out a copy of Sunset and Shadow from amongst the pieces I had presented. It had been written with her in mind, during that time when she was absent from the writing group. I told her that, and read it to her.

She appreciated it. She responded with one of her favorite quotes, from the Spanish poet Jaime Gil de Bieda: “I believed that I wanted to be a poet, but deep down I just wanted to be a poem.”

I thanked her for going to the reading with me, and letting me spend time with her. I reached into the back seat, pulled out the triceratops, and presented it to her. She hugged it tight. We made our goodnights, and I headed home.
Midnight, October 19, 2013
On a cold October night
under a full moon
a devil sat next to a porcelain doll
and told her lies that were the truth
and truths that were the truth
And when he was finished
he gave her a stuffed triceratops
and a hug
and they made plans to get together again soon

(She kept the triceratops for a while. It made it to the apartment she and her mom moved to two weeks later, and I think it made it out when she left the apartment after her mother died, and to her dorm room a few months later, once she transferred to a local university to continue her studies. She's married now. Does she still have that memento of that night? I have no idea.)

When I was looking for the triceratops, I kept coming across this ugly, goofy-looking dinosaur. The tag identified it as an oviraptor.

Wild Republic 7" Stuffed Oviraptor. Image from Amazon. I got mine for $7.99, I think. As of this writing, you can buy one from a third-party seller on Amazon for $44.97, with free shipping.

I decided I wanted one as a souvenir of the weekend. I stopped at the Wilkes-Barre Toys 'R' Us and found that they had mostly pulled the plush dinosaurs from the shelves. I managed to find one oviraptor. I took it.

I keep my stuffed oviraptor at my desk at work. I call it my "therapy dinosaur," and hug it during particularly stressful calls. I looked at it today at felt a twinge of sadness that the store where I bought it will soon be closed forever.

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