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Of Barbie Dolls and Hula Hoops

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According to yahoo.com’s intrepid news hounds, Jellies® are back.  Not the sweet, sticky strawberry jam-like stuff, but the shoes that were wildly popular a few decades ago.  Jellies® gave absolutely no sole support; neither did they allow your feet to breathe.  But this didn’t stop hordes of females of all ages from clearing them off retailers’ shelves, for they were “in.”  I have a suspicion that they’ll fly off the shelves again this summer, in a mass-market grab at nostalgia.


Trying to recapture the past is like riding a merry go round and leaning out for that brass ring.  Most days you miss, making the times you do snatch the ring particularly sweet.  For a little while, you’re a kid again, albeit maybe not the typical kid.


Dolls, for instance, were the worst toy I had ever imagined in my own childhood.  Although I refused to have them, I watched in dual fascination-repulsion as other little girls lovingly tended their Thumbalina’s® and Betsy Wetsy’s®.  The dolls cried when you squeezed them, wet their diapers when you filled them with water, required far too much attention, and gave nothing in return.  I had a kid sister at home; what did I want with toys that mimicked her behavior? Many were the times my kindergarten teacher yanked me out of the boy’s corner of the classroom, where I built and destroyed whole cities of Legos®, terrorized the world with dinosaurs, and eagerly discussed the merits of pet snakes versus iguanas.  Unceremoniously, I was shoved into the girls’ corner, which held a mock stove, sink, ironing board, and those whiny baby dolls.  Time and again, I snuck back into the boys’ camp until my teacher finally abandoned all hope of making a little Donna Reed out of me.


Barbie, however, was different.  I only wanted a Mattel Barbie Doll®, at the ripe old age of 12, so that I could pretend that I was Barbie, firmly entrenched in my own apartment.  In those days, Barbie was the anatomical impossibility we now know her to be: not the original ’50s incarnation but the next-generation with the bobbed hair and the red, form-fitting one-piece bathing suit.  Barbie’s greatest assets were her impressive boobs, beanstalk legs, and of course, her mercurial career.  Although that career changed according to her outfits, it allowed her to pay the rent.


I was given the brunette Barbie, a sort of poor-man’s Sophia Loren; my kid sister, of course, got the hot blonde who bore a faint resemblance to Marilyn Monroe.  I was enthralled with Barbie’s outfits, as illustrated in the little booklet that came with her, even though I could afford so few of them.  Solo in the Spotlight was my favorite.  A body-hugging black satin number overlaid with black netting, it flared below the knees into a fashionable little ruffle adorned with a single red rose.  The cooler than cool outfit came with black pumps, long black opera gloves, and a microphone (for when Barbie decided to earn her living as a nightclub singer).  For months on end, I longed for that outfit, finally saving up enough of my allowance to buy it: a whopping $3 for the entire ensemble.  For a whole day, I kept it in its package where it lay untouched, like the antique clothing showcased in Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Eventually, I got the Ken® doll and didn’t have many outfits for him, either.   Knowing the score and how much it used to tick off my mother, I’d strip Barbie and Ken naked as jay birds, lock them in Barbie’s carrier embraced in each other’s arms, and let them have their fun.  My cousin little Chrissy wheedled both dolls, the carrier, the clothes, and every last titty bitty accessory out of me when I was about fifteen.  She should have entered politics.  If she tried to fence them in later years, for they came to be worth a small fortune, I hope she got a good deal.


I can’t say the same for Joe’s DC® comics.  Joe D., my favorite boy cousin, had a library of comic books, the best of which were the Legion of Junior Superheroes.  Teens born on alien worlds with amazing powers and the propensity to stamp evil out of the universe, this team included Superboy and Supergirl, Shrinking Violet, Rubber Boy, and Brainiac.  I wheedled a few of these comics out of Joe, who was as loath to part with them as I had been with my Barbie and Ken.  But I doubt that Joe had an inkling of the comic’s true, intrinsic value.  The characters in those comics that could fly gave wing to my imagination. They are the reason that I began to write and illustrate my own stories.  It’s rare that I sketch, these days, but as far as the writing goes, obviously, I have never grown up!  ☺


Other crazes of my day included roller skates, Hula Hoops® (for which my sister was the neighborhood’s undisputed champ), Trolls®, and Rat Fink® dolls.   Rat Finks® first infested gumball machines.  For a nickel, you’d get a handful of gum and a tiny rubber rat with the nastiest expression (tailor made for a kid like me).  They took off like wildfire, breeding like the real thing.  My buds and I traded them in the schoolyard during recess, and had battles with them, doubtless making the nuns very glad that they were nuns and not mothers.  But the Trolls® were another story, for they were “buck nekked.”


Unlike Barbie, they didn’t have boobs and unlike Ken, they didn’t even have a hint of what boys have, but their little butts were shamelessly exposed.  We had to hide our Trolls® from the nuns or risk having them confiscated forever.  The problem was, they were irresistible.  Their hair was long and flowing and came in a rainbow of colors.  Their eyes were made of glass of various shades.  And their little faces were just so sweet, nothing at all like the scary trolls we’d read about in our Third Grade readers.  The good Sisters of Mercy may have fainted had they known into how many confessionals, Masses, and first-time sacraments the verboten Trolls® were secreted.


My generation didn’t wear Jellies®, but we did wear go-go boots, courtesy of Carnaby Street, that fashionable stretch in London that also brought us poor boy sweaters and caps, Twiggy, white lipstick, and our mothers’ second-worst nightmare, miniskirts.  Miniskirts and those vinyl, multi-colored go-go boots were cute before we hit puberty, but afterward, it was a literal tug of wag.  Our moms would make us tug the skirts down and the moment our maters’ backs were turned, we would roll them up at the waistband.  This exercise was repeated ad infinitum with the nuns, who handed out detentions for too-short skirts the way that A&P handed out Green Stamps.  By that time, of course, Nightmare Number One had reared its tempting little head: boys!


Boys, for the most part, replaced the candy that used to placate us in younger days … though many of the lads were not as sweet and a lot more demanding.  In the early ’60s, however, candy wasn’t just candy.   In addition to being a treat, candy was a plaything or things, a status symbol for those who could afford the largest quantity, and a sign of courage.  My pals and I loved the necklaces made of tiny sweet disks, which we called Wampum (that for which the Native Americans sold Manhattan Isle down the Hudson River centuries before most of the Big Apple’s politicians did the same thing).  We could eat our jewelry and have it, too … until, of course, it was all gone!


We also had flying saucers filled with hard, sweet bullets, whose shells tasted too much like the Host placed dutifully upon our tongues every Sunday morn.  There was also Bit o’ Honey®, Bazooka Bubble Gum®, Nekko Wafers®, strawberry whips, “squirrels” (honey and toasted sesame seed candies), wax bottles that contained fruit-flavored elixirs, and wax lips that were … gulp … edible.  


My friend Laura’s neighborhood boasted two candy stores separated by a German deli and a shoemaker.  Tom’s was brightly lit, with clear plastic bins of penny candy and a counter in the back, where we enjoyed fresh fountain drinks like malteds, egg creams, and cherry Cokes®.  Ralphie’s, by contrast, was dark, somewhat dilapidated, and haunted by Stanley Kowalski types wearing greasy hair and T-shirts nearly as greasy.  My conundrum was that Ralphie’s always had the better (read: darker) comic books, so I patronized Ralphie’s at times.  Usually, though, my friends and I frequented Tom’s.  Here’s why, and why I said that candy sometimes defined our level of courage.


Across the street from Laura’s house lay the neighborhood’s biggest attraction, after the candy stores.  It was the cemetery.  Even on sultry summer days, the cemetery was quiet and foreboding, in more ways than one.  We were convinced that ghosts roamed the graveyard when the sun went down.  Although we never entered it, we would skirt the perimeter of the cemetery on our bikes, tossing dusty discarded soda bottles into our wire bike baskets.  We’d haul our booty back to Tom’s, for Tom would exchange the bottles for candy.  He probably made out better on the deal than we did.  But this mode of barter may have been the paradigm upon which the entire environmental movement, if not the nation’s Adopt a Highway program, was modeled.


As the neighborhood changed, we’d come upon more empty bottles of cough syrup and less discarded soda bottles.  Laura explained that teenagers got high on the codeine and sometimes, smack in the middle of the day, those teens festooned not only the perimeter of the graveyard but the graveyard itself.  Wild-eyed and hopped-up, gaggles of n’er-do-well thugs would rise unannounced from behind the gravestones and chase us, even as we pedaled away as if our lives were at stake.  Perhaps they were.


Succeeding generations, of course, enjoyed their own trends and modes of fun — all of which passed me by.  By then, I was too old and too interested in music and boys, in that order.  Click Clacks® are the one subsequent craze that stands out in my mind.  In supermarkets, the mall, and the streets, they were so annoying, the damned things should have been outlawed.  In turn, Click Clacks® were replaced by something else.  And so it goes, and so it always will, as long as there are children to entertain.


Specialty shops and catalogues, such as The Vermont Country Store®, offer all manner of wares that can return us, for a brief moment, to those more innocent times. Somehow, the products never quite do the trick of recapturing the sweet tang of youth.  But, the other day, in a Cracker Barrel® in Southern Jersey, I made a very small investment of 99 cents that put a smile on my face.  I haven’t touched that investment yet, for I just like looking at it, and remembering.  It’s a box of Cracker Jacks®, just like my dad used to buy me when I was kid.


He’d sneak me into the Prospect Park Zoo every Saturday after my weekly appointment with the eye doctor, to monitor an eye that threatened to need surgery.  My energetic kid sister stayed home for these were, after all, serious medical appointments.  To this day, I always equate the caramel-nutty aroma of a fresh box of Cracker Jacks with that of the pungent tang of black bears and polar bears behind outdoor cages, and the sound of children squealing with delight and demand.  I remember the little feathered Kewpie dolls on poles at the zoo’s souvenir stand, the feel of the sun on my skin, and my father’s hand in mind.  The other day, 99 cents brought me all of that.  One box of original Cracker Jacks, 99 cents.  The gas it cost to get to and from South Jersey: eight bucks and change.  The memories?  Priceless!  ☺

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