“Oh, that’s so cute,” a co-worker says, pointing over my shoulder.
“What’s that?” I absently ask, finishing up an email or a spreadsheet or something equally unimportant.
“That little blue alien guy,” she says. “Did one of your kids give you that? A gift for Daddy?”
I spin around in my chair to follow the gesture. Instant dread. Behind me, poised on a shelf is a neon-blue Tron action figure, all white-veined and ready for combat on The Grid. Battle disc and all. I’m not even that huge of a fan of the movie Tron. But there he is anyway.
“No,” I deflate. “That’s mine. I bought it.”
I can see the respect die in her eyes, though she recovers well.
It’s actually not. But it’s not like I didn’t put the figure there. It’s also not like I didn’t originally enjoy having it on a display but, recently, I’ve come to realize that I’m a fortysomething male whose life is surrounded with playthings. Mind you, I have three small children — 11, eight, and three years old — so I’m used to the myriad Nerf bullets scattered throughout our house like spent bullet casings after an intense firefight. (I seriously find those bullets everywhere.) I’m not talking about their toys, though. Their toys occupy at least 31% of everything in our house, inside and out. I’m talking about mine.
The sharp pain of stepping, barefoot in the dark, on a LEGO block is absolutely no match for the exquisite pain of someone calling me out on the fact that I might have more toys than my children.
My desk is festooned with so many figurines and cars and trinkets that it’s no wonder some people probably wonder if an 11-year-old has become a corporate communications manager. There’s the Back to the Future DeLorean (2015 hover-conversion model), the “Wet Nellie” submarine Lotus Esprit from The Spy Who Loved Me (with a conspicuous red “007” on the hood), and a Fantastic Mr. Fox whackbat pin. Home is no different. It’s crowded with Die Hard figures, vintage James Bond board games, a LEGO Aston Martin, and even a custom-made Funko Pop! Vinyl figure from the obscure TV show Halt and Catch Fire. (Yes, I even managed to cartoonize an adult series set in the 1980s.) It’s enough to wince at — especially in competition with the myriad LEGO sets, My Little Ponies, Star Wars vehicles, and Jurassic World creatures belonging to my kids.
My desk is festooned with so many figurines and cars and trinkets that it’s no wonder some people probably wonder if an 11-year-old has become a corporate communications manager.
Until very recently, I felt okay with everything. But when my father passed away two months ago, I didn’t find one action figure among his possessions. When a parent dies, I’m convinced your brain goes into a mad scramble to lock everything into memory — museum-glassing every detail so that your parent isn’t truly gone. I was reading, like Braille, who my father was through his possessions: the way Dad organized his tools, the manner in which he maintained his yard equipment, the meticulous nature of his computer folder-filing.
And again, I didn’t find one random Iron Giant figurine.
I have two.
“Welcome to the Fortress of Solitude,” Big Neal says without an ounce of irony.
We’re standing in the basement of his and his wife’s new house. Neal is my brother from another mother. I’ve known him since the third grade, back when I bit him on the arm because a girl liked him more than me. That tension doesn’t exist anymore, obviously, but I’m feeling strangely competitive in the basement. It’s a low-ceilinged, not particularly well-lit space that’s less the definition of Man Cave than it is — well, nothing short of a toy emporium. For a split second, I wonder if this is why Toys ‘R’ Us went out of business. All of their inventory was right here: Big Neal had apparently purchased it all in one fell swoop. All around us are plastic playthings and vinyl vehicles and lightweight landscapes. There are countless boxed LEGO sets (Harry Potter, Star Wars, and even The Big Bang Theory’s living room), DC Comics figures (a menagerie of Jokers, Riddlers, and Penguins), and remote-controlled cars.
Big Neal has been collecting toys as long as I’ve known him, though it’s accelerated in recent years. In fact, it’s ratcheted up from simple toys to expensive collectibles. He tells me that he’s now after a Superman belt and cape replica. “If money was no concern,” he says, “I’d want the original Christopher Reeve costume, but that’s not really an attainable goal. That’s more like a lottery list item.” All around me is one of the most impressive assemblages of toys I’ve ever seen: a perfectly curated collection, almost arranged like the ingredients of a five-star restaurant meal — balanced, mysteriously accented, spiced just right.
Very recently, however, Neal has started selling off his things and thinning down the collection. I can’t help but wonder if it’s because of the same tugs of sadness or pangs of responsibility I’ve been feeling.
“I’m getting rid of so many toys right now,” he said. “I’ve just lost focus on why I started collecting things in the first place.” Still, he’s not willing to part with everything. After all, they’re part of the fabric of his being. Superman, for one, has been part of Neal’s DNA for as long as James Bond has been part of mine. “I don’t feel old necessarily,” he explains. “These toys allow me to escape the stress of life and decompress.”
A remarkable likeness of Christopher Reeve’s Superman stares back at me, arms at his side, ready to take off.
Over the last year, several other friends of mine have jettisoned their toy collections. Mike, a lifelong Star Trek fan, sold nearly everything of his on eBay: everything from records to action figures to plastic starships. “Most of them were in their original packaging,” he says proudly. “I didn’t even take them out. They just sat on my shelf and I decided that once my daughter was born, I couldn’t justify having an original transporter playset in its box anymore.” He also estimates that he sold everything to the tune of $2,000 which, while impressive, was a number that “was a pain in the ass” to get to. “I had to sell everything individually. No one just bought my collection at once and no one paid what I paid originally for anything,” he explains. “It took way more effort to sell them one by one than it did to buy them one by one.” It’s a lot like losing weight, I figure — it takes twice the effort to take off the weight than it did putting it on in the first place. Still, Mike’s managed to sell his massive Deep Space Nine station, multiple Enterprises, and various minor spacecrafts that used to dangle from his ceiling by fishing wire. All that remains is a shoebox of random, bagged Trek figures that no one snapped up on eBay.
“Everyone’s looking for a Picard,” he shrugs. “No one is looking for a Quark.”
I’m as impressed as I am dismayed. This is what I need to be doing with my Bond stuff, I think: systemically dissolving it online.
Just before I leave his apartment, I spot a small shelf topped with a few starships.
“What’s with those?”
“I’ll never part with those,” he says, almost sheepishly. “Those stay for life.”
The older I get, the more I’m going to collect. That’s my best guess, at least. Maybe there will be a moment of reckoning when all of this collecting will end but, as a recovering alcoholic, I suppose some part of me is filling one of my many voids with toys. I get a Google alert that a 1965 Thunderball board game, shrink-wrapped, just came on sale in a Facebook group I belong to. I instantly do the math on whether it’s a good deal and then just as quickly PayPal them the cash. In four days, I’ll put the board game on my shelf and never open it. I just like the comfort of having it. It warms some distant part of me — a glow of nostalgia, sure, but it’s deeper than that. I’m connected to it. I can feel its presence even when I don’t see it, like having a beloved family member move into your same ZIP code.
I’m aware that a person my age should be investing their time and energy in house improvements, improving their retirement savings, and saving his kids from having to worry about college tuition. I don’t own a Home Depot credit card but I have my name on the registry at a vintage toy shop in downtown Columbus, Ohio, in case anything pops up on their radar that I’d be interested in. I don’t know how to fix a broken downspout but I know there’s an entire line of Corgi replica James Bond vehicles that I want. It’s a never-ending itch in my lower back that I can’t reach to scratch. Days after Dad’s funeral, it officially hits me: I’m not celebrating childhood; I’m avoiding adulthood. It’d be one thing if I was collecting vintage glassware or something. But, no. I collect tiny plastic figures in their blister packs such as the 1964 hat-throwing Oddjob.
I’m scared of owning a big garage with band saws and vice grips and things that Do Real Things. Terrified, even. No, instead, I’m the guy with a blue Tron figurine poised to chuck his light disc. And that’s okay. I’m truly convinced it is. It’s who I am. I’m not being true to myself if I’m not assembling, for whatever reason, a collection of Bond toys and memorabilia. Like the distant call that brought everyone to Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I’m pulled toward collecting toys.
I suppose that if I start playing with them, however, I’ll have a whole new set of problems to work through.