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John's Action Figure Column 8/8/96


     Once you find that longed-for shortpack, it can still be
difficult to impress anyone in TRU's aisle 7C.  And snagging a
complete set of a new Toybiz release won't turn many heads in the
middle of a Kaybee.  Even my office collection of loose, much-
loved figures only turns heads for the first week or so after
something new gets added (though the giant Talking Tick is
currently breaking all records, pulling in passers-by for a quick
'round-the-back sonic blast on a regular basis).  But have you
ever had the occasion to carry any figures beyond the "normal"
display range -- away from those brimming shelves at the
homestead, far from the madding crowd at the local mall or
     This morning I needed to stop at a nearby electronics store. 
This place is in an urban shopping district amid dozens of other
stores -- instrument stores, CD stores, groceries, bakeries,
pizzerias, tobacconists (yep, even in California), restaurants,
bookstores, movie theatres, cobblers, haberdashers, bridal shops,
bridle shops (folks, don't get these confused), dry cleaners,
photo developers, car rental agencies, newsstands, headshops,
body shops, shoestores, law offices ("sue stores," if you will),
audio shops, video shops, massage parlors, you name it --
     -- but no toy stores.
     So when I wandered in to the stereo department with a couple
of 10" X-Men bootleg figures under my arm, I didn't think it
would be the least bit noteworthy.  After all, so my barely-
thinking went, I see these things all the time, ruminate about
them even more, surround myself with the iconic memorymongers up
one side of the week and down the other -- like any other red-
blooded Amurrican  (until next week, when the green repaints come
out).  No big deal, right?
     Well, wrong.  From the moment the first salesperson
materialized without warning inside my personal space (trade
secret, I'm sure, but I gather it's based on the Roddenberry
transporter design) the toy-filled baggie at my side became a
focus of attention, my transportation thereof a cause celebre
meriting a near-total work stoppage at the store.
     Not that I minded the attention (though an attendant
discount would have been nice).  It was kind of fun.  But it
amazed me how toy-starved much of the world really is.  These
people were shouldering one another aside for a glimpse of a
Cyclops, the barest sight of a Gambit (well, admittedly, even
among figure-heads like ourselves pink-garbed, trenchcoated
knock-off cajuns are not a dime a dozen).  I could barely get my
questions answered -- each time I tried to open my mouth someone
else would surge forward and say "man, can I get a closer look at
those things?"
     "Those are *totally* cool!"
     "Wow, I used to read X-Men!"
     "Where the heck did you get those?"
     "Hey, check this guy out -- he's got awesome comic book toys
for his kids!"
     Oh-oh, I know where this leads...

     Y'see, crowds have their own personal dynamics.  A crowd may
be composed of normal, kind, everyday people, but it will tend to
behave according to its own rules and energies, which just aren't
like those of individuals.  One of these rules is a basically
unstoppable progression of interest.  As one member of a crowd
suggests something, another will grab that thought and run with
it, irrespective of the actual circumstances at hand.
     Thus, I suddenly found myself besieged with a chorus of one
single question:
     "How old *are* your kids?"
     Oboy.  In the next few seconds, I set the world freestyle
sustained throatclearing record -- pity this wasn't a week
earlier, and Atlanta.  A-hem.  Ahem-ahem.  A-a-a-a-a-hem.  Aaaa-
ha-hem.  A-*hem.*  What the heck, I threw in a passel o' "ers"
and "ums" just to keep things interesting.
     But that crowd wasn't taking no answer for an answer.  Their
eyes had a collective intensity that signalled mounting
impatience.  As their bodies shifted, stiffening with burgeoning
pre-hostility, I realized I had better come clean.
     "Uh, well, y'see...I don't have kids...."
     And they all moved away from me at once.  I could hear quiet
murmurs of things like "...says he *has* no kids..."  "...what,
the toys are for *him*?!?..."  "...some kinda weirdo I guess..."
     So I swallowed my pride and finished my sentence:  "...these
are for my niece and nephew."
     And they all moved back in close again, smiling and probing
at the bag once more.

     Now, some might say I made a soul-sellout in that moment.  I
mean, I could theoretically have stood my ground, claimed the
figures as my own, and taken my chances with the rejection of the
crowd.  But I just didn't think it was worth it.
     And besides, it wouldn't have been the truth.
     But do you think *they* would have believed me if I said,
"gee, I have no kids -- these things are for Eric Myers?"
     I'd have been ridden out of the store on a rusty-wheeled
dolly, you betcha!

     So summing up, we can make several observations.
     First, it probably would have been fine if I'd claimed the
figures as my own.  Some people want to believe certain things of
the world around them, others are easily threatened about their
too-hasty retreat from childhood innocence and enthusiasm, but
even so, it was a little too early in the day for torches and
nooses.  So maybe I did dishonor my allegiances with a
     Second, if you're going to play Johnny Actionseed, don't
bring anything *too* rare, or fragile.  The toy-ignorant will
want to touch, and poke, and finger, and you've got to be very
careful and protective if you want to keep your stuff safe (this
would apply with particular force to loose, open figures).
     But third -- and this is the spring-loaded, power-action
kicker:  you can become an instant *celebrity* with just a little
foresight and the right toy-vacuum circumstances.  That which is
commonplace old helmet at a toy store or comic shop can be
marvelously exotic and compelling in another setting.  So for a
bit of fun, and even notoriety, grab a big fig -- say a McF
monster, or a 10" Wolverine, a screaming Tarzan or a nice, nasty
ID4 Alien -- and cruise a new stretch of ground.  Tote that fig
along to the coffee shop, or the pool, the dentist's office or
the dmv.  And watch the heads turn....
     A last bit of advice, though:  I probably wouldn't bring the
huge Talking Tick into the bank with you.  "E-vil is afoot!"
comes out at the wrong moment, an overzealous rent-a-cop doesn't
notice the big blue guy in your hands, and suddenly you've got
more holes than the GOP budget before you can say, "no, no, *HE*
is the Tick!  *HE* is the Tick...."
     At least you've got a companion for the ride when they cart
you away....

     So we're coming home Saturday night from a fine Italian meal
and a little CD shopping (yes, I do occasionally make purchases
outside of toy runs) at the North Beach Tower Records (which
isn't really in North Beach, and doesn't really sell records
anymore) when, stopped at a red light on Union Street, I see in
the dimness of the rear view mirror a large white car coming down
the steep hill behind us at a rather precipitous clip.  As its
image grew unnervingly larger unnervingly quickly in the mirror,
I thought, "gee, we're on one heckuva steep hill and that car
with the driver on the phone inside it is approaching so fast it
could actually slam into us....").
     Well, sometimes you predict right...and regret it.  Sure
enough, scant seconds later, WHAM!  We get rear-ended with a fair
degree of force; the seat belts (wear 'em, kids, wear 'em) keep
our heads from making enigmatic but compelling spiderweb patterns
in the windshield before us, and as the dust settles I check
first Tracey and then me to see if we're okay.  We are, and
though quite upset I have the presence of mind to get out of the
car and begin the tedious process of exchanging information with
the proverbial "guy who hitcha."
     Well, "so shaken as we were, so wan with care, found we a
time for frighted peace to pant, and breath short-winded accents
of new broils, to be commenc'd in stronds afar remote."  Which is
to say I met the other driver between the cars, and smelled the
liquor on his breath at pretty much the same moment he started
     "Oh geeze, I was distracted, I was on the phone, I'm really
sorry, hey, damage doesn't look too bad, I mean, not really much
damage at all there, huh, like, uh, well, I mean, we don't even
need to report this, do we, I mean, me being distracted and all,
on the phone, I mean it was all my fault, of course, but it's
just a little ding, right, no big deal, right -- "
     I had to cut him off or I was afraid we'd be there all
night.  "License and insurance info, please."
     "Oh, man, whaddaya mean, I mean, there's hardly any damage,
I mean, it was all my fault, but it's just a weeny dent -- "
     What I wanted to say was that if he wanted to avoid a weenie
dent he'd better hand over his papers pronto, but I opted for a
more balanced "let's just exchange the information and then we
can decide what we need to do, if anything."  Thinking, look,
though most of the time I try to forget it, I'm from *New York
City* pal, born on the Rock and willing to take on just about
anyone or anything if it gets my back up...and you're gettin'
     Well, it didn't have to get ugly; he stumbled back to his
car and managed to fish out the necessary papers.  His name was
Paul, he was gainfully employed, he even had insurance (miracle
of miracles!) and, as he exuberantly informed me, he was no
"wetback gonna leave me hanging."  No -- he was a fine,
upstanding, imperialist white *schmuck* of a drunk who hadn't the
decency to spare an innocent Saturday night world the erratic
threat of his motorized presence.  Bah -- thoughts like that were
just going to get me into trouble.  More trouble, that is.

     I grabbed my toynotes pad from my jacket (pretty convenient,
huh) along with my wallet, produced my info from the latter even
as I began recording his in the former, and tried to channel into
silent tooth-gnashing my seething rage at his dangerous, idiotic,
though ultimately small potatoes misbehavior.
     To make what's gonna be a long story anyway a wee bit
shorter, we exchanged our info (him taking considerably longer to
jot things down, and needing to have me clarify and repeat some
of it several times) and prepared to part company.  I checked
again with Tracey to make sure she felt okay, then examined the
rear bumper once more.  Yeah, pretty small ding.  It rankled,
because we'd never had so much as a dent in seven years of owning
this, my first car (if you don't count my shearing off the
sideview mirror once, but hey, that could happen to *anybody*,
and didn't involve the jarring, intruding blow of another vehicle
-- just a wanton, vicious garage door), but I realized that
excrement does indeed happen, and chalked it up to a blessedly
uninjurious life-experience.  I was pretty shaken up, but
basically okay, and we drove away.
     After a block or so, we began speaking, rehashing the
experience and imprecating the other driver's parentage as well
as his intellect, sense of social responsibility and general
integrity.  I was *mad* dammit, really angry, and couldn't hold
back from expressing it out loud.  I felt like I'd been punched,
blindsided by the casual malice of some uncaring bully or
something, and even though my rational mind knew it was
attributing the blow my car had suffered to my actual body, it
didn't seem to help.  But Tracey was marvelously understanding --
and equally mad herself -- and we calmed and comforted each other
as we putt-putted along on the remaining mile of our journey

     Turning off the main drag onto a side street, I saw a
double-parked van unloading passengers and brought our car to a
gentle stop.  We were still talking, waiting for the van to go
(back atcha, Lennon) when I noticed a bright shape in the rear
view mirror coming closer at a disturbingly rapid pace.
     It all happened pretty quickly, but I had a terrible sense
of deja bruit as I saw the white hood rushing forward again, this
time *uphill*, cell phone again in place against the driver's
     ...and *WHAM*!
     Paul smacked into us *again*.

     I'm not making this up.  Same night, same guy, same car,
same asinine decision to keep driving when he knew unequivocally
that he was drunk.  Some people...I don't think a better object
lesson existed than the one he'd already received, but I'd guess
Paul was never much of an astute pupil.
     Well, this time I didn't wait quite so long to make sure we
were okay; I left me out of the analysis and only checked on
Tracey.  Because waiting any longer would have cut into the time
it took for me to fling the car door open, leap out onto the
night-shiny tarmac of a quiet residential street...
     ...and proceed to entirely, furiously, marvelously,
radiantly, LOSE MY SHIT, as the saying goes.
     I began with a scream and profanity, and from there it got
serious.  I warned Paul not to get out of his car, and ordered
him to use his fornicating verdamte carphone to call the police
immediately -- no arguments.  I then worked through a series of
simple questions (at what was admittedly a rather complex volume)
as to his mental condition, his lack of responsibility, his utter
contempt for safety (his own and others, though at that point the
former seemed highly overrated), his parentage (hey, under stress
even I repeat myself), and several other deficient elements of
his personality, judgment and upbringing.
     To his credit, Paul remained calm.  So calm, in fact, and so
aggressively humble and apologetic that he managed to calm *me*
down -- no mean feat under these circumstances.
     And while my breathing returned slowly to a semblance of
normal, he took the initiative and echoed his earlier admission
of guilt, though as was now appropriate, with much greater
enthusiasm.  He admitted that he had gotten so drunk at a bar
that he took a cab home -- until he got there and remembered that
he'd left his car parked at the bar, had the cabby take him back,
and then decided to make a few phone calls on the drive back. 
Even this didn't really enrage -- or surprise -- me.  It wasn't
until he got back around to the "let's keep this between us" part
that I started to lose my temper again.
     "You know what, Paul?  You are *drunk*.  And you were
*drunk* and on the *phone* when you barrelled into my wife and I
*both* times -- in less than five minutes' time.  You could have
*killed* someone, okay?  Do you get that?  I don't think this is
a 'between us' kind of matter any more.
     "And frankly, your extreme reluctance to talk to the cops or
the insurance companies leads me to conclude this isn't the first
time you've had a little tipsy donneybrook like this on the road. 
Am I wrong?"  I waited, staring him down.
     "Look, John.  I promise, I swear to you...," he said,
looking up into my eyes for the first time, earnestly --
     "...I never hit *anybody* twice before.  Never."

     You know, that was just so utterly absurd, so ridiculous, so
over-the-top insane, that it just cracked me up.
     Really -- I started laughing.  Despite my fury, my dimming
fear, my concern for my wife, and my realization of how
infernally close we had come to a world without action figures --
for us at least.
     Paul watched me for a moment, and then, with a drunk's
guileless empathy, began laughing along with me.
     And there we were, laughing and laughing, just hootin' it up
in the street there together, like old buddies.
     That's when the cops arrived.
     Well, from there it got boring fast.  Emerging as they did
from their black 'n white with lit cigars in their hands, I could
see these cops were not your average, dour, duty-bound officers. 
These were *fun* cops.  *Party* cops.  (No, I did not check for
     Which meant that after ascertaining that no one required an
ambulance, they basically insisted that we all go our own ways. 
In an aside, Tracey made it clear that Paul was manifestly drunk;
the cops exchanged a dour "oh-no: paperwork" glance and repeated
their instruction that we just move along.
     Maybe that's what I get for invoking them with such approval
last week.
     Anyway, that was pretty much it.  No blood, no charges, Paul
was allowed to return to his Deathrace 2000 game program and that
was it.  The rest was for the insurers to work out.
     Thank god we were okay.  And the next morning, and the next,
it became clear that there were no lingering ill effects -- other
than those to the car (to the merry tune of $1,500 -- that's one
*helluva* lot of action figures).

     So why is this being recounted in a column ostensibly about
action figures?  Well, a couple of reasons (hey, I'm on a list
     One, it provides a welcome catharsis in the telling.
     Two, it can serve as a solid reminder of the real, honest-
to-god I'm-not-kidding perils of mixing alcohol and gasoline (in
a manner of speaking).
     Three, I realized that I could have perished Saturday night,
without *ever* having seen Vina the Orion Animal Woman (just what
animal are we talking about, anyway?), Professor X as heard on
Carole King's Album "Tapestry," or Cosmic Cyber-Hemmorhoid Spawn. 
     And four-and-last, the experience has inspired me with an
idea for a new line of figures.  Yes, it's "Stars of the DWI
Circle," coming soon to a retailer near you.  Prize of the
collection:  the wobbly, can't-stand-up-for-falling-down (think
of POTF2's Ben Kenobi here) "Besodden Driver Paul" figure, with
slurred-word talking action and sliding head compartment that
opens to reveal a plastic model of the actual excrement the lad
uses for gray matter!  Accessories include the much-dented Honda
sedan, car phone (once attached to the figure's head, it can
never be removed), and highball glass with matching tumbler. 
'Cause Paul likes his victims shaken, not stirred....
     It also would come with an admittedly limited "final action"
feature -- a to-scale but chemically accurate Molotov cocktail
(appropriate, no?) which could be fit snugly into a small
aperture in the figure's posterior.  Light the tiny fuse, and
chant your favorite impassioned farewell as the seconds tick down
until, with a satisfying and surprisingly loud *BOOM*, the figure
is blown to smithereens.  (I'd quote Niven/Pournelle and say it's
a model of "evolution in action," except that guys like Paul
unfortunately tend to take others' lives along with their own.) 
It's a one-shot, true, but oh, what a feeling....
     Alright, so maybe it's got a limited audience. 
Nevertheless, not to be a crusader or anything, I speak from all-
too-personal experience when I tell you:
     Think of Paul when you're out on the road, bobbing and
weaving like an unbalanced Violator II, as accurate in his aim as
an Invisible Woman leaping from her spring-action platform.  And
with that in mind, drive carefully and safely, and if you drink
as part of an evening's entertainment, then don't drive
thereafter.  And watch out for the other drivers.
     One lousy irresponsible drunk driver can ruin your whole
     Or life.

     I'll be funnier next week -- I promise.  Well, so long as
Paul keeps his distance.
     Take care.
Copyright (c) 1996 by John Gersten. All rights reserved.

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