Toy (Store) Story + podcast

(link to podcast version at bottom)

1516812375-toys-r-us-store-closing-listNo, this has nothing to do with Woody or Buzz. It has everything to do with red ink, Chapter 11 and the loss of places parents could rely on to be tortured by their children.

In other words, it’s sort of sad, but not in an Old Yeller way. The only guns shoot water or air and nothing dies but mom and dad’s sanity.

What’s sparked this HO-sized train of thought is the news that Toys R Us is liquidating. Yes..every Barbie, Monopoly set, pop gun, billion-pack of Pampers, two-wheeler, three-wheeler, Big Wheeler, doll house, swing set, bouncy ball, battery and jump rope..out the door at deep discounts before the giant toy chain closest its doors forever.

Doll Hospital_AF_iThat news comes in the wake of the closing recently of beloved Detroit-area Doll Hospital and Toy Soldier Shop and who knows how many other independent toy stores around the country.

Yeah, sure, it’s cool for parents to find something their kids want by searching online or prowling the neighborhood Walmart, and probably spending less money, but what’s missing here is the chance for children..and sometimes adults… to be children. To explore the shelves of cool stuff, pick up a doll or ball or Super Soaker or puzzle and feel it, imagine what it would be like to actually own it and play with it and show it to your friends then beg your parents to buy it, pleading you just HAVE to have this or your life will instantly become meaningless.

mitchellsareaMy first recollection of going into a toy store was a little place in the line of stores pictured above on Union Turnpike and 248th Street in Queens, where I grew up. Stuck in a strip near a bar, booze shop and deli, It was called Mitchells. Yup. Owned by a guy named Mitchell. Wasn’t sure if it was his first or last name and didn’t care as long as the names he carried included Mattel and Remco and Parker Brothers and Hasbro, Lionel and Ideal and Gilbert. Mitchells wasn’t a big place. It was about the size of a small deli, only instead of pickles and pastrami his shelves were stuffed with toys of every kind.  I hardly had more than a buck on me, a week’s allowance, when I’d pop into Mitchells. He knew all I could probably buy was a Tootsie Roll or some tiny water gun he sold for a nickel. Sometimes I’d buy a box containing a couple of rolls of caps for my toy Matt Dillon six-shooter. Bang! Bang! Bang! Those caps were awesome because most anything that made noise was awesome.

Mitchells lasted only a few years before he was bought out by a dry cleaner. How boring is that! But all wasn’t lost. A mile or two down Union Turnpike, just over the city line in Nassau County, was a cool place called Hush-a-Bye. It sold lots of furniture for children’s rooms, but the lower level was all toys. The coolest toys. Toys that wouldn’t fit in Mitchells’s small space. Knock hockey tables, elaborate electric train sets, all sorts of bikes, pogo sticks and Hula hoops. All it took was 20 cents to get on the bus, take it to the City Line stop and walk about three block to Hush-a-Bye. When you’re talking cool toys, that’s a small journey. My friends and I were almost always too broke to actually buy anything, but just plying the aisles of this new wonderland was entertainment in itself.

faoschwartzFast forward to a time my older brother and I were in college. We decided to go into Manhattan and the flagship FAO Schwartz store where Tom Hanks jumped around on a giant keyboard in “Big.” BigWe needed to buy a special toy for one of our cousin’s birthday. But we became hopelessly lost in the giant store, forgot our mission and started tossing around a football my brother picked up from one of the shelves. The other customers were smart enough to realize neither of us were adept at passing accurately…or catching the ball, for that matter and got the hell out of the way. The nonsense finally ended when a smartly suited salesman suggested we remove our sorry selves from the esteemed purveyor of playthings. Ha! We never did get around to buying that gift. The poor kid received a nice card and our best wishes.

By the time my two kids were born in the 1980’s  my wife and I never forgot the wonder of exploring toy stores and let our son and daughter take all the time they wanted when we hit the neighborhood Toys R Us.
THE-LITTLE-TIKES-NATURAL-PLAYHOUSE-sideThe stores sold these big plastic playhouses and had the samples lined up like little Levittowns in a center aisle. Our kids would check out every one of them and, like adult lookie-loos, would advise us of which one best suited their dreams. One year we actually bought on of them. It sat in a special corner of our basement and the kids filled it with balloons…naming the plastic cottage the Balloony Goony House. They had a lot of fun in it until they outgrew the three-foot high doorway and we sold it to our neighbors at one of our garage sales.  

kid1Maybe it’s true today’s kids would rather bang on a keyboard, fry their eyes gaping at one screen or another or perform every task on their little phones…just like adults. As Joni Mitchell wrote, “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” but I hate to think of a time when kids never know of places where fun, exploration, surprise and discovery were were right out there. Not online on a screen. But right there…to touch and see…sitting on shelf..and shipping was always free..because it came home with you, in your parent’s car. 


Fakin’ it

edpanelAOne panelist said he refuses to use the term “fake news,” others, including myself, surmised fake news could be anything from the satire of The Daily Show to maliciously-published falsehoods.  A Thomson Reuters report on Fake News released yesterday described the term as being “weaponized” by the current cretin in the White House who launches it every time a story he dislikes is released, whether or not it’s true.

For 105 minutes last night, we kicked around what fake news really is, how it started, how to stop it, how social media and the pervasiveness of the 24-hour news cycle contribute to the dissemination of blatant bullshit and what readers/viewers can do to make sure they’re getting a straight and true story.

About 50 people attended our session at the Southfield, Michigan Public Library, at a session sponsored by the Detroit Press Club and the library. I was joined by Matt Roush, a former reporter who now heads communications at Lawrence Technological University, Eddie Allen, senior editor at Hub Detroit, Jennifer Cherry Foster, CEO of Detroit social media company, Catalyst Media Factory. The panel was moderated by Maureen McDonald, a freelance writer who’s been published everywhere.

EdPanelBWhat struck me more than anything about the discussion didn’t actually come from the panel, but from the questions fired at us from the audience. A mostly middle aged crowd brought up reading newspapers and watching Walter, they seemed almost desperate…at loose find out from us how things got this way. What happened to journalism, where did all the  “real” journalists go, how do I find reliable sources of fair and accurate news?

The younger members of the audience came at it from an entirely different direction. A journalism senior at Michigan State University despaired she wasn’t properly trained, complaining at no time during her almost four years at the school did a journalism instructor offer any advice or guidance on the very basics of finding good stories. In all honestly, a couple of internships alongside working reporters and editors would probably prove more valuable than classroom instruction.

One African-American gentleman who appeared to be in his 30’s surmised the problem starts with how school kids are taught history with the emphasis on transplanted, plundering Europeans and almost no meaningful discussions of where Americans of other cultures came from.

The one thing we could agree on is the dangerous and tragic decline in the number of trained journalists. In this age where anyone with a connected device can post any dreck and then claim to be a journalist, the number of young people enrolling in actual journalism curricula at universities and pursuing a career in news has plummeted.  As I pointed out during out session, if I put a Band-aid on your cut, that doesn’t make me a doctor and just writing and disseminating crap that hasn’t been verified and attributed doesn’t make someone a journalist.

It’s incumbent on anyone who really cares about the information they’re exposed to, to be vigilant in taking the step of checking out sources quoted or attributed in stories that seem sketchy.  If you’ve never heard of a person or organization quoted or attributed, it’s a small task to find out just who or what they are. You might be horrified, but not terribly surprised, they have no standing at all.

The sad conclusion is anyone who really cares about ingesting accurate information must demand it by turning away from echo chamber outlets who pander to one point of view, ignore obvious click bait and paid placement items, refuse to read or view content long on “analysis” and short of straight reporting, and if you’re not sure, that wonderful thing called the internet is only a few mouse clicks from exposing the frauds and bolstering the real deals.



On the record, and CD and cassette–a streaming of thought

       recordrackThere are several ways to figure out who a person really is, but to me, the best and most reliable way is though that person’s music collection. Could be records, CDs, cassettes, even 8-tracks. cds.jpgI don’t wanna see their book shelves because some people buy the classics or high-minded tomes but never cracked the covers. It’s all pretentious bullshit. But a person rarely buys music and doesn’t listen to it. Doesn’t matter what the format is. They own the music and when the mood strikes for a particular song, artist or genre, just the right selection isn’t far away. 

I especially love collections that aren’t all one genre or center on a few select artists. The more eclectic the better with oddball selections mixed in with the more popular choices. That tells me you’re a person who’s open to suggestion and are courageous enough to take a chance on music beyond the mainstream. All the same stuff?  Ok..your choice but that tells me you’re neither creative nor an especially adept conversationalist.

So when reading a story in the The Detroit News today about the imminent death of the CD, and music on physical media in general, in favor of streaming, I’m fairly sickened. What am I gonna do, go into someone’s home, ask them to open their Spotify app and show me what they’ve been listening to? That sounds incredibly stupid, if not invasive. spotifycardI wanna be able to discuss one’s collection. There are often great stories about how a person came to own a particular album, regardless of the medium.  I can tell you I was 13 when the Beatle’s Magical Mystery Tour was released. Too young to drive, so I rode my black Columbia two-wheeler, no gears, miles and miles from store to store until I found a copy. Then the bag with the album banged against my leg as I held it in my left hand while trying to hang onto the handlebars to steer the bike. 

A guy in college was getting rid of all his record albums after (stupidly) converting them over to cassettes. I traded him an album by Mountain for the Stone’s “Let it Bleed.” I believe I did well for myself, but years later I was haunted by “Mississippi Queen” and  re-bought the Mountain LP at an antique mall. Yeah..I could have streamed the song, but the deep cuts were just as satisfying and I wanted that album jacket on my shelf.

venturesOne of high school buddies was a nut for the guitar group, The Ventures. He had every album. I have of few from them as well, but Manny Hershkowitz was thoroughly hypnotized by them…especially by one of their biggest hits. In fact, it got a little obnoxious when, if you tried to rush Manny, he’d invoke the title every time, saying, “walk…don’t run.” Oy. What did that tell about Manny’s personality? Well…it predicted his future…as a school crossing guard. 


carlinThen there was Al Schmertz. He only collected comedy albums. Especially live performances. He had ‘em all. Bill Cosby, George Carlin, Steve Martin, Rodney Dangerfield. Couldn’t carry a tune. Ever. But he was awesome at saying, “thanks. you’ve been great.”  We’d sit in his room listening to the laugh masters while eating his mother’s awesome homemade french fries. When it was time to leave, Al sent us off with an enthusiastic, “’ve been great!”

I’ve never been the biggest music collector. I have a few hundred LPs as well as CDs. I digitized what few cassettes I had because it’s difficult to find a player and I trashed the few 8-tracks I owned because the quality was such garbage. If you came to visit me, you might be both impressed and appalled. From my college freshman year until five years after graduating, I was employed as a DJ at various radio stations in Central New York State and Arizona. You kinda get sucked in by what you’re playing and I succumbed to the zeitgeist and purchased several Barry Manilow albums and even Helen Reddy’s Greatest Hits. They both still skulk on my shelf, but perhaps the shame of it will catch up to me one day. Barry will be banished to the Goodwill sack and Helen will be pitched into a pond early one Delta Dawn. reddyI do own some strange stuff like the album by the “Masked Marauders,” a total hoax created by Rolling Stone magazine pitching it as a “supergroup” comprised of John Lennon, Paul McCartney Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger. Singing on the ersatz gem were some friends of the writers from Berkeley’s Cleanliness and Godliness Skiffle Band, whoever they are. But I have the record, and chances are you don’t.maskedmarauders

I cherish my set of Laura Nyro LPs, “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis and “Abandoned Luncheonette” by Hall and Oates. abandonedluncheonetteI own albums by comedy troupe Firesign Theater, a double LP of early live performances by Woody Allen before he became creepy. marysolHow about a live double LP from a rock festival in the early 70‘s in Puerto Rico called Mar y Sol, featuring, among others, Long John Baldry  the Allman Brothers and the Mahavishnu Orchestra and the album Carole King cut before “Tapestry,” called “Writer.”

hounddogmanI do own some 45’s including Fabian’s “Hound Dog Man” bought by my brother and a bunch of other singles that were sent to me by various record companies when I was a radio station program director, including this total oddball from actor George Segal called “What You Gonna Do When the Rent Comes “Round.” It was free.  A target of opportunity. It’s not really half bad. segalLet’s not forget a bizarre Steve Martin platter called “What I Believe..A Patriotic Statement). I can only imagine. A needle hasn’t ridden its grooves since before the Bee Gees turned disco.  Perhaps this means I was either very open minded… or tone deaf. martin

I know things change, and that’s fine. But I still comb used record…yes..record stores for vinyl or CDs that catch my interest and as long as I can find a rare live performance or long-forgotten collection, I’ll continue to add them to my collection. Because my collection is physical evidence, aside from some unfortunate stains, of what I’m all about. Plus, you’re not getting near my phone. 



Habla Olympian?

snowboardwideAs the Winter Olympics come to a close I ask you this you speak Olympian?It’s more than Greek to me–it’s like a cross between Mesopotamian and Klingon. When I hear the announcers describe what’s going on I wanna call 911 because I think they’re having apoplexies. What do I mean? ok…you flip on the snowboard half-pipe event. the announcer starts getting cranked up, just ready to scream out things that make no sense at all.. we go, there goes schleppy callaghan, whoa! just did a quadruple grab his ass backwards opposite front reverse rolling in the shit switch fake back side flip us off 1080 canadian bacon mindy method mulekick! That was awesome but the judges may take some points off for the shaky roast beef rusty trombone. snowboard3Right. I can’t tell the method from the madness but i can pretty easily figure out some insane person that’s only 4 feet tall wearing baggy clothes just shot themselves into the air then did a bunch of contortions that made it look like the poor kid just got tased. Then, if they’re lucky, they land on their feet and shoot up the other side of the half-pipe and do something even more crazy that will once again set off the announcer who cries…..ohmygod! that’s the first anyone’s done a quintuple kiss your ass goodbye stiffy stuffy pickpocket …while eating a breakfast sandwich! Uh..yeah..whatever. None of the announcer’s gibberish helps me understand what just happened aside from watching a young person do things that, for most people, would prevent them from becoming an old person. With no hope of emulating what I’ve just seen, I attempt a soft sofa dismount, but lose 3 points for a two-footed landing..and spilling beer and chips on the carpet. I settle for a bronze..just beating an in-law who fell on a Frito. snowboard2

Then there’s figure skating. skating2I’ve been watching it for decades and to this day, I don’t know the difference between a flip, loop, lutz, salchow or axle. It’s all just skinny people lofting themselves above the ice, twirling, smiling, crying, falling in different ways. chenWhen I heard Tara and Johnny kvell that some skater landed a triple lutz, all I could think of was what my father would often ask when someone went crazy about something that didn’t impress him. he’d say, “yeah…but is it good or bad for the jews?” Lutz sounds German, so it probably isn’t. In fact, it’s named after Austrian skater Alois Lutz, but Austria’s just next door to Germany so I’m not budging. i suppose in this age of double, triple, quadruple screen viewing I could have webpages open that define all these terms but if my eyes are averted for even a second when i hear the announcer scream, “holy crap..they just landed a 1600pennsylvaniaavenuetrumpiancombover….and i miss it…well that would pretty much send me into a 1280snuffmytorch.