By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Even before I enter the Crystal Room of the Javits Center, I begin to suspect what I'm in for: a lot of preachy dolls and opinionated stuffed animals lecturing me on soy ink, organic rubberwood, the polar ice cap, global warming, bilateral disarmament, and a bunch of other topics that are about as festive as a nuclear winter.
And indeed, as I troll the aisles of this huge trade show, I gaze glassy-eyed at booth after booth offering miniature looms for making potholders and educational rugs brandishing potsy courts (what does that teach you exactly? To count to 10?) and even stuffed blobs meant to represent fat cells and earaches, magnified 10,000 times and kitted out with cute little eyes. (I think I already know what a fat cell looks like, and it ain't cute.) The only firearm I see is a lone confetti gun—kids who want to kill each other will have to make do with the anemic selection of medieval swords.
Minding my own business, I am accosted by a puppet who commands that I guess what he (she? it?) is. "A platypus?" I offer wanly. "What? No! A harbor seal!" It takes only a few minutes to realize that the plentiful array of stuffed toys in the house features a preponderance of seals, dolphins, penguins, and, above all, polar bears—if these species ever do vanish from the earth, toy companies will be stuck with millions of extinct animals on their shelves.
My faith in human nature is restored at the TY booth, where a Girlz doll, sporting ripped jeans and a tight spangled sweater, wears the petulant fuck-you expression first made popular by the iconic Bratz. Heartened by the appearance of this young lady, who looks like she could pass for one of the working girlz who used to ply the streets of the West Side before the Javits Center was built, I seek out more hard-plastic harlots.
Alas, there is no Amy Winehouse doll, but at the enormous stand operated by Madame Alexander, there's a wall of Eloises, each wearing her own pre-adolescent version of a petulant fuck-you expression, and seemingly unaware that her old digs, the Plaza Hotel, have been converted into condos and she will forthwith have to be home-schooled elsewhere. At a booth called Fashion Angels, the dolls are promisingly shallow and self-absorbed, what with their humongous wardrobes and red-carpet obsession. Unfortunately, these PC-safe Fashion Angels are idiots, spouting that their "package can be used for additional purposes"—unlike what, another box that can't be used for something else?
But worse is yet to come. "Bonjour!" shrieks a tiny voice next to me. "I'm Fancy Nancy! I just like to be really fancy! My family is not as fancy! I try to teach them to be fancy! Here are my puzzles! You can feel the glitter! My dog is Frenchie, my doll is Maribelle Lavinia Chandelier! This is my other puzzle!" I look at the small person hectoring me, who is wearing a tutu and a tiara, and ask uncertainly how old she is. "I'm five!" she shrieks, which is surprising, because two minutes later she is prattling about her book's status on the New York Times best-seller list and I notice that she presents the secondary sex characteristics of an adult.
I run from this homunculus into the comparative safety of BillyBob's Teeth, where a gray-ponytailed guy in a leather jacket, accompanied by a younger Johnny Rotten wannabe (piercings, shaved head, the kind of bondage pants they still sell on St. Marks Place, if nowhere else) is telling the vendor, "I want your best sellers. Give me the vampire." "Ya wanna go heavy on skulls?" the BillyBob's Teeth representative asks. "Yeah, but no devils."
BillyBob's chompers may be off-putting, but they are nothing compared with the wares at Stuffin' Party, a booth that attracts me initially because of its revolting name. The party entails a hand-cranked machine on which the carcass of an eviscerated stuffed animal, limp as an empty condom, is impaled, while you turn a handle that fills your new best friend with fluff. When I ask if this procedure doesn't in fact horrify the kiddies (it certainly makes me queasy), I am assured by Annette, a company rep, that Build a Bear Workshop, the author of this grisly technique, has by now succeeded in achieving "intense awareness of the concept" and that in fact stuffing an animal yourself means "you bond with it in a deeper way." As her co-worker shoves a dog on the stick and commences cranking, I grab my tail and scamper away,
Unfortunately, I flee right into the arms of Bindi, the famously pimped-out daughter, to coin a phrase, of the late naturalist Steve Irwin, who was killed when his chest was pierced by a stingray barb. Despite the fact that her father died a horrible death and her four-year-old brother was recently bitten by a boa constrictor, this Bindi is unstoppable, claiming, on a big poster, that "it's a play date with the planet—we are putting smiles on the faces of the Earth!" and offering junk like a shrink-wrapped kit called Bindi's Aquatic Adventure containing a Bindi doll in a wetsuit, a surfboard, and yet another tiresome dolphin.
It's a relief to visit a booth called Accoutrements, which carries rubber chickens, paste-on mustaches made of, I am sure, some deeply unbiodegradable substance, and that most transgressive of playthings, the toy cigarette pack, available as a squirter or filled with bubble gum. One pack bears the brand name Black Lung, if, as the salesman puts it, "your store is really edgy."
Emboldened by my exposure to candy coffin nails, I ask a guy in a booth with bloodshot-eyeball spectacles if he has anything really disgusting. He shakes his head sadly. "For that, you have to go to the Halloween show in Vegas in three weeks," he says. "They have things like a guy in an electric chair for $10,000."
But then something really disgusting does happen, in a booth run by Gund, which advertises its merchandise as "the world's most huggable." I'm met at the door by a woman with a steely smile who asks me what business I'm in. When I tell her I'm a journalist, she says the pathetic flack employed to bullshit journalists (OK, that isn't exactly what she says) is gone for the day, and then she refuses to let me examine their stock of dolphins and penguins and polar bears and in fact boots me out of the booth! Me!
It's enough to make me want to go get a confetti gun.