by Teresa K. Morrison

"Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart," John shouts jubilantly over the din of the dinner rush at the West Hollywood restaurant where we both wait tables.

"Let's go!" I shout back, because I have become an acolyte and I'm ready to drop almost anything to hop in the car and drive to far-flung places in pursuit of rare and elusive toys.

Mind you, neither of us is actually going to walk out of a scheduled shift in the middle of a dinner rush to go toy shopping, largely because we would lose our jobs, decidedly disenabling any hobby that requires a fair amount of disposable income. It's just a nice fantasy when you've got eight plates of hot food up, two tables that need their orders taken, and one very nice lady for whom you cannot, despite your past four attempts, get the soup hot enough.

Why Wal-Mart? Wal-Marting is just a convenient term we use for trips to out-of-the-way toy haunts, Wal-Marts themselves always seeming to crop up in decreased rent, suburban locations. We usually have to drive to the outer fringes of the Los Angeles area and beyond, where the concentration of toy collectors is less dense, to get the really great toys. So trips to the Toys-R-Us in Montebello, the Target in Valencia, and, yes, the Wal-Mart itself in Glendora, are all called Wal-Marting.

John Sala is a thirty-five year old native Angeleno, the adoptive child of an Italian father and a Japanese mother, whose character is in part shaped by, and in part consumed by, his zeal for toys.

It seems like a childhood dream realized--having both the desire for, and the disposable income with which to obtain all the toys your apartment can hold. But there's an insidious twist to toy collecting in the nineties, and the days when we performed a month of chores only to have to beg for a ride to Zody's to acquire our cherished item du jour, well that all just seems simpler in hindsight.

Action figures, by far the most collectible and popular genre of toy for the past several years, come packed in cases with a predetermined mix of characters, with some figures intentionally "short-packed" by the toy company (A short-packed figure would be one that occurs, say, only once in a case of sixteen, while the other fifteen figures are commons, say three each of five different figures). Some collectors have perversely turned the hobby into a hunt for the rarest figures rather than collecting the characters they like.

All this being said, John only collects characters he likes, but some of the figures he genuinely likes and wants are short-packed, and the hobby has gotten so nutso that he can spend a month of Wednesdays (shipping day!) and four tanks of gas hitting every toy and department store from here to the state line and still not find the figure(s) he's after.

What does he collect? Primarily Disney, lots of premiums from fast-food joints and mail-in offers, select items from Star Wars, and whatever else interests him at this very moment. But it isn't really the specificity of his collection that's facinating; it's the zeal with which he collects.

"Have you seen these?" he asked excitedly one night as he approached me at work and thrust a plastic item no larger than a bug into my hand. It was the prince guy from The Little Mermaid, and it's remarkable that I can tell you that because it really was only several centimeters tall, but the details were there.

He went on to tell me that it came from a (now defunct) Nestle Magic Egg, that there are twenty-four different Disney possibilities, and that he needed them all.

He had considerable trouble finding them, even calling Nestle at the zenith of his search to ask if he might buy them direct--the answer was no. Once he found them, he bought every egg he could lay his hand on, thirteen cases, one hundred and fifty-six eggs. He didn't eat the chocolate.

I can actually date my own emergence as a toy collector to one fateful day with John and his friend, Robert, a fellow thirty-something who collects Barbie (and just in case you're beginning to imagine mincing steps and lispy exchanges, don't. They are both extremely capable and unfailingly chivalrous men whom I feel safe with at the seediest of Wal-Marts in the darkest of nights). They took me on a toy run of epic proportions, though considered mild by their own standards.

We drove out to the La Puente area, hitting two TRUs (that's insider talk for Toys-R-Us), two Wal-Marts, one K-Mart, two malls, one Target, one Ninety-Eight cent store, one strip-mall mom-and-pop (an independent store that sells some combination of toys, comic books, and collectibles) and the glorious factory site Mattel outlet that is the Holy Grail to such Disney and Barbie collectors as John and Robert.

It took ten hours, with one meal break at an in-mall Marie Callender's. At the end of day they both buzzed with content over their purchases even though neither of them had what one might call a bounty of goods. The hunt often proves greater than the spoils and the stories that emerge are not unlike fisherman's tales--the toys they landed and the toys that got away.

John spent his formative years in a tract home in Torrance. It is significant in that it was the last house he would live in with his nuclear family, the sale of which would date his parents' seperation and his mentally retarded brother's need for committed residential nursing care.

There weren't many kids in the neighborhood who were John's age, and his father was selective about the toys he would buy for his sons. Of primary consideration was that boys didn't play with dolls, regardless of any earnest and hopeful attempts to qualify them as "action figures."

In fact, John cites his first "action figure" as the winged angel from his parents Nativity set. She was just a few inches high and held a banner reading, "in excelsis Deo."

"I used to fly her all over the house," John enthuses. "She was sort of a super hero. The last time I remember playing with her, I set her up high on a ledge, on one of those walls with rocks that stuck out like irregular shelves."

John's family moved out of the Torrance house shortly thereafter, and the Nativity set made the move without its angel. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph et al. now reside in John's West LA apartment and are faithfully displayed every Christmas. But what of the angel?

"I think about her all the time. I can't even tell you how many times I've driven past that house, wondering if she could still be on that ledge after all this time. I want to go to the door and tell the owners I used to live there and ask them if I could just take a look. But they'd think I was crazy, or the whole wall would be gone. Still, I know she's there somewhere," he drifts off. This is about as vulnerable as I've ever seen John and at this moment I want to drive him to Torrance myself.

"You should go find her," I say matter-of-factly, at the same time wondering how I would respond as an adult if someone like John came to my door with a similar request. But that's just it--being an adult, frankly, sometimes sucks. "You should definitely go find her."

For more information on collectors and collecting, see our review of the Raving Toy Maniacs site or the book Magnificent Obsessions (available in our bookstore).

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October 18, 1997