Thursday Stories: Garbage Pail Kids in the City

Garbage Pail Kid image by krystal.pritchett

I’ve been thinking a lot about writing—about how much I want to be doing it, what I might do it about, whether someone somewhere might pay me to do it. Since the theme of this year is “It’s no longer the time of sitting around and thinking about doing something,” well, welcome to Thursdays Are for Stories. Long or short, fiction or non- (most likely non-fiction, at least for now), proper stories or just memories, I’m going to do my best to write up some anecdote, thought or tale every Thursday, beginning today.

As I write this I’m sitting in my parents’ living room in Upstate New York, two weeks into a nineteen-day trip. Having ventured all over Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Gunks/Catskills region and this, the strip-mall town of my adolescence, I’ve been overcome by memories big and small and I’ve started keeping a list. This first story isn’t so much a story as a memory of a particular childhood era, such as it was.

Until I was nine years old my family lived in an apartment in Brooklyn. Not a historic once-tenement brownstone in some western neighbourhood ten minutes from Manhattan by train, but a top-floor two-bedroom place in a nondescript three-story walk-up in Canarsie. You’ve probably never heard of Canarsie. It isn’t one of the more romantic parts of Brooklyn. Working-class, at the end of the L subway line, it’s the setting of the ill-fated boating jaunt in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; that’s the only time I recall encountering it in literature or cinema.

There was a proper shingled house next door to our apartment. I remember it being white and black. A young family lived in the basement suite. They yelled a lot and had a daughter a few years younger than I was. I played there a few times but never had fun. The mother’s parents lived in the main part of the house. They had guard dogs in a fenced-in area along our side of the building. I was terrified of dogs until I was eight. When I was a teenager, several years after we moved upstate, my mom casually mentioned that these neighbours were drug dealers. I’d had no idea. I’d thought limousines double parked on a residential street was a normal Brooklyn thing, like mothers yelling out third-story windows to their kids or playing in the street and yelling back up to your mother. As a teenager with my eyes newly opened, I felt simultaneously unsettled and like I’d earned an urban-dweller notch in my belt.

My world, up to age nine, was about three or four square blocks. I went to elementary school around the corner and across the street (that was exactly how I thought of it; if somebody asked, I’d say “I go to school aroundthecornerandacrossthestreet.”) Beginning in first grade I walked to and from school by myself. About two-thirds of the way down my street, away from the corner I rounded on my way to school, was an alley that cut through the block. On the other side of it and across the street was the school’s fenced-in asphalt field, but I didn’t walk through the alley to get to school. The alley was also asphalt, old and cracking, creating its own gravel grittiness. It sloped down at either end and a run-down convenience store sat at the bottom more toward the school than my street. I couldn’t quite see over the high counter. It’s possible the store did its entire business in candy, baseball cards and cigarettes.

Around fourth grade, a new obsession hit. It came after plastic charm necklaces and my first perm. Nod with a crooked smile if you also were obsessed, in the mid ’80s, with Garbage Pail Kids. Oh, how clever these collectors’ cards were*. The same size and shape as baseball cards, you didn’t have to follow a sport to collect them (I didn’t become a Yankees fan till after college, and I’ve since lost touch and regret it). You didn’t have to know the relative value of the cards you lucked into, or differentiate one league of teams from another. You just had to laugh your tiny ass off at grotesquely rendered caricatures like the iconic Adam Bomb (a Cabbage Patch Kid-like wee boy with his head exploding into a fiery mushroom cloud.)

I found one of my first packs of cards in the alley store. I went back all the time looking for more. I was nearly always disappointed. I became frantic and obsessed. I simply couldn’t wait. Consequently, Garbage Pail Kids were responsible for my growing familiarity with the greater neighbourhood. There was, a couple of stores in from the corner of Flatlands Avenue and some other street, a less falling-down store that also, on more frequent occasion than did the alley store, carry Garbage Pail Kids. This store may or may not have been called The Nosher, or some such variation. A “nosh,” in Yiddish, means a snack.

I carried my Garbage Pail Kids with me at all times. I amassed a stack a couple of inches thick and wrapped it with a rubber band. The corners bloomed and the edges got dirty.

A friend and I spent an afternoon on her stoop, skipping around, sitting cross-legged, giggling, drinking juice, coming up with new Kids for a contest Topps was having. My genius idea was for for Eli P. Hunt, a kid with an elephant trunk for a nose. It would have been awesome! It didn’t win. I couldn’t understand why.

Wikipedia says the cards came out in 1985. That means the first series was released at most a mere six months before we moved upstate. In my memory, I was younger than that**. It’s hard for my adult brain to make sense of this timeline. I’m certain I wasn’t obsessed with collecting cards when I started fifth grade in my new school. The more I think about it, the happier I am that my brief passion for the collectibles seemed to endure for so long even if it really hadn’t. They were happy days, filled with ridiculous chatter and imagination. Those cards turned the more saccharine pop-culture phenomenon of Cabbage Patch Kids (I named my blond doll after the stars of Little House on the Prairie) on its head. They made it apparent to me as a young kid that even the most powerful fads could be flipped over. I’m tremendously grateful for that, and for the ooey gooey rhyming names and stickers I would never, ever peel off.

*I learned while looking up links for this post that the Garbage Pail Kids were an Art Spiegelman creation. No wonder they were so awesome.

**UPDATE (12 June): It turns out it’s my adult brain that was confused. We moved in 1986, not ’85, as gently pointed out to me by my mom last night, which means my original memory of having Garbage-Pail-Kid fever in the third grade was accurate. It was nice to have that happy feeling of inaccurate memory for a day, but today it’s replaced by a different happy feeling—that of having been right all along.

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