Toys R Us

The recent demise of the beloved toy store chain reminded me of a story I read back in the 80’s about the company’s research and development department.  At least I think I read this somewhere …

“It started out like any other day in the Toys R Us experimental labs.  The toy makers had a rigorous yet startlingly simply approach to finding new toy ideas:  put one child in a plain, open white room and give them an ordinary, everyday household item subject to the child’s whims of fancy.

“There was an occasional problem, of course.  For example:  have you ever wondered why those large plastic dry cleaning bags and other similar items now carry the warning ‘this is not a toy’?  Let’s just say that one awful morning in the lab has gone on to save tens of thousands of children from parents who sincerely believed the shiny, smooth clear things would calm and entertain their loved ones for hours.

“Anyway … the Toys R Us labs had become so hugely successful that the marketing department struck on the handsome notion of coupling the lab work with public tours, a kind of research-themed amusement park.  Those curious enough to want to peek in on the imagination process could observe the lab by standing outside and looking through a one-way mirror.

“‘Won’t the monsoon conditions deter people from coming?’ asked one naïve toy scientist.  A few marketers admitted they hadn’t really thought about that, but no worries – some complimentary corn dogs and chips could be included and increase the park admission ticket price.

“Now you think you’d have a difficult time attracting curious looky-loos to pay good money to covertly observe children playing with mundane objects while they stood eating in the pouring rain.  And in most corners of the world, you’d be right.  But Toys R Us had the good fortune to partner with mega-retailer *******, which was always on the lookout for new ways of attracting more customers to its stores in tens of thousands of rural locations across the country.

“No amount of rain-soaked corn dogs would ever get in the way of the possibility of horrific child accidents and the consolation to be found within the huge white spaces that encompass every discount item imaginable.  Toys included.”

Another Peek at the Past

One moment I remember where I felt like I belonged was after I had my first visit with the director of the graduate program in the philosophy department at Loyola University in Chicago.  It was late August of 1982.  I had driven over from Detroit the day before, with all of my worldly possessions packed into a slightly aging 1975 Mercury Monarch, purchased for $2,350 cash in 1980 from money I saved while working in the basement vault of the National Bank of Detroit.  My parents were generous enough to give me free room and board while I worked for a year and a half, a transition time from a brief but beautiful life as a young religious man in a college seminary to a new life, a life filled with who knows what, but at least beginning with finishing my college education.

The bank job was a time when I didn’t really have to be burdened by the pain and sorrow of no longer being part of the religious life, whatever that was, to be free, to be free-floating, to take what felt like being adrift and see if it couldn’t feel like something else, something satisfying, something fun.  I experienced a miserable depression when I first came back to Detroit, miserable that the door to the religious life was permanently closed, stunned and no clue what to do next, so dazed and confused that I thought maybe God wanted me to be an accountant, that I should sign up with the Detroit College of Business and get to work on the business degree.  I was in bed for three days, didn’t get up, slept or didn’t sleep, didn’t eat, didn’t talk with anyone, not even the sorts of little internal conversations I have with myself today to keep me from falling on a knife.  But three days of such a black hole was about all I could stand—maybe out of sheer boredom, I finally got up.

I was twenty-one years old.  I started looking at the want ads to see if any of the banks in town were hiring.  I think I remember thinking something of the old bank robber’s response to people who asked him why he robbed banks:  “’Cause that’s where the money is.”  To be in the world, not just to survive but to live, to flourish, one needs money, and lots of it.  So, having a job where the money is might lend itself, I thought, to gaining wealth (what people now like to call ‘financial independence’).  After about a month of reading the ads, going to banks, filling out applications, giving them resumes (the only thing more pathetic than resumes from applicants with no previous work experience are resumes from ex-seminarians with no previous life experience), NBD decided to take a chance on me and hired me as a currency teller for their afternoon (4:00 pm to midnight) work shift.

What Would They Look Like?

Kids rely on parents to care for them, protect them, love them.  Sometimes parents don’t care.  It takes only one unfortunate event for a parent, annoyed and irritated by a kid who refuses to shut up, to lose their patience and strike their child, hurting her, humiliating him.  Yeah, that shuts ‘em up – but it also shuts them down.

How do kids get back on their feet?  They take care of themselves – not in that brutal way they were treated, but from a way that says, “this is how you should have treated me.”

If those parents saw me now, some fifty plus years later, on one of my not so good days, I like to imagine the conversation would go something like this:

Parents:  “Hey you, why so down?  You look like you don’t have a friend in the world.”

Me:  “I don’t have any friends.  I mean, I have friends, but they’re only so deep.  I’ve been on my own for so long, and I’ve felt for just as long, maybe longer, that I’ll be alone my whole life.”

Parents:  “Really?”

Me:  “Really.  Intellectually, I know that’s not true – but that doesn’t change the feeling.  I don’t know why I feel this way – I only know that I do.”

Parents:  “Wow.  We don’t think we’ve ever met anyone who’s hurting like you’re hurting, for such a long time.  It doesn’t look like many people know this – it’s not like you’ve been beaten up, physically, so people can see the cuts and bruises.

“We don’t know why the people who meant so much to you didn’t think you were important enough to listen to, to pay attention to, to love you in ways you wanted to be loved.

“But here’s something you need to know:  It’s not you.  You are one of the most caring, loving, funny, charming people we’ve ever known.  And even more than this …

“Every human being on the face of the planet deserves to be cherished, to be protected, to be cared for, to be loved.  Not because they’re special, or deserving, or have earned these things.  They deserve it simply because they exist, they’re here – they are enough.

“Kid, you are enough.  We know you’ve been hurting a long time, carrying this hurt, never free of the pain, trying to go on in spite of it.  But it’s okay.  You don’t have to hurt like this anymore.

“You are loved.  You’ll feel lonely now and again – hey, we all do, sometime – but that’s okay.  We’re not really here to tell you that you won’t die alone – that’s a real possibility.

“We love you, kid.  We want to take care of you.  We want to protect you from this pain.  And we’ll be honest with you – we’re not sure we can do it.  But we are sure we want these things for you.”

They’d look like that.