I am walking through the toy store. I am shopping for the holidays. I am looking for one item — and one item only — something that, to me, always symbolized the magic of this season.
I am looking for a pencil box.
“We have a discount on Nintendo,” says the toy salesman, yanking me towards the computer section. “Ten percent off Swords and Serpents, Magic Johnson’s Fast Break, Tradewest Super Off Road and, of course, Mindscape Gauntlet II.”
“I am looking for a pencil box,” I say.
“Heh-heh,” he says. “That’s a good one. Look, if you don’t like Nintendo, how about a miniature LCD game, maybe Top Gun by Konami, or Batman by Tiger Electronics? Kids love those. And we’re running a special. Batteries not included, of course.”
“Pencil box?” I say.
“Keyboards!” he says. “How about these electronic keyboards with 16 pre-sets for rhythm and instrumental tracks? Cool, huh? Or this miniature Hot Lykx guitar? Check this baby out. Make the kid feel like Van Halen.”
“Pencil box?” I whisper.
“Van Haaaaalen,” he sings. Who needs batteries?
I do not want the kid to feel like Van Halen. I do not want the kid to blow fighter jets out of an electronic sky. I want the kid to have the same simple burst of wonder that I had when I first got the pencil box years ago, and I pulled back the white-ribbed door and watched it magically disappear into the red plastic.
It did not require batteries, this pencil box. It did not come with an LCD readout. It was simply a place to store your pencils, or erasers, or whatever. That was the joy. You could hide anything in there. You shut the white-ribbed door and it was safe, yours forever. Such a feeling! At an age when your mother still cut your lamb chops, and your father still pinned the mittens to your jacket, the pencil box meant responsibility. Privacy. Your own secret storage.
“Vehicles!” says the salesman, dragging me to a display area that resembles a miniature car lot. “We’ve got the whole line of Power Wheels. We’ve got race cars. We’ve even got this battery-powered Barbie Corvette.”
“Barbie Corvette?” I say.
“Great, huh? Your little girl can cruise the neighborhood. Goes 3 1/2 miles an hour. Power-lock brakes. Only $149.99. Even a make-believe car phone on the dash.”
“Look, I — “
“How about this?” he says, pushing over a small jeep that looks like it could drive through the Kalahari desert. “For $269.99, we’ve got this battery-powered Jeep Safari. Opening doors. Realistic dash. A make-pretend engine with a real dipstick. Great, huh?”
A dipstick? The search continues
I do not want dipsticks. I do not want car phones. I do not want something that will make the kid feel like an adult. There is too much time in life to feel like an adult. And not enough to feel like a kid.
With the pencil box I felt like a kid. It was the first present I ever received. I would take it to school and sneak peeks at it under my desk top. I would slide the white-ribbed door back and forth and imagine it was the trap door to the universe, or a tiny magic carpet.
Oh, the things I could hide in there! A paper clip. A penny. A magic rock. And when the teacher caught me daydreaming, I would tell her I was just checking to see if my pencils were sharpened. And she bought it!
“Ninja Turtles!” yells the salesman. “The kid has to be into Ninja Turtles! Or these Bart Simpson dolls by Mattel!”
“No,” I say.
“Board games! I’ve got Electronic Battleship. Or Heartthrob. Or Let’s Go Shopping.”
“Nuh-uh,” I say.
“Look, I’ve got this Spectra-Sound Drum Set, complete with sticks. Or this Matchbox Motor City Carwash. Say, I’ve got a great price on this radio control Mini-Typhoon Hovercraft, good on land or water.”
“I just want a pencil box,” I say.
“A pencil box,” he repeats.
He shrugs and takes me to the office equipment section. I see computers. I see printers. I see full-color monitors and electronic slide rules.
I do not see any pencil boxes. I wonder where they have gone. I wonder what ever happened to the simple presents that grew in a child’s imagination, grew and grew, until they were something spectacular — instead of the spectacular presents that can only dull as the batteries wear down.
“You sure you don’t want the Mini-Typhoon Hovercraft?” asks the salesman. I tell him thanks, I will keep looking. I am dreaming of little yellow pencils in a red plastic box, and wishing I still had my mittens.