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wishing and a hoping

 


Memories come upon all of us at the strangest times. It may be a sound or a smell, but no matter the origin, a vivid recollection can upon you and details flood back into your psyche for both immediate and later analysis. Your day's pattern is moderately static as you go to work, come home and begin again the next day but when you depart from your path; it is usually a brief deviation with hopefully good reason. All of a sudden, for no specific reason, you hear a sound or sniff the smell which transports you back to a playground or a battlefield with vivid and dramatic clarity. The lesson to be learned is to enjoy the ride and not to get too locked into your destination as things have a way of popping up.

I have been a house painter for many years and went pro once I got out of the collectible world and I don't mean to brag, but I am a good one. I work smart, clean and make sure all aspects of the job are done right and done with quiet, enduring quality. When the paint job is completed professionally, you rarely notice the work. When a paint job is done quickly and with numerous shortcuts, the whole thing deteriorates within a single season. As a house painter par excellence, I find I have ample time to ponder many things in my life and if I run out of personal experiences, I start making others up for my internal enjoyment.

Being a painter is unique because if you are good, you keep painting. Other occupations come with the reality of the better you are, the sooner you will be promoted out of the role. But a painter just gets better with age; experience tells you how to paint to avoid forces which can derail a standard paint job. You want to paint everything twice and sand once. Two coats of paint are the only way to go and if you are seeking ways to save money; don't save through the use of crappy paint or poor equipment. The cost of a gallon of paint might initially shock you but the actual paint costs are one of the least interesting things to consider. And one more thing, if you are still paying attention, if you haven't heard of the paint manufacturer, don't buy it.

As I paint houses, I concentrate on the job at a very basic level and allow my mind to review and dissect life's events from the cruel to the ironic, from the ridiculous to the sublime. An idea might have come to me as I drive to the job site or it could be buried in my subconscious from thoughts long since gone. The thoughts which come from an external impetus are usually the most fascinating. I am usually most impressed with epiphanies caused via smell or sound. It is rarely a visual or aural cue and is yet to be from the sensation of touch. Usually, I have my brush rhythm down in a rote, predictable fashion. As I follow the sun while the paint is applied, I usually begin to think about something which occurred earlier in my life and I allow the scene to play back to me in almost real time. It could be an affair of the heart, a tragedy, a success but it is customarily a small innocuous scene, which rarely has any context to my current frame of reference. I have spent entire afternoons trying to remember my fourth grade classmates and where we all sat. During a commercial job which involved painting an entire gymnasium, I tried to remember every single teacher and coach that I ever had as a student or player. That exercise lasted two weeks and the ancillary detail within my memories is the root fascination of my internal analysis of percolating thoughts.

Re-stuccoing and painting a large country home, I relived my entire two hitches in the United States Navy. The preparatory work easily occupied my memories of basic training but the level of detail of harmless remembrance. These allow me to delve into my retention inner workings and begin to question what odd orts of information are held within and what is information is filed away for later retrieval, even the stuff that was dormant and officially non-existent. At times, you become detached, similar to watching yourself work while you spend the majority of your effort in quiet, contemplative thought. But when I was prepping a house for a much-needed paint job, I discovered a broken tin robot which had been thrown or flown into a gutter on the backside of the house. I held the broken little trunk and could tell that at one time, the whole contraption was a bright, vibrant red. The type of robot was immediately recognizable, I knew the manufacturer, the manufacture date, the robot type, and its context with other import tin robots, and the information came flooding to me like a full-on fire hose. I had to place it aside to stop the information from coming through my fingertips.

The theater of the mind becomes a safe haven, especially when reminiscing the events of one's youth. The memories will fall within pleasant and linear vignettes, which can be started and stopped easily. These drawn-out dramas can be portable or entrenched, fleeting or mental tomes that fit as neatly as one's mind permits. The main intent may seem to enlighten but as I grow older, it is more necessary to entertain myself, coping with the daily morass of a day's mundane events. I seek refuge in tasks that once momentum is established, I can allow the mechanisms of muscle memory to slip into low maintenance and equally low engagement of my memory banks. If I am a zone, I can slip away for hours only to be brought back into the physical world for something important, like lunch.

If one makes the mistake of peppering me with inane questions just to hear their own voice, I have a tendency to splatter paint or drop brushes at the most expensive part of their wardrobe. Sometimes, I enjoy a medium level problem as I am confident that the solution is nearby and certainly within my abilities to solve it in due time. At times, I am disappointed that a solution comes too quickly, rather than allowing me sufficient time to relish in the process of true problem solving. Most problems are just puzzles in which I have to be creative enough to size the issue up and begin a clear march towards the true solution. However, there is nothing worse that solving a problem too fast. To alter and paraphrase an agriculture joke: problems that good you don’t solve all at once.

At times, I don't have a high interest in wasting my breath in useless conversations. The two main purposes of communication are to exchange information and pleasantries. If I have to unfairly and unequally endure individuals who are enamored with their own vocal stylings, I again rely on the unfortunate splatter of latex paint or my newest defensive mechanism: selective hearing. As it takes two to tango, it also takes either two to talk or one sadistic hatchet-faces succubus to talk and the other forced to listen due to inability to walk or incarceration. When I think about it, I rarely have met a deaf person in a bad mood.

My interest in little tin robots came honestly and with no fanfare. As I began to collect small collectible wind up toys, I thought I was doing it for the fun of the hunt. The collectible isn't intrinsically amusing by itself but as hunts go, it was an honorable one. One doesn’t dare wind up the very old toys due to fear of breaking the irreplaceable mechanics within the toy. I specialized in science-fiction robots, especially from the late 1940's (where I luckily received my first two as gifts from my very hip aunt) through the middle 1950's and amassed quite a collection of the genre. The majority of the collection is orderly and they began to align nicely on my bookshelf. As time went on and my abilities to acquire became more focused, the collection of the small figures went from a platoon to a company to a few short of a battalion. I did enjoy the hunt for the figurines and that propelled me for many years but when the day was over and I saw the large choir of rigid figurines staring at me from across the room, I painfully came to the realization that all that work was for naught; it was fun getting and capturing them. It was not any fun to worry about them and dust them. Some of the (believe or not) hobby magazines wrote articles and raved about the collection but the ironic part was that no one asked me how much fun I had.

As a small boy, I had been given an old beat up wind-up robot from my Uncle Tommy. He had beaten the shit out of it as a child and to everyone's surprise; it had survived the regimen of the lab tests established by the sadistically orientated scientist. It had a few dents in it but it was operational. I played with it and after awhile, started to study the little robot and saw that it was manufactured by the Masudaya Toy Company of Japan. I thought that was pretty cool thing and even went as far as writing a fan letter to Masudaya.

They sent me a nice letter in return, including some stickers and other media crap about their robot toy line. By this time, I was hooked and I began collecting Masudaya robots, either pristine or nothing but trauma in its little metallic life. Well, the art of collecting is one that takes on its own momentum and I soon started adding wind-up space robots from both the Nomura Toy Company and Yonezawa Toy Company of Japan . Although my apparent specialty became Robby Robots, I branched out to include all post WWII Japanese space robots with a manufacture date no later than circa 1957.

Not many people were collecting that specific toy genre so I was able to harvest an impressive amount of the toys and in many cases; I was the only one at many of the flea markets which had that interest. People were collecting telephone insulators, Tiffany cut glass lamps, Coca-Cola fountain equipment, movie posters and anything and everything they could identify. After ten years, I had one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of these robots in the nation. Several appraisals estimated the value of my collection at almost three hundred thousand dollars. I spent additional monies to upgrade the security system of my house and to build custom shelves to best store and display my treasures. Several times a month, someone would contact me and plead to come over and see my collection. Most of the time I agreed, and we would spend a few hours swapping war stories about where one of the robots was discovered and I realized that the hunt was why I got into the hobby in the first place.

When I saw the platoons of multi-colored robots looking out at me, usually in need of a dusting, I realized that I was just locking these things up for no good reason, save their preservation. However, if I sold them or donated them to a museum, I would still assure my legacy and not have to be held hostage. The Hindus and the Kalahari have sayings which roughly translate to the maxim that "your possessions possess you." Once I made the connection, I contacted Sotheby's and had their staff conduct an auction for the entire set. That made the bidders small but serious, especially when they realized I had no interest in selling the toys by the piece. Eventually, the entire set was sold to the Guggenheim for one million, seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Once I paid Sotheby's their piece and dealt with the capital gains, I still had a little less than a one and a quarter million dollars.

One of my first real investments was the very first Robbie Robot built in his mini-size. I heard about a small-time collector, and one of my first friends in the Robot world. He had died and I decided to go visit his widow. I knew him moderately well and drove a few hours to pay my respects. When I got there, his widow was sitting on the porch with all his robots boxed up. We talked for a few minutes and I couldn't help wonder why and where all these treasures were going.

"Why did you box up all of Hank's robots?" I asked.

"I never liked them, I could never touch them and frankly, I never saw much sense in them."

"They are worth a lot of money."

"They are stupid little toys that you say are worth a lot of money. They are only valuable because of your own opinion. Their value is subjective, certainly not intrinsic."

"Well, either way, they are valuable because they are rare," I countered. "They may not be truly valuable but their rarity has to be respected."

"Do you want them?"

"Sure, but that isn't why I am here."

"I know, I have had every supposed friend of Frank here in the last week. They show up, like scavengers, wandering around the house, wondering where they are accumulated."

"And they asked if you want to sell?"

"A few did that, a few more handed me a check for about ten percent of the true worth and a few didn't do anything. They lost their nerve before they got here."

"Why me?"

"Hank liked you. You are young and always treated him with respect and courtesy."

"But I showed up, just like everyone else."

"You showed up once things settled down, you weren't swooping in here, hoping to catch the distraught widow at her lowest."

"I finally agree with you on something. I wanted to talk to you about Hank and laugh about how funny he was."

We spent the afternoon swapping stories about Hank. She was appreciative to hear about a side of Hank that she rarely saw. I didn't talk about Hank the Collector but Hank the Mentor . He took me under his wing and showed me the robot world of collectors. Not only how to source up old collectibles, but how to see and purchase new robots that would evolve into classics.

"I will miss him," I concluded.

"I know you will, dear."

"Well, I think I will be going. I will keep in touch and we both knew I meant it."

"Well, let's start moving these boxes into your car."

"I can't take them and I can't afford to buy them."

"You will take them and I guarantee you can afford them."

"What do you want for them?"

"Write me two letters a month."

"Deal."

I placed each box carefully and drove home extremely defensively, full of fear that I was going to be sideswiped or rear-ended. I finally got home; I lovingly brought each box into the basement and laid them out. As I opened each box; a rare feeling of wonderment washed over me resulting in a saturated Christmas experience in which twenty Christmases were concentrated into an afternoon. Within the two dozen boxes were pristine and incredibly valuable robots, all with their original box, all clean documentation/collateral, in vivid color and indicative of a true collector. By the end of the afternoon, I was completely spent and satisfied for the first time in my life. Only a few weeks earlier, I had a comparable collection but this group represented a tribute to another person and thus, was not going to be sold.

The next morning, as I woke, I seriously thought that the day before might have been a dream. I received two dozen vintage robots and all of a sudden, I was the new owner of one of the impressive robot toy collections in the world. A few of mine which I kept from the first sale matched up well with Hanks, but I did have several overlaps. I wouldn't sell or trade any of his robots as long his wife was alive but I knew I could parlay most of my overlaps into some nice overall additions to the collection but the idea of doing it again exhausted me.

As the news of my new acquisition spread through the community, several people were astounded that Hank's wife sold the robots to me. Neither his wife nor I ever elaborated on the price of the robots, so the prices were fabricated all across the spectrum. By this time, I was living alone so I didn't have to have any awkward conversations with parents why I was suddenly a national known collector.

I joined the Navy, traveled throughout the Pacific, and kept up my deal to correspond with Hank's wife. In fact, I wrote her every week and filled her in on my travels during my enlistment. I visited all the cities in which the toy manufacturing plants were headquartered. Thanks to Hank's wife, I met some of the original designers because of the relationship that Hank had developed with them via correspondence. They welcomed me into their homes, sharing with me some of the original artwork, die casts and incredibly rare merchandising trinkets that were pitched and usually turned down as additional cost to the toy. Items that I never knew existed were shown to me and at times, given to me as the apprentice of Hank-san. As the years went on, I continued to correspond with some of the retirees and the treasures would continue to show up at my doorstep.

I finally got out of the Navy and continued to dabble in the industry and mainly thanks to Hank's tutelage, I was extremely successful in getting in early on newer toys and that ability funded my goal of vintage robots. The new stuff, defined as toys manufactured within the last ten years, was without soul. I didn't enjoy the toys but I was lucky enough to use my abilities to continue to purchase and barter in the early 1950's Japanese Robot world. I would use the money I created to buy more products and never once offered or accepted an offer for a robot that I received as a gift.

The community of collectors grew to larger group of adversarial collectors; mercenaries motivated purely by cold profits which were being reported across all collectibles. Whether it was vintage guitars, cartoon cels, timepieces and similar merchandise, the aggressive addition of these new vultures forced prices to skyrocket before they grew bored and found something else to ruin. Most collectors needed to decide whether to cash out or not as the prices would not be this high for many years and several of the old hands reluctantly left the business to fund their retirement. None of them was happy but no one begrudged them due to the mind-blowing prices which were being paid to allow these new players to join the market.

I realized that anything is cyclical and this business would be no different. Several of the younger essential collectors met to discuss the troubling trend in our little world. We had begun collecting for the love of the robots and we all agree; the day it loses its enjoyment, we would leave.

"Did you see the price paid for Robbie #23?"

"It was nuts. Eighty thousand dollars?"

"Hank would have crapped. And he would have been mad."

"All the old farts are mad. These new vultures sucked all the fun out of it."

The group around the table represented the main, active collecting groups and was good at respecting each other's boundaries and genres. This group felt it was more productive to work together to rid the transient interlopers out of the marketplace than to passively sit on the sidelines and kvetch about how the whole industry has gone to hell. Each one of them called the old farts and suggested a ploy to drive the jerks away, make a ton of money and restore the balance and purity to the world of collectible Japanese wind-up robots.

No one was winning with these exclusively profit-oriented jerks in the market. The moment something of value hit the market, they would fall over themselves to buy it, no matter the price. Items were being sold at ten to twenty times their legitimate price but the new players did not care. Whether they were working for Planet Hollywood with strict instructions to buy two hundred robots, no matter the cost, or working for some bored celebrity who decided that morning to collect robots, it didn't matter. The whole industry and camaraderie were quickly heading down the toilet.

When we sat around the table, we were impressed with both the experience and the areas of collectible interest. We all specialized in our toys and cooperated with each other when necessary.

"So, what should we do?" said the oldest man there. "It seems like those bastards are trying to buy every ceramic rocket ship made after 1955."

"Why don't you collect something else?" said someone sarcastically.

"Why don't you collect my foot kicking your ass?" smiled the man.

The beauty of collecting starts with your choice of collectibles. If you decide to specialize in post-war Japanese robots, the early 1960 robots would hold no interest. So, if on your travels, you discovered something that you knew someone else would die for to own, you would purchase it as a favor. The stuff you collected as treasure and everything else was trash.

"What does everyone hate?"

"Well, hate is a strong word," I said, "but I couldn't care less about Bakelite."

"Eek! Tizzwood! Bakelite is crap."

"Agreed. Bakelite anything."

Bakelite™ was a failed Japanese substance which pre-dated plastic by a couple of years. It was all the rage and many things, including guitars, toys and cars, were made of it. Just as the industry was looking for a replacement for costly and brittle ceramic applications, Bakelite came into the marketplace and many toys were shifted to that substance as a first attempt to reduce cost while only slightly bruising quality. Bakelite, or polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride resin, is produced by combining carbolic acid (a.k.a. coal tar) and formaldehyde. Created accidentally and refined by chemist Leo Baekeland, (1893-1964), who was working to develop a fire-resistant, synthetic shellac and was best known as the first mentor to Jack Welkler. In the first decade of the 20th century, shellac was produced in limited quantities from the resinous secretions of Asian beetles. Shellac was an effective electrical insulator, and the electrification industry was beginning to boom.

Baekeland saw an opportunity; a previous successful invention provided his financing. In 1929, the entrepreneurial Dr. Baekeland sold his rights to Velox, a commercial-grade photographic paper, to George Eastman (of Eastman Kodak), for the gigantic sum of one million dollars. He set up an independent laboratory at his Yonkers estate to pursue plastics research. For several years, Baekeland and his associates applied varying degrees of heat and pressure to resinous gunk. Using a heavy iron "bakelizer" (a hybrid vessel which was part pressure-cooker, part industrial-strength boiler and part kitchen stove), Baekeland was able to control and refine the process until he produced "electrically resistant, chemically stable, heat-resistant, shatterproof" Bakelite.

In 1937, he filed patent papers, and in 1939, he presented the world's first entirely synthetic plastic to the American Chemical Society. The rest is plastics history and Bakelite devotees constantly remind the barely interested that Andy Warhol loved Bakelite. When he died in 1987, his collection fetched record prices at Sotheby's. Collectors today can find an abundance of Bakelite, from bangles to radios, on Yahoo! Auctions but that was the good news.

The problems with Bakelite were numerous: it was heavy, brittle and could not keep a strong color. The substance quality was, at best, uneven and it forced the industry to expedite the use of plastics a year or two earlier than they should. The plastics of today are a quantum leap ahead of what was coming out of the Far East during the early pre-Bakelite days. Today's quality control and consistency of process make plastics very useful but in the early days, the plastics were a crapshoot. To be the world's most successful collector of Bakelite was equivalent of being the fifth best ballerina in Branson, Missouri, the valedictorian from the University of Minnesota-Duluth or the largest midget in the room.

"Agreed," said someone. "We will start singing the praises of Bakelite."

"And we," said someone else, "start buying it?"

"No, we quietly accumulate it and sell it amongst ourselves. We then call a few folks in the trades and let them start leaking stories about a rush of Bakelite."

"And then we…?"

"Let the jerks change their mind again and let them start buying this stuff. Also, we try to trade for our desired stuff back and of course, make some money on the side."

And in a few hours, after an efficient planning meeting and three bottles of bourbon, we were drunk with agreement.

Someone turned on their computer and thanks to a standard search, "Bakelite," followed by a click on the Web Pages link led us past an intriguing assortment of sites selling Bakelite radios, telephones, snow globes, jewelry, and decorative goods to pages describing the history of this revolutionary early plastic. The prices were cheap for good reason so we all decided to throw in a few thousand dollars and start a run on the Bakelite express. We needed a few allies and over the next several weeks, we met with key hobby writers and laid out what we wanted to do. To a person, they were with us because their attempts to meet the new monied vultures were unsuccessful. If they did get a brief interview, the writers became quickly discouraged with their subjects. The reporter would gush about a recent acquisition and all the interviewee would constantly quote profit margins and the aggressive plan to re-sell as soon as a target price was met.

They didn't care about the products and were constantly asking the writers what the next big thing was going to be. That mercenary attitude allowed us to reach out and get the writers on our side. We needed to work in random concert with stories and purchases occurring at the least obvious, but still traceable manner. Their business analysts would likely escalate the trend earlier than we estimated but once the seed was sown; we were comfortable that we could still get the deal done. We broke up into several teams and went off by ourselves to discuss strategy. Each team would specialize in some odd Bakelite bloodline and begin determining who was going to be the hothead, who was going to be the enthusiastic newcomer and et. al.

We also decided to conduct only legitimate transactions on EBay. There was enough bad press without being accused of falsifying interstate commerce laws and we collectively agreed that we were all far too attractive to risk jail time. The on-line auctions are monitored by both the press and the robot vultures so we decided to either conduct legitimate offerings online or place Bakelite products on line for awhile, all with bold opening price points and have them disappear the next day. The reasons for disappearing products are many but we decided to allow other people to come to their own conclusions.

A month later, a robot magazine placed a secondary article which dealt with new trends and "Items to Eye Up." The correspondent listed several obvious opportunities but placed Bakelite Robots in the list as well. In the back of the magazine, an advertisement was placed begging for Bakelite products, especially robots. The whole Bakelite offerings weren't very common but all true but non-involved collectors also viewed Bakelite as a sad and clunky worthless moment in the fascinating world of collectors but saw the ruse and at quietly on the sidelines

A few of us starting buying a few pieces and made sure our identities were known. We would quote a recent purchase and would let slip that "so and so sold us a key piece" or that "some exciting new opportunities were happening in the robot world." It didn't take long to get people interested so our group ignored several important robot offerings and made every effort to act like we were shifting our collective focus onto Bakelite robots.

There is a fine line between persistence and annoyance and I liked to think we were crossing the line numerous times of the next couple of months. Our efforts were rewarded with our vulture friends dumping the robot purchases to attempt to corner the Bakelite market. The vultures began to turn on each other, overbidding for Bakelite purchases and I took a special interest in helping form the Bakelite standards of "bigger is better." I took special pains to reach out and work through public forums seeking large Bakelite robots while my compatriots were seeking out other odd iterations of Bakelite. The scavengers took the bait and began to abandon their ongoing interest in our collectible area and all jumped into the Bakelite arena with all available feet. Our treasures were being sold off at considerably lower prices than original and we were all dumping our Bakelite crap as fast as we could work it through back channels.

As the robots began to accumulate again, I was receiving less and less enjoyment in acquiring them. I decided to arrange my burgeoning new squadron in a wide circle, like the regional theater troupe or high school choir. I had them all; all the robots I ever wished to own. I had a few of my early ones, all of Hank's and many new finds whether through the collecting vultures or through my own due diligence. I sat in the basement and looked at the whole group, staring back at me with pristine colors and bright, perfect eyes. I was waiting for a sense of accomplishment to wash over me but none came. The long run produced a short slide and the only thing I was enjoying was the letters to Hank's wife.

So, after consultation with her (because many were still Hank's), I sold the entire group and made sure the sale was contingent in keeping the robots together. I felt responsible to keep the entire community as a unit. I put the stuff away and decided it was time to make more of an effort learning a craft and getting outside more. The discovery of the little robot almost slapped me across the face; it was fun to see it but just as much fun to toss it in the trash bucket and start painting again.

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