Gift cards are the low-hanging fruit of holiday shopping, offering an easy out when one’s time and inspiration reserves have been depleted.
“Here’s $25 for TGI Fridays!”
“Thanks, here’s $25 for Target!”
And thus the lateral transference of bespoke wealth carries on, sustained by a sense of obligation and the notion that gifting cash is embarrassingly gauche.
It wasn’t always like this. There was a time when gift certificates — issued on paper rather than a pre-paid debit card — were things of exotic wonder, and largely relegated to fundraiser raffle prizes and Christmas presents from distant (geographically or genetically) relatives.
My paternal grandfather used to send them to us during the first few years after he fucked off to Florida to avoid his long list of creditors. A week or so before the holiday, an envelope would show up bearing his scrawl and small stack of gift certificates bearing some reasonable approximation of our given names. At least he had the presence of mind to purchase them from a national chain and not some family operation in a remote corner of Jacksonville.
The Service Merchandise ones were the best, because they always gave cash back no matter how small the purchase. I’d blow a couple of bucks on some small item, get the balance in cash, then take it to the Heartland Drug across the plaza to blow on trashy paperbacks, bulk candy, and steeply discounted 2600 games. It was the pre-teen bottom feeder version of the Epiphany, and a fine way to mitigate the anti-climatic post-Christmas comedown.
Sears gift certificates posed a trickier situation, mainly because the cash-out option was not in the table. I don’t know whether that was store policy or not, because the ultimate arbitrator on that front was my mom. Any balance not spent on playthings (back when Sears actually had a year-round toy department) would be put aside for future Boy Scout trappings or other joylessly essential purchases.
The situation resolved as a mad rush to find something — anything — remotely interesting on the denuded shelves before my mother lost her patience. The incident year I recall most clearly was at the tail end of 1981 or very beginning of 1982, when I gathered up as many diecast vehicles and accessories as I could find. In addition to a couple of replica WW2 fighter planes, I settled on a Chevy Citation Hot Wheels car…
…that was easily the saddest fucking thing to ever get released by that line. I thought about maybe finding a nicer looking photo of the model, but realized the above one truly captures the essence of the vehicle as seen in the real world. (The only thing that’s missing is a miniature planter made from an old truck tire and a tiny plastic feral dog pissing on it.)
The other notable purchase in that lot was a “0-4-0 Loco” Matchbox toy, which was not a car but rather a small replica train engine.
I bought it because it was so unusual — the striking color scheme, the retro vibe, the inclusion of a train in a line better known for slick-looking sports cars and futuristic utility vehicles. It felt less like some mass-market toy aisle product and more like something — like the full-color army men or painted plastic dragons — my maternal grandfather would bring me back from Germany during one of his business trips as a radar engineer.
There was something decidedly “Euro” about it, which makes sense considering Matchbox was a UK-based firm. Why they thought a replica of an ancient British steam engine would fly in the North American toy market is another question, but I did indeed love that strange little toy.
Plus, I loved trains. The Boston-Lowell line ran a mile from my home. One of my dad’s lazy Sunday pastimes was to park his overpowered ride by the tracks, where he’d sip his beer and I’d sip my grape Fanta and wait for a northbound freight to pass by. The world of trains fascinated me the way the Everett gas tanks and old chemical works fascinated me, industrial behemoths crafted by human hands yet utterly alien to my kid-level perspective. (Only seeing them outside of regular working hours also played a part, I’m sure.) When my old man set up his old set of model trains, I’d obsess over the brick red Gulf tanker car, with its ladders, railings, and mysterious markings about “MAX WEIGHT” and “DISPLACEMENT.”
The 0-4-0 Loco didn’t really fit in the rough play realm of its automotive brethren, a world of stunt jumps and improv demolition derbies and other acts of violent attrition, but I also didn’t want it to suffer those paint-chipping indignities. I found other ways to incorporate it into the gearhead fantasy universe my friends and I created.
In the childhood ecology of my North Woburn neighborhood, the life cycle of an oversized cardboard box began with “GUYS, THE RAFFERTYS PUT A WASHING MACHINE BOX ON THE CURB” and proceeded through a series of distinct steps ending with “TOSS THAT PILE OF CRAP IN THE GARBAGE BEFORE IT WRECKS MY GRASS, YOU DAMN KIDS.” Between “rolling down Tomato Hill inside it” and “dissolved into mush by an unexpected cloudburst” came the very important “cut it up into play mats” stage.
Using our shitty little pocket knives (or our parents’ best pairs of scissors), we’d slice off portions of the box into long flat sections that we’d turn into fantasy road grids with magic marker. Sometimes it was a joint effort between a few of us. Sometimes we’d work individually on a single piece, then find a way to connect them up when we were done. (Personally, I preferred to work alone because my friends sucked at art and I was meticulous about my efforts.)
Starting with some suitably dramatic surface roads, we’d mark out highways, dirt tracks, service areas, repair shops, fire and police stations, liquor stores, dragstrips, visualizations of our ideal future homes (complete with huge swimming pools and a fifteen car garage), and other places for our favorite Hot Wheels and Matchbox rides to explore. They were cheaper than an official playset and their transitory nature meant that each incarnation sprung fresh from our fevered imaginations.
After 0-4-0 Loco joined my roster of vehicles, I started adding train tracks and freight yards to the mix. Even better, my cousin passed onto me a flatbed car for the train he’d somehow acquired and had no use for, adding an additional layer of verisimilitude to the fantasy. In practice, most of the train’s exploits involved gory crashes with less favored cars, followed by high speed jumps over the resulting pile-up, but it was still a significant and dramatic role to play.
I don’t know what happened to my original 0-4-0 Loco toy. It most likely fell prey to the usual process of plaything attrition, or got lost in the messy dump-off following my mom’s death. It completely slipped from my memory until last week, when for some reason I remembered the time my pal Artie stole a fancy orange and turquoise Matchbox dragster from one of the neighborhood toughs and tried to avoid the heat (and inevitable beating) by trying to pawn the car off on other members of our circle.
Curiosity about the car led me to a year-by-year directory of Matchbox offerings, which in turn featured a listing for the 0-4-0 Loco and a full-force blast to my nostalgia cortex. The model was apparently part of a small wave of vintage British railway vehicles and rolling stock, along a tracked playset. It was interesting in an academic sense, but I was happy enough with tracking down a near-pristine 0-4-0 Loco with passenger car (which I wanted, but never owned back in the day).
It’s just a lump of painted metal and plastic, but damn does it carry a heavy load of psychic freight.