Thursday, March 24, 2011

Garbage Pail Kids

Some people recall where they were when they heard that JFK was shot. Some remember when man first walked on the moon. Some, it was 9/11 that causes a specific time to be forever burned in memory. For myself, I remember the very first time I saw a Garbage Pail Kid.

It was mid-fall in the third grade. I, quite luckily, sat in the row of desks next to the windows, and I usually spent my time staring vacantly out the window so that I could suffer through another year of elementary school. All week I felt particularly out of place, since many kids had been huddled in masses and sneaking things covertly for the past few days.

Thankfully, in third grade, the concentration of cliques and establishment of statuses had yet to congeal. If anything, friends were lumped together geographically, but in the wide-open days of primary education all locations were leveled—everyone was at school. So one individual—no idea who, alas—surreptitiously slipped a small packet of cards in my hand.

Looking them over, I realized that Garbage Pail Kids were the greatest invention of mankind since the wheel and possibly television. 

For those uninitiated few, the Garbage Pail Kids were trading cards. You purchased them in packs like baseball cards, and the cards themselves parodied the highly popular (with girls and absentee parents at least) Cabbage Patch Kids. Of course, these were the anti-Cabbage kids; the ones unlucky enough to be left behind when the patch was picked over. They were the kids with issues, exaggerated deformities, and a lack of social skills. Each kid came with a name—two, in fact, so collect them both!—that was a pun of some sort. Like “Roy Bot” or “April Showers”. The hook for schoolkids was that they were often gross—the sort of thing pretty much any third grade male kid obsesses over as a career choice—and snot, blood, vomit, drool, and (in the later, daring years) urine were the high-priced commodities of the day. The cards were released in a succession of series, adding new kids (and revenue) in each version.

Imagine my frustration when I ran to the store to pick them up—only to find them all gone. I had caught the tail end of the craze for the second series. I would eagerly check each drug store and toy section just in case every time we went shopping for what seemed like forever but was probably more like two weeks, only to be disappointed each time. 

Then, one day, I saw an unfamiliar green box on the shelf, and there they were—the much-anticipated Third Series. It was a marketing miracle. By building up so much anticipation, imagine a young boy’s delight to realize that each pack of five cards was a measly quarter—even back then something most kids could afford. It was a struggle not to just grab handfuls of packs and rip them open. It was a fad, pure and simple—and, as an added bonus, parents and teachers—and girls—hated them.

In retrospect, I never quite understood why. Sure, there were a lot of gross cards out there that obsessed with nose-picking and vomit. But it never really seemed any worse than what passed for entertainment as a child. Many—like Ray Gun (a GPK version of the then-President) and Adam Bomb–were simply nice, solid references of adult stuff even kids could recognize. But mostly it was toilets and zits.

Well, an obsession had started. There were a grand total of 88 cards per series, so for the paltry investment of around five bucks you could get the whole set. Of course, Topps, not being complete morons, made the shrewd move of making all Garbage Pail Kids stickers—an easy way for kids to burn up cards and buy new ones. They also insisted on inserting a piece of that nasty pink “bubble gum” which—let’s face it—tasted very much like the cards themselves. (Please note that this doesn’t mean that I didn’t chew each and every stick I got my hands on. And note this does not imply I tasted the cards themselves.) I’m also sure they had different rarities, because I specifically remember desperately needing specific cards to complete my set that went well beyond the bell curve.

It is odd the specific things one remembers. I remember wanting desperately to get a copy of the 1st series card Heavin’ Steven, because at the time it was the only one with my name. (I think there was a Tee Vee Stevie, but I was heartily unimpressed with that card.) I was also quite disappointed when I found out they spelled Steven with a V and not a PH. I remember only getting one copy of Melba Toast, and it was cut wrong, and as far as I can remember never got another “good” copy. I remember thinking I was Sherlock Freakin’ Holmes when I realized they had changed the names of a few of the cards in one of the series, thinking this was some awesome added bonus, when in fact they just got sued by the real-life names of celebrities they were parodying; apparently, Topps was under the impression that lawyers don’t have kids that love gross-out humor.

I also remember the day that one of the local department stores had what to a third grade amounted to the Treasure of the Sierra Madre—an entire bin full of packs of cards that were only twenty cents. My purchasing power had increased by a full-on 20%, and I was not allowed to let this opportunity pass me by. I then got home and discovered the ugly truth—the packs had apparently been set in the sun, and the gum had melted and ruined the top card in each pack. 

For some reason, I was both surprised and excited when the fifth series game out—and also this was the series that made me a little sick. I don’t remember the card, exactly, but some disgusting suggestion on one of the cards made me queasy. It didn’t stop me from buying up packs upon packs of the stuff. As time wore on—it seemed like ages between series, but upon research it was mere months—the cards got grosser and grosser. Topps played up the fact that the cards were getting banned, and human nature being what it is the more parents and teachers banned them, the more sought-after they became.

And so it went on, through the various series. And then one day—like all childhood fads—it was over. For me, I remember it being the ninth series; at this point, I had hundreds of cards. I was bored with them now. Either my income had changed drastically or I was a shrewd dealmaker, because I specifically remember having waaay too many ninth series cards. And I was done with them. Some of my friends would get excited, but at that point I became that guy—sporting the “oh, you’re still collecting those things” attitude to make myself feel superior, even though I myself was enjoying some pants-peeing excitement mere weeks earlier when I saw the new boxes. I moved on to Desert Storm cards (which were, and still are, awesome) to collectible card games, of which I still have an embarrassing number of boxes that my wife hasn’t found yet.*

And that was it. A few years ago when I was cleaning out some junk I found my old box of Garbage Pail Kids. A few things stuck out: one, I didn’t have nearly as many cards as I thought—years of INWO and Middle Eastern wars caused quite a bit of card inflation since my childhood. Two, I apparently didn’t take good care of them—the cards were gray with age and all worn out. And three—and most important—they were really, really stupid, and were a huge waste of money. One can either assume—depending on your perspective—that I either learned from my stupid mistakes, or simply used it as practice for future decisions.

*Topps has since come out with new series which, I would like to say, is a little bit wittier. (Not much, but at least some.) Sure, they're still full of awful gross-out humor, but it seems that they've at least made a token attempt to concentrate more on pop culture and current events than vomit and blood. I am assuming that they are aiming this not only at kids but at 30-year-olds as well. 

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