Thursday, February 09, 2006

A Collector is Born

I was inflicted with the Collector’s Mentality disease at a very young age, even though many years would pass before I was properly diagnosed. It was the summer of 1979. It was a hot Georgia night. I was seven years old, and I had in my possession a substantial amount of money: two dollars and 38 cents. I couldn’t be happier.

That is, not until we piled into the car and made for the shopping center. There, my older brother, David, took me to the back corner of the local drug store and showed me the treasure-trove known only as the comic book spinner rack.

At first I was more interested in the plastic guns and coloring books found only a few feet away in the small toy section. But as my brother rotated through the comics, the spinner rack’s squeaking hinges kept distracting me. What was that racket? With his back to me, I couldn’t quite tell what he was looking at and the curiosity was driving me crazy.

I approached my brother and the comics slowly came into view. When I finally stood next to him, the tower of comics loomed over me. I froze. My eyes were so wide they could’ve popped from my head. I basked in the warm glow of the fluorescent lights bouncing off those shiny, four-color covers.

“Ooh, Superman,” I said, my hand zooming from my side so fast I was surprised it stayed attached. I snatched up a Superman comic from the middle rack, but before I could discover what lay inside, I noticed an even more colorful issue coming into view on the bottom rack as the spinner spun on its inevitable course. “Oh, cool!”

I bent over quickly, eager to grab the copy of Flash, but my eyes were already on the next prize. I was overwhelmed and began snatching them up at random. There were so many of them and I wanted to take them home with me. All of them.

And just like that, the Collector’s Mentality infected my system forever.

My brother’s voice broke the spell. “Wanna be cool? Try this.” He handed me an issue of Batman and, for the briefest instant, I saw a hint of the darker, more rebellious side of my brother’s personality.

The deep blues and blacks of the Batman comic he held out didn’t interest me, but I added the issue to the growing collection in my hands just the same. Doing so just felt right.

We were spinning that rack for what felt like days. But at the same time, it was only an instant. There would never be enough time to enjoy them all. So when David said it was time to go, I hastily grabbed a couple more that I really wanted. He looked through them quickly and replaced most of the ones in my hands with others he pulled from the racks. They were Batmans and Justice League of Americas and Green Arrows. “You’ll like these better,” he said. “I’ve read ‘em.”

As we walked to the front of the store, I couldn’t contain the smile on my face. I paid the man in the white smock and left the store penniless but happy. I had more wealth in my hands then my little brain could imagine. I had a handful of comic books and I couldn’t wait to get home to see what worlds lay between those slick covers.

Walking out that store, however, was like leaving a dream. Outside, in that muggy Georgia night, under the harsh lights of the parking lot, I realized what I wanted wasn’t in my hand. I wasn’t exactly sure where my happiness went, but it certainly wasn’t in that stack of books I held. No, what I really wanted was back in that store on the spinner rack.

Then the tears came. What I had in my lap was just a stack of junk, when what I really wanted was the other books I didn’t buy. I wanted the selection. I wanted everything else but the ones in my hands. The bitterness ate at my throat, my head, and my heart. It was my first taste of buyer’s remorse, and it wouldn’t be my last.

My mom found me sitting on the sidewalk, my feet in the gutter, my cheeks glistening with tears. Between sobs, I managed to tell her I didn’t want those comics. David had made me buy them. She scowled at my brother, took my hand, and we headed inside. And with the powers only a mother could possess, she persuaded the clerk to let me return the comics.

Yet the happy ending wasn’t to be, and the joy was short lived. With the drug store receding in the background, my heart crumbled as the Collector’s Mentality ate its way further into my system. What I really wanted wasn’t in my pocket—I didn’t care about the two dollars and 38 cents. What I really wanted was at that store being placed back on the squeaking spinner rack, where it would sit and wait to be snatched up by some less deserving boy who could never possibly appreciate it the way I could. How could I have been such a dummy?

Twenty-six years later, I sometimes smile at that little boy as he sits on the curb, crying over his stack of comics. But more times then not, I’m saddened at what I see. Not because I imagine who that little boy could have been had he never stepped foot into that drug store, or what would have happened had he instead read and abused and enjoyed those books, but because I wonder what could have happened had I only kept those comics…and stored them in plastic bags with proper backing boards.

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