I grew up in the era of cheap plastic toys, the kind you could get from the Dime Store. The Dime Store’s narrow aisles were full of cheap stuff. The lighting was garish and the place smelled of floor wax (not like the overpowering candle-musk of the Drug Store next door). The cheap metal shelves were low and crowded with boxes and plasticware labeled “Made in Japan”, when that message had a whole different connotation.
The Dime Store was a paradise on those hot summer afternoons after lunches of fried bologna sandwiches, when all three channels ran their soap operas, and we waited for our 3:30 cartoons and reruns of Star Trek and Gilligan’s Island to get us through to dinner. It was deliciously cold. Square bins of penny candy—licorice, caramels, jolly ranchers, sourballs, Bazooka Joe gum–sat at the end of the aisle next to the cashier, next to a long display of the 5 and 10 cent Snicker bars, Crackerjacks, and other high-end food. It was, a little overwhelming. But, unless you were really hard up for cash, you could leave the dime store with something good.
It was the stuff farther down the aisle that created a deep longing in the pit of my stomach. Before the onset of puberty, I test-drove a whole new set of feelings in the back of the Dime Store. It was the expensive stuff—one dollar and up–and arranged with care. I lifted these items up reverently just to read the packaging, before returning them square on the shelf, or hanging them carefully on the peg with price marked above it.
These were the model airplanes and the dinosaurs.
Revel-brand model airplanes lurked, assembly required, inside shrink-wrapped boxes fronted with a garish watercolor of the plane in action. Side panels described the heroics of pilots, the specs of the planes, the number of pieces, and the skill required to glue it together. All implied the utter joy the assembled plastic plane would transfer into your hand, up your arm, into your brain. The planes held the promise of escape from the tedium of summer vacation. But there was something more. The planes came in a diversity of size and shapes—the fork – tail of the P38 Lightening, the stubby menace of the P47 Thunderbolt, the sleek grace of the P51 Mustang. The planes looked alive. They were not just flown; they flew, as if the pilot were incidental—a part glued in before the clear canopy was affixed to the fuselage.
Next to the model airplanes hung the foot-long bags of dinosaurs. They were made of dense, hard plastic; thrown at a sister four feet away, they could do real damage. The dinosaurs came in primary colors that made no sense— in books we checked and re-checked out of the library dinosaurs were rendered in grey or muted browns. But they embodied in three whole dimensions the terrible lizards of our imagination. We could turn them around and over, memorizing details (ignoring their umbilical scar of injected plastic). There was that desire again—to ride on the back of a Triceratops, sit silently in the underbrush while an Ankylosaurus lumbered by, or watch from way, way, far away as an Allosaurus chased a herd of duck-billed Hadrosaurus into a swamp. Arranged neatly on a shelf, or pitted against each other in the strip of dirt next to our house’s foundation, each figurine was a cinder that spark a scene in my mind’s eye.
So to it is today. I settle in at my Leica microscope, adjust the chair, and arrange my forceps, probes, and notebook just so. Sometimes I’ll insert the earphones for some tunes, other times I relish the quiet. I reach for a vial, whose contents come from the litter of a patch of forest from down the road, or far away in the Peruvian Amazon. Unscrewing the o-ring cap, I pour its contents into the glass dish and get a whiff of alcohol. I slip the dish on the stage and fiddle with the focus. There and then, I am a boy just returned from the Dime Store, staring enrapt at the dinosaurs lying in a jumble on my bedspread.
Illustration by Brittany Benson