The following doesn't take place in New York City per se, but it seems just the sort of thing to appropriate for the shopping capital of the world.
I had been thinking for a long time about making cement filled teddy bears. I wasn't exactly sure why. At first it was just a perceptual curiosity I wanted to experience, and I wanted others to experience: the idea of being handed what appeared to be a fluffy stuffed animal, only to have it go tearing through your relaxed fingers like a lead meteor.
The Christmas shopping season seemed an ideal time to get them on the shelves of Los Angeles toy stores, so late in November, members of the Los Angeles Cacophony Society gathered in my backyard to gut several dozen plush toys and replace their innards with Portland's finest.
We called them, "Cement Cuddlers".
Each bear wore a full-color laminated label identifying it as such complete with bar code from another toy. Inside the folded tag was the text:
"Unfortunate Child, do not mistake me for a living thing, nor seek in me the warmth denied you by your parents. For beneath my plush surface lies a hardness as impervious and unforgiving as this World's own indifference to your mortal struggle. Hold on to me when you are sad, and I will weigh you down, but bear this weight throughout your years, and it will strengthen your limbs and harden your will so that one day no man dare oppose you."
The target was easy to select. Not far away was a large not-to-be-named toy-store, the biggest and newest of the chain in Southern California, a massive thing like the newly christened Titanic just begging for its iceberg.
By 10:30, around a dozen Cacophonists had slipped in managing to place several bears on the shelves without arousing suspicion. Not content to just leave them there we appointed Cacophonist Todd to help direct the management's attention to our prank. At 10:35 Todd entered, located a Cuddler, and brought it to the register, informing the cashier he couldn't find the price. Predictably, as he placed the innocent looking toy in those unwary hands, it went crashing to the floor like a particularly heavy bowling ball. After this, it just got worse. Todd began to demand a speedier price check, insisting that he had only minutes to complete this transaction before it would be too late to bring the bear to his nephew who was, as he repeated many times for our benefit, "in the hospital with a skin rash." This element of his story, however, did not appear to provoke the suspicion of the clerk, who apparently had no difficulty in imagining her customer entering the children's ward not long before 11 PM to dump a lump of fur-covered construction material in the lap of an ailing youngster.
However, as Todd's volume increased, backups arrived. One of the more astute clerks commented that she had never seen this toy before and wished to know what shelf it had come from. Indignantly Todd led them to the appropriate place. A half dozen clerks, and several customers gathered round in bewilderment, passing the four bears amongst themselves and shaking their heads.
I eventually moved into earshot, and heard one woman reading the tag aloud. "That's really deep!" she exclaimed. I could no longer resist. I moved in to express curiosity about this toy.
"Oh! That's a cute bear," I remarked as I reached for a Cuddler. Without warning, it was placed in my hands, which naturally were prepared to be unprepared for its weight. Another thunderous crash!
Now I was outraged! "Look here!" I said. "The labels say, for ages 2-10! How could "Nameless Toy-store Chain" sell such a dangerous toy to 2-year-olds!"
Eventually I was calmed and began contemplating buying one for an older nephew. Cacophonist Frank became interested in buying one too. We all went to the register.
Thanks to the fully functional bar code, the farce continued. However, the bar code used was from another toy, and so the computer identified the toy as: Alien Face Hugger $1.99. More panic and confusion. The manager was called.
In the chaos, the bears are handed back and forth a few times more giving Todd one more opportunity to let one fall, this time "on his foot" (about 4 inches from his toes).
He begins to wail and pulls off his shoe and sock.
The clerks are incredulous.
"Would you say he dropped that on his foot?" one says to me.
"I don't want to get involved," I say, secretly gesturing that Todd seems crazy.
The manager arrives, and he is young and sour-looking. Easily a control freak. We feel he is our divinely ordained victim.
They explain the difficulty with the scans, but he seems to pay little attention to the computer. Instead his eyes keep darting to Todd as he leaps around on one foot howling about the lethal bears to other customers.
"Come with me, sir. We'll see what we can do for you," he snaps, dragging Todd off to his little manager pen.
Frank and I continue as good cops to Todd's bad cop routine, but continue to hover at the register insisting on the purchase. We discuss with the clerks how troubled Todd seems and reread the label.
"This is weird," one clerk finally realizes, "a Teddy Bear literally filled with cement."
I suggest it might be a doorstop for children's bedrooms. Then a ray of light descends on Nameless Toy-store.
"It's like a joke someone's playing or something," says one of our blue-vested assistants.
"You mean," asks Frank, with wonderfully stylized naivete, "like someone made them themselves? Maybe just this weekend? Took out the stuffing and replaced it with cement?"
"Or maybe that crazy guy did," says the clerk.
"No, no. Can't be," I say. "Why would he insist on buying from you something he made himself. That's illogical!"
Suddenly we hear Todd's voice booming again from the front of the store. They have emerged from the manager pen.
This will mean so much to Bobby. God Bless you!" And he leaves with the bear in bag. $1.99! Lucky bastard!
Manager-man hurries to the counter with his panicky stick-up-the-ass gait, one ear pressed to a cellular, doubtlessly consulting the Nameless Toy-store overlords. We mob him, insisting to know the price arrived at.
"They're not for sale."
We are incredulous, indignant.
"This item is discontinued." He bites off the word and rushes to the shelves to haul the Cuddlers away.
We continue to needle him as he gathers the bears.
Suddenly, he swings around holding the furry blocks of cement as if he might do some harm. Perspiration has appeared on his forehead.
"Look!" he sputters, "I don't know how these things got on the shelves! They DON'T track correctly on the computer. I've never seen them before. I have NO explanation. It's like someone's playing a joke on MY STORE!"
It's in that word "my". You can tell. He's gotten that look like he's just seen the first crack in the brand new ceiling. We understand that if that crack widens by even a hairline, he's going to see through it. He already suspects Todd. He is probably 90 seconds from realizing that we're all part of it.
And so we decide to take advantage of our time.
"Could you at least tell us the manufacturer so maybe we could order the toy?"
He whips the label over, and reads, Brutal Truth Toys.
This is a good time to leave.
There's still a half hour before midnight, so we take advantage of the energy we've gathered to make a few prank phone calls. I call a rival Nameless Toy-store asking for Cement Cuddlers.
I'm put on hold and another clerk picks up the phone and claims to have actually pulled up the info on my Cement Cuddlers on the computer. He tells me I can get a raincheck. Sadly, when I ask for the stock number, he suddenly loses the record that he "just had, just a minute ago".
After going through three or four baffled and fairly easy to baffle clerks, I finally get to the manager. I am slightly indignant at the delays and feigned ignorance of a product I JUST PURCHASED THAT VERY NIGHT at their rival, the new Burbank store, we'd just invaded. The manager explains that this new store carries certain promotional items not available to the other stores because it is the newest and largest. I detect a note of envy in his voice, and soften my approach. I become confidential and ask if the new store hired away a lot of good workers.
"You know," I tell him, "I know it's big and everything, but it's so new... I mean, they didn't quite seem to have it all together yet."
He agrees. He's heard rumors to this effect.
"All the employees seemed, I don't know... nervous somehow. It's like the store's too big for them to handle. I get a nervous feeling when I go in there."
He knows what I mean. "I think it's that manager, maybe. He seemed so tense and kinda angry somehow. He doesn't give me a good feeling. He seems a little odd. Have you heard anything like this?"
He's heard some funny things about this upstart.
"Yeah. Odd manager. Odd store. Come to think of it this whole cement teddy bear thing is pretty odd. Maybe this was just a special thing he wanted to order. Maybe they were his idea."
He agrees, but he won't call the other store to see if they still have them in stock there. So I tell him I'll check back later.
And I will.
It was a good night, and we still have 18 more bears to distribute.
Commentary by Clifford Hartleigh Low (source anonymous), Sunday, June 21, 1998.