I stumbled upon a Youtube video of the original Pac-man Saturday morning cartoon the other day and fell right through the god damn worm hole again.
It’s way too bright in this store. It smells of the strange alien smell of expensive new things. Christmas morning, your mom opens a box and a ring’s inside or dad opens a box with a new shirt and all you can think is that it doesn’t smell anything like a Kenner Star Wars playset. It smells adult. Things beyond the ken of a child.
This place is thick with it. It also smells of too many important adults bustling about. I’m eight. My mother has taken me to Stirling’s Jewelry near Northwest Highway and Central Expressway in Dallas. I have 15 dollars. I am going to put a television on lay-away. Until I would later buy my first car, this stands out as the single most important financial moment in my life. I’m too uncomfortably dressed for such an outing on a weekend, one of MY days.
Stirling’s was, technically, a jewelry store. But at this moment in the fall of 1980 it’s morphed a bit to compete with the local malls. Suddenly, almost overnight, the store carried a variety of different items. Smartly, they branched out from fine jewelry to cheap home electronics. Including one Emerson eight inch portable black and white TV, with a silver and black case and handle. The price was $79.99.
Stirling’s was one of those hold-overs from times gone past where you made a request of the salesmen (no women here unless it was the ring section) and they gave you a ticket. You paid the cashier according to the ticket and only then did you join a line that resulted, eventually, in your exchanging your receipt for the item you purchased, having just been run up by one of the warehouse guys. The only items out were display models. Everything was boxed up in the back room. I envisioned a warehouse populated by top men. Crates upon crates of treasure and mystery somewhere in the back.
A lot of moms jerk their kid’s arms when the kid is gobsmacked by something, and the mom is on a schedule. I stood there under the insanely bright overhead lights at the mixture of jewels, gold, silver; things I cared not for but were so overwhelming. I really just didn’t care about any of it, but it was all so beautiful. My feet were planted as if there were roots in my amazement. My mother waited for a moment and said, "we have to go to the other part of the store."
What? OH GOD! YES! TV! Dear christ on a crutch nailed to a cross of popsicle sticks, I had nearly forgotten why I was there! The magic of lay-away. Suddenly I was so proud to be there in my black Toughskins jeans and Osh Kosh shirt my mom had put me in for this serious financial arrangement.
You see, everything had been explained to me. This was serious business. My father had carefully laid out fifteen one dollar bills then sternly called my name to make sure I was looking straight into his eyes. He hunched, almost, to ensure I was at eye level and told me of the importance of what I was about to embark upon. It was a mission of capitalism you see. His warning, as he said, was ensuring I get a receipt.
It all began weeks before, with what I firmly believe was the impatience of my parents. And, in order to understand that, we have to understand Saturday morning TV.
To be clear, Saturday morning TV didn’t totally involve cartoons. If one was bright, and of a certain acumen, you could arise early and catch the Three Stooges, Flash Gordan, Green hornet. Such rich and mature adventures. The young mind boggled at what was once serious entertainment, but was now offered for any age prior to 8am. It’s almost like they knew that no adult would be up, so best to take this time to serve up the richest and deepest of 30’s and 40’s film serials. I sat in a time worn deep-orange-carpet living room, with the gigantic 20 inch color TV rendering to me the black and white grainy serials of four or five decades ago, as fresh and new and as engaging to me as Captain Caveman.
The volume low, hunched close to the device as to not awaken my parents or my still very young brothers, I sat there in rapture. An oversized bowl in my lap held what Sugar Pops I had not clumsily spilled all around the kitchen counter. I can remember how large the box was, how deep the bowl was, and how a child’s tsunami of whole milk poured across my treasure was the source of all that was important. And yeah, it was whole milk people. None of that white, thin-as-water fat-free "Milk" they give kids today.
I’ll leave for another time my obsessive mining of cereal boxes for prizes. Deep treasures hidden within food that the rest of the world must to this day regard as a sick joke; the very prospect of hiding something made of cheap plastic (that small children would covet but ultimately discard) within food that would feed a village for a week.
Oblivious, I proceeded to enjoy the full morning’s energy rush before anyone knew I was awake. Today adults stumble out of bed and apportion caffeine and sugar in far greater measures. I, was ahead of my time. It was around the morning hour past the New Adventures of Batman, past Tarzan and The Lone Ranger, somewhere about the Bugs and Tweetie show or perhaps the Scooby Doo Dynamutt hour, that my sugar fueled energy could hold no further restraint and my cackles would cause my parents to inevitably emerge from their slumber. I envision being regarded with disdain and some small amount of restrained violence, except I was nothing but eyeballs adhered to the screen.
I remember these moments. My solitude dimly interrupted by my mother’s patient exhortations regarding the mess I had made in the kitchen and my father’s unblinking disregard of the pap I was consuming on TV without fail every week. That was ok, because the later pre-noon shows almost always were Krofft Superstars or Shazam or Ark II. You know, the deep stuff.
And I haven’t even gotten to the commercials! In the late 70’s/early 80’s Kenner practically owned Saturday morning commercials. Star Wars toys, to which I have already written an ode to my unhealthy obsession, were always showcased on Saturday morning TV. But not just Star Wars toys, you could also catch awesome commercials for the occasional Shogun Warrior, or Justice League figures. It was like getting even more entertainment in between the cartoons. These weren’t commercials, they were me getting to watch kids play with toys I would soon at some point be playing with.
My parents never really understood how awesome Saturday morning was. Or perhaps they did. Their solution to gain perhaps just a bit more sleep was to allow me to buy my own TV. Over the course of that summer I made weekly trips to Stirling’s, dutifully supplying an additional three dollars for chore work each week until I had at long last reached the end of the $79.99 price and the box on the shelf with the red "Lay Away" sticker was mine. An Emerson 8inch black and white TV. My mom sprung for a nice little table for it to sit on.
Such was my love of Saturday morning TV that for an entire summer I went without Star Wars figures. Without my allotment of candy allowed to be purchased during store trips. Not until later when my DM made me take a wizard out of play for weeks to develop a particular summon dragon spell would I feel such a sense of sacrifice to attain a goal.
I loved that TV, and used it dutifully until that day in 1984 when got an Atari 800 which could do color. And each Saturday morning I woke up. I’d hit the power on the TV and went to the bathroom while the set warmed up. Instead of being hunched in front of the color radiation king in the living room next to my parents room I was much farther down the hall. My sugar intake somewhat delayed by the convenience of not having to really leave my room. Still later it would allow me my own unshared cartoon pipeline as my brothers got old enough to discover cartoons too.
Saturday morning TV is long since gone, a victim of over marketing and severely declining quality. Kids today are saving for Nintendo DS’s. This isn’t a bad thing, and in a way I’m kind of proud that people of my generation have such a universal and singular experience that ties us together.
But I do miss a huge sloppy bowl of sugar pops (Or Count Chocula, or Booberry, etc) and an entire morning of TV programming dedicated to exactly what I was interested in, all on a little black and white screen I worked an entire summer for.