It takes a global village to raise a 21st century manchild, and it’s time to look back on the Madison Avenue where I really grew up. The TV was on more than the windows were open, and we learned our living skills well from it, my dad in his downtime always brainstorming for slogans we could use on viral-hit posters of our cat, my mom speaking in spontaneous ad-copy (once, upon thanking her for a particularly tasty brand of bread she’d fed me, she assented, “There’s no rye like it!”).
It was a good place to eat and breathe media; having come from New Jersey, the state where the most celebrities are born and don’t admit it, I mostly grew up one state over, in Pennsylvania, an endless shipwrecked shore of ephemeral goods in protective attics and neglected shop-shelves, where you can still walk into an antique paper show in some cavernous agricultural building and find 1970s monster-movie mags that probably didn’t exist the first time.
The East was treated as a promised land of popular commodities; my mom’s California relatives, having visited once or twice, would need to be sent cross-continental care packages of Tastykakes, then only available in the Philly area, like relief supplies to a ravaged coastline, or spongy golden apples stolen from some Olympian field which, once glimpsed, could never really be turned away from.
We had a talent for homing in on our own consumer Brigadoons. One summer when driving across the country to see those California relatives, we broke down in Zanesville, Ohio — a shadowy ghost-town when I last saw it in 2008, but in 1978 a lovely sunny Rockwell/Bradbury mainstreet spliced from some sentimental Twilight Zone episode. The record stores — okay, first thing, there were record stores — still had little personal booths with individual vinyl turntables for private listening before you bought, which seemed antique to me though it was really a futuristic foretaste of the digital-kiosk era. The whole town had that feel of a merry Bermuda Triangle of marketing, repository of everything that could or had existed; in the local grocery store diet sodas with cyclamates, an artificial sweetener banned around the time I was born, were still on the shelves, near to great pyramids of snack-cakes and soft-drinks that I wouldn’t see again for years, or ever; a buyable oasis where strawberry sugar-water bubbled from the ground. Everyone was preternaturally nice, as if this apparent test-marketing mecca had its very townsfolk assigned as customer representatives to put you in the best mood to register a recordable reaction.
My favorite Charlie Brown special, uncharacteristically tied to no holiday except perhaps the endless American commercial summer and, like many of the material revelations of my childhood, never shown again, was one where the Peanuts gang goes on a school field-trip and gets accidentally split off so they end up in a bountiful modern supermarket that they mistake for a natural history museum. Long before my childbearing friends would have entire rooms of their house sacrificed to plastic playthings that make it look like someone distracted a waiter and hastily heisted a Chuck E. Cheese, such shrines to what the bazaar of American manufacturing had to offer — in goods and lifestyles and actual individuals — would present themselves as stations all along the road of my upbringing.
These consumer temples were even more the province of counterculture than they were of Mad Men-ish geometric living-rooms assembled from a picture in a Sears catalogue — the teen bedroom of one of my late-1960s West Coast cousins was like an unmarked blacklite-bomb sent by the Yippies and giftwrapped on the inside, covered floor-to-ceiling-and-back-down-the-opposite-wall in dayglo psychedelic posters, with a showroom’s-full of flashing and flickering novelty fixtures, displaying not unlike 2001-movie astronaut Keir Dullea’s interdimensional bad trip. Though my favorite older-teengirl-cousin accouterment was, again, back East: a relatively spare attic bedroom in which the cuz had a poster of then-boy-superstar Bobby Sherman pasted over the TV screen, so you just had to look at the only thing worth watching ever, Bobby Sherman.
Still, that TV’s population could pour forth without notice, or we could fall in like Alice in slumberland, or some kid star of our own age whose career would never grow up, in a similarly drug-inspired Sid & Marty Krofft fantasia. We’d see all our favorite costume characters face-to-face — talking-animal cartoon-show hosts The Banana Splits opening a toy store, living-fruit snack-cake mascot The Big Fig working a local mall in a manic kids’ cabaret act — as if Disneys -land and -world had finally just stormed the country from each end. Thinking back, my mature delusions of media success were grounded in a personal childhood history of concrete coincidence. The Don Ho Moment — like when the Brady Bunch go on a family trip and every celebrity you’d free-associate with whatever locale they’re in just happens to approach them — recurred with strange frequency and we didn’t even have to travel far, or at all for it.
We ran into and talked long with beloved TV-cowboy patriarch, trusted dogfood spokesman and Original Galacsta Lorne Green in that same mall, where he was campaigning for Hubert H. Humphrey’s next failed presidential run; on a New York City sidestreet my dad made the real Keir Dullea and an unidentified date stand there for like half an hour in the hope that my mom would emerge from a parking-deck bathroom to be dazzled (but eventually even this most gentlemanly of heartthrobs had to get on with his evening, leaving him, to my mom, merely another media mirage and post-Kennedy-era myth of what might just have been — though prior to this my parents had, between them, bumped into everyone from Leonard Bernstein to Henry Fonda to Harry F-ing Truman in restaurants and parking lots).
And that’s not even counting the celebrities my dad paid to hang out with us, like non-movie astronaut Gordon Cooper, signed on as a spokesman for one of our household’s own products, an early green-economy device to conserve untouched H2O your toilet-flush could waste called “Water Wizard” (I know). In a perfect moment of life imitating artifact, Cooper, already well on his way to vodka liftoff at like 11am, stood in a Florida hotel room and patiently critiqued my space-alien toys, explaining, for instance, that Colossus Rex, “The Man From Jupiter,” had a bulky physique more suited to the atmospheric pressure of Venus. This was right before, having been begged to relinquish his car keys (itself an almost science-fictional demand in those pre-MADD days), he said Go and crash-landed into a Miami palmtree, which seemed to feel more pain than he did — though that’s another flashback.
This was still when the giants could leave their own big screen for a while, but not without going through the audience first; and before we could dive in after them day or night through a small screen of our own. Now we don’t have to wait around for marketers’ or revolutionaries’ surprise packages, and whatever’s outside that giftbox, we can just keep tearing paper and it opens without end.