Trip to Toy Town

Today I did something I always wanted to do – explored the district adjacent to downtown L.A.'s skid row, euphemistically called “Toy Town”. I say ‘euphemistically’ because there are precious few toy wholesalers in the area. Every other open-front store space sells car fragrances, bad resin statuary, Rock Star Beer and Red Bull, or hair accessories and keychains. Underlying the pervasive apple candy smell was the occasional wafting of raw sewage and vinyl.

Found some amazing cheap toys from China designed for who-knows-what-market. The best one was the "Electromotion Dung Beetle". It was a plastic insectile creature about the size of a baseball cap with wings decorated with letters of the alphabet (why?) and wearing tennis shoes. When turned on, its eyes flashed, its wings spread, exposing his guts which appear to be full of churning, colored, plastic sand. But that's not all -- it had a sound system that blared out some bad electronic Chinese pop music (complete with vocals) as it ran across the floor, legs a-pumping. An incredible number of features were thoughtlessly crammed into that one toy.

The box had lots of interesting sell copy - 'All new items, it cannot be missed!' 'Toy series with strong sense for playing!' and my favorite, 'The unlimited bout between technology and strength!' I didn't buy one because they wanted to charge me the full retail price of $4 instead of the wholesale price they quoted me first of $2.25.

Bought a few other toys that must have been designed by people smoking crack or inhaling too many toxic vinyl fumes. It is unbelievable that these toys go through an entire manufacturing process only to wind up....well, I don't know where. These are toys that never see the inside of any local toy retailers, if I can believe the woman I queried. She said that most of her big customers were out-of-state, Canadian or other international buyers (Mexico?) Interestingly, every outlet had a Chinese shrine and Mexican employees. The more enlightened owners were rattling off directions in Spanish. Others made do with both sides speaking halting English.

Almost everything I bought cost a dollar…but I suspect if I purchased in bulk the price would have dropped considerably. There was a series of simply designed pull-string friction toys that were the most, well, original. One looks like a Sphinx but with the body of a fish, the head of a girl with two arms extended around a dolphin attached by its fin, to her chest. A yellow and pink ‘lotus’ grows out of her back. When the string in her nether region is pulled, she is propelled forward on two wheels as the flower spins open. It is all rendered in carefully molded pink, yellow, green and flesh-colored plastic, and decorated with randomly designed stickers (the one on the front of the dolphin says ‘289’. If anyone knows the significance of that number in relation to fishy-Sphinxes, contact me immediately).

A similarly engineered toy features a big naked baby in a stroller. It is holding a bottle, but appears to have a small umbrella impaled in its head. Hanging from the umbrella are white dingle balls that spin wildly when the toy moves forward. This bears a sticker of a monkey with a banana peel on its head, and the number ‘209’. (Perhaps these are model numbers?) This toy is actually reminiscent of old tin toys with same enigmatic headgear.

One last item – “2 Funny Gums”. These cleverly designed faux name-brand gum packages have the words ‘Cockroach Mint’ replacing the familiar logo. It is called a ‘chewing gum game’ and bears a warning on the side of each package: ‘Forbidder to affright ill and cowardly person’. When the unwitting dupe pulls on the bogus stick of gum, a rubber cockroach verrr-ry slowly snaps down on his finger. (I think the rubber bug is too big and it takes too long to free itself from the package…)

All of these toys bear tiny warnings of ‘Choking hazard. Not for children under 3 years.’

The knock-off market was enough to make a Disney or Nickelodeon lawyer’s head spin like an impaled umbrella. Some were thinly disguised re-uses of Toy Story character molds, while others were bad versions of SpongeBob Squarepants. Would a child be fooled by a knock-off? Or just as happy with one? And what would a child’s reaction be to receiving a boy doll called, ‘Lovely Child with Cutie Cellular’? I could not stop wondering who buys all these toys? Or whether a child unschooled in irony would appreciate the absurdity of the play value?