Here’s why the world owes me a living: I never got to play in a plastic ball pit.
I think that our tendency to perceive successive generations of children as having is easier than we did is an invention of the twentieth century, because prior to that time American children were treated largely as small adults. There were no board games, no playgrounds, no mass-produced toys or even very much kid-friendly literature. Except for offspring of the wealthy, kids were expected to work as soon as they were potty-trained, often some of the most dangerous jobs to which their small sizes were best-suited. Then the new century dawned, and things changed–for a lot of reasons, really. Advances in hygiene and education happening simultaneously with the Industrial Revolution meant more healthy children and fewer job opportunities. Labor laws changed so that they couldn’t work anyway, and mandatory public education kept them off the streets during daylight hours. Children, in the 1900s, were beginning to be treated like children, and all manner of industries sprouted up that catered specifically to them.
By the time I became cognizant in the early 1980s, my parents’ generation must have thought that bratty fucking kids were running the world. Relatively speaking, we were. In 1880, the average family would bring in just enough money to cover rent, food, and some needle and thread to mend worn hand-me-down clothing. In 1982, I’m sure my parents spent a full third of their income in Transformers toys that I broke within hours of pulling it from the box–sometimes as I pulled it from the box. I was being so consistently entertained by cartoons and kids’ shows and movies that I became almost completely inured to it, watching hours upon hours of television and absorbing nothing but the nagging need to get more Transformers. The world was my oyster, and still I would not know what it was truly like to be obscenely coddled because I never got to play in a plastic ball pit.
I’m sure you know what I’m talking about: those little pools of hollow plastic spheres that you see in McDonald’s playgrounds and Discovery Zones. It’s important to note that McDonald’s PlayLands were not always foam-covered jungle gyms and ball pits. When I was younger, these recreational spaces were made of porcelain and stainless steel, and consisted of various tooth-chipping devices dressed in the McDonald’s commercial characters of the day. There was an Officer Big Mac climber, which was entered via a claustrophobic, entubed ladder that led to the interior of his head, a Mayor McCheese merry-go-round, which was one of those self-propelled turntables that my family referred to as “the throw up machine,” a Hamburgular swing set where you swung from his outstretched, criminal arms, and a few other implements of whimsy and torture. Around 1987, at least in my area of Queens, these PlayLands changed, partly to suit McDonald’s new commercial campaign that didn’t include this colorful cast of retards. It was also a softer, gentler playground, all colorful and plush and safely contained by waxed rope nets. Of greatest interest to me was the plastic ball pit, which I believe to be the best simulation of swimming in a pool without needing to get wet. I believe this to be true, but have never experienced it myself, for when the ball pit arrived at the local McDonald’s where I grew up, I already surpassed the height requirement that would allow me entry to the damned thing.
Indeed, I was too tall for ball pits everywhere, from Chuck E. Cheese to Action Park. Should I get rich, I intend to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool with hollow plastic balls so I can capture this missed experience. But really, I will never be able to fully capture the experience of being a kid in the generation after mine, all stuffed with Fruit By the Foot and Sunny Delight, staying indoors and watching hours upon hours of original kids’ programming on Nickelodeon because my mom found out how many registered sex offenders lived on my block, being shielded from any instance where a woman’s naked breast or the implication of sex might pass my circumference, and shucking my shoes to play in plastic ball pits with other favored children. It’s made me a harder, colder person than those from the generations following mine, and perhaps that’s for the best. When the zombie apocalypse happens, I’ll know to contact Inspector Gadget and won’t waste time trying to get service on my smart phone.