“The Showroom,”

Fiction by David Kozatch

Mom says don’t go, it’s too dangerous at night.
“C’mon Ev, let the kid see it, “ Dad says.

So now we’re tooling down Route 1 South, heater rumbling under Peggy Lee’s “Happy Holiday” on WNEW-AM. Through Avenel, Menlo Park, Metuchen, and across the dark waters of the Raritan River. Central Jersey. Cold as a witch’s hat out, Dad says, but he doesn’t say “hat.” He coughs a bit of phlegm into a handkerchief, digs out two Vicks drops from the pocket of his wool coat, and lets me push in the car lighter while he slips another Salem Regular between his lips. A pop from the lighter and he’s got a triple hit of menthol.

Meanwhile, I can’t sit still. A different night and I’d be buggin’ him to change the radio station — to Cousin Brucie, 77 WABC, or even the oldies on CBS — anything but this. But I’m too excited and don’t risk an argument.

We’re on our way to see The Showroom.

It’s a few days before Hanukkah, 1967. I am nine years old and it’s my first time. Even my two older sisters have never seen it. Before that night, I could only imagine The Showroom in the abstract. A place Mom talks of in frightened tones, set as it is in a tough neighborhood a good 15 miles from our bland bedroom community to the north. A place my dad knows well.  
He’s a salesman, on the road six days, including Saturdays. When he comes “back in” this is where he goes, to Diamond Supply. Even the name sounds shiny and cool. A warehouse with a large showroom. No, not for diamonds: for toys and games. A place no one gets to see but special clients. And now us. 

In ’67 if you want to buy toys you gotta go up to Two Guys, Grant’s, or Sears, maybe a mom-and-pop toy or stationery store. And if you’re someone who owns a store in that last category and you want to sell toys you gotta deal with a place like Diamond. And you probably know my dad. He’s the guy lugging his heavy leather satchel full of color “slicks” and sample boxes into your place. And once the dinner plates are cleared, the one scratching out your orders with a mechanical pencil at our card table in the den.

Every Hanukkah, Dad’s boss and Diamond’s owner — who we are told to call “Uncle Jesse” — allows each of us kids to pick out a toy of our choosing from the inventory of stuff covered in that big sample bag. We’d get it on the eighth day, always. Eight glowing candles and the present we waited for all year from our very own Yiddish Santa Claus. But this year’ll be different. Because I’m picking out my present directly from Diamond’s big warehouse showroom. And the fact that Mom tried to talk Dad out of it makes it that much sweeter.

Once off of the highway, Dad steers the Catalina around quiet suburban streets lit by blinking colored lights and plastic reindeer. Small, detached Capes give way to looming brick apartment buildings, then to a sketchy neighborhood in the commercial heart of New Brunswick, a squat structure with a brightly lit diamond logo on a sign out front. My dad tells me to wait in the car and to keep the car doors locked while he goes ‘round the side to open the heavy metal door and unman the alarm. Then he gives the okay and comes back to get me.

At first, the place doesn’t look like much. A wide loading dock. A couple of beige offices where he stops and drops off some papers. This way, he says, and leads me down a tobacco-stained hallway lined with photos taken in past years at the annual New York Toy Fair.  Diamond employees posing with “celebrities” like Ginger from “Gilligan’s Island” and Chubby Checker. Then, a click of a wall switch and the overhead fluorescent lights hum and flicker on.

We are now standing in a massive room — half a football field long, ceilings 15 feet above our heads, walls covered in brown pegboard, and every conceivable toy and game you can imagine suspended from hooks and on gleaming metal shelves.    

The largest items, things like inflatable pools and tricycles, are placed higher up. There’s a separate wall for board games, the box covers floating in horizontal rows like tiles in a gorgeous mosaic. Names like Battleship, Operation, Risk, Clue, Stratego, Hands Down, and a new one called Twister that my 16-year-old sister has already picked out. Every toy and game you’ve seen on TV and some you haven’t, almost all of them begging to be opened and explored. I came in with a list in mind but now, walking around the cavernous space bombarded with so many choices, I can’t decide. I turn the corner to a smaller adjoining room with still more toys: remote control cars and planes, the latest Creepy Crawler “Thingmaker” — just about any toy you can think of with the potential to cause serious bodily injury. That’s when I discover the prize I didn’t know I had to have until it found me: Electric Football.

It’s all my friends could talk about that fall, the TV commercials hawking the new NFL-sanctioned version, nonstop. The game itself is relatively simple. A metal-topped playing field scaled to actual size with two teams of miniature plastic players, each attached to a rectangular base. The players are posed in various action positions: rushing, blocking, or with elbow cocked and hand close to the chest for cradling the football, which is made of soft cotton felt. The ball has a slit down the middle so the quarterback can hold it and throw it with his retractable arm that you pull back and aim at the players to pass or hand off to. If the ball bounces off of your player during a pass, it counts as a complete; hit the other guy’s player and — interception! There’s even a kicker whose tiny leg you can pull back to kick field goals. But here is the cool part: after each kid sets up his players, you flip the switch and an electric motor sends your painted plastic guys scattering down the field.

I stare up in awe, imagining hours upon hours of completing passes, running my little men into the other kid’s end zone, and kicking that little felt ball for extra points between the minuscule plastic goal post.

Finally, I point to the box way above my head.

“You sure you want that? It’s kind of a big present dontcha you think?” Dad says.

“You said I could pick out anything.”

“Sure, within limits,” he says.

“I thought that’s what ‘anything’ meant.”

My dad gives me that look he drags out whenever he’s losing patience with me, which is often. It’s late, a school night, and he’s probably thinking we should get back home.

“Don’t be a wiseass,” he says. “You sure there isn’t anything else you might want?”

I scan the walls of The Showroom one more time trying to find something to satisfy both of us. Once I spied that football game though, the other items on my list evaporated.

“It’s okay. Forget it,” I tell him.

“C’mon, you sure? We drove all the way out here,” he says, not hiding his disappointment.

He turns out the lights, sets the alarm, and locks up. We don’t speak on the long drive home. He pops more cough drops and fingers another cigarette from the pack, pushing in the lighter himself this time. Peggy Lee’s gone and in her place it’s Bing, Nat Cole, that stupid two-front-teeth song, and Robert Hall commercials promising “High qual-a-tee, E-con-o-mee.”

Hanukkah arrives and as usual I get small presents for each of the first seven days: socks and T-shirts Mom picked out, Legos, Matchbox cars, a plastic model of the Frankenstein monster that glows in the dark. Then the eighth day comes. Dad hands me a large box and says, “Sorry, this is all he could get you.” There’s a card attached: “Happy Hanukkah, Love Uncle Jesse and Aunt Miriam.”

I rip open the silver paper — never red (c’mon, we’re Jews) — and in the corner of the box I spy the familiar Tudor logo, then the bright green of an Eagle’s helmet on the lid. I wanted the Jets but hey. Electric Football!

I hug my parents and run upstairs to my room to start putting the game pieces and decals together.

Did my team score touchdowns? You bet. Kicked field goals too with that little cotton swab of a ball I kept losing under the baseboard heater.

Then a few weeks later, me and my friend Larry Levine are horsing around and he trips and falls ass-first onto the game’s hard metal top. After that, whenever you turn the motor on, all the players rush into the middle of the field to form a massive huddle. If we knew what rugby was back then, maybe we would have tried faking an English accent and playing by those rules. Instead, we put the game away and move on to Hot Wheels.

A week after that, my Dad pokes his head into my bedroom.

“What happened to Electric Football? I haven’t seen you play it in a while,” he says.

“Yeah, I know.”

He shakes his head and I know I can’t tell him we broke it. I also knew it was never about the game.

In the years to come, there will be more Hanukkahs and presents from Uncle Jesse, and even a few more trips to The Showroom. But they won’t beat that first time. My dad and me driving through the dark Jersey night, and Miss Peggy Lee promising us a “Happy holiday, may your every wish come true.”

David Kozatch is a writer living in Wainscott. He recently completed his first novel, a literary thriller set on the East End.