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of the many paranoias shared by those of us living at the end of the 20th
century is that someone, somewhere is having much more fun than we are.
As it turns out, this particular paranoia is true. These someones are
Bruce Woodbury and Enid Westberg, and they live in a modest single-story
home in Oakland, in the shade of their twelve-foot-tall volcano.
Bruce and Enid are collectors, but not in the way that your little brothers
stack of comic books made him, twenty years later, a collector. Bruce
and Enid are collectors the way one might say that Napoleon collected
war monuments, or Imelda Marcos collected sweet little pairs of Italian
pumps. In fact, they are so far beyond the pale that Bruce and Enid actually
collect collections; they are collectors, squared.
What do they collect? Well, the things that nobody else wants anymore,
the things that philistines like you and me consigned to garage sales
or pawned off on innocent Salvation Army stores years ago. The word they
use most frequently to describe their ideal collectible item is ugly,
or, at the very least, trashy. Yet when you walk through their
home, where each room is devoted floor to ceiling to the display of one
or another of these discarded species of American pop culture, it is nothing
less than a live-in Wonderland.
There's the Smiley Face Room. The Tiki Bar. The Pink Poodle Bathroom.
The Pulp Fiction Library. The Bad Art collection. The toaster collection.
The bowling trophy collection. The fezzes. The sock monkeys. The trolls.
The teacups, the doilies, the plastic purses, the old records, the lunch
boxes, and the vintage barware. And of course, the Pop Star Food Product
collection, which includes perhaps the worlds only remaining Michael
Jackson candy bar and the planets last tube of grape-flavored MC
This is just a partial list, mostly the stuff thats already out
of boxes. Bruce and Enid moved into their place a year ago, and they have
so many collections that theyre still getting unpacked. So starting
in September of 1998, they let me tag along with my notebook, checking
in every month as they put together their house, which will probably always be a slowly unfolding work in progress.
To get to the volcano in the backyard, you go down the front steps, past
the dozen or so bowling balls in the planter. You pass the 1959 Pontiac
Catalina and the plastic frogs lined up on the dashboard. You turn right
past the flaming tiki torches and the dribbling tiki fountain and the
light-up tiki heads, and go down another staircase to where youll
see a plume of smoke wafting from the volcano which is, technically, a
The volcano barbecue was the brainchild of Ed Baugh, who built the house
in 1953, making it one of the only home furnishings that did not spring
from the fertile imaginations of Bruce and Enid. It as also a major selling
point for a couple looking for the right backdrop for their well-established
collection of Polynesian kitsch. After a protracted real estate bidding
war, they finally lucked out when the last owner of the house, who only
lasted a few months, couldnt hack grilling his soy dogs over a lava
bed any longer. Bruce and Enid are still somewhat in awe of their volcanic
acquisition, which stands like a monument to Ed Baughs time, an
era when an egregiously large backyard barbeque was an open invitation
to the neighbors to come party.
It was all his own vision, because nobody else has a volcano in
Oakland, says Enid, whose long blonde ponytail and penchant for
wearing cheetah-print blouses make her look like shes fully ready
for a luau, any time, anywhere. But its actually the round-faced
and always-smiling Bruce who curates the tiki collection, which he accidentally
started with an impulse buy of a dozen secondhand coconut mugs eleven
years ago. Then he bought the Don Ho album. As he and Enid say like a
mantra: You cant just have one.
For her day job, Enid decorates restaurants and casinos. Bruce is in what
he calls the fascinating field of auto parts sales. While
both of these occupations may explain a preoccupation with design and
detail, as well as an aptitude for mechanical assembly, neither quite
explains why Bruce and Enid specialize in all of the junk that the rests
of us have deliberately tried to forget. Enid blames it on genes inherited
from her mother, a packrat who collects everything down to used dentures.
Bruce says its a way of getting back all the toys he used to have.
Both of them, I suspect, think that having all this stuff around is a
good excuse for a theme party, something they throw quite frequently.
Lets say youre at a luau at Bruce and Enids. After youve
had your tiki burger, youll want to head for the tiki bar. This
is a litte tricky, because it involves entering the main house, where
it is easy to be swayed from your path by the spectacle that is Bruce
and Enids kitchen. Its kind of like a 1950s Betty Crocker
test range run amok, crammed to the ceiling with vintage toasters and
antique pitchers. Each of the cupboards, which Enid opens one after the
other, is packed with stacks of brightly colored dishes in long-discontinued
patterns which form, of course, the dish collection. Everywhere you look
there are thrift store treasures like a Formica dinette, its pearl-colored
cracked-ice tabletop and vinyl seats in perfect condtion, a Felix the
Cat candy dispenser, and a rocket-shaped ice crusher. Even the goldfish
swimming in a plain old bowl looks like it came, fully assembled, from
an antique store.
If you can slink through the kitchen without getting sidetracked, youll
still have trouble finding the tiki bar because you need to pass through
a semi-secret entrance that looks remarkably like a pantry. On the first
day I visit, I am of course looking in the wrong direction, expecting
the tiki bar to materialize in some hidden kitchen nook. Instead, Enid
pulls back a door lined with neatly organized canned vegetables and beckons
towards a stairway in the gloom beyond. I step into the pantry and take
a few cautious steps downward. I am surrounded by cans. I take a few more
steps and the canned goods lining the walls give way to glossy photos
of tropical scenes a girl in a blue bikini looking through a spyglass,
a roaring lion. Then the stairway bends and as we descend further we pass
totem poles and surfboards and what appears to be a giant wooden fork
and a giant wooden spoon. The staircase ends with a beaded curtain from
behind which luau music floats softly. End hands me a fizzy drink in a
coconut mug, and we step into Hawaii, sometime in the 40s.
It is one thing to have a tiki room in your basement. It is another to
have a tiki room that is entirely convincing. The floor is covered in
grass matting, the walls in a sort of bamboo weave. Straight ahead is
the actual bar made of a dark wood, lined with bamboo and presided over
by the mask of a scowling tiki god. Along the bartop are paraphernalia
that would presumably make a Polynesian deity happy; tiki swizzle sticks,
tiki ketchup and mustard holders, tiki ashtrays stamped with the logo
of one of Oaklands long-lost Polynesian bars, the Little Grass Shack.
On the ceiling there is a toast-colored tapa cloth with a dark geometric
design, while the walls are draped with fishing nets filled with starfish,
plastic seahorses and shells.
Then there are the shelves crammed with everything an enterprising tourist
might have brought back after a buying binge in Oahu: lava carvings and
lava lamps, ukeleles and wooden masks, monekys carved from coconut husks
and dishes shaped like hollowed-out pineapples. Behind glass cabinets are row after row of tiki mugs, porcelain cast to look like totem
poles or skulls or swaying hula girls. On the far wall, there is a black
velvet painting of a young Hawaiian girl in a sarong gazing serenely over
her shoulder. The room smells pleasantly of straw, and the combination
of the dim lighting and the lush music that rolls out endlessly from the
hidden sound system is hypnotic. I could climb onto the tiki couch and
In the 40s especially, tiki bars were quite the thing,
Bruce says. A lot of American interest in Polynesian culture
has to do with World War II, with GIs being stationed on Hawaii or fighting
on islands throughout the Pacific. They were exposed to as much culture
as you can while fighting a war, and they brought home souvenirs. During
the prosperity of the 50s, with postwar productivity and the boom
in which people could relax more, it was an excuse for a party. People
had tiki bars in the backyard or luaus based on what they read out of
a Betty Crocker cookbook. He estimates that during the tiki crazes
high point there were thirty or forty such bars in San Francisco, most
of which went out of business in the 80s.
Oakland contributed its fair share to tiki culture. Victor Bergeron, better
known as Trader Vic, opened his first Hawaiian-themed restaurant on San
Pablo Avenue in 1932, marking the beginning of a Polynesian-kitsch empire
that spawned a host of imitators. It was at the Oakland Trader Vics
that Vic himself invented that cocktail classic, the Mai Tai. When Skipper
Kents Zombie Village moved in across the street, that stretch of
San Pablo became what Bruce calls the tiki intersection.
There's nothing there now but the palm trees, says Bruce regretfully.
Actually, tikis getting a resurgence. The Bamboo Hut has opened
up attached to the Hi-Ball Lounge up on Broadway, and various places are
now having tiki nights and Hawaiian-themed events. Unfortunately for a
lot of tiki bars, [the comeback] came about five years too late, with
a lot of people not catching on to how incredibly decorated these places
The resurgence is making it more expensive to buy tiki souvenirs, also
known as Hawaiiana or exotica to collectors. Bruce says its also
getting harder to find genuine Hawaiian collectibles, even in Hawaii.
Most of that stuff is no longer from Hawaii, says Bruce. Someone
would have bought it in Hawaii while they were on vacation or in the service
in the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s and taken it home to
Utah or California or North Dakota or wherever. Then dealers buy it from
there and ship it back to Hawaii.
There is one part of the tiki room that remains unexplained, a hanging
curtain that blocks off what appears to be a corridor or an annex. Bruce
tells me that its actually a much bigger room, one that will house
the smiley face collection, still packed and not yet ready for viewing.
I try to slyly peek around the edges of the curtain. Behind the grass
weave, ceiling-high rows of boxes loom in the semi-dark.
Itll be a whole other world, Bruce promises.
We are pelting down a freeway in South San Francisco in a green pickup
truck, Bruce driving, Enid up front and me wedged into the pull-down seat
in the back of the cab, buried under a pile of old bowling trophies. On
their way to pick me up, Bruce and Enid had stopped by a Lions Club
rummage sale where they snapped up the trophies as well as a large copper-colored
bowing ball that is currently rolling around somewhere under the front
seat. They have already tasted the blood of a fresh kill and are fully
in shopping mood. Bruce is driving like a bat spat out of one of the lower
rings of the Inferno, while Enid distributes sodas and iced tea from a
cooler at her feet. Both of them are periodically turning around to yell
helpful shopping advice in the general direction of the backseat. As for
me, I am cowering.
Darn bus is getting in the way of my shopping, growls Bruce,
swerving into a new lane. He turns around and shouts cheerfully over his
shoulder, Youve got to make sure you drive faster than anyone
else, because they might be going to Goodwill, too.
They have already explained to me the basic rules adhered to by truly
dedicated shoppers: no stopping to rest, no eating except in the car while
the vehicle is in motion, and sometimes, in the heat of a really intense
shopping moment, no talking. The two of them have developed a sort of
thrift-shopping telepathy, where they are constantly aware of what the
other one is doing. Theyve flirted with the idea of using walkie-talkies
to communicate with one another in competitive situations like flea markets,
but think it sounds too high-tech. They also warn me to expect no mercy
once the shopping begins. Ill go into a sort of overdrive.
Bodily functions and neeeds get postphoned, says Bruce. I
just know that if we spend five minutes in a bathroom, thats one
more store we might not go into.
There is another certain urgency to this shopping excursion because its
the week before Halloween. As all veteran thrifters know, Halloween is
when shop owners bring their funkiest goods out of the back room. Stuff
that is maybe costume material to you and me is living room décor
to Bruce and Enid. They expect to make a killing.
When we pull off the highway and into the lot of Thrift Savers, which
somewhat hopefully bills itself as the Thrift Department Store,
Bruce is already well into overdrive; he disappears as though sucked inside.
Enid and I follow more sedately and head for the dish and glasswares section,
where Enid methodically goes over row after row of china plates, hoping
to spot a collectible pattern. We peruse the old ashtrays, the gas station
souvenir mugs and then the doilies, which Enid dismisses as being much
too expensive at three bucks a pop.
When we finally locate Bruce, we find him roaming through the used clothing
aisle with a yellow and red china dog in hand. Enid makes a face. They
dont have any china dogs in the house yet; she can sense the budding
of a new collection. As a preemptive measure, she heads off towards the
books, and while she is looking the other way, Bruce finds the days
first major score: matching his and hers bowling trophies. Thrift Savers
has served us well. We head towards the cash register and tally up the
purchases: the trophies, the china dog, an apron, a set of Nutshell Library
books and one 8-ball clown nose. A steal at $11.31.
Back to the truck, where the new acquisitions get wedged into the back
seat along with me. Off again, with our speed soon approaching gravitational
escape velocity. Since Bruce actually bought the china dog, I figure it
is time to ask if theres anything that they think is just
too tacky to collect. Yeah, most of them are modern things, like
Beanie Babies, says Bruce. I especially dont like things
that are intended to be collectible, like collectors plates and
even comic books. The majority of them are so mass produced that theyre
really not going to be worth much. The comic book you buy for $3.95 now
isnt going to sell for $100,000 sixty years from now.
the Cow Palace, where the marquee advertises an upcoming Beanie Baby Swap.
There are loud jeers from inside our truck. People are going to
be jumping out of windows when Beanie Black Monday strikes, Bruce
Out of the car again, we zoom through a party supply store so Bruce and
Enid can pick up a few odds and ends for the houses Halloween display.
They head up the aisle, asking each other questions like, Do we
have enough bugs? and Do we need more bats? As I drift
over to the racks of costumes with labels like Super Deluxe Monk
and Lady Convict, out of the corner of my eye I see Bruce
halt in front of a display of scare devices. Wheres our skeleton?
I think hes in the Pontiac, Enid says absentmindedly.
We meet again at the cash register. Bruce has gotten sidetracked from
Halloween and ends up buying an armload of smiley face candy and party
confetti. Enid buys some glow-in-the-dark plastic fangs from her Halloween
sock monkey display. I guy some plastic fangs because
plastic fangs, and you never know when you might need some.
On now to the Goodwill, the brand name that means thrift store the way
Kleenex means facial tissue. Right off the bat, Bruce finds a bilious
green shirt covered with brown sailboats, the ulitmate in tiki wear. The
store cannot possibly yield any better surprises, so we leave right away.
Back in the car again, its getting slightly crowded in the back
seat. The only time Bruce noticeably applies the brakes is when we pass
what appears to be a garage sale, and then only for a second. When we
pull up at the Salvation Army, Bruce is inside the store before Enid and
I are even out of the car. By this time, I have absorbed more shopping
advice, which includes the frequent use of good luck charms. Enid usually
caries a sock monkey, while Bruce wears a tiki shirt. The other trick
is that you have to shop all the time. Bruce and Enid hit the thrift store
and rummage sale circuit every weekend, sometimes on both days. If
you go once every two months, you have less of a chance of finding something,
Unfortunately, none of these tactics pay off at the Salvation Army, a
total wash. We pass up dishes with a Mondrian-like print in primary colors
that Enid rejects as too expensive at $10 a plate; a carved wooden tray
labeled Hawaiian Paradise is too ugly even for Bruce. We leave
with only a vintage fairly-tale book and a 1962 copy of Mad magazine.
Slim pickings, says Enid on the way out. Goodwill #2 is even
worse we leave with nothing more than a Dean Martin album.
The sun is setting as we pull up at the third Goodwill of the day. Itu
turns out to be a gold mine as we find, among other wonders, a tiki vacuum
cleaner. While flipping through the Halloween costume racks, Enid again
hits pay dirt: a lounge dress covered in pictures of grass huts and islanders
paddling canoes. Bruce and Enid soon leave me far behind as they find
item after item for their collections: cups and plates from one of their
china sets, a coconut monkey, several vintage childrens books.
As I wander about the store, I begin to find objects that remind me of
my own early days: a Duck Hunt cartridge here, a Mr. T Halloween mask
there. I find the Fisher Price cash register I played with as a child
and the lamp my parents kept in the guest bedroom. It occurs to me that
if I looked long enough I could probably find my entire childhood in this
store. Nostalgia begins to manifest itself as an overwhelming urge to
buy something, and I go into the same kind of shopping overdrive Ive
been witnessing all afternoon, rooting madly through copies of Lawrence
Welks Champagne Dancing Party and disemboweled word processers.
Then I spot it something I really want, something I really need
a bag of plastic fruit. I gingerly flip over the price tag and
lo and behold, its only three bucks, well within my price range.
Only three bucks! For a bag of plastic fruit! I am thrilled. I slap down
my money and walk out of the store like a pro. Its only when we
are back in the car and speeding along the freeway that I begin to wonder
what the heck I am going to do with a three-dollar bag of plastic fruit.
By now, the sun is pretty well under the horizon. We have covered six
stores in four hours. I am exhausted. Bruce and Enid are just getting
started. This is Shopping Lite, admonishes Bruce. Im
not even looking through the records.
In fact, going to stores is Shopping Lite, says Enid. Usually
we go to garage sales, flea markets, the real garbage digging.
Here are some other things that Bruce and Enid regard as a sign that one
is not really trying: shopping in malls, buying secondhand gear from trendy
chain retailers like Urban Outfitters, and trolling for thrift items on
the Internet which, they complain, is stealing business from small
store owners and boosting prices far above what ordinary folks can pay.
They also have a few disparaging words for the ill effects of coffee-table
books, which have glamorized certain collectibles so much that theyre
now impossible to find or afford.
Sudden trendiness dealth a death blow to Enids vintage purse collection.
I havent been able to buy one of those in years, and I probably
never will again, says Enid. So thats the end of that
collection. After you cant afford to buy more, you go on to something
else. You think, Okay, what does everyone else not want right now?
After an afternoon of watching Bruce and Enid shop, I cant possibly
answer that question. Its all I can do to register mild alertness. But Bruce and Enid take pity on me. They drop me off at a BART station
and head back into the city to do more shopping.
I take my plastic fruit, get on the train, and go home.
Today the fizzy drinks are in smiley face goblets in honor of the fact
that the Smiley Face Room is finally ready for pre-season viewing. Bruce
warns me that its not really finished and probably wont be
for several months, but hes put enough of the collection out on
display for me to get an idea of what the completed room will look like.
At 2,800 items, Bruce has accumulated what he believes is the largest
smiley-face collection in the world. Or, as he puts it, If someone
has more, they havent admitted it. His collection is certainly
the largest in the house, and also the one that has made him the most
famous. Hes been on Oprah, in People magazine, on
Personal fx: The Collectibles Show, and about one million
news programs. He was featured in a book called Weird Rooms authored
by Berkeleys Mal and Sandra Sharpe that also highlighted fellow
Oakland resident Ken Irwin, who turned his apartment into a spaceship
using dozens of TV monitors and 4,000 rolls of duct tape. Bruce has been
called in several timaes as an advisor to a group of artists who are designing
the new 70s commemorative stamps for the US Postal Service that
will feature a certain round, yellow object that Bruce knows rather well.
And for years hes been listed in the Oakland phone book as Bruce
When it is finally time to view the Smiley Face Room, we troop down through
the pantry and across the tiki bar, Bruce draws aside the curtain, I break
out my notepad, and here is what I manage to write down before my wrist
cramps up: Bruce has smiley alarm clocks, smiley cookie jars, smiley night
lights, smiley yo-yos, a smiley beanbag and an entire smiley breakfast
set with salt and pepper shakers and a sugar dispenser. He has smiley
soap, smiley condoms, smiley lampshades, smiley playing cards, a smiley
innertube, a smiley snow saucer, a smiley toilet seat, and smiley records
with names like Happy Polkas and Happiness is Barbershop Singing.
For the intrepid dresser, Bruce also has smiley socks, smiley neckties,
smiley hats, smiley sweatshirts, smiley cufflinks, smiley underwear and
a smiley halter dress. This is not counting the hundreds of smiley pins
and patches that make up the base of any serious smiley aficionados
collection. This is also not counting the dozens of boxes still unpacked
in the center of the room, hiding their smiley contents.
One of the only things Bruce doesn't have is sort of the Lost Ark of the
Covenant among smiley collectors: the smiley face mobile home, rumored
to exist somewhere with every decorative feature tricked out in, well,
you know. It would be great to find one of those, beautifully preserved,
somewhere, says Bruce wistfully. Otherwise, Bruce is pretty content
to buy just about any smiley imaginable, with one exception. My
rule is just no noses, says Bruce. My saying is noses make
The smiley face was invented in 1963 by graphic artist Harvey Ball, who
had been commissioned by an insurance company to design a logo that would
boost its employees flagging morale. Although Balls design
became one of the most popular images of all time, he only pocketed $45
from the job because he neglected to trademark his handiwork. Five years
later, San Francisco buttonmaker Mark Rodman took the smiley face to the
bank, making smiley pins into a fad that have sold over 50 million copies.
Bruce got serious about smiley faces in his early twenties, when he was
a Vespa-riding mod who ran his own scooter club in San Francisco. During
a shopping trip to L.A., a friend started him down the path to smiley
obsession by pointing out a smiley face patch. My friend went Ooh
mod, because face was a term for
the coolest mod, says Bruce. It kind of clicked: Smiley Face
Scooter Club. I just liked the idea of the happy-go-lucky scooter club.
So I started collecting smiley faces after that as a mascot and didnt
realize how many different ones there were.
My first goal was fifty, and that came fairly quickly, says
Bruce. And then one hundred, and that came fairly quickly. Then
five hundred, and that took a little while. And then I thought, Wow
one thousand: the Man of a Thousand Faces. That would be great.
And it started getting a little harder to get them. It took a little more
effort to get up to one thousand, and by then the scooter club was semi-retired,
but I was still going strong.
The next goal I figured was 2001: A Face Odyssey, continues
Bruce, which happened about three or so years ago. So now Im
somewhere at about 2,800 or so.
With no catchphrase, adds Enid.
As Bruce is quick to point out, it is becoming increasingly difficult
to find items he doesnt already have and the well is drying up.
Around 1987 they were starting to get harder to find because that
was the twentieth anniversary of the Summer of Love, and stuff from the
60s started becoming collectible, says Bruce. It was
becoming a bit more fun when Id find something, but often when Id
go out to the garage sales Id come back empty-handed, and that was
a drag. Then Enid and I started dating and wed do more shopping
together, and that helped open things up, because if you go out more your
chances of finding something are increased. We started finding new things
to collect to fill up the empty space left by the smileys we couldnt
find. Thus all the other collections started expanding, too.
Id say, I know this doesnt really go with anything,
and we dont really need it, but its so ugly. Whaddaya think?
It was actually the smiley collection that brought Bruce and Enid together
in the first place. Enid had read an article on Bruces collection
in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1990, and had written to him
asking if hed take a look at a smiley cookie jar she had. That began
a correspondence in which Enid would send Bruce smiley trinkets through
the mail. When he finally invited her to meet him at a party, Enid was
under a crucial misapprehension: She thought she was corresponding
with a twelve-year-old. I thought he was a little kid living at
home, she says. Instead, I open the door and there's all these
kids in black smoking cigarettes and looking mod.
Regardless, of the initial misunderstanding, it was clearly a union that
was meant to be. Were a bad influence on or we encourage,
however you want to phrase it each other, says Enid. I
dont inhibit him, and he doesnt inhibit me. And frankly,
that makes both of them, uh, smiley.
I am in Las Vegas. Enid had told me that I should drop by Harrahs,
one of the casinos whose interiors she has designed. She instructs me
to go to the lobby of the Improv comedy club on the second floor and look
up. I duly take the escalator to the second floor. I look up. The ceiling
is entirely covered by enormous day-glo smiley faces, illuminated by hidden
black lights. Its the hand of Bruce and Enid, all right, writ large
and phosphorescent on the ceiling at Harrahs.
Two hundred and forty eyes watch over the bedroom, and one hundred and
twenty tails. This is Enids sock monkey collection, which
is displayed on a series of shelves that stretch all the way up to the
rafters. There are actually several dozen more in a box because Enid ran
out of space.
The term sock monkey tends to elicit confusion from people
who didnt grow up with one of these toys to cuddle, so to explain:
theyre monkeys made out of socks. A proper sock monkey is made from
a particular kind of heavy, mottled brown wooden sock that features red
welts across the heel and toe. In the finished product, the red welts
turn into the monkeys lips. True sock monkeys are also monkeys,
despite the rash of sock elephants, rabbits, mice and the like turned
out by enterprising crafters, although Enid collects these as well out
of a sense of noblesse oblige.
Enids monkeys sit in poses, some of them with their arms looped
around their neighbors, some of them with their tails waving perkily.
There's the Michael Jackson monkey, apparently commemorating his Dangerous
phase, who sports not only a shock of black hair and a sparkly glove,
but a full array of gold chains and buttons. Seated next to him is his
manager, a monkey with dollar signs for eyes. One shelf down is the cape-wearing
Count Sockula, with a target sewn over his heart for easier stake-driving,
followed by Wanda, a flamenco dancer with giant hoop earrings. There's
a monkey with tiny gold spectacles known as Nehru, a cab-driving monkey
in a porkpie hat, a Scottish monkey in a tam oshanter, and one in
a neckerchief who looks like he should be going off to a Communist Party
youth camp. There's also a stringy fellow named Slouch, sort of the Alpha
Male amongst Enids sock monkeys, whom she takes along on shopping
trips for good luck. Even sitting there on the shelf, they achieve a startling
amount of individuality and expressiveness, for socks. Theres one
in a knit cap that I swear looks just like Michael Stipe.
Like virtually all of the other collections, the monkeys got started by
accident. One day in Portland there was a sock monkey, so I bought
him, says Enid. Five minutes later, there was another one.
And Bruce says, You dont need another one. Youve already
got one. I said we need a pair. Okay, so now weve got two.
Enid pauses and looks at me meaningfully. Thats where the
breakdown happens. You got two, you got a hundred. There is no such thing
as one. She turns towards Bruce and raises an eyebrow. Like
I got you your first fez, because you wanted a fez.
Like Hawaiiana and smiley faces, sock monkeys have also become harder
to find. There are people out there with a lot more than me. Lots
more, says Enid. theyre on the Internet, selling monkeys
all over the world on the computer. People have the market cornered. About
ten years ago I overheard a lady paying an exorbitant price -- $85
for a sock monkey in some shop, commenting on how she had 300 of them.
I imagine she must have a thousand now, especially since price was obviously
no object for her. I cant pay that much for a sock monkey. I always
have to apologize to them: Im sorry little sock monkey, we
cant take you home with us because youre cute, youre
old, but youre $65. But you know what? There's no room anyway.
Since were on the subject of money, I ask them about the economics
of amassing collections this large, and their answer is that they tend
not to think about it, as it makes them sort of queasy. In some
ways Im sort of scared to think not just what its worth, but
what I paid for it, says Bruce. When you think about 2,800
smiley faces, if they were a dollar each, that would be over two and a
half thousand dollars. And although they keep scrupulous insurance
records of each item they have, down to tagging each smiley face, they
dont really expect their collections to accrue much value over time.
Frankly, they dont care. We collect things that we like. Its
all fun stuff that we feel transcends monetary value," says Bruce.
"We dont have diamond jewelry or a really nice fancy stereo
system. My joke about having no savings is that this is my retirement
fund. Ill go and sell a tiki for $800 in the future and then Ill
go into McDonalds and buy my Big Mac combo meal for $795 and get
I ask Bruce and Enid if they ever get sick of collecting, if it ever becomes
so expensive and time-consuming that they just want to scrap the whole
thing and buy some nice Danish modular furniture. The answer is a resounding
no, except both of them would kind of like to have a secret vault, maybe,
to store the collections that they dont want to look at all of the
time. Besides, they agree, truly creative minds are not nurtured by tasteful
Was Picasso a neatnik? asks Enid.
Did Van Gogh have a sock monkey collection? returns Bruce.
We ponder this for a while. He had a monkey, says Enid finally,
but it only had one ear.
Bruce and Enid and I are watching TV. Specifically, we are watching Bruce
and his smiley face collection on TV. Ive had about two and
a half hours of fame or so, says Bruce. Ive had a few
Andy Warhol lifetimes of fifteen minutes.
We watch his Oprah appearance, we watch news footage of the Smiley
Face Scooter Club zipping through San Francisco, we watch Bruce, wearing
his smiley face boxers, interview himself for a BayTV morning program
because the reporter never showed up. We watch Bruce compete in an 80s
game show called Claim to Fame in which a slew of minor celebrities
guess the nature of Bruces collection based on the clue, If
it has a nose, I dont want it. On every single program, the
host asks Bruce, Jeez, did you ever notice that you kind of look
like a smiley face? Each time, Bruce smiles politely.
Bruce and Enid are getting used to public scrutiny, to disbelieving news
anchors and reporters who cant figure out why everyone elses
junk is their Holy Grail. When I tell them I have one last question, they
both roll their eyes. We know, they say in unison. WHY?
Were more interested in
the hunt than in actually accumulating things, Enid says. Its
the finding, its the archeological digging. Youre peeking
into a familys life, youre digging through their lifes
detritus and you find their gems. Sometimes I find a book that belonged
to an old lady and there's a picture of her between the pages. I treasure
that, because its her. And its somehow living on.
They also do it simply because its fun, because its a challenge
that never really ends. They still have plans to install a windmill in
the backyard and to build a singing wishing well on the glassed-in front
porch. Theres the Pulp Fiction Library that still has an under
construction sign on the door. And then there are all the collections
that arent quite ready for prime time, like the mobile home plates,
the vintage soda pop bottles, the I Love You This Much statuettes,
the lurid movie posters, the aquarium full of plastic Simpsons figurines,
plus many more that I suspect theyre not telling me about just in
case antiques dealers out there read this and get big ideas.
As I head out of the house one last time, past the tiki fountain and the
bowling balls and the 1959 Catalina, I am thinking about how, except in
terms of quantity, you and I are not all that different from Bruce and
Enid. I think about how we all have things that we love because theyre
ugly. I think about how, in a culture this large, maybe the one thing
we all share is a lexicon of pop references and a common history of loving
the same mass-produced items. I think about how I used to have a sock
monkey, about how I spotted one of my old crayon sets in Bruces
smiley collection. I remember Bruce and Enid telling me that they are
used to visitors to their house stopping short in front of display cases,
pointing to a particular item and saying I used to have that.
They probably did. But now, Bruce and Enid have it all.