The Collectors Bruce Woodbury and Enid Westberg own the world’s largest collection of smiley faces. And that's just the tip of their collecting iceberg.

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One 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 brother’s 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 world’s only remaining Michael Jackson candy bar and the planet’s last tube of grape-flavored MC Hammer toothpaste.

This is just a partial list, mostly the stuff that’s already out of boxes. Bruce and Enid moved into their place a year ago, and they have so many collections that they’re 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 you’ll see a plume of smoke wafting from the volcano which is, technically, a barbeque.

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, couldn’t 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 Baugh’s 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 she’s fully ready for a luau, any time, anywhere. But it’s 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 can’t 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 it’s 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.

Let’s say you’re at a luau at Bruce and Enid’s. After you’ve had your tiki burger, you’ll 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 Enid’s kitchen. It’s 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, you’ll 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 Oakland’s 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 sleep forever.

“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 craze’s 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 Vic’s that Vic himself invented that cocktail classic, the Mai Tai. When Skipper Kent’s 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, tiki’s 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 were.”

The resurgence is making it more expensive to buy tiki souvenirs, also known as Hawaiiana or exotica to collectors. Bruce says it’s 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 it’s 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.

“It’ll 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 Lion’s 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, “You’ve 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. They’ve 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. “I’ll 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, that’s one more store we might not go into.”

There is another certain urgency to this shopping excursion because it’s 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 don’t 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 day’s 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 there’s anything that they think is just too tacky to collect. “Yeah, most of them are modern things, like Beanie Babies,” says Bruce. “I especially don’t like things that are intended to be collectible, like collectors’ plates and even comic books. The majority of them are so mass produced that they’re really not going to be worth much. The comic book you buy for $3.95 now isn’t going to sell for $100,000 sixty years from now.”

We pass 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 smirks.

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 house’s 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. “Where’s our skeleton?” he asks.

“I think he’s 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 … well, they’re 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, it’s 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,” Bruce says.

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 children’s 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 I’ve been witnessing all afternoon, rooting madly through copies of Lawrence Welk’s 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, it’s 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. It’s 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. “I’m 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 they’re now impossible to find or afford.

Sudden trendiness dealth a death blow to Enid’s vintage purse collection. “I haven’t been able to buy one of those in years, and I probably never will again,” says Enid. “So that’s the end of that collection. After you can’t 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 can’t possibly answer that question. It’s 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 it’s not really finished and probably won’t be for several months, but he’s 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 haven’t admitted it.” His collection is certainly the largest in the house, and also the one that has made him the most famous. He’s 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 Berkeley’s 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 he’s been listed in the Oakland phone book as “Bruce Smiley Woodbury.”

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 aficionado’s 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 for tacky.”

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 Ball’s 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 … face … 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 didn’t 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 I’m 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 doesn’t 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 I’d find something, but often when I’d go out to the garage sales I’d come back empty-handed, and that was a drag. Then Enid and I started dating and we’d 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 couldn’t find. Thus all the other collections started expanding, too.”

“I’d say, ‘I know this doesn’t really go with anything, and we don’t really need it, but it’s so ugly. Whaddaya think?’” says Enid.

It was actually the smiley collection that brought Bruce and Enid together in the first place. Enid had read an article on Bruce’s collection in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1990, and had written to him asking if he’d 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. “We’re a bad influence on – or we encourage, however you want to phrase it – each other,” says Enid. “I don’t inhibit him, and he doesn’t 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 Harrah’s, 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. It’s the hand of Bruce and Enid, all right, writ large and phosphorescent on the ceiling at Harrah’s.

• • • •


Two hundred and forty eyes watch over the bedroom, and one hundred and twenty tails. This is Enid’s 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 didn’t grow up with one of these toys to cuddle, so to explain: they’re 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 monkey’s 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.

Enid’s 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 o’shanter, 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 Enid’s 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. There’s 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 don’t need another one. You’ve already got one.’ I said we need a pair. Okay, so now we’ve got two.” Enid pauses and looks at me meaningfully. “That’s 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. “they’re 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 can’t pay that much for a sock monkey. I always have to apologize to them: ‘I’m sorry little sock monkey, we can’t take you home with us because you’re cute, you’re old, but you’re $65.’ But you know what? There's no room anyway.”

Since we’re 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 I’m sort of scared to think not just what it’s 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 don’t really expect their collections to accrue much value over time. Frankly, they don’t care. “We collect things that we like. It’s all fun stuff that we feel transcends monetary value," says Bruce. "We don’t have diamond jewelry or a really nice fancy stereo system. My joke about having no savings is that this is my retirement fund. I’ll go and sell a tiki for $800 in the future and then I’ll go into McDonald’s and buy my Big Mac combo meal for $795 and get $5 change.”

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 don’t want to look at all of the time. Besides, they agree, truly creative minds are not nurtured by tasteful modular furniture.

“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. “I’ve had about two and a half hours of fame or so,” says Bruce. “I’ve 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 Bruce’s collection based on the clue, “If it has a nose, I don’t 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 can’t figure out why everyone else’s 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?”

“We’re more interested in the hunt than in actually accumulating things,” Enid says. “It’s the finding, it’s the archeological digging. You’re peeking into a family’s life, you’re digging through their life’s 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 it’s her. And it’s somehow living on.”

They also do it simply because it’s fun, because it’s 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. There’s the Pulp Fiction Library that still has an “under construction” sign on the door. And then there are all the collections that aren’t 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 they’re 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 they’re 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 Bruce’s 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.


Originally Published: January 22, 1999, East Bay Express

All content copyright Kara Platoni. Please contact for permission before reproducing.