Or Forbidden Fruit: How My Life as a Schoolyard Sugar Dealer Has Impacted My Thoughts on Plastic Toys
I am a filthy plastic hypocrite. Tomorrow is M’s birthday, so her preschool party is this afternoon. She requested swirled chocolate and fruit cupcakes with swirled blue and green icing, each topped with a plastic sea creature.
My general rule is that, when it’s my money, I get to choose alternatives to plastic. If my kids want plastic toys, they get to spend their own money on them, with no commentary, guilt, or shame piled onto them from me. Most of the time, they have fun finding plastic-free alternatives to things, but there are certain plastic toys that they love and spend a lot of time playing with. It has taken a good bit of work with various therapists to help my kids learn how to play, and I have to admit that I’m not all that torn up about their plastic toys. I’m so happy to see them playing, really playing, with each other, and even alone, I’ve made my peace with this. My hypocrisy bothers me, yes, but the real progress we’ve made in terms of typical play skills must be what keeps me from torturing myself about this in the quiet of the night.
For birthdays, we have a different set of rules. The birthday person chooses their favorite food for the day, and can select whatever they like for their birthday dessert. So far, I’ve been asked to bake all birthday treats, but the day may come when a supermarket cake is the only thing that will do. That will require some serious self-control my part, to keep from wailing about being passed over for one of our local store’s cake lady’s amazing creations, but I’ll follow the birthday rules. Last year, we didn’t have birthday parties, and the year before I was tasked with making marzipan sculptures colored with natural food dyes for their cakes: M wanted pandas and bamboo while A wanted Ursula K. Le Guin’s Red Mare and her foal.
This year, A wanted those crunchy artificially colored sugar bits, the ones stuck to a piece of cardboard, from the grocery store’s cake decor section. M wanted plastic sea creatures, not marzipan, not wood, not felted wool, only plastic sea creatures; also no marine mammals, only sharks and bony fish. And the frosting needed to be dyed with artificial coloring, as my natural green and blue food dyes weren’t the right shade.
So that’s what she got. I just delivered a tray of 15 gluten-free chocolate-squash cupcakes with chemically colored blue and green frosting, topped with 11 plastic sea creatures (the teachers had to do without the plastic critters on theirs) to her class, along with a happy birthday M.
For all that I hate plastic when it’s not a life-saving device, I am a hypocrite when it comes to my kids’ toys, their own purchases, and birthday cake decor. I know my attitude is colored by my experience growing up; in my effort to keep plastic from becoming an alluring forbidden fruit, I willingly purchase the nasty stuff, thereby modeling hypocrisy for my children.
When my sisters and I were growing up, our parents forbade sugar. My mother is an amazing cook and baker, and provided us with all sorts of truly tasty desserts: Wheat germ banana bars, cheesecakes made with eggs from our chickens and geese, raspberry bavarian, gingerbread with lemon sauce, to name just a few of her greatest hits. But we were not supposed to eat candy. At Halloween, we went trick-or-treating only for Unicef, not for candy; if anyone offered us a Milky Way to go with their spare change donation to our orange cardboard collection boxes, we were under strict orders to politely but clearly refuse the sugary gift.
I don’t think this drove my sisters crazy, but it motivated me to pursue a secret life as a candy pusher when I was 12. I commuted across the sound from our island to a school in the big city, and got myself to class each morning on the city bus. In the beginning, my parents gave me quarters to pay for the bus, but then they switched to paper bus tickets. During my after school exploration of the city, I discovered an import store that sold gigantic multi-colored gobstoppers, huge hard spheres of sugar, for just 50 cents. I had a lust for those candies, but didn’t have any pocket-money or allowance to pay for one. I figured out a system to get cash for candy:
I collected morning and afternoon paper transfers from the floor of the bus, from the sidewalks, and from my fellow students. I kept these in a zippered pouch to keep them clean, and when I had a large enough collection, I could find one that worked for almost every day’s fare. The bus system changed the transfer color and letter each day, but I could turn a purple R into a K with judicious finger placement and the right nonchalant body language as I flashed the transfer at the bus driver when we arrived at my stop.
Whenever I could ride the bus for free that way, I’d trade my paper bus tickets with one of the kids at my bus stop whose parents trusted them with cold, hard change.
I’d run from my return bus stop after school down the waterfront to the import store and buy as many gobstoppers as I could afford.
The next day at school, I’d sell these .50 candies for $1 each to my fellow students at school, kids who had never seen these delights anywhere else so they didn’t know they were being overcharged.
Then I’d take my profits and buy candy, candy, candy. First I bought myself a gobstopper, but then, tucked into the lobby of a skyscraper, I found a tiny old-fashioned candy store whose proprietor was happy to sell me small white paper bags of this and that every afternoon.
I ran this side business until I ran out of takers for the gobstoppers, at which point I lost my huge profits, but could still trade bus tickets for change to spend on candy.
I think back on this now and sort of admire my ingenuity while I’m also disturbed by the depth of my need for sugar. But mostly I’m impressed by the power of forbidden fruit. I have nightmares that my kids will grow up to be PR executives for Dow Chemical or faux scientists whose “research” is funded by oil companies. Right now, letting them make their own choices, even when that includes some things I really do not want in our lives/floating onto our beaches/entering our food web, seems like one of the ways I can avoid turning plastic into a tool they use as they grow into independence. But there is no getting around the fact that I know better and choose hypocrisy.