Dodging Bullets, from Maplewood to Hollywood

Obviously, we’re going to be dealing with guns and violence this week. But before we turn our focus to the domestic variations on the theme, let us, for a moment, consider two seemingly unrelated items from the European theater:

First, there was the stunning-no, make that shocking, absolutely shocking!-attack on Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic’s home-wherein we targeted the man’s living room, dining room and bedroom with three separate laser-guided bombs …

And, having failed miserably at this spectacularly unsubtle attempt to kill him (General No. 1: “Where the hell was he?” General No. 2: “I don’t know! Maybe he went for a snack!”), we were then treated to the now standard “United States Palace Attack” boilerplate-where a military spokesman insists that the bombing of Muammar Qaddafi’s tent, Saddam Hussein’s villa or Mr. Milosevic’s dining room are “legitimate attacks on vital strategic targets,” rather than “failed assassination attempts,” or “botched multimillion-dollar renovation jobs.”

(O.K., O.K., I realize this sounds incredibly cynical. But c’mon. As New Yorkers, we love the real estate angle. We’re fascinated by the decorating styles-the tchotchkes-of the depraved and despotic. What were the bathroom fixtures like? Was the kitchen Formica, or granite? Sub-Zero or Traulsen? And perhaps most important-from a New Yorker’s point of view: Did Mr. Milosevic leave Marshal Tito’s original 1950’s tile pattern in the bathrooms?)

Obviously, we need to find a better way to couch these attacks on presidential palaces. So consider, if you will, the following entry in last week’s BBC programming log:

Noon. Ground Force! The Basingstoke Episode. Alan Titchmarsh presents the action series in which experts perform makeovers of viewers’ gardens in just two days. This week, the team faces a daunting task as it struggles to create a garden on a site that the previous owner decided to concrete over.

My point? British élan . Forget about swords into plowshares. Next time we want to take out a dictator, let’s just announce we’re doing some work in the garden-with an F-117.

Perhaps you sense a theme developing here: guns, violence and interior decorating. All three swirled in the air at a dinner party I attended recently in Los Angeles. The talking points:

1. Columbine vs. Hollywood. Not our fault. Not our problem. We give to the Democratic Party. We don’t make those kinds of films. Blame the computer game geeks. Sick, twisted. But we can’t trample the First Amendment. Solution? Gun control. Everywhere, except in action films.

2. Tom Hayden’s Digital Demise. Remember the expression “All politics is local”? This week, all phone calls in the 310 area code became long distance. It now takes 10 numbers to call across the street in Brentwood. The upshot? Dialing rage. And lots of finger pointing at Mr. Hayden, the local state senator, for not interceding in what is now being called a “basic quality-of-life issue.”

3. Understanding The Matrix . In the few minutes left before all other forms of intelligent discourse cease in the United States and George Lucas’ The Phantom Menace becomes the only subject possible for discussion (“Coming up next on Larry King Live : Henry Kissinger, Salman Rushdie and Vaclav Havel debate the use of ‘the Force’ with Madeleine Albright”), the success of The Matrix remains a major source of conversation. The reasons? First, teenage girls. They love the heroine, they “get” the cyber worldview, they’re driving the ticket sales on date night. Second, certain practical considerations, as voiced by the head of a rival studio: “Keanu Reeves is dodging bullets! He’s flying through the air, dodging goddamned bullets in slow motion! Do you have any idea how hard that’s going to be to top? There’s only one hope,” he says, drawing me closer, confiding: “You know those clichéd scenes where action heroes run away from fireballs, and live?” I nod. He beams: “Well, next summer, our goddamned action heroes are going to run into the fireballs!”

Yes, try as I might, I just can’t seem to get away from guns, violence and interior decorating. And somehow, all of these issues recently came together for me on the Internet on-line auction site E-Bay.com. (For those still not up to speed, E-Bay is the Internet’s 24-hour swap meet. There are 2 million items for sale at any given moment-everything from Furbys to Ferraris. The auctions typically last seven days, during which time anyone can put in a bid.)

Last Christmas, while helping a friend buy one of those elusive Furbys through E-Bay, I suddenly discovered that almost all the toys I had as a child were available for sale: An old Tonka fire truck. A steel fighter-plane with fold-up wings. A Mister Machine, from about 1965.

Now mind you, I am not some kind of narcissistic baby boomer with too much time and money on his hands. But somehow, for reasons I couldn’t explain even to myself, I suddenly wanted those old toys-almost in spite of the fact that I have never been able to string the words “happy,” “childhood” and “memory,” together in a single sentence regarding my youth.

By late last March, all three toys sat in my office, pristine, as if I had just opened their boxes in 1961. And it was at this moment that my second thoughts began:

As a child, I destroyed these toys, just playing with them. I smashed them into walls, crashed them down stairs, involved them in spectacular 10-alarm fires, air battles, epic struggles for control of our backyard in Maplewood.

Yet, in some other part of America, there were children who kept these same toys in perfect condition, with the plastic wrapper still on the box. And now, I can’t help but wonder: What kind of anal-retentive kids treated their toys like this? Who did I buy these things from? What kind of people did they turn out to be? Accountants? Insurance salesmen? Serial killers?

Alas, when I queried a psychiatrist, “Who do you think is more normal: the child who destroys his toys with great imagination, or the kid who treats them as if he’s a curator, a sort of Philippe de Montebello of Toys ‘R’ Us?” she answered with one of those Freudian “maybe we should discuss this for a decade” riddles: “Your destructive imagination eventually earned you the money to pay for those toys; their sense of preservation-or lack of imagination-allowed them to cash in, and achieve the safety they wanted all along. Shall we continue this discussion, say, next Tuesday, at 3:00?”

In terms of E-Bay, all I know is two things: First, had the Internet been available to Charles Foster Kane, Charlie would have put in a bid on the goddamn sled, and there would have been no need for the film.

And, second, when I leave my office at night, I never turn my back on Mr. Machine.

Dodging Bullets, from Maplewood to Hollywood