The kid buzzed around the store like he was the son of the owner. In fact, for a few minutes I actually thought he was. What was he, nine, ten years old? He roamed behind the tight sales counter, gaining access to the merchandise in the glass cabinets, his fingers hovering over toy cars like he was warming his hands. Come to think of it, as I watched him, he and those toys did generate some energy, one day, this spring.
One day, this spring, I was in an old-fashioned mom-and-pop hobby store. I was there for a few reasons. I needed some parts for a few projects I was working on, at home. I was at the shop to support a business in my old hometown, the city I grew up in. Truth be told, I was using Saturday as my free-roam day, as I always did, my one day of the the week to stray far from my WFH office for several hours.
My Saturdays are like this: I drive in the direction of Boston to visit my mom. After that, I stop at my favorite hobby hangout and talk shop for maybe an hour. While there, I text a pal in Georgia and tell him a crazy modeling idea– and does he think it’s feasible, or not? I don’t feel quite settled until I see the message is read. Then I drive west a bit, grab the best takeout curry at Burlington Jade and sit in the public park thinking, what a wonderful world I live in. And I love my life.
After that perfect outdoor lunch I do a little food shopping at an old-time family deli, and pack it all up in a hardshell cooler with ice. I’d texted another pal about my curry delight and she’ll respond with her smiles and claps– three days later but she never fails to share the victory. Then I head north, to the old backstreets of Nashua, and sit with a buddy and his wife and dogs. My buddy puffs on a cigar, unwinds from his week, and listens to every word I say. We chatter on all the topics that can’t be spoken, really, anywhere else but in a friend’s backyard.
Each portion of my Saturday has its joy. Going over old times with mom. Learning something new about her, the family, and myself. Then eating lunch, by myself on a spread of grass, watching a Steve Wallis Stealth Camping video and feeling very much at ease. Then, planning meals and chatting up the cashier at Elia’s Country Store in Wilmington.
And of course, running into that hobby shop kid.
Why does it matter that the kid, a stranger to me, was in the store that day? Why is it worth writing about? Well, you see, the kid wanted to talk, and he wanted to talk to me.
How’s that supposed to go?
Would you let your kid do that? I bet you would not.
Think about it. When does a kid ever talk to a stranger? A man six times his age, with nothing in common but a tray of toys in front of them, in a dusty old shop?
Most kids know it’s not right to interact outside the social ring their parents have set for them. This boy was oblivious to the Stranger Rule. It didn’t matter that his dad was lurking in the store. The kid saw me examining a big open tray of spare, broken model tanks, and spoke to me directly.
“Which ones do you like?”
He offered his own opinion to the question he posed to me. “I like this one,” he said, “Even though it’s old.” He showed me a British Challenger II, the most modern tank in the lot.
I said nothing.
The tray was interesting to me, because it was from an estate sale and there was junk, and there were gems. You had to look close, to discern what was of value.
“Do you like these models? Do you own models like this? Or other types?” He was a talker. He looked at the tanks, looked at me, then back to the models again.
The shop had acquired the estate for a few bucks a tank. Word had it, the lot had been bought from New Jersey or Pennsylvania. The builder had been a cop and he did fine model work. Most of his great stuff had been sold out of this shop already. Now the bulk that was left were tanks that came built and painted, by various manufacturers.
The lot had been picked over for years. This was the bottom of the barrel. But, as the numbers had thinned, interesting items began to stand out.
“Why would someone build these, and then leave them at the store? Did you know the builder?”
“Dan,” a voice called out, “Don’t lean over the box. We’re going to get lunch soon.” The boy’s father was several feet away and I nodded at the guy. My nod said, “What can you do? He’s a kid.”
“Why are these painted different colors?” the kid asked me. “Do you know why so many are broken?”
“Dan, you can pick one thing in the store, and then we’re going. Mommy’s waiting for us. Pick something, or nothing, but wrap it up.”
Dad was speaking to his boy but was talking to me: Don’t be a creep, the kid’s with me.
The kid held out a winterized SPG and stood next to me. The tank was missing its gun and several wheels. “Why would someone buy something that’s broken so badly?”
“That model would be great for parts,” I said.
“Parts?” The kid was pie-eyed. I’d finally acknowledged him.
“Yes.” I took the model from his hand. “This Hummel was professionally built by Dragon Armor and is highly sought-after by collectors. But you’re right, it’s broken. So most people wouldn’t want it.”
“Then why is it for sale?”
“Dan, pick something and we’re getting lunch.”
“Well, if a collector likes to detail models, he can buy this for low money, and use it for parts.” I pointed to the fighting compartment. “There are two ammo boxes in here, which no one hardly sees but they can be pried off and used for a diorama. That’s when you place a model in a scene.”
“Cool! What else?”
“These tracks are the best available. They are painted, weathered, and joined perfectly. If you have a model at home on a Panzer IV chassis, but the tracks aren’t great, then these would be a good upgrade. Same with the wheels, even the jack and headlights are perfect– and already painted.”
“Oh, wow! Who’d have thought of that?”
I turned to his dad. “I bought models on a shop on this very street, when I was his age. Right next door, in fact.”
The man nodded. “This is a nice place, for sure.”
I stepped back, as the kid looked through other boxes. I faded towards the paints, and the rear of the store, and watched as the two headed out, a bit later.
For a moment, two kids had been talking.
For a moment, I remembered 1976, where situations like this happened to me all the time. I was ten and I’d run into a new kid in the park, or on the street, or in the hobby shop, and we’d immediately get lost together in the Wow World of discovery. Discovering a toy, discovering a hiding place, or even, the thrill of a new pal. This same sunny street, many years ago.
Many years ago I walked up to a man in a shop. He was about six times older than I. I showed him a model kit I was buying, I was so proud, I told him I had saved my allowance money and couldn’t wait for this Saturday to come.
I told him about all the features of this plane, it was such a great fighter, and I also told him of all the US Navy planes I’d built that year. And the wings folded because I’d followed the instructions just right, and the bombs dropped, and wheels retracted.
The older guy smiled. He told me he’d been in the war, in the Pacific. He was part of the occupation forces in Japan, the summer and fall of 1945. He told me he had photos of the wrecked Japanese planes, planes just like the one I held in my hands.
One day, he said, he’d bring the photos down to the store for people like me to look at. Would I like that? “Yes!” I said.
I don’t know if the man ever brought his pictures, I never saw him again. I suspect, like most veteran’s photographs, they were carefully preserved, hidden away until thrown away.
I also know that even one new photograph of Japanese planes at Atsugi Air Base would provide long-sought answers to historians who eagerly study such things.
A kid talked to a man this spring, and there was a carryover to the past. It wasn’t just a hand-off through the traces of time. It wasn’t about humoring somebody, or being abjectly patient with a child, or respecting boundaries or social norms. All of those things are true but they aren’t the glue that sticks. The connective essence was me, my existence. I was nothing but a kid talking forward and an adult, hearing back. Because on this street, two gifts were presented to strangers. The conversations’ binding was innocence, supreme.