I love gift catalogues. They exist as a reminder that even though America's detractors like to demonize us, we remain -- as a people, in our hearts -- harmless idiots. What else can explain the popularity of these catalogues, which specialize in heroically trivial items of substandard design, as well as solutions to problems that don't, technically, exist (Yank-o-Majic tongue-hair remover)?
I was scrolling through the Betty's Attic catalogue the other day when I found something that stopped me cold. It was right there among actual almost-prime-time products like (these are true) the "Willie Woodpecker" toothpick dispenser, a figurine of Little Lulu's friend Tubby, a wig that looks exactly like Marilyn Monroe's hair in the sense that a toilet looks exactly like an 18th-century Hepplewhite armchair, a "Woodstock ukulele" that is presumably exactly like the ones used by all those ukulele players at Woodstock, a reissue of the never-popular card game Mille Bornes, salt-and-pepper shakers in the shape of a typical "Latin couple" who resemble Carmen Miranda and the Frito Bandito, only more stereotyped, and a jigsaw puzzle of "six of the greatest stars of all time" playing billiards together. These, of course, would be Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, James Dean and the Three Stooges.
But among these fine products was one that simply cried out for more information. So I telephoned Betty's Attic ("Where Memories of Yesterday Live on Today") and asked to speak to Betty. Alas, there was no Betty. It turns out Betty's Attic is a division of the Johnson Smith Co. of Bradenton, Fla. ("Where a Big Warehouse of Crap Squats in an Industrial Park"). I got Kim Boyd, who is vice president for marketing.
Me: I would like to ask you about item number 24219. Do you think some people might find it a weensy bit tasteless?
Kim: That's not our intent.
Me: Well, what is your intent?
Kim: It's for collectors. We view it as part of history.
Me: It is a scale-model, die-cast metal replica of John F. Kennedy's limousine in Dallas. It has Jack and Jackie and the Connallys. Jack's hands seem to be reaching for his throat.
Me: Okay, then. I notice this item is back-ordered. Sells well, does it?
Kim: It's popular with JFK enthusiasts.
Me: This appears to be pretty much a reenactment of frame 240 on the Zapruder film. Have you considered also offering frame 313, where his head actually explodes?
Kim: I don't think we would go there. We're not trying to be disgusting. One rule around here is we wouldn't sell anything we wouldn't show to our children. I would show this to children.
Me: Does the Jackie figure come out so kids could position it on the trunk?
Kim: I don't think so. I think it's all secure.
Me: You see why I am asking these questions, right?
Me: So, have you considered commemorating other historical moments in die-cast figurines, such as when President Bush vomited on the prime minister of Japan?
Me: Or maybe Nathan Hale, dangling? Or, wait, maybe that ditch in My Lai?
Me: You want this to be over soon, right?
Me: I noticed you also sell Jack and Jackie bobblehead dolls.
Kim: Yes, we do.
Me: Jackie is dressed in that pink dress with the pink pillbox hat.
Me: You know she's only known for wearing that on one particular occasion.
Kim: Well, now she's wearing it again!
Kim remained really cheerful and
gracious, considering. I was going to go on and on in as nasty a fashion as possible when she mentioned something that made me reconsider this whole thing. She said that her company, which has been in existence since 1914, got its start advertising in the back of comic books. She said it sold all sorts of novelties, such as joy buzzers and X-Ray Specs.
"Wow," I blurted. "I always wanted X-Ray Specs!"
"We still have some here. I'll send you a couple."
Now, I don't want to suggest that I can be bought for the price of a $2 cardboard novelty that purports to let you see through ladies' clothing. Not that it can, or anything. But it got me thinking about my childhood, and the harmless joy of nostalgia. And the truth is that most of the items in Betty's Attic are funny, nifty products for sale at affordable prices, at bettysattic.com.
So I hope Kim won't be mad at me.
And I'm standing by my mailbox.
They couldn't really work. Could they?
Gene Weingarten's e-mail address is email@example.com.
Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon at www.washingtonpost.com.