MY 4-YEAR-OLD is "Annie." Each day she will dance around the living room in her Capezios while belting out "It's a Hard Knock Life."
What's the source of this hard- knock life stuff was. At first, I had presumed that she was exposed to too much TV. But no, I began to realize that her gripe was real. When I asked little Annie -- I mean Maggie -- what the most serious problem confronting our nation was, she plaintively offered an explanation that boiled down to "kiddie inflation." And the more research I did, the more I realized how shocking indeed has been the escalation in cost of those kiddie staples that had sustained the youth of my era.
Pop. As a kid I used to call it "soda." When I return to the East and call it "pop," I am chided unmercifully. Easterners consider the word "pop" to be entirely frivolous and degrading to speaker and listener both -- a word for hicks and rubes. In fact, many insist on calling it "soda" long after they've migrated to a land like Kansas City where no one quite understands what the word soda means.
A 12-ounce bottle of soda cost a dime when I was a kid. I was outraged when it went up to 12 cents. It meant I would have to collect six empty bottles before I could purchase a full one. No one's mother that I ever knew would shell out for a gratuitous bottle of Coke. Today, the same pleasure would cost roughly 60 cents. Kiddie Price Index: 600. Comic Books. I leaned towards Superman. I keened mightily for Superboy's girlfriend, Lana Lang. I never did like the Green Arrow and Aquaman. And I was always frustrated by the human limitations of Batman. I failed to understand why Superman would want to have anything to do with him and his alleged "ward," Robin.
Only one of these extra guys intrigued me -- the Martian Manhunter J'onn J'onnzz. He had depth. Abandoned on earth for no reason I can remember, J'onn experienced daily the pangs of estrangement and anomie. In fact, even now, whenever I hear the words "alien" or "alienation," I think of the sad and cryptic Martian Manhunter. A comic cost 10 cents. Today, it would cost 75 cents, and J'onn J'onnzz has disappeared. KPI: 750.
Ice Cream. Mr. Ratner, the candy store guy, had four flavors -- vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, and butter pecan (pronounced PEA-can). And one chose his flavor with as much care as he did his baseball team.
Vanilla eaters were predictably stodgy and authoritarian. And as benefits the type, they would ruthlessly suppress the chocolate-eating faction to which I gave blood allegiance. No one ate strawberry. It seemed suspect the way quiche would be a generation later.
Butter pecan was considered such exotica that Ratner added a surcharge. A cone then cost you a dime. Today, even mediocre ice cream parlors give you 31 choices, but a skimpy, single-dip of it costs 62 cents. ($1.05 if you like being ripped-off). KPI: 620.
Baseball Cards. We would start pestering Mr. Ratner in about February. The first cards would arrive about April. They were a nickel a pack. Most self-respecting kids would buy four or five packs on this first day, but Topps always loaded the early editions with losers like Gus Zernial and Joe DeMaestri, and obscure Latinos with names like Bomba and Chico. I don't think Mickey Mantle ever appeared before August.
About a week after the cards arrivd we would start "pitching" them. Pitching simply means flinging the cards, Frisbee-like, against a wall. Closest card to the wall wins the rest with extra bonuses for toppers and leaners. Pitching was nothing more than gambling with a PG rating. But pitching was also my "gift."
Gifts are distributed capriciously among children. I, for instance, did not learn to blow bubblegum until I was 13, to talk like a duck until I was 21 and I have never learned to roller skate. So God apparently compensated by allowing me to pitch baseball cards. And pitch I did -- on one memorable day winning 100, count 'em, 100 cards. I still remember what the weather was like that day, where I won the cards, and what they looked like (pansyish pastel backgrounds, mostly green and pink). So confident was I that I was pitching my Mickey Mantles just to taunt the opposition. I was even using fresh cards, right out of the package, the lovely bouquet of bubblegum still upon them, its talcum- like residue gliding their flight through my fingers. You only needed a nickel then to get you in business. Today, one pack costs 35 cent. Kiddie Price Index: 700.
The Saturday Matinee. We used to go every Saturday. Each week a new and even more horrific mutation, the result of some otherwise laudable nuclear testing, would ravage a major city. After much bloodletting, the army would arrive and blast the ugly mother to smithereens. And all this for a quarter.
Ever generous, my mother would give us 30 cents. We were allowed to splurge the extra nickel on the candy of our choice, which was invariably Jujy Fruits. One selected Jujy Fruits because you could chew a piece for upwards of 45 minutes, and, when thrown, a prechewed piece would stick to the screen.
I remember the prices so well because on one ill-fated day, my brother and I reached the head of the line, only to discover that the theater had hiked the price to 35 cents for this, the neighborhood premier of "20,000 Leagues Under The Sea."
We trudged home crestfallen. It took about 20 minutes of outright whining to pry the extra nickel from my mother. And even then she threatened to renege when my brother requested an extra nickel still for Jujy Fruits.
My mother didn't anticipate a real bargain. Today, it would cost us two dollars each for the movie. KPI: 800. The Jujy Fruits would cost us 35c. KPI here: 700. And rest assured that no amount of whining could have pried these sums loose from my mother.
Snowballs. No amount of kiddie staples would be complete without their mention of the Hostess Snowball. Symbol of its age, the Snowball was invented at about the same time as the atom bomb and with an equally sophisticated technology.
By the time we had finished dismantling the Snowball -- denuding it of its ersatz-coconut foam-rubber jacket, degorging it of its gooey center, poking and prodding the dough, stretching and rolling the cover, then reassembling it and eating it -- lunch hour would be over, and we could make no more demands on our penurious parents.
You had to like, too, the jazzy colors the Snowballs came in. Back then, a total sensual experience like this could be had for 10 cents. Today, it costs 49 cents. Not bad. A KPI of only 490.
Okay, we know's there has been a bit of inflation since the Tappe twins ravaged the major leagues. But, in fact, the Consumer Price Index has only (only?) mounted to 354 since 1957, while the KPI has increased at a rate nearly twice as fast. No wonder the birth rate is declining. Who could afford to keep 3.4 kids in comic books?
A hard-knock life indeed!