Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Playroom to End All Playrooms

When I was a little girl, my three sisters and I spent our days horsing around in our very own playroom. It was an incredibly spacious, square-shaped room with two separate doors for entering and exiting. It was positioned strategically near the garage, so the screeching sounds coming from it would float away in a curving motion off the west side of the house.

For the most part, my mom and dad stayed away from our safe space that was The Playroom. But one by one, my mom added pieces to it that slowly transformed our playroom into the most magical, the most breathtakingly creative, the most decked out, ahead-of-its-time, and yet-still-vintage space for four little girls to roam.

By the time our playroom was finished, there was: A train that you could ride on, a player piano, a gumball machine, a foosball table, a jukebox made in the 1950s, a costume closet, a Murphy bed, and a yellow and red pinball machine from 1961.

Entering the room from the west entrance, you’d find the old jukebox, that came to us stocked with songs by Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, The Carpenters, Anne Murray, Dolly Parton, and even a few early Madonna hits. It had a hit for anyone (original songs from its heyday, and recent ’80s updates).  You’d only have to punch in the code–say, A14– and the clear yet scratchy music would spill out of the box, lit up in vibrant colors of turquoise, red and yellow. We would hop up and down, dance a jig, and perform routines to the Tune of the Week, accompanied by tap shoes, tutus and jump-ropes. Altogether now. Which was a challenge on hardwood floors. We grew up with permanently bruised knees.

The jukebox came to us from “Santa Claus” on Christmas morning, 1987. Jackie was not quite 2-years old, and though she was an easy, happy baby (mostly my baby, to be exact) she had a meltdown that particular Christmas morning. It was a classic case of her being overtired, sooped on Christmas fudge, and manic about certain presents, like the jukebox. I remember this incident clearly because we have a videotape of Jax sitting on top of the jukebox, dressed in her Cinderella costume, crying and throwing a galactic-size tantrum for reasons none of us understood. I think she wanted a cookie. You can hear the sound of three snickering sisters and witness one unsteady hand of my father’s, who recorded the meltdown on his old Sony VHS video-camera. The camera shook to the rhythm of his laughing.

The wall to the left of the jukebox housed a king-size Murphy bed. Which is one of those surprise beds stored vertically inside the wall that you pull down when you want to jump on it or use for overnight guests. To the right of the Murphy bed was our costume closet – bursting with ornate, hand-stitched costumes, like Christy’s green-sequin Mermaid “Splash” costume, Jax’s Disney princes gowns, Allyson’s “little Orphan Annie” outfit, complete with curly red wig, and my old pink tutus and navy blue sailor-girl costumes from various tap recitals. There were close to 30 vintage works of costume art in that closet. And even some of my mom’s old brown hippie-dippie clothes from the 1960s.

On the wall opposite the Murphy bed was our player-piano. Which was possibly the best toy in that room. The downside of the piano was that we had to have weekly piano lessons from Hot Jay, our piano teacher. I didn’t like Jay because I had a raging crush on him, which interfered with my ability to focus on the keys during lessons.

Jay had 3 jobs: He was a gifted pianist (playing at Nordstroms department store, hotels, bar mitzvahs and weddings); he was a piano teacher to spoiled children; and a model on the side. A real-life über-babe with a headshot. I saw him once on the cover of Sacramento! Magazine. I didn’t like Jay because he preferred Christy over me. I didn’t like him, but I secretly loved him. He struggled for years to teach me.  My heart was into the piano. It was into him. And that made me a lackluster pianist.

Finally, Jay found a genre that I liked to play – ragtime! – and when we ran out of score music, like “The Entertainer” from The Sting, Jay composed his own ragtime songs just for me, in the spirit of rag-master, Scott Joplin. I doubt I ever thanked Jay for going so above and beyond the call of duty, just for me.  I might write him a letter to thank him. Is that weird? To this day, ragtime is the only genre of music I can play by heart; it seems to pour out of my fingertips whenever I sit down on a piano bench.

But the brilliant part about our piano was that it played music by itself. It was an analog machine, where you could stick into the piano body a roll of sheet-music, and it would electrically scroll through the roll, with the punch-holes cueing which piano keys played. We learned all the Broadway classics from that player –piano, but our favorites were “Tie a Yellow Ribbon”, the theme song from Hello Dolly! and the incredible “If I Ever Leave You” from Camelot.

In the middle of the room was the centerpiece of the gameroom—our foosball table. My dad bought the table when I was about 2 or 3 years old. I don’t recall ever being excited or happy for it, but I played foosball with my sisters nearly every day.  Ten minutes here and there, before dinner. I’d spend an hour each Saturday or Sunday with my next door neighbor, Amy engaged in foosball warfare. Sometimes she’d run home in tears.

But my sisters and I played often. We played, we spun, we cheated and slammed; we whipped the bars around so fast and with such control that we could position the ball to explode off the armless halfback’s right side, at just the right 45-degree angle that it would fly into the goal, every time. We knew how to win. Sometimes Christy would beat me. Or I would beat Christy. Allyson could sometimes beat either of us – and we often didn’t even keep score. We were training. What was most important was slamming the ball into the goal with such force and ferocity that your wrist would burn as the ball glided into the catching-well inside the machine.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his best-seller “Outliers” that for a person to become an expert at something—like hockey, Chinese, violin, or MS-dos coding—he or she must put in 10,000 hours of training first.

By the time I was 10 years old, I had put in my 10,000 hours of foosball. So my second summer at Two River Soccer Camp, when I strolled into the Rec-room where some 15-year old boys were playing foosball, I didn’t hesitate to ask if I could play a round. They sneered and one huffed back, “But you’re 6 years old!” And he was right. I had the body of a 6-year-old. But what he didn’t know was that I had the skills of an Olympic-level Taiwanese Foosball gold medalist, on steroids. They caved and let me play. So as balls were flying, heads went spinning, and football coaches and counselors started gathering around, I singlehandedly, one by one, took down all five teenage boys. They seemed shocked, but I wasn’t. I was a foosball champion.

Reading this, it probably sounds straight out of a corny rejected Disney script. But it’s true – all because I had put in my 10,000 hours. And with that, I had all the currency I needed to play a 10-year-old’s game of hustle.

I should add that foosball was the only sport I was good at at soccer camp. I tucked that memory away, and didn’t bother to tell my older sister Christy that there was a foosball table in the rec-room, knowing she would go in there and hustle some boys too, thereby stealing all my glory. Like she did every day, on account of her being gorgeous, and me looking like a cabbage-patch kid, only shorter.

Kiddie-corner to the playroom’s foosball table was the bespoke blue-checkered sofa unit and cherry wood-tabled storage unit, nestled into the corner. Atop the table was my favorite piece in the room, our red gumball machine-lamp. My mom always kept it stocked with colorful gumballs that cost a penny each. Like the pinball machine, we could open it up and fetch our money back after getting the goodies. We were under orders not to binge-eat gumballs, and after defying the order a couple times, the excitement over having double bloated cheeks  drooling over with gumball juice faded away, and we followed mom’s orders.

Our playroom was a hit with all the neighborhood children and was probably the single  reason my sisters and I had any friends when we were little. Our friends likely used us for our playroom, which we didn’t seem to mind.

We had each other, and our Camelot on loop. And that was all we needed.

I don’t know if I will ever be able to give my future children the kind of playroom that my parent’s gave me. It was magical.

One by one, my parents have been selling off the items in that room. The jukebox is gone, the pinball machine is too, and so is the gumball-machine lamp, which my dad hawked away in a garage sale for probably 10 bucks. He offered to throw in the cat, Timba, for free, but the buyer wasn’t interested. My dad’s favorite activity is hosting these tacky fire-sales! where he can purge the remaining remnants of our childhood...And finally lay his head in a less cluttered, more adult, modern home.

While my sisters accept this, my mom and I find it sad. One of my mom’s last craft projects that she accomplished with her own father was a bunny-cage for my pet angora rabbit, Heidi, whose home was in our playroom. The cage was only 50% of the attraction, because the upper 50% of the piece was a dollhouse. It had a shingled roof, a chimney and a bay window with doll people living inside. It was a work of art, made of sturdy copper wiring and solid oak wood. My mom loved that bunny-cage-dollhouse. It, too, went away too a new home during their last garage sale.

Soon, when my parents sell their house, our playroom will finally no longer exist, except in our memories.

Which is why I write about it here. It’s gone, but I feel better about it now, having etched it in permanent posterity in my new playroom that is the blogosphere. It’s not the same, but just as much tap dancing can be found.



Christy said...

Loved this story Cam! Beautiful. Made me laugh and cry at the same time. You should add in somewhere the story of the travelling foosball table. How each of us has had it at some point. It's on its way to Allyson right now.

Camryn said...

Awwww. Thanks, Tisty. Yes, that foosball table sure has made the rounds. Can we send it over to Copenhagen, perhaps?!