Toys R Us Has Exploded In My Living Room

pile-of-toys-51I’m a woman of some talents, but home-making … cooking … cleaning … decorating … alas, those skills are not among them. I was reminded of this singular shortcoming, recently, when hanging out with my cousin Jaimee. She’d just had a baby, and when I was in New York, I stopped in to see her and meet Logan, the newest member of our family. Jaimee lives in D.U.M.B.O, which is not, as you might suppose, a Disneyfied city like Celebration, Florida, but actually an ultra-hip Brooklyn nabe located Down Under The Manhattan Bridge Overpass. Get it?

This nabe, like many once-downtrodden Brooklyn areas had gentrified from a place where you wouldn’t want to walk alone at night (unless you were in the business, say, of providing blowjobs to slumming Wall-Streeters) to a chic neighborhood jammed with fab new condos, locavore restaurants and moms navigating $1000 strollers. Jaimee lives in one of those new fab condos. Looking around, I had some serious decorating envy. Jaimee knows just where to put a frame, hang a picture, place a vase so that everything looks, not fussy, but effortlessly … casually … elegant. And even with all the tumult a new baby creates — and all the extra gear a new baby comes with, which could really warrant its own apartment — her place was still picture perfect. Not a photo frame, glossy art book or a candlestick was out of place. As if the style mavens at House Beautiful had just parachuted in to prep her living room for a cover shoot.

Now since watching my own tot morph from stationary baby lump to active, running, bouncing preschooler — whose favorite activity is seeing how many times he can jump from couch to couch and back again without slipping, falling and splitting his lip open — I’ve come to realize that one’s kid status is reflected in the state of one’s living room. Totally tidy with various objets arranged … just …okay … there … no … there …so? You’ve either chosen to remain childless … or you’ve already shipped them off to college. Or — behind Door Number 3 — you have an infant who hasn’t yet reached the crawling, grabbing, throwing, tearing, climbing stage.

“Your apartment is so gorgeous — ”

I wanted to break the news gently as we sipped hot tea on Jaimee’s crystal blue, still-stain-free couch. “But you know …when the baby starts crawling and pulling up –”

“I have to put it all away, don’t I?”

 Jaimee sighed. Her eyes swept across the beautifully appointed living room. I could see her mentally calculating: How long could she maintain the splendor before it would have to be packed away in boxes … and where it would all stay until the risk of anything shattering in the hands of a curious crawling, walking, climbing child, who insisted on playing ball in the house despite numerous reprimands not to, was past. Like when Logan was old enough to vote. I suspected it wouldn’t be too long after Logan learned how to scramble around the apartment that her elegant living room would start looking a lot more like mine …which is to say, as if Toys R Us exploded in it.

pile-of-dinosaurs1I should have taken pictures because I cannot even remember what our lovely living room looked like before we installed the brightly colored play kitchen — which came with hundreds of little plastic dishes and fake food! — parked a line of ride-along trucks and front-end loaders against the back wall and set up the train table by the French doors. Our shelves, once full of grownup DVDs like The Sopranos, Sex and the City, The L Word, Six Feet Under and Band Of Brothers are now packed with kiddie flicks like Finding Nemo, Madagascar, Over The Hedge and the complete Baby Einstein oeuvre. The art books on our coffee table have been put away, replaced by puzzles and busy boards. Wicker bins flank the TV, a repository for dozens of electronic toys that all beep, sing, chime or squawk as well as cars, trucks, trains, Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers, Transformers and other assorted action figures too numerous to count. We did buy a new living room chair not long ago. It’s red, fuzzy … and has Elmo’s face on it. It also shakes and giggles like a mental patient when you sit in it. Fletcher picked it out himself.

At first, we tried to contain the onslaught. “Fletcher’s space” started as a generous baby blanket on the living room floor with a small plastic bucket filled with things that spun, rolled, crinkled and otherwise entertained a wide-eyed infant with no place else to go. I suppose he could have played in his own room, which we’d so lovingly decorated before his arrival with heirloom furniture that had been my husband’s when he was a boy. But then — and here we have no one to blame but ourselves actually — we couldn’t keep one eye on the baby and the other on all The Daily Show episodes we’d DVR’d. Because, yes, playing with things that crinkle and spin may be endlessly entertaining for an infant, but keep that up without reprieve and you’ll soon be hitting the Grey Goose harder than an out-of-work hedge fund manager. And drinking before 5 is probably not the best example to set for your little one (though if you hide the vodka in the cranberry juice, really, who’d be the wiser?) And puh-leeze …. don’t even get me started on those Baby Einstein DVDs. C’mon. Someone behind this baby product goldmine had to be nipping at the electric Kool-Aid in college. With their hypnotic, spinny, whirly, swirly, kaleidescopy images set to Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, these DVDs positively cry out for a Timothy Leary Special, or at least some psychedelic mushrooms.

Let this be a lesson: Addiction is bad. While we fed the TV monkey on our backs — and our preschooler learned to request Jon Stewart by name — his toys multiplied exponentially — faster than closet hangers — until our living room, which once had just a few random toys strewn about, morphed into a giant playroom with some couches and a TV.

I still fantasize about getting my living room back, especially when the new wave of Pottery Barn and West Elm and Ikea catalogues hit the mailbox. “Not for a while yet,” says my sister Shari. She waited a full year after her youngest, then 6, doodled on her velour chaise lounge — with marker! –before getting her new living room furniture.

Recently we tried to clean up the superfund site that our living room has become. We moved some of Fletcher’s toys upstairs to his room, and Stewart gave up the fantasy that the big empty room he’d earmarked when we bought our house would be his “playroom” with a full wet bar, pool table and dartboard and gave it over to corral the toys. But somehow, all that did was s-p-r-e-a-d the mess. It’s like The Blob slowly overtaking our home until eventually it will all be just one … big … toy … pile. Maybe we’ll be able to dig out when Fletcher goes to college.

pile-of-stuffed-animalsStill, I suppose the colorful, homey clutter of toys is better than the alternative: When I was a kid, our living room was “for company,” and my sister and I couldn’t even pass through as a short-cut through to the kitchen. (Once my mother got new carpet, she didn’t want to wear it out by actually walking on it.) So I grew up with “Not through the living room! Go around!” ringing in my ears. I can count on one hand with fingers left over the number of times I was allowed to be in there. Once was my father’s surprise 35th birthday party. The other was … my baby shower, when I was 39.

A few weeks ago, we visited my friend Sonia who I’ve known since first grade. She used to be an emergency room doc in Hawaii. Now she’s a (mostly) stay-at-home mom to 5-year-old twins in Tampa. I’m trying to adopt her attitude. Says she: “Anyone who’s coming over knows we have kids so they’ll just have to get over themselves and step around the toys.”

Which is why I nearly passed out form shock when we walked in and found the living room immaculate. Not a toy in sight. Spit spot. Mary Poppins couldn’t have done better.

It lasted about 10 minutes.

In the time it took for Sonia and me to share coffee, bagels and some gossip in the kitchen, our 2- and 5-year-olds had completely ransacked her living room. Not a square inch of carpet was visible beneath the spread of cars, trains, tracks, electronic musical instruments, marbles, plastic food. In other words, it looked as if a mega-ton Toys R Us bomb had exploded there.

We felt right at home.