By Jonathan Alexandratos
It went slightly differently than the last time I did this. For context: it was 1998. The last time. I was a 12-year-old Pokémon addict growing up in Knoxville, Tennessee. I got up early on a Saturday morning to watch the Pokéthon on Fox Kids. I whined until I got those transparent Pokémon bouncy balls that had little plastic characters at the center of them, and I’d studiously carve away the clear rubbery sphere until the figurine was liberated. My birthday, which happened at a Taco Bell, yielded Pokémon Blue and the Gameboy Color my parents would never let me have, forever indebting me to my mystical friend whose mom had a Rolls Royce. I…had no idea how to play the card game, but I loved that there were cards. Kids couldn’t play the lottery, technically, but we could sometimes convince our parents to drop $3.99 – $3.49 if you were lucky – for a booster pack that surely, surely contained a Holo Charizard that you could sell for, oh, I dunno, like, $10,000? Like that one kid, Billy What’s-His-Name. Who goes to the other Middle School. Yeah. He got one, and he lives in a mansion now and paid for his parents to disappear. That totally happened.
Or at least, I believed it could happen to me. The smartest thing I ever did as a 12-year-old was to become so annoying that I could convince my mom to drop me off at West Town Mall for 2 hours, unsupervised, armed with 20 bucks and a hankerin’ for sugar and Pokémon. I’d swing by the Baskin Robbins first, see what the trivia question for free ice cream was, head over to Waldenbooks, look up the answer, head back to Baskin Robbins for my prize and maybe a Mocha Blast chaser, go to Kay Bee Toys for anything in the sale bins, and then to Gameboard for Pokémon cards. In my memory, they were always well-stocked, but that couldn’t have been consistently true, given the enthusiastic first wave of Pokémania. I remember being specifically excited when the Fossil packs came out. Again, I had no idea what to do with them, aside from look at the pretty pictures, but I was drawn in by the packaging. It looked like the booster pack was tearing through a paper bag, the way a 40 sort of peeks through a worn liquor store brown sack in a way that lets everyone know you’re an adult. Maybe an adult with a problem, but an adult. That’s what I thought these Fossil packs did for me. Well, I was half-right. I had the problem. I was not an adult.
But that’s okay, because neither was he. The first time he did this, he was just a kid, too. Satoshi Tajiri collected bugs as a child growing up in Tokyo in the late ’60s and early ’70s. He had a large enough collection for his friends to call him “Dr. Bug,” or whatever “Dr. Bug” translates to in Japanese. While Tajiri’s young passion for entomology is admirable, one can imagine it was tough to foster this in a city like Tokyo, whose greenery, like so many other big cities, was incrementally swallowed by cement. While I can certainly identify with a child’s interest in venturing out solo to collect the stuff of their hearts and minds, I have to stop any comparisons between myself and Tajiri there. Anything else would feel like appropriation or erasure. After all, Tajiri went on to start Game Freak and invent Pokémon cards and I…well…have not done anything even remotely as meaningful.
However, this weekend, I did find myself back in the aisles again, seeking out the newest Shining Fates Pokémon cards. My mom didn’t drop me off at Target. I went there myself. I had a little more than 20 bucks, and it was on a card connected to my bank. I wasn’t inspired by a craze that was sweeping my demographic. It was really just a couple of YouTube videos that got me thinking about Pokémon cards again, though I know plenty of people are feeling the Pokéburn right about now. I’ll just spoil this here: I didn’t find anything. Like, nothing. Which honestly is on me. I didn’t fight for it the way today’s hardcore Pokémon collectors did, with pre-orders and early morning line-ups (which, please tell me you wore a mask and stayed six feet apart?). I asked around at my local shops. “We had a line up the block this morning!” they said. “Maybe April we’ll get more?” others pondered.
I went home, pulled up Ebay, and paid three times the sticker price for a set.
That’s not a choice I necessarily recommend, but I figured I had the means. I might as well just get a set and see how it feels to have these objects, these bugs, back in my hands again. My Bunnelby Pin Set arrived in only a couple of days. Instantly, I activated my old verification methods: check the edges of the cards for the thin black layer sandwiched between the two white layers, look at the blue splotches on the back of the card, make sure everything is spelled correctly. If all of that checked out, I knew I’d have an authentic set on my hands. It all did. At that pricetag, it had better.
Flipping through my new collection of some old friends and others who I’d have to look up, one thing was clear: this is not 1998. I don’t mean it isn’t fun, or that 1998 somehow had better cards. I hate it when people get all “Back in the day…” about pop culture. Everything is someone’s “Back in the day…” It all holds joy and suckery, varying the ratios for various people at various times. No, what I mean is: even if Tokyo reset itself to its 1965 look, even if it peeled away all the concrete that had paved over natural growth, even if it brought back every single bug, I don’t think today’s Satoshi Tajiri would feel the same there as he did when he was a child. Perhaps I’m projecting. I certainly don’t mean to assume Tajiri’s experience. I just mean to suggest that 1960s Tokyo needs 1960s Tajiri. 1990s Pokémon needs 1990s Jonathan. And the fact is: those people don’t exist anymore.
That’s the trick nostalgia plays. It lets you assume that the past only washed away the good parts. If I dwell on it, I’m not eager to revive the Jonathan who panicked about not getting good grades in Eighth Grade, or who felt ugly constantly, or who struggled to figure out where they fit in the world. That was 1990s Jonathan. 1990s Pokémon was a solid escape from that, sure, but it was also a pretty regulated luxury. Sometimes, I could shake down a parent for a booster pack, but plenty of times, I couldn’t, and I get it. They were focused on other things. Like making sure we had dinner.
So now I have 2021 Pokémon. I’m happy I’m still searching for a shiny Charizard, though now it has delightfully become a “Vmax” card. I’m glad I still haven’t found one. Part of me, not the part of me that likes the idea of financing a vacation off of glitzy cardboard, but a different part of me hopes I never find the old red lizard. Ahab had a white whale, and searching for it obsessively turned him into a madman. Sometimes I worry that toy companies dangle prefab versions of our childhoods in front of us, hoping we’ll go just as mad. “Here’s a G.I. Joe that looks just like it did in the ’80s. Did that make you feel like you did back then? Oh, it didn’t? Here, try a Transformer.” And don’t get me wrong: all of that stuff is fun. I have tons of it! But it is all, still, fundamentally, a common 2021 Pokémon, built for our unique 2021 selves. Finding joy in that is the exercise of toy collectors now. Because our childhoods are the Holo Vmax Charizards that are guaranteed to be in the next pack, the next box, the next bubble, but never are, because they aren’t products. And we wouldn’t want them to be.
I didn’t pull the Charizard, but I did get one of these:
It’s a Holo Suicune. I have no idea who Suicune is. I’m grateful to start the new adventure of finding out.