Believe me, I know from hands. I think I could recognize us just that way: ArtiezToyz has clean, broad fingernails and almost hairless knuckles. MPHotWheels wears a gold watch on his left hand. CarsFan1212—she of the annoying Wisconsin accent—always has little hangnails. But CollectorALK. Sometimes I watch the videos and I don’t even see the toys. Just the rings, silver ones, on every finger, even the thumbs, and usually bracelets and always nail polish in a different color. She prefers sparkle polish in pastels, but sometimes has yellow or blue. Watching the hands peel off stickers to apply to toys, or fit Legos together, or stick a tiny clay cherry on top of a tiny clay ice cream cone is like watching one of those psychedelic movies from the 1960s. All swirls and colors and flashes of silver as the rings reflect the light.
From the comment stream: “all we ever see are ur hands! can’t u make a video with ur face.” It makes me mad. No toy collector ever shows his face. Not how it’s done. The comment is probably from a teenage boy. But I guess I was one of those once.
I have lots of Collector ALK videos favorited. The one I’ve watched most often goes like this. Screen up on a wood tabletop and a green back drop. Upbeat instrumental music. On the table, a large yellow box propped up, and her hand reaching in, fingers pulling at the cardboard tabs to tear it open. She says, “Hi friends! It’s CollectorALK here, with another review for you!” (This is the way she always starts. Her voice is high and very girly, with an accent. I thought she was Japanese at first because she sounds like an anime character. But after I’d been watching for a while, I noticed she’d done some videos in what she said in the description was Portuguese, so I guess maybe that accent sounds a little like an Asian one, but she’s the only person I know who speaks Portuguese, so I can’t generalize.)
(Ok, you’re right. I don’t know her.)
So anyway, my favorite video. She’s reviewing a PlayDoh set—she likes those a lot—and she’s making little alphabet shapes out of dough and feeding them on a spoon to a big Cookie Monster head, which gapes open at the neck (pretty scary, really) to swallow them down. CollectorALK has silver polish and pink beaded bracelets on both wrists. At 5:12, she croons, “Open up,” and dumps a B, an X and a P into his throat. “Good monster!” she says. Maybe it’s her accent, but everything sounds cheerful.
Most of the collectors have kids. ArtiezToyz’s appear often in his—they look about 8 and 10, a girl and a boy. His videos are shot in his studio: pro layout in addition to top-notch editing software. His kids help, but look kind of bored by it, bashing trains together or cracking open Kinder Eggs, licking their fingers. CarsFan1212 has a boy whose name is Pedro. Collector ALK is a mystery. No kids in the video. No one helping. No second pair of hands to wind up the Disney Pixar Racers 2 Spy Boat and send it across the surface of the water in the immaculate tub. She does it all herself. And if she wears a wedding ring, even, it’s tough to tell when there’s a ring on every finger.
RJ’s not in my videos because he’s only two, which is a little young to be able to help, but I talk about him a lot. It’s been crazy to watch his tastes forming. I guess I never realized what strong personalities little kids really had. I mean, not babies, they’re just balls of nerves, but even when RJ was six months old, there were things he liked and things he didn’t. He liked the frog on a string that vibrated on his baby carrier, and could have cared less about the kittyhead rattle. When he was one, he got super into trains. He would throw his body back and forth whenever he saw one, real or cartoon, and had a little pull train on a rope that he dragged after him everywhere. And now he’s into cars. When we’re alone, when Toni’s out to dinner with some of the other teachers, or during her Zumba classes on Saturday mornings, RJ and I watch the other collectors’ videos. He points to what he wants, but CollectorALK and CarsFan1212 have the most hits, so that’s what usually pops up in the previews on the side. RJ’s got his own favorites. Right now, he’s into those Racers 2 Color Changing cars that go from red to purple when you dunk them in ice water. Sometimes he asks for Daddy’s videos—on his own, without me prompting him, really!—but he knows all those toys because he gets to play with them after I’m done with my reviews. (I’m not like ArtiezToyz, who puts them all on display shelves after.) RJ mostly likes to watch videos of toys he doesn’t have.
Something to that, RJ, I gotta admit.
I never collected toys as a kid, not really. My dad got me GI Joe’s and later I had Power Rangers and Pokemon. But I wasn’t too crazy about it, the way I know some of them were. MPHotWheels, who is from some Southern state and jabbers about himself like he’s got a vlog and not a toy review channel, claims to have started collecting Hot Wheels when he was four. Says he still has every one. I doubt it. I know from RJ—kids lose something everyday. I just gave him an Arlo the Ambulance Birthday Party Special Edition (Arlo’s got a party hat and wrapped gift in his bay—very cute, $12.99, Target Exclusive) and it’s already lost. Toni and I looked everywhere the other night while he had a fit, red in the face and making that weird, growling sound that he makes when he has passed the point of being able to stop crying on his own, until Toni eventually had to give him a chocolate milk to calm him down—against the rules at bedtime, but it worked and finally at eleven, he conked out in between us and Toni was just laying on her back in the dark, her face wearing that PTSD expression she gets after RJ’s had a meltdown. She had hinted at me earlier that she wanted to have sex tonight—not really a hint, I guess, since she whispered something unrepeatable in my ear when she hugged me hello after work—but I looked at her face, which looked tight and distant, and I knew it would be all off. I tried to take her hand anyway (hope springing eternal and all) but she squeezed it and then let go and pulled the blanket up to her chin, her eyes closing. When I was sure she was asleep, I got up and went into the living room and sat on the couch with the lights off, watching videos on the computer. I left the laptop on my lap even though I know that it’s supposed to cook your balls and lower your sperm count. If I’m honest, that’s probably why I did it.
I get an email whenever CollectorALK updates her channel. When she posts her three hundredth video—her nails are appliquéd with little panda bears and she has a red watch on—I click in the box that says, “Share your thoughts.” The cursor blinks at me for a while and I finally write: “Congratulations on your 300th video! Love your ch.” I stop, delete delete. I try again. “Congratulations on your 300th video—great channel.” I contemplate adding an emoji, but I leave it at that. Peer to peer acknowledgement, I think. I hit Post and then make sure to hit the thumbs up button. The video is an hour old and it already has 3800 views. Even though I would get an email if she had replied to my comment, I check back over the next few days just to make sure.
RJ and I had been watching the toy videos for a couple of months when I told Toni I thought I might like to try making some reviews myself. We were buying the toys anyway, I reasoned, because RJ had gotten so obsessed with the Racers movie and had to have all the characters, the playsets, the special editions. We were sitting in the living room after RJ had gone to sleep. Toni was drinking tea. She pressed her fingertips against her right eyelid. “I don’t understand,” she said. “You mean you want to upload videos of you and RJ playing with his toys? Or just you playing with them?”
“No way,” I said. “Not those.” She was thinking of those people who just reenacted scenes from the original movies with their own toys. RJ watched those sometimes and they were so tough to sit through that Toni set the limit at two, and then RJ had to do something else. RJ didn’t seem to be much of a critic: he sat through blurry focus videos that some ten year old took of his friends crashing cars together just as well as a pro review with tight editing and special effects. But Jesus, it was really weird to watch adults uploading story videos, using different voices for the characters. No info, no qualitative analysis. Just Having a Pretend, as my mom used to call it.
“I’m talking about toy reviews. You know, where you let people know how hard a toy is to put together, what kind of materials it’s made out of. Like, remember when you bought that Fernando Fire Engine for RJ and you bought the plastic and not the diecast, and it wasn’t compatible with his racetrack?”
Toni winced. “Do I.”
“That kind of thing. It’s helpful. And then we’d be collecting the toys and could sell them later. And, hey, if I get more than 10,000 subscribers, or I think 100,000 views on 20 videos, then I could join the YouTube Partnership Program and actually generate income.” Toni was pressing her fingers to her eyelids again but now she was shaking her head.
“You sound just like you did when you did all the research on the Occupational Therapy Program. And then on Bartending School.”
“That’s not fair. Not everybody knows what they want to do for a career from the time they’re seven years old like you.”
“You could still go back to Bartending School.” Toni was talking at her mug of tea, which was annoying me.
“And work nights? And never see you? Or RJ?”
“No,” she said, her head snapping up. “If you worked nights then you could stay home with RJ and we could save all that daycare money.”
“Toni, Jesus, I’m talking about a hobby. Something me and RJ could do together. Like building model airplanes were a thing, back in the day. I’m not even touching this job conversation.”
“Look,” Toni said. “If you want to make videos of yourself playing with toys, I can’t stop you.” She got up and took her mug into the kitchen and then passed back through the living room without looking at me. A few minutes later, I heard the bathtub running.
Collector ALK puts a Disney Pixar Racers Miniature Porter Pickup in its launcher after revving its wheels against a white tabletop. Her nails are painted with zebra stripes, her wrist has a stack of bangles. “Porter Pickup to the rescue!” she says, trying to approximate Porter’s deep Southern twang, and then releases the launcher tab. Porter flies into the air, smacks against the wall. “Wow!” she says. “Please be careful with your eyes when playing with this toy.” I scroll back and listen to her say this over and over.
From the comment stream: “Why does you buy stuff like this its baby.” Why is she different from the other reviewers, why does she have the most subscribers? Why is she not just another weirdo grown-up who posts making two toys talk to each other, cars or trains or animals with eyes and smiles being made to hop across carpeting? From the comment stream: “Show your face.”
I make a list for myself.
How To Be A Good Toy Reviewer
1. Know your stuff. Nothing worse than being like those videos where the people don’t know the basic details of the stories the characters come from. They pronounce names wrong. They don’t know the reasons behind the facial expressions, behind the special editions—why Racers 2 Torrent Turbo comes in versions splattered with paint or with an astronaut helmet or with a detachable cowboy hat. You have to know it.
2. Show your personality, but don’t be a game show host. Don’t be a morning DJ. Don’t make jokes. Be concise. Don’t be boring.
3. Don’t use copyrighted music.
4. Ignore the negative comments. Ignore the instigators (“CarsFan1212 is not going to be happy you reviewed the Jungle Excursion Mega Racers playset before she did!”). Focus on the positive. Somebody’s sister loves your channel. Somebody’s kid.
5. Keep it simple. Clean. Professional.
6. Have fun.
I set up my studio in the basement. The upside of working at Lowe’s is that I get the employee discount so that I can buy a nice big work table and bright lights. I ask RJ and Toni to help me shoot a couple demo videos so I can see the best position for the camera, the best way to eliminate shadows. RJ zooms a car across the tabletop, which he can just reach. I try a couple shots with just the car against the blue backdrop, but RJ yells, “That’s mine!” and throws one of his other cars across the room. He’s cute, with his strawberry blonde hair and long eyelashes, but he is a spitfire. Toni’s Italian blood or something.
“RJ, what did I tell you about that?” Toni says. “Next throw, that’s a time out.” RJ lets out a shrill scream, which he knows will get us both to fuss because we live in a duplex and we’re super sensitive about the neighbors when RJ makes noise.
“Toni, can you take him upstairs, please?” I ask. The camera keeps coming loose from the tripod, which will teach me to use a cheap piece of crap from Radio Shack.
“I thought this was something you were going to do together,” she says.
“We will,” I say. “I’m slated to do the first review on the Halloween-themed Racers re-releases this week, and then he can come down and play with them when I’m all done.” RJ is trying to tip himself out of Toni’s arms, 28 pounds of thrash.
“How generous,” she says, but then the tripod falls over and RJ shrieks again and the two of them struggle up the stairs. I set to work.
I asked Toni once about nail polish. Not that I wanted her to wear it. Not that I asked her to. I just asked why she never wore any. She laughed, a short huff through her nose. “No sense in that,” she said. “I liked it when I was younger. It was fun to do at slumber parties, paint each other’s nails. But now, there’s too much to do in a day with the kids, sticking my hands in buckets of stacking cubes. Washing them a hundred times a day.”
“You have to wash the kids a hundred times a day?”
She squinted an eye at me: wise-guy. “Would that I could,” Toni said. She put her head on my chest, her arms around my ribcage. We were on the couch, the lights dimmed, after one of RJ’s better bedtimes.
“You don’t need it,” I said. “You don’t need anything extra. Just you.”
“Flattery, flattery,” she said, but she had already crooked a finger into the prong of my belt buckle.
I comment again on a Collector ALK video. This time I try a direct question. “Great video, thanks. Was this item purchased through Amazon or found in-store?” Two hours later, my phone pings. It’s a reply. “This item was purchased on Amazon! Thank you for watching!” I’m at work and I’m not even supposed to have my phone on me when I’m out on the floor, so I put it away quickly. But I can feel that I’m grinning.
I add to my list: Don’t be afraid to self-promote. I leave comments for other collectors. I get 10 subscribers. Then I get 50, 75. I make two videos a week, then three. I stick with Disney Pixar stuff, because that’s what RJ watches and that’s what I know, but my sets get increasingly elaborate. I promote a new Arlo the Ambulance remote controlled vehicle by having it weave through a treacherous obstacle course of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and He-Man figures. I’ve had to get these off ebay, but then that video gets 700 hits in 24 hours, and I tell Toni I think I’m really hitting my stride. RJ is in heaven with all the toys coming into the house. He’s taken to saying, when I leave, “Bring me prize?” I leave for work early so that I can go to the Target and the Walmart before I head to Lowe’s. I also go to Barnes and Noble to get books on editing and shooting movies.
From my comment stream: “This is frickin’ sick!”
CollectorALK seems to be increasing her activity, too. She uploads three videos in a twelve hour span. Is it all she does? Maybe she’s a housewife and she does reviews while her kids are at school. Maybe she lives at home and takes care of her invalid parents. Maybe she’s a college student, or a high schooler, except she is too meticulous for that. And too, I don’t know, maternal, the way that she feeds her Cookie Monster head. Something about the way she drags the spoon across the upper lip. I feel sure that you’d only do such a thing if you’d had experience feeding another person. I click on her channel’s main page and go to the “about” tab. But all it says are the names of the brands she reviews. The number of her subscribers (over a million), the number of her views (ditto). I comment on her latest video: Play-Doh Professional Pizzeria. I write, “Keep up the good work.”
I am filming—video 20, actually—when Toni comes into the basement. RJ’s been asleep for about half an hour, and I could hear the floor creaking above me as Toni moved around, probably cleaning up in the kitchen or putting toys away. It’s sort of true that they are all over the house now. They spill out of RJ’s bedroom, and he brings baskets full of them into every part of the house and dumps them all over the floors. A ring of little smiling car faces watches us from the bathroom corner when we step into the tub to shower. I’m about to start recording when I hear footsteps on the stairs. Toni’s still dressed from work. It was Field Day at her school, so she’s got her track pants on and her t-shirt with her school’s mascot: a terrier. She leans in the doorway.
“Am I interrupting?” she says. She looks tired.
“Nope. Haven’t started yet.”
“The oil light came on in the Honda today.”
“Ok. I can take it in on the weekend if you want.”
“I already did it.” She pauses, crosses her arms. “I left work early before I had to pick up RJ and took it over.” She’s waiting for me to say something, but I don’t know what.
“Thanks,” I say.
“The card was declined. The debit card. Insufficient funds.” Instead of looking at her, I stare at the Porter Pickup Lego Duplo Set that I am about to open and construct, waiting on the table. Lego sets are really expensive. Way more than seems logical, actually, for little plastic blocks.
“I’ve let you have this hobby,” she says. “But it’s gotten out of hand. We see less of you than ever. The toy situation is out of control. He’s starting to expect a toy everyday. When I tell him you’ll be home from work soon, you know what he says? ‘With my toy?’ It’s too much now. I’m trying not to be mad--” Here she places a hand over her heart, like she’s taking some kind of oath. Maybe she thinks it makes her look sincere. “But this was the last straw. I’m sorry.” She is, she looks genuinely sad.
“I apologize for overspending on the toys. I will absolutely rein it in. We can make a budget this weekend.”
“No,” she says. “We can’t.” She turns and goes up the stairs. Why are women so vague all the time? Do they think it’s some kind of asset, to be mysterious, to never say quite what they’re thinking, to look at you with their unreadable expressions? To not look at you?
On CollectorALK’s page, on the “about” tab, I click “Send a Message.” A box pops up: To: CollectorALK From: RJzDad2011. I write:
I am writing to congratulate you on reaching one million subscribers and to tell you how much I enjoy your toy review channel. Actually, your channel inspired me to get into toy reviewing myself. I was wondering what inspired you to do this? You clearly put a lot of time and effort into your reviews. Do you have a family that helps you or do you do it all on your own? Finally, do you have any advice for a budding reviewer? Thank you.
I go to the comments on her newest video. I know she’s not going to write me back. I know she will never write me back. I click on the box that says, “Share your thoughts.” I write, “Show your face.” I post it.
RJ’s new thing is spiders. He saw one in his bedroom and Toni and I explained what it was: how all spiders have eight legs, how they spin webs and the babies hatch from little eggs. Toni tells him that wolf spiders actually carry their eggs on their tummies and when the babies hatch they hang on there while their mom carries them around. She’s explaining this at bedtime, sitting on the edge of RJ’s new big boy bed, and I’m in the rocking chair next to it. It’s part of our new agreement: both of us present during bedtime. After RJ goes to sleep, we hang out together, watching a movie, or Toni reading a book and me working on job apps.
“How do you know that?” I’m impressed.
She smiles. “The plight of the elementary school teacher. Know a little bit about a whole lotta stuff.”
So we go to the library and clear out all the spider books. RJ and I play wolf spider and I carry him around on my back. We wrap him up in blankets and he emerges from his egg sac and scuttles around the floor. Ok, it sounds a bit creepy, but it’s actually pretty cute.
When we’re alone, when Toni’s out, RJ and I watch spider videos on YouTube. His favorite is one that shows a scientist holding a baby spider on the tip of his finger. You can only see his hands, and he’s speaking in French, but there are subtitles. I read them to RJ. The baby spider spins its gossamer and the scientist says, “She throws a silk thread backwards to take off.” The spider turns a little circle on his fingertip. He says, “We can see the thread shining in the sun!” And then off the thing goes, ballooning into the wind. It always makes RJ laugh.
The scientist only has 19 subscribers and the video has 220 views. Two hundred of those are probably us.
Colleen Abel is the author of Remake (forthcoming in 2016 from Unicorn Press) and Housewifery, a chapbook (dancing girl press, 2013). A former fellow at UW-Madison’s Institute for Creative Writing, her work has appeared in numerous journals, including Colorado Review, Pleiades, Phoebe, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. She works for a digital media startup and lives in Wisconsin.