I was at the thrift store buying up junk to flip on eBay when I encountered the ghost in the form of a Giant Filthy Busted Ninja Turtle (from here abbreviated as GFBNT). More specifically, it was a three-foot tall, Ace Novelty 1989 plush Ninja Turtle that could wear a size four children’s pants in girth. It had ratty loose limbs, a missing mask, and a hole in the hindquarters leaking carcinogenic polystyrene balls out the ass. The price tag said five bucks.
Please God, help me be strong.
It was hoisted up on the top shelf, upon a pile of lesser stuffed animals – a pharmacy store valentine gorilla, and a dancing moose wearing a shirt than says Moose like Jagger — a pun that only slightly makes you want to pull your eyeballs out of your skull with a plastic salad fork.
Before I could question all of my life choices that led me here, I immediately rescued the GFBNT from the squalor — and saw that GFBNT was itself, squalid. The definition of squalid is “extremely dirty and unpleasant, especially as a result of poverty or neglect.”
Yes, yep, check, and check. I immediately placed it into my cart.
I am a collector. I have family, two kids, a small house. We are tight on space and money. I do not need this. It is literally trash. It is caked in layer of dust, secondhand smoke, unlove and homelessness. This thing is 28 years old, and its discoloration told the tale that it didn’t sit preserved in a childhood closet this entire time.
Maybe it got banished to a box in the shed, alongside the pool ladder to the pool that had collapsed in 1994. The lining had rotted and the filter had cracked and the water was overtaken with algae. Dad ignored it for a season. Not because he wanted to, and not because he was a bad dad, but just because the backyard had a bug problem and a mud problem, and now a pool problem. Problems cascade like this and solving one means you should solve all of them, and it was easier to wait until it wasn’t so freaking hot outside.
The pool was drained that fall, and The Structure sat there until it caved in and the kids were in middle school. They hadn’t used the pool at all in the final years, but man, they used to love that pool. Finally the day before Halloween in 1998, Dad had a reckoning with The Structure and a sledgehammer. But for some reason, he saved the ladder and stored it in the shed. Why he didn’t put it out with the garbage that Monday is not fully understood — except it is completely understood, because the shed is a storage container for your heart.
And that’s how GFBNT ended up out there in the shed, during Mom’s manic spring cleaning freak-out of 2001, which was really more of an anxiety trip over Shawn and Kala going to college. Dad remembered how much Shawn loved those Turtles, they were like members of the family. He used to do wrestling moves with this big one. Shawn lived in the dorms, no room for this thing. It went in the shed because that was where the heart gets stored for the next seventeen years.
No one expected it last month when Dad went into the hospital. It was sudden. Except there was nothing unexpected or sudden with the obesity, the out of breath-ness, and the constant sweating that followed him like a grim reaper for years. Friends and family helped out, making swift executive decisions, so shit was cleaned out fast. Donate pile, express lane, choo choo.
Maybe it wasn’t that tragic. Don’t feel bad. I make stories up. But it’s probably true, because you don’t have to dig very deep into anyone’s life story before you hit something sad. Finding sadness is like finding a cavity, even though you brush your teeth and floss religiously. Even though you pray to God and donate to charities and do a self-help workbook on anger management, you still get cavities.
There is a sadness in every object in the thrift store — a death, a discarded hobby, a divorce, an obsolescence, a waste of years filling our lives with all this crap. But on the other side, there is the spendthrift, the collector, the documentarian, the decorator, the person who can use such an object in a quirky way that makes you envy them.
I am here to document the GFBNT. Besides, I have a soft spot for these Ace Novelty plush turtles. In searching the internet, it seems no one else has ever really said anything about them. Ace Novelty is a Hong Kong exporter of toys — their other big toy line were Trolls. Not the Russ Trolls that all 1990s kids know, but the older ones that were uglier and more naked.
Though the Ninja Turtles would go on to become one of the hottest and most lucrative toy lines in history, in 1989, there weren’t a lot of toy makers chomping at the bit to make stuffed mutant turtles. So the budget toymaker stepped in, and managed to make the absolute worst stuffed animal ever. Instead of soft plush, these Turtles are filled with polystyrene beads. They’re not soft or huggable. They don’t age well. The outer fabric is thin, the stitching is poor, and they are prone to holes and lose limbs and rot.
An Ace Novelty Turtle was also the first Ninja Turtle toy I ever owned. We saw them on the boardwalk in Ocean City, Maryland. They were the prize you could win at one of the midway games. They lined the back wall like gold, announcing their presence. It was the summer of 1989 and these Turtles were the new hotness. Ace Novelty was gonna laugh to the bank and Mattel and Kenner could kiss their polystyrene asses.
My dad dropped twenty bucks on a rigged knock-over-the-pins game to win one each for me and my sister. It’s one of my favorite memories — not him spending all that money or his determination to make his kids happy — that appreciation doesn’t come until years later when you’re grown and full of cavities. I was just happy that I had myself a Leonardo, my favorite Turtle, and I was at the beach, and life was good.
Somehow the GFBNT symbolizes all of this. It is the physical form of feelings and events that are abstract and ethereal. So I take it home and add it to the pile, and my wife doesn’t even feel irritated. Because even though it’s trash, and space and money are tight, and she doesn’t even know it’s leaking cancer balls out the ass yet, she knows it’s like a ghost, it’s like a muse to me. It’s something that gets me writing and gets me sharing with other people, and other people get it. So it makes the world feel right for two minutes.
I might even learn to sew and stitch its ass. I’m going to make a new mask for it. A little bit of Febreze and it’ll look like a million bucks. Sometimes all I think I need is the right pair of jeans or a new haircut, and I’ll look like a million bucks, too.