Urban Forager: Or, Risking Death to Accomplish a Collector's Double Hat Trick

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By Meredith Brody

Last Sunday night, I was floating out from the Pacific Film Archive on the wings of satisfied cinephilia after indulging in my latest guilty pleasure - seeing one of the over-the-top, melodramatic, kitschy, wildly sexual movies of Teuvo Tulio, a Finnish auteur of the Thirties and Forties whose wacky Sirkian black-and-white movies have to be seen to be disbelieved. (One movie remains in the brief series, 1946's The Cross of Love, showing at 6:30 p.m. on December 4th, and described as "a mixture of Stroheim, Sternberg, and Cecil B. DeMille.")

As I was leaving, my friend Lynn brought me back down to earth by twirling a little plastic toy in front of my nose: Marge Simpson and her towering blue beehive, sitting on a brown chair. "You can get them at Burger King," she said, "but I don't know if you can get them all - I found out about it late. They're meant to be lined up so they're all sitting together on a sofa."

And then she made Marge's hair spin.

I was caught in a fast-food-toy web. I'm not compulsive (oh no), I mostly buy for my seven-year-old nephew - my sister and I make the quest into a competition, seeing who can complete the series the quickest. (Involving cryptic phone messages such as "You won't believe this, I got the Golden Homer today!", the limited edition Holy Grail of the 16--count 'em - 16 Simpsons toys Burger King put out in association with The Simpsons Movie.) Finding all 6 of the Kung Fu Panda Happy Meal toys at one McDonalds -- that we needed to complete a set of 8 - on the same day as we saw the movie didn't feel quite right, however. It was too damned easy. (The psychologists call this the "theory of intermittent reinforcement," and it's very big in figuring out the psychology of collectors.)

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(The first time I took Ben to a McDonald's - he was maybe three, and well-trained by his mom - he said, in shocked tones, "Aunt M, they serve very bad food here." "Oh," I said, airily, "McDonald's is not a food store. McDonald's is a toy store." And that's where it's remained ever since, though somehow Ben has developed a fondness for McDonald's Apple Dippers skin-on slices of green apple served with low-fat caramel sauce).

Anyway, I have a few little Simpsons tschotchkes scattered around the place. I always thought the different couch scenes that open each show clever. And, though it's been years since I watched the show religiously (hey, it's in season 20!) I recently caught a genius episode called Dangerous Curves that was, I realized to my delight, based on one of my favorite movies of all time, the somewhat obscure Two for the Road (directed by Stanley Donen, written by Frederic Raphael, starring Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney, with a complicated narrative structure involving intercut flashbacks from different eras), although you could enjoy the show without knowing that. (Give it a shot. Watch the episode here.)

It felt like I had to rush out and buy those toys.

Which I promptly forgot about for, oh, 18 hours or so, when I was driving past a Burger King in Oakland and stopped and found Bart on the couch and the Simpson's dog what's-his-name sitting on top of a TV set playing Itchy and Scratchy.


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That night I was going to dinner in San Francisco with three friends. As we set out from their apartment in their car, I asked for a favor. "After dinner," I said, "do you mind if we swing by a couple of Burger Kings?" And then I confessed why.

My friends were more sympathetic than I thought they would be, being big Simpsons fans their ownselves: not only did the driver, Jeff, profess a special fondness for Chief Wiggum, he even knew that the dog's name is Santa's Little Helper.

After dinner we were headed towards the Burger King on Van Ness and Eddy when a tiny one I swore I never knew existed (though why should I?) mysteriously materialized on our path, at Ninth and Howard, attached to a gas station, and with a convenient parking lot.

My pals waited patiently as I impatiently watched a woman deconstruct the menu and painstakingly order $35 worth of assorted food that all sounded the same to me ("I'll have a WHOPPER, a Double Cheeseburger with nothing on it, a Steakhouse Burger, no tomatoes, extra sauce, a Loaded Steakhouse Burger, no cheese, Double WHOPPER with cheese, no lettuce..." - lettuce alone!, I prayed). And then they turned out to have Bart. And Santa's Little Helper. This was beginning to feel like a fool's errand.

But no, at stop #2, a drive-through, I got Maggie. At stop #3, on Fillmore and Post, where they waited with the engine running, like thieves, I found Homer and Lisa. Five down and only one to go!

"I think there's one on Taraval," said Jeff, but he was only kidding. I knew not to push my luck.

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But as I was driving home I remembered one last Burger King location, at the bottom of Grove near Market, across from the library. I parked outside of Gyro King, one of my favorite dives, not much pricier than Burger King and reliably excellent: the worst thing I can say about it is that it closes at 9:30 p.m., way too early, as far as I'm concerned.

As I walked towards Burger King I saw that, right outside its entrance, three of the area's al fresco residents were embroiled in a vivid, escalating conversation, somewhat fueled by whatever stimulants they'd ingested that evening and their own particular ongoing mishegas. Two were guys; the third, attempting to defuse the situation, kept on repeating "It's all about the love," while the men started to beat each other about the head and shoulders.

Part of me thought the best idea was to turn around and go back to the car, never having been fond of the phrase "innocent bystander." (A thought that had also occurred to me the day before, when two youths were acting weird at my first Burger King stop. Mindful of the recent rash of Oakland restaurant takeover robberies, I was relieved when I realized that they only wanted to jump the lunchtime line, not the cashier.)

But the collector in me forged ahead - nothing was going to stop me, even imminent mayhem - and I daintily skirted the imbroglio.

Inside, as if she'd been waiting for me, was Marge with her spinning bouffant.

And as I left with the prize I was willing to risk my life for - all six within slightly more than 24 hours! - the fight outside was breaking up. "I thought we were friends!", I heard one guy say, disconsolately.

When I got home and assembled the crew, I noticed that the TV set's screen whirled around and had, in addition to Itchy and Scratchy, pictures of Krusty the Clown and some TV news guy whose name I didn't know.

But I bet Jeff did.


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