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Strange Customs

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Plush-toy cavity searches and TV blues

By Bob Harris

AT LAST, I SAY it's high time that our government finally decided to crack down and seal our borders from the harmful contraband affecting the lives of our kids. No, I'm not talking about cocaine. Or marijuana. Or heroin, or tamales, or Tijuana Bibles. I'm not even talking about the Mexican border. I'm talking about our northern boundary with Canada, thousands of miles of unprotected frontier now facing a never-ending stream of ... contraband Beanie Babies.

That's right. Our kids are addicted. Canadian kids aren't. So in response to the unequal demand, Beanie Baby smugglers are now muling the cuddly contraband into our great nation.

But fear not, fellow citizens, for the brave-hearted men and women of the U.S. Customs Department are on the case. Customs policy now states that "a consumer is allowed ... one beanie ... for personal use every 30 days." This is compassionate use, indeed, allowing addicted children a maintenance fix of Beanie Baby methadone.

So as you read these words, customs agents are searching incoming vehicles from Bellingham to Calais, seizing the scourge on sight. Two Beanies for your daughter's newborn? Sorry, Grannie, out of the car and up against the wall.

And some of the tiny plush toys aren't even genuine, but knock-off Beanie Babies, presumably cut with baking soda. But rest easy, citizens. As one customs official explained (and this is for real): "If we think it's a phony, what we can do is detain the Beanie Baby and submit it for verification."

Hallelujah. Here's yet another stirring example of our tax dollars working to keep America safe: You and I are actually paying government officials to protect a private corporation's trademark by stopping plush toy puffins at the border and demanding, "Your papers, please."

If you'll excuse me now, I'm going to go lose my mind just so I can blend in around here.

OK, so the other day this guy stops traffic in Los Angeles and waves a shotgun around, so of course the TV stations drop everything and go live to the scene. Eventually the guy points the shotgun at himself, and suddenly a couple of thousand school-aged kids viewing at home have something new to ask mom and dad about.

And then afterward we have this huge debate: Should TV stations have covered the whole thing, especially during an hour when school kids are just getting home? And if the answer is yes, then should the TV guys have cut away before the suicide?

And if the answer is yes, then did they have enough time to see he was suicidal? And if the answer is yes, then what do we do in the future to keep all this from happening again?

All of which is a bunch of rubbish, since this whole TV debate is always accompanied by even more clips of the guy about to kill himself, which, if they're actually concerned about the questions they're asking, they wouldn't even be showing. And still, there's one thing missing in this whole debate: the guy. Remember him? The actual human being here?

Why'd he pull the trigger?

Oh, yeah, he spread out a big message about HMOs being in it only for the money--this just in!--and a smaller message about safe sex. Apparently life taught the guy some lousy lessons, and he wanted to share them with us on his way out.

Y'know what? Just for a second, let's take the guy at face value. I don't know anybody who's happy with their HMO. Wouldn't it be nice if, in the aftermath and debate, somebody on TV bothered to report on what's happening right now in managed care, and what sort of alternatives might exist? And safe sex is something worth talking about anytime a whole group of kids are about to become teenagers. Which is every single month.

In the middle of all of the media fuss about all the media fuss, wouldn't it be nice if for just one minute we pretended that maybe this guy might have been an actual human being, and not just a money shot?

Granted, some folks worry that all the TV coverage glamorized the thing so much that now we're gonna have a whole bunch of other people staging spectacular exits, just to get 15 minutes for their own little causes.

Not to worry. Nobody's going to repeat the show to make a point. It obviously wouldn't work. The guy on the highway might have erased himself, but the media's complete self-absorption managed to erase the reason he did.

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From the May 14-20, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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