Obviously I can and do indulge this passion for tawdriness around my home town, but it’s much more fun to buy tacky souvenirs while traveling. The gift shop full of local crafts and food products is not where you’ll find me- I look for the cheesiest, neon-lit, tasteless T-shirts-in-the-window store I can find. Lately, however, it seems that wherever I go, tasteful souvenirs have taken over. I have to search harder for something appropriately awful, because it can’t just be any old tasteless souvenir, it can’t simply be hideous- it has to be amusingly hideous.
I started with snow globes. Not the nice glass ones on a wooden pedestal, but the cheap plastic ones- clear on the front, blue on the back, with some local landmark molded out of plastic inside, highlighted with badly executed hand painting. It was important that it have the name of the place or the attraction on it, and the more snow inside the better. Bonus points were awarded for offbeat shapes (treasure chests, bottles, the belly of a plastic alligator), or if a perpetual calendar was built into the base. But snow globes had a few problems as a souvenir: sometimes they leaked in the luggage, and if it was an extended trip and more than a few had been purchased, they began to add a little too much weight. And now they have been banned from carry-on luggage by the TSA. The final straw came when snow globe manufacturers switched from actual three-dimensional molded scenes inside the domes, to simply printing the scene on a flat piece of plastic. I demand a little more effort than that. Plus there was a trend toward glitter instead of snow- not that glitter is always wrong- in a snow dome from Las Vegas or Graceland it might be highly appropriate.
Another thing I like to buy is postcards, a popular souvenir for more than a hundred years. It used to be easy to find “Greetings from (name of place)”, the ever-popular jackalope, the fur-bearing trout, and of course, the giant fruits and vegetables on the back of a semi-truck or railroad car. But I always liked postcards with photos of things that weren’t particularly scenic: a freeway interchange, a factory, a shopping mall. One of my prized postcards features a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit ) train silhouetted against a sunset. These days, perusing a postcard rack for something tacky is discouraging, since they all seem to be filled with beautiful, tasteful photos of the local scenery with nary a jackalope in sight. Occasionally a tacky one still pops up- in Arizona it’s usually possible to find some version of “toppled saguaro squashes car”, and in many places there is some version of a falling-down shack labeled “(name of place) Vacation Home.” Still, the spread of tastefulness can be discouraging.
Then I discovered floating pens, also known as “floaties”, “tilt pens”, or their official name, “floating-action pens.” This is a ballpoint pen in which the top half of the barrel is clear and filled with mineral oil. A background scene is printed inside the barrel, and a piece of plastic film with something else printed on it “floats” in front of the scene, and moves as the barrel is tilted. This allows, for instance, a sailboat to move across a lake, or, in a pen I bought in Mermphis, the disembodied head of Elvis to cross in front of the gates of Graceland. I consider the floating pen to be the perfect souvenir, as they fit easily in a purse or pocket, weigh almost nothing, cost approximately three to four dollars worldwide, plus you can actually use them, while most souvenirs just sit and look decorative. I’ve actually been known, when booking a flight, to take the one with a layover in an airport I haven’t been through before, just in the hope of finding a new pen. Sick, isn’t it? All proper floating pens are made by the Eskesen company of Denmark. Peder Eskesen, a Danish baker, first perfected a way to seal the barrels in 1946. The pen components are made in their factory in St. Merlose, Denmark, then parceled out to be assembled at home by villagers. Their earliest pens tended to feature women or men who appeared to be wearing bathing suits, until the pen was tilted to reveal their nakedness. They eventually branched out, and now it is possible to have custom pens made for yourself or your company, provided you are willing to order the minimum amount of 550 pens. In the last few years, knock-off floating pens made in Hong Kong or Italy, identified by their fat plastic barrels (Eskesen pens are generally narrow), have made inroads into Eskesen’s market share. These pens are garbage and tend to leak, but more and more souvenir outlets seem to be buying them, an unfortunate turn of events. Still, over the last twenty five years, I have managed to amass quite a collection of Eskesen pens. Someone once asked me where I got refills for the pens when the ink ran dry- I had never even considered the question. When one runs dry, I put it away and get out another one. I’m pretty sure I won’t run out of ink in my lifetime.
My most prized floating pens include one from Berkeley Systems, featuring the famous “flying toaster” from their screensaver, and one from Chicken Boy, once a fried chicken delivery service, whose mascot was a man with the head of a chicken, and later the name of a very fine catalog company in Los Angeles, sadly no longer in business.
Now it is true that I have also returned home with such fine tacky souvenirs as jewelry made from lacquered moose turds, jumping and squeaking rubber lobsters, and salt-and-pepper shakers in the shape of Mount St. Helens (they sit on top of each other, and when you lift off the salt the pepper is the shape of the volcano after the eruption). But the piece-de-resistance of my collection is a shrine from Paris. It’s a lavender metallic clamshell outlined with multi-colored Christmas lights. The base contains a drawer. The clamshell contains, not the crucifix or Virgin Mary that would be appropriate to a shrine (though these were available), but instead, a gold plastic Eiffel Tower. I’m unclear what sort of relic of the Eiffel Tower one is supposed to put in the drawer. Still, I consider it the best $13 I ever spent.
It’s not as though it isn’t still possible to find tacky souvenirs. I simply worry about the spread of tastefulness into an area of life where tastefulness isn’t warranted. Therefore, I urge everyone to buy tacky souvenirs wherever you find them, because if you don’t, they may not be reordered.