All This Delicious Plasticity

Cameron Thomas Snyder

I have an appetite for the inedible. My eyes widen at the sight of a wicker basket filled with fake fruit. A coiled vacuum cleaner hose will make my stomach rumble. I’ve been this way forever. Plastics make me slaver.

***

In the grainy footage on the VHS tape titled “x-mas of ’88,” I am five months old, a Tasmanian devil in a mobile manger bumping into houseplants and rolling over scraps of metallic gift wrap. The binky in my mouth palpitates like an external organ.

My older brother, sitting on the floor in the foreground, is the star of the show. He rips into the boxes and bags, eyes wide, exposing Santa’s little secrets—Alvin & the Chipmunks slippers, a Bart Simpson T-shirt, and, finally, a bucket of Legos. He rejoices on high. My mother sips her coffee and gives the camera—my father—a look over the rim of her mug, and then turns back to my brother. “Please keep those away from Cameron. You know how he likes to eat them.”

Meanwhile, I bounce in my bouncy chair, pretending I have no idea what she’s talking about. Listen, lady, nobody eats Legos. That is a totally ridiculous and unfair accusation. I’m a baby for Christ’s sake.

I continue to suck on my plastic pacifier, pacifying my true desire.

***

Roland Barthes on plastic: “It is a shaped substance: whatever its final state, plastic keeps a flocculent appearance, something opaque, creamy and curdled, something powerless ever to achieve the triumphant smoothness of Nature.”

Barthes proceeds, in his essay from Mythologies, to all but bitch and moan about the “stuff of alchemy,” declaring that “the whole world can be turned to plastic, and even life itself since, we are told, they are beginning to make plastic aortas.”

I do see the man’s point, and I hesitate to question his capacity to make a case against plastic, but how could he not have seen that these specific words might make a grown man’s mouth water? Flocculent, opaque, and creamy? I’ll have that.

***

In grade school, there was an older girl who ate her own hair. Her head was splotchy, a partially-mowed lawn. None of us kids from school ridiculed her; we just stopped and stared as she passed demurely in the hall. She’d been actively and publically pursuing certain compulsive urges we all probably felt ourselves, yet we were too ashamed to admit to them, let alone act upon them. She had real guts. However, I could not understand why someone would want to eat hair. It seemed too natural, had nothing in common with the dessert-like qualities of plastic.

Outside, during recess, I sat on the ground and considered this. I stuffed my mouth with a handful of pea gravel and gulped through a few pellets. Rocks tasted terrible. Nature was not for me.

***

Certain plastic bottles boast “BPA FREE,” meaning the vessels are made without bisephol A, a chemical that’s been used in the production of plastics since the ‘60s, and was recently under investigation for its purportedly harmful health effects, though it turned out to be harmless if ingested in small quantities. I’m no braggart, but I had my doubts from the start. My grandparents (healthy as retired racehorses) are nudging ninety-five, and they grew up in the heyday of plastics, probably ingesting BPA for every meal. How harmful, I wondered, could the chemical really be.

This BPA scare brings to mind the tumultuous, rumor-ridden case against margarine, and the false claim that the substance is one mere chemical away from being plastic. The shelf life of this particular piece of fake news lasted much longer than I would have expected, given the era of myth-busting in which it surfaced. I, for one, was one-hundred percent guilty of echoing this bit of misinformation any time the word margarine came up in conversation, and I would do so with conviction. I wanted others to admit to their appetence for plastic, for them to be confronted with some repressed desire to eat the inedible, and together we could sit down with a couple of spoons and dig into a tub of Shedd’s Spread Country Crock Margarine.

***

TITLE 21—FOOD AND DRUGS

CHAPTER I—FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRATION
DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES

SUBCHAPTER B—FOOD FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION

(CONTINUED)

PART 172 — FOOD ADDITIVES PERMITTED FOR DIRECT ADDITION TO FOOD FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION Subpart G—Gums, Chewing Gum Bases and Related Substances

Sec. 172.615 Chewing gum base.

The food additive chewing gum base may be safely used in the manufacture of chewing gum in accordance with the following prescribed conditions:

(a) The food additive consists of one or more of the following substances that meet the specifications and limitations prescribed in this paragraph, used in amounts not to exceed those required to produce the intended physical or other technical effect.

 

Masticatory Substances

natural (coagulated or concentrated latices) of vegetable origin:

Chicle, Chiquibul, Crown gum, Gutta hang kang, Massaranduba balata (and the solvent-free resin extract of Massaranduba balata), Massaranduba chocolate, Nispero, Rosidinha (rosadinha), Venezuelan chicle, Jelutong, Lech caspi (sorva), Pendare, Perillo, Leche de vaca, Niger gutta, Tunu (tuno), Chilte, Natural rubber (smoked sheet and latex solids), Isobutylene-isoprene copolymer (butyl rubber), Paraffin, Petroleum wax, Petroleum wax synthetic, Polyethylene, Polyisobutylene, Polyvinyl acetate, Glycerol ester of partially dimerized rosin, Glycerol ester of partially hydrogenated gum or wood rosin, Glycerol ester of polymerized rosin, Glycerol ester of gum rosin..

etc. & etc.

 

This is just a partial list of the chemical compounds OK’d by the FDA for the manufacture of chewing gum. Polyethylene, the most common chemical in grocery bags, plastic bottles, and toys, is, as you can see, among them.

***

By age six I’d more or less curbed my appetite for plastic; that is until someone who should have known better introduced me to something called Bubble Yum, and gave me the stern warning: Do not swallow this.

Are you kidding me? You give me something this close to plastic that looks suspiciously similar to a Lego block and tell me to put in my mouth and chomp on it, to essentially prepare it for consumption, and yet I cannot swallow it? Come on.

Insubordination has its consequences. My consequence came in the form of an enema (plastic) shoved up my butthole by my grandma’s mall-manicured index finger. The cork of accumulated gum popped from my intestines, and I spent the rest of the day on a patchwork sheet of plastic H-E-B grocery bags trying not to shit myself.

***

In a 2017 interview with skyNEWS, Sir David Attenborough was asked to choose the “most heartbreaking example” of what he saw while filming Planet Earth. He had this to say: “The albatross are such marvelous birds. They form partnerships for 50 years, they circle the Antarctic collecting food, they come back to their mates at the same place, but they also feed their young. And there’s a shot of the young being fed and what comes out of the mouth, of the beak of the adult? Plastic.”

Certain seabirds—like the albatross, for instance—are attracted to the scent of dimethyl sulfide (DMS)—an organosulfur byproduct released by algae. Krill, the albatross’ main source of food, eat algae; therefore where there is DMS there is typically krill. When the albatross catches the scent, it swoops down to the DMS patch and scoops up whatever’s in the area. Studies show that the DMS emitting algae attach to various forms of plastic, which in turn makes it reek of sulfur—or food, if you’re an albatross. With a beakful of Smart Water bottles and plastic grocery bags, the marvelous birds return to their young.

***

While the albatross consumes a grocery bag and baby-birds it to its young, I purchase a refurbished laptop from eBay—a Lenovo ThinkPad T420 with a keyboard that clacks like crow’s feet on a cold aluminum roof, each square key as black and smooth as a nib of licorice. But oh, I’m not done yet: I purchase an Olympus OM-D E-M10II digital camera made of sleek, silver plastic. And, just for good measure, I buy a new turntable and a few new vinyl records. I have not consumed, yet I am a consumer. I surround myself with plastic and say: I don’t want to eat these goods, not like the albatross accidentally eats his bag, that would be insane. Maybe it’s not the plastic itself that I am attracted to; maybe phytoplankton-like organisms are spewing off an organosulfur that I simply cannot resist. Whatever the cause, I’ve caught the scent. With my Shopping Cart as my beak, I swoop and scoop.

***

Barthes on toys:

Current toys are made of a graceless material, the product of chemistry, not of nature. Many are now moulded from complicated mixtures; the plastic material of which they are made has an appearance at once gross and hygienic, it destroys all the pleasure, the sweetness, the humanity of touch. A sign which fills one with consternation is the gradual disappearance of wood, in spite of its being an ideal material because of its firmness and its softness, and the natural warmth of its touch.

 

I can’t recall having in my possession a single wooden toy, not one, not ever. Barthes considered wood a “poetic substance,” one that “does not sever the child from close contact with the tree, the table, the floor.” How often, during the course of any given day, does a child physically frisk a tree? Nuzzle its pines, grope its trunk? Why would a child venerate nature when nature is destined to rot and die?

Plastics, on the other hand, show the children what it is like to live forever.

***

Since childhood, I’ve had this recurring daydream of sitting down at the dinner table, white cloth napkin tucked deep into my shirt collar, and digging into the breast of a traditional NERF football with a knife and fork the way I would go about eating a Cornish game hen. Traditional NERF footballs are not plastic exactly, more of a spongy poly-resin with a consistency similar to that of a yoga mat or a human thigh at rest. But the surface is sleek and smooth like plastic, deceptive in the most appetizing manner.

Most non-eco-friendly yoga mats are made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which ranks number three on the most commonly used plastics list. Stretching on my mat gives me a feeling of comfort; it protects my bones from the hardwood floor. It is a thin epidermal layer that severs me from the natural world; the wood, the trees, the earth. Soft plastics are wonderful substitutes for human touch (see, if you dare, Fleshlights). As I perform a daily regimen of sit-ups, the cheap HemingWeigh yoga mat cradles me lovingly like I’m an infant again, resting in the palms of my mother.

***

Unlike Barthes, who both watched and resisted plastic’s usurpation of wood, I was born in an era where plastic was already a neo-natural substance of supreme ubiquity. For me, it is a matter of aesthetic preference, of traditions and attachments and human tactility. My teeth miss the teething ring, the binky nipple, the Legos. We can’t let plastic go. We are of it.

***

In late June, 2018, I stood on the front porch of a stranger’s house in the suburbs of Denver. It was 7:30 a.m. and I’d found myself in the uncommon position of being number one in an estate sale queue. From the photos provided on estatesales.net, I understood there to be a veritable wealth of vintage Lego sets in what appeared to be in the basement of this house, and I couldn’t let somebody else get to them first. Of course, the Legos weren’t for me, per se, not in the grand scheme; I simply planned to sell them in bulk on eBay, because, as atavism continuously proves unavoidable, I had begun selling plastic toys on the internet.

By 8:45 the queue grew to ten deep, surprisingly short for a sale of this caliber. The older gentleman behind me, number two in the queue, stared at me, appraising my knowledge of valuable used goods, and I did the same of him, until finally he asked, “So what brings you out here so early this morning?”

I hadn’t yet verbalized my purpose to anyone, and I was fond of the notion of not ever having to, but the man had put me on the spot.

“I am here for the Legos,” I admitted.

“Ah, I didn’t figure you for a Lego guy,” he said. “I thought for sure you were here for the djembe.”

I winced. “What can I say? I started young.”

He told me he was a vinyl guy, had just the other day purchased over a thousand jazz records from a single estate sale. How badly, I wondered, did this man want to eat his record collection, to slice each PVC disc with a metallic pizza wheel and ingest it, piece by piece? About as badly, I figured, as I wanted to eat a bowlful of Legos.

They were stored in the basement in three large tin cans, the kind that once housed a triad of holiday popcorn, probably ten gallons’ worth. I bought all three cans, $20 each, along with two other multi-gallon plastic Tupperware boxes filled with various action figures, and loaded it all into the back of the Subaru. Vinyl-guy stopped by to give me his business card in case I wanted to look up his eBay store. Or maybe he was inviting me over for plastic pizza, I don’t know.

By the time I got back to the apartment, my girlfriend was still at work. This meant I could rifle freely through my toys without enduring the scrutiny I probably deserved. I stood in the living room, doused in mid-morning light, and assessed my bounty. There had to be over a hundred pounds of toys in those containers, all made of hard, flocculent plastic. Echoes of my mother’s admonishments filled my head. Please keep those away from Cameron.

I poured out the Legos in satisfying cascades of hollow and flat shushes, the plastic piling in high mounds on the accent rug. Squinting into the red, blue, white, and yellow bricks, I saw kaleidoscopic fractals of forbidden food. You know how he likes to eat them.

I squatted there on my haunches and used both hands to spread the pile of plastic bricks into an even layer. This was the moment I’d been waiting for. I slavered, my feast set before me.

 

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Cameron Thomas Snyder lives with his girlfriend in rural New Mexico, where he writes and commutes fourteen miles round-trip to check his mail. He was awarded the 2019 Emerging Writer Fellowship in Nonfiction from Lighthouse Writers Workshop and a scholarship to the Chautauqua Institution. His stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Subtropics, The Normal School, DIAGRAM, Barrelhouse, Entropy, and elsewhere.