Unexpected pleasures of geezerhood

Thursday, June 4, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

I went there to see the monkey.

Actually, I planned to rescue the monkey.

When I arrived, Bunky wasn't interested in my services. She was watching All My Children.

Somebody had told me there was a little spider monkey imprisoned in an unlikely place -- Grand Antique Mall at 9701 Reading Road in Reading. I may have had the impression that the cage was small, the conditions squalid. Bunky is 12 years old, and her cage is cleaner than the average college student's room.

Larger, too.

Amenities include fresh water and a hobby horse, and the view from Bunky's quarters is excellent. I don't know how old she is in people years -- she'll live to be about 45 -- but if she's a simian baby boomer, it's no wonder she seems so comfortable.

She's surrounded by our stuff.

Nostalgia for sale

A Zorro lunch box. Mr. Peanut salt and pepper shakers. A Blatz beer sign. Elvis bubble gum cards. A Rosie Reds hairbrush. The 25,000-square-foot mall is a kaleidoscope of memories, flashes of Grandma's china cupboard and the school lunchroom, although the prices are decidedly modern. The lunch box is $69.

I am wishing my mother had been a pack rat.

"Everybody says that," manager Robb Armstrong says with a laugh. "Especially about the collectibles."

The items I most admire, he explains, are not antique, just collectible. I like the sound of that. It's bad enough that my friends are giving each other gift certificates to medical supply centers and that our music is on the "oldies station." I'd hate to think I am a genuine antique.

No, what I am instead is a very lucrative market. About 7,745 baby boomers will turn 50 every day for the next 10 years. That's 28 million opportunities for anybody who can think of a way to capitalize on our self-interest. And our newfound geezerhood.

"If you've begun to wonder why your gums recede, if you have Tums in your pocket and Mylanta in your drawer, and if you have your proctologist's phone number on speed dial, you've reached middle age," says Mary-Lou Wiseman, who has chronicled the boomer coming of age for several women's magazines, as well as the New York Times and the New Republic.

"After the age of 30, the brain loses about 100,000 neurons a day," she told me on a trip to Cincinnati. "These nerve cells tend to take the car keys with them and leave important things behind, like the words and music to the Mickey Mouse Club song."

And there's nothing we like better than remembering the days before estrogen pills and Viagra.

Of course, I am ignoring the really old items available from the 175 dealers who stock the cubicles. Beautifully carved furniture, pottery and jewelry. Some middling-old items -- a poster of the 1928 Republican ticket, headed by Herbert Hoover with Myers Y. Cooper for governor and Gilbert Bettman for attorney general. Out of respect for Bunky's feelings, I also did not closely inspect the many stuffed animal heads.

It's a sunny, weekday afternoon, and I have the place almost to myself. "We love bad weather," Robb says. "And weekends." The Grand just celebrated its second anniversary, and "business is real good."

It's open every day, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays and from noon to 6 p.m. Sundays. "We are crowded, really crowded, on weekends." After a couple of hours of trying on fringed suede jackets and giant sombreros and a maroon fez, after playing with a gumball machine and an Alice in Wonderland marionette, after finding a Schwinn bike that looked just like the one my brother wouldn't let me ride, I went back to Bunky's cage to see whether she'd changed her mind. She still didn't want to leave.

Neither did I.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com