At the toy store, a ruddy-cheeked little fat kid straight out of central casting charges through the entrance, huffs ‘n’ puffs around a mountain of cheapo Grinch crap, and stops short with a dramatic Nikes-on-linoleum screech. “Whoa!” he shouts as a red-and-silver Dragonfly: The Extreme Stunt Racer With X-Tech Wings! pulls a reverse loop inches away. “Can I try? Can I try?” he asks the stone-faced store clerk working the car’s remote control. Again: “Can I try?” No such luck: With a sly, evil grin, the full-grown clerk mocks the child’s desperate plea by adroitly zipping the Dragonfly between his little fat legs.

At the toy store—in this case, a Pentagon-sized Toys “R” Us looming large on Rockville Pike—people who shop online are considered weak and unadventurous. Buying a Tonka truck should never be done with the safe and sanitary click of a mouse. A Tonka truck should be impatiently yanked from the store’s dusty top shelf so that four other Tonka trucks tumble free and crash to the floor—one of them almost gouging out an eye.

At the toy store on this Saturday afternoon, there are 22 shopping days left ’til Christmas. When you read this, there will be probably 16 or 17 shopping days left ’til Christmas. Whatever: No matter when you go to the toy store this month—and you really should go to a toy store this month—the frantic, frightening, fantastic mood inside will have you believing that Christmas is just a few minutes away.

At the toy store, my colleague Nipples (don’t ask) is jacked up on Red Devil energy drink so he can properly battle people much smaller and quicker than he is. Nipples spends most of his time babbling about Legos. He is obsessed with Legos. He will not let anyone—parent or punk—get between him and his Legos. “I’m just afraid I’m gonna spend a hundred bucks,” Nipples says before taking another pull of Red Devil.

At the toy store, the more things change, the more they stay the same—although it should be noted that GI Joe’s kung-fu grip has been replaced by “machete chopping action.”

At the toy store, there are action figures for Homer Simpson and Stone Cold Steve Austin and Cal Ripken Jr. and Wolverine and the Beatles and—the flat-out coolest thing in the whole joint—those hockey-playing goons the Hanson Brothers from Slap Shot (each sold separately, of course).

At the toy store, there are no action figures for George Bush and Al Gore.

At the toy store, one of the hottest items of the year is Tekno the Robotic Puppy. He sells for $39.99. Tekno—whose “integrated circuitry enables real-time emotions and moods”—walks, dances, barks, sniffs, whines, and even does a card trick. Much better than one of those ugly little Furbys, if you ask me. But still: Although Tekno used to go for $500 and has become much more middle-class, I don’t understand why someone would spend $40 on a clunky silver canine that doesn’t even fetch.

At the toy store, Stretch Armstrong—a good buddy from way back when—is dead. “I ain’t seen Stretch in a long time,” Store Manager Steve says with a sigh.

At the toy store, Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots are dead, too—or are they? “I’ve seen signs that Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Ems are coming back,” Store Manager Steve says. “They made that cool sound, remember? Bzzzzzzz!”

At the toy store, an elderly couple is shopping for the grandkids. The little old lady wants to get them what they want; the little old man wants to get them into sports. She’s not listening; he keeps shouting anyway: “Anything baseball, and they show no interest! I don’t understand!”

At the toy store, there’s a bin of beaten-up crap no one will ever buy. At the top of this heap is the Official Michael Buffer Microphone Talking Key Chain. When you press the red button, ubiquitous boxing announcer Buffer is supposed to let loose his signature line: “Let’s get ready to rumble!” Instead, when you press the red button, Buffer sounds like he’s being hacked to death by GI Joe’s “machete chopping action.”

At the toy store, don’t even think of getting some time on the Nintendo and PlayStation machines. The same troika of dead-eyed punks hogs the games for the entire time I’m there. When I ask one of them what football game he’s playing—”So what is this, the new Madden?”—the little bastard actually snorts at me.

At the toy store, Christina Aguilera still looks like a tramp. Her barely dressed talking doll is activated by caressing her belly—touch her right and she’ll croon for you—and the box for her Sing A Long Microphone & Amplifier kit features a shot of the singer with her hands behind her head, her eyes half-closed, her bare midriff thrust out, and her orange-clogged feet crossed in a Lolita-like pose.

At the toy store, the ‘N Sync dolls all look like variations of Charlie Sheen.

At the toy store, Nipples can’t swing with the new and improved Transformers. “Mine were metal, and they were, like, trucks and shit,” Nipples says while handling a Transformer that is half bumblebee, half assault weapon.

At the toy store, the action figure for Tomb Raider heroine Lara Croft has extremely large breasts. The nubile crimefighter is intended for children ages 8 and up—however, I’m fairly certain those are 18-and-up boobs.

At the toy store, Tinkertoys and Lincoln Logs are placed side by side—in a dark, rarely frequented corner. Tinkertoys have been around since 1913; Lincoln Logs have been around since 1916. Nipples tears into a box of logs. “At least they’re still wooden,” he says.

At the toy store, the most disturbing item—besides the hand-held Buckmasters Bow Huntin’ game with realistic deer death rattle—is an action figure from The Mummy: the Cursed Imhotep With Spinning Scarab Action! This is what it says on the packaging: “Wind the scarab on Imhotep’s back! Recoil as the flesh dissolving scarabs spin!” There’s only one blood-soaked Imhotep left on the rack. (By the way, there’s no sign of that infamous fun-with-the-electric-chair doll.)

At the toy store, Chutes and Ladders and Battleship and Mouse Trap and Stratego and Risk and Sorry and Monopoly and Payday and Life and Perfection and Mastermind and Hungry Hungry Hippos and Clue still rule the board-games aisle.

At the toy store, a tiny pink-parka’d girl new to the world of walking slowly bobbles past a row of bikes. She is trying to hide her face behind a pink Barbie box, but I can see that her eyes are red and squinty and her cheeks are pudgy and wet. It seems that the tiny pink-parka’d girl is bawling so hard that she has rendered herself silent. Ten paces behind her are her mother and older brother, both giving her space and looking very tired. Apparently, someone is not getting what she really, really wants. At least not today.

At the toy store, at the finale of our three-hour visit (which goes fast, real fast), Nipples busts out his Discover card and buys a Hanson Brothers doll (Steve Hanson, the one who swears at the ref during the national anthem), a 1970 Dodge Charger Daytona Hot Wheels car, the Star Wars A-Wing Fighter Lego set, the Star Wars B-Wing Fighter at Rebel Control Center Lego set, and the Island Hopper Adventurers Lego set. Nipples doesn’t spend a hundred bucks. He drops $81.

At the toy store, I find it all but impossible to leave without a purchase—especially after seeing a beaming Nipples swinging his bag of loot around like one of the Lost Boys. Yes, money should be saved, bills paid, financial futures considered. But what the hell: I buy the damn robot puppy, thinking maybe he’ll keep the rats away in my apartment. I don’t like the name “Tekno,” though. So I name him Bob. He’s with me as I’m writing this. He won’t stop whining, so I reach down to pat him behind his floppy plastic ears. —Sean Daly