Friday, November 27, 1998

Memories of a doll riot veteran

Scars linger from '83 'Cabbage Patch' brawl

Times Leader Staff Writer 

November 27, 1998

The store lines may be long, the traffic hectic and the people a bit pushy on this "Black Friday." But days like today - traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year- will always seem like a breeze to me.

I've survived much greater battles.

It was exactly 15 years ago that I emerged unscathed from one of the greatest shopping massacres of all-time. Yes, I admit it, I was at the now-infamous "Zayre's Cabbage Patch Riot."

And it all began with a simple request from Mom.  "Zayre's is getting a shipment of those Cabbage Patch dolls on Sunday, and I've been trying to get one for Susan for weeks," she said. "I need you to go with me. If we get up there early, maybe we can get her one for Christmas. It's all she wants, and with two of us, we might have a better chance."

Having a sister 10 years my junior, I'd seen this before. Strawberry Shortcakes, Smurfs ... you name it, Susan had it. But there had never been anything quite like the Cabbage Patch craze. Supply, for some reason, could not meet demand, leaving the prospect of lots of disappointed kids on Christmas morning.

Still, I wasn't an easy sell for the Cabbage Patch quest. Asking a teenager to get up early on the weekend to do something enjoyable can be challenging. Asking a teenage boy to get up early on the weekend to go buy a doll is, well ...  staking out early for Rolling Stones' tickets I could understand. But for a doll?

Eventually, however, the dutiful big-brother instinct kicked in and I agreed to join Mom on the zany mission. I felt confident we'd snag one of the fluffy babies, and - as we left the house a few hours before the store's opening - I thought few people would actually be there.


As soon as we approached the store, I couldn't believe my eyes. There before us were hundreds of people, some - the papers later would report- who'd been there since midnight.  Undaunted, we proceeded forward.  While waiting for the store to open, the conversations among the masses were cordial. Everyone had a story about some child in the family who desperately wanted one of these ugly dolls. I took comfort in seeing one of my friends from Wyoming Valley West High School at a place that I had deemed a very "uncool" place to be.

All was well until about 8:50 a.m., when the doors finally opened. It was then that this previously mild-mannered group - which by then had reached nearly 1,000 - transformed into a frenzied pack of wolves.

A massive surge pushed everyone forward as the crowd frantically entered the store. Still, there was uncertainty as to where the dolls were located. Rumors outside had hinted they were not in the toy department, but at the front service desk.  The feverish hunt had begun.  Mom and I split up and I noticed a throng gathered near one of the front counters. Heading in that direction, I saw people running at full speed, pushing, shoving, elbowing and screaming ...


Even an offbeat teenager like myself- probably wearing a jean jacket and Twisted Sister shirt- felt I was above the situation.  "This," I thought, "is silly."

Soon, the store manager - later quoted as saying he was fearful for his life - began fending off the crowd with a baseball bat. Standing behind the counter with the bat twirling in the air, he began tossing the dolls out over the crowd. This, of course, triggered the same reaction you'd get from a fumbled football on Super Bowl Sunday.

One poor woman lucky enough to snatch a doll later was pushed to the floor and had it torn from her grasp. She was later taken to the hospital with a broken leg. Four others also were treated for injuries.

After what seemed like only a few minutes, it was all over. I could not bring myself to shove or hurt anyone for a doll, so I watched most of the chaos from the sidelines. Mom, I would learn after relocating her in the aftermath, had done the same. We headed back to the car empty-handed, but with our integrity and dignity intact.

That night, Wilkes-Barre was in the national news. Clips of the fiasco - mostly of the bat-wielding manager - appeared on CNN and stories ran in newspapers around the country. And a few weeks later, Santa somehow came through and Susan got her Cabbage Patch doll for Christmas.

Still, you'll never find me at a mall on "Black Friday" or wildly searching for the season's trendy gift. The trauma of my experience still runs deep. And while I don't hear chopper blades or gunfire, I can still hear the uproar of the crowd. I can still see those dolls flying through the air ...  I can still feel the madness.

But hey, have fun out there today. Drive safe. Be patient. And remember, no matter how bad it gets, it will never match the spectacle of Nov. 27, 1983.  No soup-of-the-day trend is worth it

Unless, of course, you've got a kid sister.

(This story originally appeared on page 1A of The Times Leader on November 27, 1998)