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Holiday Barbie // (NOTHING LESS WILL DO)

It was about the sixth phone call, maybe the seventh, and I had graduated from slightly concerned to sweating concrete blocks, I'm-gonna-die panic.

"But you don't understand," I told the woman on the other end of the line. "I have to have a Holiday Barbie." Brief silence.

"What do you want? Money? Clothing? Ex-boyfriends' thumbs broken? Please, in the name of Dolly Parton, put me on the waiting list."

More silence.

"As I told you, sir," the woman said flatly, "we don't have any Holiday Barbies, aren't getting any, and we therefore don't have a waiting list.

"You might try F.A.O. Schwartz."

"I did. He's out of town."

It's just a stupid doll. You aren't even allowed to free it from its little plastic prison. If you do that, I think, searchlights come on, sirens go off, and the doll police show up to inform you that your $45 toy is now worth $2.29.

Yet Katie's mom and I go through this every year. We shell out $30 to $45 for the Holiday Edition Barbie _ a toy _ and then we stash it away in a closet.

Once you start collecting Holiday Barbies, you get sucked in. You become obsessed. You can't miss a year. It's like a Twilight Zone episode.

The first Holiday Edition Barbie issued in 1988 (the only one we don't have) now is worth close to $800. Even last year's doll, which set me back $35, is now valued at $150.

I keep thinking about that line from Indiana Jones: "This is a normal spoon. But if I bury it in the sand for 10,000 years, it's worth a fortune."

And then I think about all the good that does the poor slob who buried it.

Still, that's not the real problem I have with toys like this.

The whole concept of giving a toy and then stashing it away is wrong. Savings bonds, stocks, CDs _ those you put away and forget about. Not toys.

Every year, I have to explain to my daughter that she can't hug, hold, bend, fold, staple or otherwise mar this beautiful doll. Katie is 8, and like most kids, she doesn't quite understand terms like "investment," "lose its value," and "when you get older."

To her, "older" is 100 years from now.

I also think this sadistic form of give and take could leave lasting scars. I bet if I could fast-forward 20 years from now and interview women who were unhappy, many of them could trace their problems back to Barbie denial.

Yet here I am, stalking a doll. Again.

To make matters worse, there's a run on Barbies this year. Once upon a time, you could wait until after Thanksgiving and have a reasonably good chance of buying one. Not anymore.

We've had this ridiculous Earring Magic Ken doll sitting around the office for more than a year all dressed up in his purple vest and lavender mesh shirt, and nobody has touched his bad, flamboyant self.

Barbie's another story. For reasons known only to market analysts, retailers across the country claim that the 1995 Holiday Barbie is either arriving in small allotments or not at all.

I called JCPenney, Toys R Us, Kmart, Wal-Mart . . . even a strip club called Thee Doll House. I couldn't even get on a waiting list. (Well, at Thee Doll House, I could.)

Finally, I called Service Merchandise. They said they were out, but they were getting shipments, and if I wanted, I could call every other day to find out when the shipments were coming. The Crusaders didn't go to this much trouble for the Holy Grail.

But wait, it gets worse.

Then I could go to the store and try to wrest the doll away from the thousands of other Barbieophiles out there. It could get ugly.

I hated what I had become. I hated the doll. But I would do this, I told myself, for my daughter.

I thought about black market Barbies. I even considered dressing up Earring Magic Ken and trying to pass him off as the Holiday Barbie. It works for Ru Paul.

But then I remembered a story Tampa Tribune feature writer Tom Jackson had written about Barbie scarcity. I know he works for the competition, but we are sort of friends, and he's a parent, too, and . . . well, these were desperate times. Maybe he knew where I could score a Barbie.

Jackson said he had not one, but two dolls, and he was willing to sell me one of them for the price ($54) he had paid.

Stanley? Meet Livingston.

We arranged for the "drop" to take place next week in a shopping mall parking lot. We even have a secret password.

I feel a great sense of calm now, like that feeling you get after you mail in your income taxes _ you know you have to go through it all over again next year.

But you'll worry about that later.

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