“I’ve got to find Batman’s sidekick, Robin—and I’ve got to find him right now,” was the answer I gave Ann, my news editor at The Gazette.
My boss’s question was, “How are you doing with your Black Friday story about local toy sellers?”
So, yeah. I sidestepped the question because the story wasn’t going so hot. I really needed a masked superhero to step in and save this thing—or at the very least, I needed a plastic toy facsimile of a masked superhero.
I’m the guy who usually waits until the last minute to do holiday gift shopping. That might give you some clue as to how long I would wait to pull together a newspaper article I’m assigned to write about holiday toy shopping.
My original idea was to provide Gazette readers a breezy Friday morning read on local holiday toy-buying trends considering this is the first major shopping season after category killer Toys ‘R’ Us went out of business earlier this year. Like I said: breezy.
The last few months, analysts have been chirping about how retailers big and small are licking their chops to grab the segment of toy sales left open in the wake of Toys ‘R’ Us shuttering, including one former location along Milton Avenue in Janesville.
After all, the retailer moved about 20 percent of the $21 billion in toys sold in the U.S. last year, according to NPD Group and Jeffries Group, two national retail analysts, and now those toys have to go somewhere else.
So whose parking lots are now filling with the biggest number of former Toys ‘R’ Us customers? I’m sorry to tell you that’s a question I never really unraveled.
I tried, though. I got shot down by several local toy sellers. For instance, a spokeswoman for Shopko politely declined to delve into the store’s toy strategy in a local economy sans Toys ‘R’ Us.
Janesville-based Blain's Farm & Fleet’s local spokeswoman, Nicole Kilmer, was more keen to chat, but she stayed mostly on the surface of the Toys ‘R’ Us topic.
She said Farm & Fleet’s Toyland, a 12-aisle section of the store that becomes a toy haven for holiday shoppers every October, has been a fixture at the Janesville store and Farm & Fleet’s other locations since the late 1950s.
Before Toys ‘R’ Us existed and during its reign, Farm & Fleet has always tried to swing hard with holiday toy sales, Kilmer said.
“We’re obviously aware of that (Toys ‘R’ Us closing) situation,” Kilmer said. “We’ve always had Toyland (since 1957), so it’s not something where we have to nip on the heels of Toys ‘R’ Us closing.
“Toyland has always been popular. It’s always been known that we’re your one-stop shop for your toy needs. Hopefully those who aren’t familiar will see we have an outstanding toy selection.”
Walmart told CNN that during the holiday shopping season, it plans to boost the number of toys in its stores by 30 percent and bolster its online toy offerings by 40 percent.
It was hard to wrap my head around how I or the tens of thousands of other adults around Janesville who are out buying toys these next few weeks might factor into these huge numbers. I did learn from poring over state sales tax records that during the weeks spanning Thanksgiving and the Christmas season in 2017, consumers in Rock County spent $670 million—a 4.3 percent climb from 2016.
The trail started to run cold when I tried to drill down to how much of that was spent on toys or other individual items. And no numbers can offer local predictions of which retailers might reel in the biggest share of customers.
In retrospect, it all feels a little wonkish to me, anyway.
What was clear is that there might not be any fresh story angles a reporter can find to pin down “what’s hot” about this year’s Black Friday.
It seems what’s “hot” might depend on what your kid thinks is “hot” at the moment you head out to the store.
I told Farm & Fleet’s Kilmer that regardless of the status of Toys ‘R’ Us or any other aspect of the local retail sector, the big, urgent fact was I needed to get to the stores, pronto, to find a plastic action figure of Batman’s masked boy-wonder sidekick, Robin.
The situation: My 4-year-old twin sons, Quinn and Levi, recently decided they want superhero action figures for Christmas. Levi is adamant that he personally knows Robin. Quinn has gotten tangled in a web of affection for Spider-Man, the Marvel Comics superhero.
Both boys have become so pent up about it that they’re now exercising the only conduit they can find to get at superhero-dom: They’re running around the house pretending to be “Strong Man” and “Punch Man,” two superhero alter egos they created last week.
The physical antics of “Strong Man” and “Punch Man” explain why I found myself walking around Farm & Fleet’s Toyland earlier this month with gobs of super glue holding together my mangled eyeglasses. Blame Punch Man. He punches. A lot.
Good thing for me that in Farm & Fleet, I scored a Spider-Man action figure that shoots a rope web out of one hand and another plastic figure of Spider-Man’s arch enemy, the Hobgoblin.
That was $20 right there, but the cost ranked competitively with every online price point I could find for these particular toys.
Farm & Fleet’s store manager, a man named Tim, found out I was also hunting for a Robin action figure. Tim searched the store’s entire toy inventory to see if Robin was anywhere in the building. No luck.
Still, Tim told me he would call me if his store got in a shipment of Robin figures. I wanted to tell Tim he was a whale of a retail manager, but he vanished before I could thank him, as superheroes often do.
I decided to drive over to Walmart, playing the odds that the box retailer’s reported 30 percent increase in toy inventory might yield an elusive Robin. (See how news headlines reel you in?)
I was chatting with another customer, Janesville resident Stefani Phillips, about her “price now, wait for Black Friday sales” strategy and her theory that sometimes it’s easier to grab a toy in a store than to overthink it by comparing prices in stores to prices online.
I agreed with her: It’s probably immaterial if I paid $9.99 for Robin at a store as opposed to 50 cents less online. No matter what, I had to find Robin.
And just then, I did.
There he was: The last Robin on shelves in the Janesville Walmart. He was tucked behind the last remaining Batman and the duo’s most hated enemy, the Joker.
I grabbed the Joker too, satisfied, though I knew it wasn’t me who had found the inventory.
The inventory, like all great superheroes or super-villains, had found me.
The tradition was new to Janesville Salvation Army Majs. Tom and Julie McDowell: A complete Thanksgiving meal served on Thanksgiving Day by a crew of volunteers.
Though they’ve only been serving in Janesville for five months, the McDowells have taken to the tradition.
“It’s just wonderful,” Tom McDowell said.
About 120 volunteers served about 400 people at the organization’s Rock County headquarters at 514 Sutherland Ave., Janesville. Meals were taken to another 100 people at their homes.
As part of the tradition, diners, volunteers and staff shared what they were thankful for.
Tom McDowell was thankful for the day itself and to be in Wisconsin.
Diner Rhonda Green of Janesville was thankful for her new apartment, which is much safer than her old one. Rhonda, who attends church at the Salvation Army, is also thankful for her job at Walgreens on Court Street and for her co-workers.
“I also like to thank my feet for bringing me here,” Green said with a smile.
At the front door, visitors were greeted by Karen Bronson of Edgerton and half of the Guzzardo family from Janesville.
Bronson said she was grateful for “the Lord’s love and my family’s health.”
She was also thankful to be at the Salvation Army.
“I needed to be with people and do something good,” Bronson said.
Next to her, Nick Guzzardo and two of his children, Micah and Dillon, were serving as part of the welcome crew while the rest of the family, Cameron and mother Michelle, were working in the dining room.
It was the family’s second year as volunteers, and they hoped to make it a tradition.
Micah, 6, was thankful for his friends and “having a bed.” Dillon, 5, was thankful for his toys.
The boys’ father was thankful for “the surplus in our lives” and the chance to serve.
Patrice Gabower, Salvation Army volunteer and special events coordinator, was grateful for her family.
“I’m also grateful that I have time in my life to come in and serve the whole day,” she said.
Being at the Salvation Army on Thanksgiving Day is a blessing—a break from all the negativity that seems to pervade modern life.
“People are so thankful,” Gabower said. “It’s wonderful to be here.”
As the Salvation Army moves into the next part of its biggest fundraising season, Gabower is hoping that some of the Thanksgiving volunteers—and other community members who couldn’t serve on the holiday—will consider being bell ringers.
This year, the local Salvation Army hopes to raise $425,000 through its Red Kettle Campaign.
The Salvation Army has “thousands of hours” available for ringers, Tom McDowell said previously.
The money raised goes toward helping local families in need through meals, food baskets, social services such as rent subsidies, utility payments and even some housing. The money from last year’s campaign provided 18,054 hot meals, 7,747 food pantry orders, and 3,506 personal or clothing items, according to The Salvation Army.
Patty Rough lost her Paradise home and most of her belongings in the Camp Fire, and she had no place to cook a family meal on Thanksgiving.
But she and her husband are safe, and she was still able to spend the holiday with her children over plates of turkey, cranberry sauce and pie at a feast for thousands of people put on by volunteers.
She’s sad about everything she lost but realizes that others have far less.
“Today we’re grateful; I don’t know about happy,” she said, tearing up as she sat next to her son and across from her daughter. “‘Happy’ Thanksgiving is kind of a weird thing at the moment.”
Rough is among the thousands of people whose homes burned down when the deadly wildfire ripped through Paradise and surrounding communities. At least 83 people died. More than 13,000 homes were destroyed.
The blaze was 90 percent contained Thursday, two weeks after it began. Rain that fell Wednesday night and started against Thursday afternoon aided the firefight but complicated the search for human remains in the debris left by the blaze.
Wet, windy, cold conditions were making it hard for workers to see and move.
It wasn’t a normal Thanksgiving for any of the evacuees or workers.
Matt Berger, a member of a FEMA Urban Search and Rescue team from Orange County, said he and his colleagues are trying not to “get too wrapped up in the fact that we’re not at home for the holidays.”
“It’s just another work day for us—trying to bring some closure to some of the families that are missing their loved ones,” he said, standing in the cold outside a Paradise store that didn’t burn down.
Volunteers tried to bring a dose of normalcy to the difficult time. The Washington-based nonprofit World Central Kitchen cooked 15,000 meals, teaming up with Chico-based Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., the local university and the town of Paradise to serve them.
Celebrity chefs Jose Andres, who started World Central Kitchen, and Guy Fieri cooked and stopped for selfies with fans while reflecting on the tragedy that brought them there.
“This is going to be a year we’re never going to forget,” Andres said.
Eduardo Garcia was happy for a warm meal and a place to spend the day. He sat alone at a long table but said he enjoyed the sense of company the gathering in an auditorium at California State University, Chico provided. Years ago, Garcia helped build the auditorium, plastering the outside walls.
He lost the Paradise home where he lived, and his immediate family is in Hawaii. For now, he’s living with a friend in Chico.
“I don’t have anywhere else to go,” he said. “Even though I’m not with my family, you can feel good around other people who are in the same situation.”
Outside the Paradise area, scores of people opened their houses to strangers to provide a more intimate Thanksgiving.
Rachael Anderson hosted a displaced mom and daughter at her home in Redding, about an hour and a half from Paradise. Anderson knows what it’s like to live in a community devastated by flames: A massive wildfire swept through Redding last summer.
She didn’t lose her home, and she wanted to share it for the day with Athenia Dunham and her 15-year-old daughter, Natalie.
“They’ve lost their home, their traditions, whatever it is that they do. I just want to give them a little piece of home,” Anderson said. “That’s what Thanksgiving’s about; it’s not just about your blood family—it’s about giving thanks and helping each other.”
Faun and Danny O’Neel were hosting three families at their home in the Sacramento-area city of Folsom.
Faun O’Neel’s parents and grandparents lost their homes in a Calaveras County fire several years ago, so she said opening hers to others was a “no-brainer.”
Thanksgiving at a stranger’s house might not be what her guests initially expected, but O’Neel hopes it can provide some calm in a trying time.
“A few hours of normalcy,” she said. “Where they can laugh and enjoy other peoples’ company without thinking about what they just lived through and what is in front of them.”
President Donald Trump’s push to roll back federal regulations will take a significant toll on Americans’ health and finances, according to a surprising source: the Trump administration itself.
These human costs—which include more deaths from air pollution, higher medical bills and increased student debt—rarely get mentioned by the president, who often touts the economic benefits of his deregulatory campaign.
But a review of thousands of pages of federal regulatory and legal filings shows that multiple agencies predict in their own analyses that the changes will cause an extensive list of harmful, even deadly, effects.
The Environmental Protection Agency, for example, calculated as many as 1,400 more premature deaths a year as a result of its proposed rule providing incentives to electric utilities to keep coal-fired power plants operating longer.
The Department of Education, which has taken several steps to scale back rules on for-profit colleges and universities, had to disclose that one of its rollbacks had left students with more than $50 million in additional debt.
The Department of Homeland Security acknowledged in regulatory filings that its proposal to curtail immigrants’ access to Medicaid and other government safety net programs risks increasing malnutrition among children and pregnant and breastfeeding women.
And the Department of Health and Human Services predicted that lifting restrictions on health plans with skimpier benefits would reduce sicker patients’ access to medical care and expose them to higher costs.
“I have never seen an administration take such a callous view of the health impacts of their policy proposals,” said Lyndsay Moseley Alexander, who directs the American Lung Association’s Healthy Air Campaign.
Federal agencies often say in regulatory filings that those costs are outweighed by economic benefits. Officials project that their moves will spur economic growth, cut government spending or reduce administrative burdens.
Trump routinely cheers such benefits. “We’ve cut regulations more than any president ever,” the president told Fox Business News at a recent White House event in which he claimed deregulation was saving billions of dollars.
But hundreds of patient groups, public health organizations, consumer advocates and others dispute that, saying that many of the administration’s proposals pose particular risk for vulnerable Americans, including children, patients with serious illnesses and struggling students.
“The notion that deregulation is good for the economy and good for consumers is ill-conceived,” said Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League. “In fact, the overall cost of deregulation is actually a drag on the economy because it ultimately hurts consumers and harms their health.”
Dr. Todd Wolynn, who heads a large pediatric practice around Pittsburgh, said he and his colleagues are already seeing the impact of some of the administration’s moves.
“It seems like every time we see a regulatory change from Washington, it is hurting the health of our families,” Wolynn said. “These are the last people we should be taking protections away from.”
Since the Reagan administration, federal rules have required agencies to lay out the anticipated costs and benefits of proposed regulations through what are called regulatory impact analyses.
The rigor of these analyses has varied greatly, according to experts. Under Trump, several major policy initiatives have been undertaken without a full accounting of their potential effects, particularly on vulnerable populations.
The Department of Education, for example, did not report how many student borrowers would be affected by a proposed rule issued earlier this year making it more difficult for students who have been defrauded by colleges or universities to get debt relief. Nor did the agency report how much more debt these students could face.
Only when borrowers sued did the agency acknowledge in court filings that scaling back the federal government’s debt relief program had left students with $56.9 million in additional debt.
Similarly, the Department of Health and Human Services has been granting states permission to impose work requirements on Medicaid beneficiaries without any assessment of how many people could lose health coverage as a result.
Many advocates fear that the administration might simply stop reporting potential adverse effects from its proposals.
To date, however, agencies have acknowledged that several of the administration’s highest-profile policy shifts would likely cause significant harm.
Nowhere has this been more apparent than at the EPA, an agency that has long set the standard for evaluating the costs and benefits of proposed regulatory moves.
When Trump in 2017 ordered the EPA to scrap President Barack Obama’s landmark initiative to fight climate change by limiting power plant emissions, agency scientists reported the move would cause up to 4,500 premature deaths annually.
The administration’s proposed replacement—known as the Affordable Clean Energy rule—pushed the projected death toll even higher, according to EPA scientists, who estimated an additional 1,400 premature deaths every year.
The agency also predicted American workers sickened by increased air pollution caused by the added emissions would miss up to 48,000 days of work and sickened children would miss up to 160,000 days of school annually.
Another proposal by the EPA to rescind a ban on a type of polluting diesel-engine trucks, known as glider trucks, also would have been deadly, causing up to 1,600 additional premature deaths from just a single year of glider production, EPA scientists revealed in regulatory filings.
The truck regulation, which triggered bipartisan backlash in Congress, was ultimately withdrawn. In other cases, however, the administration has pushed ahead.
This summer, for example, the Department of Health and Human Services conceded that its proposal to loosen rules on short-term health insurance plans could cause patients who switch to these skimpier plans to “experience loss of access to some services and providers and an increase in out-of-pocket expenditures.”
These short-term plans—which were once limited to three months but can now provide coverage for up to three years—do not have to cap how much patients must pay for medical care, as health plans sold through the Affordable Care Act do.
Nor do these short-term plans have to offer a full set of benefits, such as prescription drugs, maternity coverage or mental health services.
In its proposed rule, the health agency said it was interested in public comments about these potentially negative impacts.
It received 340 from health care groups, including patient advocates, physician and hospital organizations and insurers. Of those comments, 335, or 98 percent, urged the health agency to change or rescind the proposal, in many cases warning of the dangerous effect on patients, a Los Angeles Times analysis found.
The Health and Human Services Department made no significant changes to the proposal, however, and finalized the new rules in August.
Now the administration is accepting public comments on yet another major shift in federal regulatory policy, this one allowing federal immigration authorities to deny green cards to immigrants who receive certain forms of government assistance, including Medicaid.
The Department of Homeland Security, which issued the proposed rule, acknowledges a host of potentially harmful impacts on immigrants such as “worse health outcomes, including increased prevalence of obesity and malnutrition, especially for pregnant or breastfeeding women, infants, or children, and reduced prescription adherence.”
The agency also notes a likelihood of “increased use of emergency rooms … as a method of primary health care due to delayed treatment” and “increases in uncompensated care in which a treatment or service is not paid for by an insurer or patient.”
Finally, the administration conceded that the proposed rule could lead to “increased rates of poverty and housing instability; and reduced productivity and educational attainment.”
The regulation is nonetheless expected to be finalized early next year.