Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer The Hokey-Poké

By Tanuja Surpuriya

DECEMBER 20, 1999:  If you're not familiar with Pokémon World by now, don't count on a 6-year-old to give you any insight.

"Well, Pokémon are like, um, you know ... ," explains Tyler McGraw, who is more interested in the cartoon he's watching for the 100th time than explaining the obvious to some lame old cootie-infested girl. "They have special powers, you know, and there's Charizard who can do fire stuff and did I tell you I saw the movie two, no I mean three, times?"

Pipes in his 5-year-old friend Elliotte Tatum as he shoves french fries in his mouth: "There's Mewtwo, and he's bad, and Pikachu is good 'cause he has electric energy in his tail. They're like cool, you know."

No, sadly I don't know. Charizard? Pikachu? I set out to learn all about these curious creatures Tuesday at Pokémon Trading Night at Burger King, which has become the new night club for the hip munchkins who can get their parents to drive them to the yellow-and-red Whopper hut on a school night. There the kids color, play games, trade Poké-stuff, watch cartoons, and of course, weasel their parents into spending more cash on kid meals that come with toys and trading cards. Even some parents are caught up in the hoopla, shelling out an additional $1.99 with their value meals for the coveted 23-carat gold-plated cards, perhaps in disillusioned hopes the tacky cards will pay for college some day. Who knows why Pokémon are so popular, and who cares? It's an unexplainable phenomenon like Hoola-hoops, pet rocks, twista beads, and the Backstreet Boys.

"It's just something every generation goes through. We're here two or three times a week," says Tyler's mother Tanya Ware, as she sits with other parents in the chic back booths of the East Memphis Burger King on Poplar at Colonial. Elliotte's dad, Paul Tatum, who has spent more than $300 on Poké-toys in the past six months, explains Pokémon as kind of a cross between action figures and baseball cards, "but more in a child's realm." Elliotte can't read yet, but can recite all 150-plus Pokémon and their powers.

It's all very important stuff to know, after all. A Harvard grad was stopped from pursuing a million bucks when he was stumped by Regis' simple question: Which is not a Pokémon: Squirtle, JigglyPuff, Pikachu, or Frodo? [Hobbit fans knew Frodo was the outsider.]

Here's what I've figured out so far: Short for "pocket monsters," the Japanese-created Pokémon are kind of like cockfighting Muppets. Each of the mutant creatures is equipped with special powers. For example, the pink Hubba Bubba-like JigglyPuff can sing its enemies to defeat Mariah Carey-style, while Lickitung squishes opponents with its enormous tongue a la Mick Jagger. More sinister ones like Bulbasaur, a red-eyed toad-like thing with what looks like bulbs of garlic sprouting on its back, unleash poison. In the fictional realm of Pokémon, kids are trainers who keep their Pokémon in red-and-white balls until it's time to test them in battles that make the creatures stronger, thus elevating the status of their trainers. In real life, kids play the game by trading Pokémon cards, which go for up to $35 a pack.

I've come to realize that Pokémon are indeed not the devil incarnate, although its blatant marketing — the official slogan reminds kids they've "Gotta Catch 'Em All"— suggests otherwise. The cartoons are actually hokey despite the talk of battles and squishing powers (and despite the fact that 685 Japanese viewers were sent to the emergency room suffering from seizures after watching an episode in 1997). They teach kids about friendship, good sportsmanship, and being kind to animals. And there is no killing; defeated Pokémon just temporarily pass out.

While Burger King's $22 million national promotion has netted a 30 percent increase in sales from last year, something tells me Beale Street doesn't have much to worry about from Club Burger King.

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