Pop culture swap meet
Frank & Son revives a Japanese fantasy
by Christian Orozco
photography by Celine Dehban
In a remote industrial parking lot, the smell of marijuana fills the air. The rattling bass of a Nissan Sentra plays Wu-Tang Clan’s “Protect Your Neck” and sets the mood for the man dressed as a X-Man Wolverine holding a deck of Yu Gi Oh cards. No, it is not nirvana. It is Frank & Son Collectible Show in the City of Industry.
Frank & Son is open every week on Wednesday and Saturday. The unopened toys and action figures from different eras symbolize how serious the vendors and collectors are here. “People come to find that one thing they have spent years searching for,” Godzilla collector Ryan Haynes says. “Whether it’s an original Japanese Godzilla comic book or an unopened toy of Matthew Broderick from ‘Godzilla 2000,’ I got it here.”
For some, visiting Frank & Son is like entering the ultimate nostalgic view of one’s childhood; for others it is their life. Brandon Kraft, Los Angeles resident and sports memorabilia vendor, says it is easy to differentiate between the ones who come to Frank & Son for leisure and the ones who come to make a serious purchase. “If I see a guy with his eyes as big as the sun when he comes up to my booth and is inspecting signatures and cards closely, I know he’s ready to make a big purchase,” Kraft says. “This place does something to people, and it’s not always good.” He spins several stories where collectors have been upset about a price or an unavailable item, and they have stormed off in frustration.
Journey through Japanese fantasy
My first look at this world famous collectible show with its comic book stands, sports memorabilia and all the collectible toys and posters was overwhelming. It was like a hoarders space; a storage hunter would salivate here, and they do. The vendor aisles are constant reminders of my childhood. It has been 10 years since I have seen Yu Gi Oh cards, let alone two grown men arguing over a card’s value. Yu Gi Oh is Frank & Son’s biggest attraction, with a competitive tournament area at the epicenter of the show.
The nostalgic view of someone summoning a Dark Magician and putting his Azure-Eyes Silver Dragon in a strategic defensive position awakened me to get back into the game. One problem: I last played in middle school with my friends and cousins. I was never the best, and my older cousins always beat me like meat. I bring that level of non-confidence to Frank & Son. When the fad of Yu Gi Oh died out, and my cards disappeared, the game left my mind.
Yet, here it is, haunting me again. I am starting from nothing; I have no cards and no recollection of how to play the game, but I am at the perfect place to begin my journey. I approach a vendor, in his 20s, dressed over the top in the latest fashion with his gelled hair and black-rimmed glasses. He instills fear in me, especially when he informs me that people who enter the tournaments at Frank & Son spend up to $600 on their decks, which is frightening for someone who only has $20 in his pocket. I bought what I could: 50 cards. I am ecstatic. Included is “The Blue-Eyes White Dragon”—the strongest Yu Gi Oh card when I played in middle school. There it is, the first card in my deck. My feeling of ecstasy is short lived when I ask Chris Horderson, a vendor, to take a look at my deck. “You’re not going to win with this. They have made so many more cards that are so much stronger than the Blue-Eyes.” My hopes are still high; I just need to find an experienced, helpful player to show me the ropes. I quickly learn that Yu Gi Oh players are anything but helpful. I walk around with the deck that I have just purchased, only to receive dirty looks from other players in the tournament center. Defeated, I go back to Horderson. No encouraging words come from him. “The players are not going to want to help you; they want to destroy you.” I feel like the new kid at school looking for somewhere to sit during lunch. I just want a “Mean Girls” moment to occur where a Regina George-like player would call me over to her table and tell me how to play the game, and that they all wear pink on Saturdays. Well, like in the movies, I circle aimlessly around the tournament area. My overwhelmed and confused look is well-known here. Then I hear, “Hey, are you looking for something in particular?” It is Gregorio Soria, 22 years old, and a fledging player who not long ago had the same look. Now, at least he is in the bubble. I tell him I am writing a story. “This game brings different elements to the table. Fantasy, strategy and anime are all brought into one game,” he explains. “When these kids were still playing Yu Gi Oh in the halls of their high school, people looked at them and said, ‘What the hell are those guys doing? Now they come here and feel like they’re not going to be judged, but when someone reads a story about them they’re going to think that readers are saying, ‘Wow, they’re still playing this game,’” he says.
Trading monsters for an edge
Besides purchasing cards and decks, another way players improve their decks is by trading. Yu Gi Oh vendors are open to trade as long as the trade is fair on both sides. “People sometimes get pretty angry if we don’t think their card is worth buying or trading for,” Yu Gi Oh Vendor Chris Labon says. “When they’re livid, there’s really nothing we can do except move on to the next customer.” Moving through the players, I hear a different view. “I don’t really trade here,” Yu Gi Oh player Samuel Flaven says. “If I’m going to trade, it will just be with my friend because some of the people here really get off on ripping people off.”
Players armed with intricately decorated Yu Gi Oh decks flood the tournament center. The surrounding booths of players making purchases and trades add to the chaotic environment. Players who just bought the newly released deck, “Joey’s World,” rip open several $15 packages at a time, looking for any last minute changes that would give them the edge in battle. The cardboard wrapping of “Joey’s World,” the empty Coke cans and even more Yu Gi Oh deck wrappers are placed perfectly around the empty trash cans. It sets a desolate mood. My fear of getting ripped off at any attempt of trading cards with vendors or players overwhelms me, so I keep all my cards in my backpack.
It is a quiet Wednesday night at Frank & Son, not like the crowded, boisterous environment on Saturdays. On this day, the vendors are more personable, and the Yu Gi Oh players seem nicer. I scout the aisles, looking for cards to improve my deck. I convince myself to enter the Saturday tournament. Then, I bump into a group of players from La Habra and Brea who are willing to look through my deck and tell me what cards I need. The Yu Gi Oh clan consists of Eric Robles, his brother Juan, and the two best players of the group, Josh Barraza and Zak Saplis. We walk around the collectible show. Then, Josh asks me, “Want to go where all the players go when Frank & Sons closes?” I am ecstatic; this is what I wanted from the beginning, to be part of the culture outside of Frank & Son. They tell me the place is within walking distance, just on the other side of San Jose Avenue. The mystery surrounding this after hours gathering place is killing me. Is it a vacant industrial workplace that becomes overrun by trading card strategists? Is it a hip coffee shop that caters to Yu Gi Oh players? With every step, the anticipation grows, until Eric says, “Finally we’re here, feels like it took f***ing forever; you guys walk slow.” We arrive at a Carl’s Jr. restaurant. I have to get over the disappointment quickly to order my Western Bacon Cheeseburger. Only three of the tables are occupied by families, it does not seem like a happening place for a Yu Gi Oh player. We choose a table and sit down. “Sweet, we got a table,” Josh says. The uncertainty sets in as he makes that statement. Are they playing a prank on me because I am the new guy? Zak notices the confused look on my face and tells me, “Just wait.” And within the next half hour the families clear out, and the Yu Gi Oh players rush in. Multiple players approach me with binders filled with cards, asking me whether I am looking to trade or duel. It is overwhelming. Soon, every table is occupied, and Carl’s Jr. becomes Frank & Son after dark. People settle in and feet stop coming through the door, except for one pair of New Balance sneakers. A young, portly Asian man walks through the door. He does not say anything to the cashier, because she already knows what he wants. He hands her the money, takes his number and walks over to our table. He gives the “What’s up” nod and asks, “Who’s the best player at this table?” Zak answers the call and faces off against the man. They plan to only play once, but soon they are well deep into their fifth duel, each of them winning two of the previous four duels. Everyone crowds around the small Carl’s Jr. table made for two. Zak slowly starts to take away his 8,000 life points and suddenly goes in for the kill. We all exhale in relief as Zak wins the high level duel. I am entranced, and I need to play right then. Josh and I begin to duel; we duel three times; every time he takes away all 8,000 of my life points, and the most I take of his is 500. “Do you smell that?” he asks me. All I can smell is blue cheese and buffalo sauce. “It’s defeat,” he answers. I realize I am not ready for the tournament; I need more practice. I need to wait.
Tournament reality and size 12 shoes
My time has come; it is time for me to step up to the plate and finally do what I set out to do—enter the tournament. My new Yu Gi Oh clan comes to support me and to give me some tips beforehand. “Don’t let anyone know this is your first time,” Eric tells me. “It will only give them a mental advantage over you.” On this Saturday, many people enter, and the tournament center is flooded with players. And my opponent sits right in front of me: Jacob, a 14-year-old Bishop Amat High School student.
I do not know why I am so surprised that I am facing a child. He is around the age of when I used to play, but it is still strange. All the players whom I have met on my way to becoming a Yu Gi Oh master have been my age or older. This kid is no joke, though. Prepared with a game mat and 40 cards, he wastes no time getting started. Immediately, I lose 2,000 life points from an array of attacks, spells and traps Jacob bombards at me. My Yu Gi Oh clan quickly gets disinterested and leaves my side to go barter for cards. Jacob’s snickering laugh every time he uses a trap card to negate any one of my attacks begins to bother me. I forget that he is 14, I forget that I am at a Yu Gi Oh tournament. All I want to do is make that little giggle cease to exist. “Where are his parents?” I think to myself. “Could I get away with cursing at this child?” No, I cannot. I remember the words of music icon Prince, “Act your age, not your shoe size.” I wear a size 12. I swallow my pride as I watch his smile grow bigger as he knows he has won. All my 8,000 life points are gone, all 8,000 of his are still intact.
This is not a game that one is naturally good at. This is a game that takes practice, skill and strategy. This is a game that I need to work at for months before I can be taken seriously. This is a game of mental work.
Monsters, spells and traps
Playing the game: It sounds more complicated than it really is. In short: the trading card game is played between two opponents. Each player has 8,000 life points and is equipped with a deck of 40-60 cards that include monster, spell and trap cards. Players can equip their monster cards, their spell or trap cards. Each monster card has its own attack and defense points. A player can summon the monster card either in an attack or a defense position. If in an attack position, that monster can be attacked and killed by an opposing monster that has more attack points. The difference between the number of attack points between the two monsters is subtracted from the player’s life points whose monster just died. If a card is summoned in a defense position and is killed, it affects no one’s life points. The first player who loses all of his life points or runs out of points loses.