The toy industry may have no megahit in 2004, but there are always shortages in the holiday season. This year's: the Polar Express train set by Lionel. The movie hasn't done well, but that doesn't seem to matter to kids who are dreaming of that classic toy. My assignment: to find that train. How difficult could it be, especially in a sea of Nintendo lovers? But two high-end boutiques, five discount behemoths and many blank looks later, anxiety sets in.
In a snowy Chicago parking lot for Kmart, I have an epiphany: hobby shops. My confidence renewed, I make my way to two odd stores that smell like diesel and boys. Same story at both: no Polar Express trains until February. "Ha! Good luck," says the owner of Grayland Station. He slips me the card of a friend's shop that had one set as of last night. From my car, I dial my cell phone with frozen fingers. The woman who answers tells me I am lucky: I'll be No. 58 on her waiting list. The Toy Station in the wealthy suburb of Lake Forest is next. It's now snowing like crazy, and it takes me almost an hour to get there. But my holiday adrenaline has kicked in. I double-park and push past a throng of parents. The salespeople laugh out loud when I voice my request.
I drive home and call Lionel, which gives me the names of two catalog companies. Both places are sold out until the new year, although a customer-service manager chirpily tells me that if I'm patient, she will send me a free holiday boxcar with Santa on top to put under the tree. Frantic, I dial hobby shops across the country. Nobody has the train, and some owners share theories why. Although none blame the scarcity on Lionel's recent bankruptcy, two shopkeepers tell me that workers in China, where the sets are made, are getting back at the U.S. for screwing up trade relations. Another blames a boat jam in San Francisco harbor. A man explains that a truck carrying trains to his Arkansas store was in a horrific, mysterious accident.
Finally, Steve at Steve's Train City in Minnesota tells me he has a set--for $450. The retail price, I say peevishly, is $249. "But you want it," he says. "That's why you're calling, right?" Looks as if it's time to hit eBay. Score! My "buy it now" price: $449.99. --By Kristin Kloberdanz/ Chicago