Some people whisper behind Debbie Gray's back. What she does in her spare time is somewhat surprising and a little radical.
"Is this really what you do?" they ask her. "Really? Wow!"
Escapism comes in all colors (literally) and all forms. Crossword puzzles, regular cardboard puzzles, cross-stitch, Sudoku, yoga, painting...the list is endless. These days adult coloring is the rage for mindless enjoyment.
When Gray plops down almost $200 a pop to gear up for her escape, store clerks at times look up and ask, "Are these for you?"
Gray is a closet architect and instead of constructing a flat 1,000-piece interlocking cardboard masterpiece, she goes vertical, at times up to 18 inches and three stories. She's even a LUG, which is a member of a "LEGO User Group".
That's right; LEGOS are no longer just for kids. Four years ago Gray jumped on the bandwagon that now has these mainstay building toys bought more for adults than kids, people say.
"I bought my first LEGO set four years ago," Gray said, while surrounded by mind-blowing, intricate LEGO structures she's built. "It was escapism at first and now an obsession!"
Most adults use spicy language when they step on the pesky LEGO pieces in the dark, but since Gray's children are grown, she's the culprit if some fall to the floor during construction. Her countertop encounters with the colorful plastic pieces give Gray piece of mind and provides her a way to spark her imagination and produce amazing miniature architectural replicas of things like The White House, The Louvre, the Eiffel Tower and more.
Gray laughed and said perhaps her profession is what makes her want to drag out the zillions of LEGO pieces she's collected. And while she loves her 14-year job as a window clerk at the Mt. Juliet Post Office, and times it tries her patience, especially around Christmas time.
"Well, yes, I love my customers, but sometimes I need to come home after a days work and just chill," she said.
When her husband Keith asked her what she wanted for Christmas a few years ago, she said a LEGO set.
"He looked at me like I was crazy," she recalled with a laugh. "He asked me why, and I told him he had his hotrod for escape and I wanted to build something too."
It's not like she asked for a cruise.
"I can't go to an island every week," she said.
At first she used cross-stitch to get her Calgon moments.
"I'm past that age, my eyes don't want to do it anymore," she said.
Keith's Christmas present ended up a lighthouse LEGO kit.
"I opened it right away," said Gray. "My family asked if I wanted to open my other presents. I started on it right then and there and they came and said, 'Aren't you going to even eat?'"
And, that's how it started. It took her about two days to finish that first project. She tooled down to Hobby Lobby and got her second project that was The Louvre, a place she had visited in person.
The LEGO group began making these interlocking toy bricks in 1949. Since then a global LEGO subculture has developed. There are movies, games, competitions and six LEGO LAND amusement parks. As of July 2015, 600 billion LEGO parts have been produced, some of which Gray has spent a pretty penny purchasing. Most of her kits are about $200 each.
Some of the kits through the years have graced her dining room table and shifted their meals to the kitchen counter. They are too magnificent to take apart. The building pieces are tiny, about one-fourth inch long and one-eighth inch tall. Because they are interlocking, if Gray builds a "detective's office," she can connect that plastic sculpture to the "movie theatre palace" and "barbershop." Plus, if you take the roof off these streetscape buildings, inside you will find the most intricate of things such as rows of movie seats, popcorn stands, pool tables and more. She's even built a Parisian restaurant.
Gray has completed 15 adult kits from the LEGO architectural series and finally broke down nine of them just because there was no more room in her house.
"Yes, people whisper behind my back and call me a nerd," she said. "I just say thank you! My friends are amazed."
It's almost time for Gray to order another kit from the world's largest toymaker. Or, if she can't wait for delivery, she might head out to the LEGO store at Oprymills. She has a certain something in mind.
"There's this Disney Castle," she mused.
No, she doesn't have a granddaughter.
"But, I do have a great niece who is 11," she said.