For the love of Legos, a lawyer makes his case
There are dreams. And there are dreams. Nathan Sawaya has had both, only the former are attainable, the latter seemingly impossible. For example, Sawaya has dreamed of building wonderfully intricate structures out of Lego blocks, and then he’s done so. A life-size Han Solo, frozen in Carbonite. The Major League Baseball logo. The pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. All materialized in Sawaya’s mind at one time or another, and now all exist as Lego realities, thanks to an imaginative 30-year-old Manhattanite with a child’s heart.
Yet Sawaya also dreamed, knowing that the ultimate, ultimate, ultimate dream -- the one that would take his life to a level of euphoria -- was about as attainable as a dinner date with Britney Spears. That dream involves leaving corporate law and Manhattan gridlock and suits and ties behind; escaping the madness of his existence for a life of, simply put, bliss. Like Juan Ponce de Leon’s 490 years earlier, Sawaya’s secret fantasy focused around a hard-to-find paradise in a land far, far away.
Ponce de Leon desired the Fountain of Youth. Sawaya desired Legoland, that 128-acre plot 30 miles north of San Diego.
“It’s a mecca,” says Sawaya, who visited a couple of years ago. “The greatest thing I’ve ever seen.” Yet in his dreams, Sawaya did not simply tour the park, an experience accessible to anyone with $41.95 and some free time. No, Sawaya’s fantasy was to spend his mornings, noons and nights behind the magic wall in a corner of Legoland where six lucky men and women, known in the park as Master Builders, are paid to build and build and build and build and build. In case you misunderstand, here’s their job description: Build -- with Legos.
“Forever, that’s all I’ve wanted,” Sawaya says. He is in his midtown apartment, picking at a soggy bean burrito with a plastic fork. It is a Monday night in December, and for the previous 10 hours, he sat behind a desk at Winston & Strawn LLP, a law firm that focuses on (yaaaaaawn) mergers and acquisitions. It has been his place of employment for more than five years; a nice office to work in with nice pay and nice perks in a nice life. But it is not Nathan Sawaya. Not his soul.
On the other side of the wall, in one of the apartment’s two bedrooms, Sawaya keeps enough Legos to fill the innards of a killer whale. In one corner, 18 bins hold thousands of bricks, separated by color. In another, there’s a bookshelf lined with tiny Lego men and women. Perhaps the room’s most striking feature (besides the imposing 3-by-6-foot Han Solo statue) is a startling self-portrait, made entirely of black-and-white bricks and complete with scars, dimples and shadows. The bedroom, known fondly as “The Lego Room,” is an anomaly in the cramped Big Apple, where extra space is generally not used to house childhood playthings -- especially when there are no children in residence.
Yet childhood playthings are, in this pad, not mere childhood playthings. Sawaya’s devotion to Legos is equal to that of a painter who feels loyalty to his brushes, or a sculptor’s ode to clay. In fact, the room is somewhat sparse right now, ever since a church in St. Louis asked Sawaya to send some of his creations for a Christmas display. “You should see what it’s usually like in here,” he says, shrugging. “No room to move.” Three months ago, while scanning www.lugnet.com, a site for Lego hobbyists, Sawaya came across something so remarkable that he literally gasped. Legoland was holding a national contest to determine the country’s best adult Lego builder. The prize was a job at the theme park as the seventh Master Builder. For years, Sawaya had been checking Lego job postings monthly, hoping for glory but eternally dispirited by openings only for accountants and maintenance men. Then, this.
“I immediately called my girlfriend and said, ‘Here’s my dream, and it can really come true!’ ” he says. “I felt like crying, because it was so absolutely unbelievable.” If anyone could empathize, it was Dierdre Harding, a lawyer who has dated Sawaya for four years. When they first started going out, she watched with unease as Nathan would receive large cardboard boxes in the mail but never, ever reveal their contents. Strange thoughts swirled through her head. (Gun stash? Porn tapes? Vanilla Ice CDs?) Finally, secure in their relationship, she had the guts to ask what, exactly, he was hoarding. Sawaya turned red. “Well,” he said, “it’s really embarrassing, and you’re definitely going to laugh at me.” He proceeded to tell her the life story of a man addicted to Legos. “It wasn’t,” Harding says, “what I thought.”
How could it be? Ever since his boyhood in the rural town of Veneta, Ore. (population 2,755), Sawaya had been hooked on Legos. It started on Christmas 1978, when 5-year-old Nathan was given his first set of bricks. Before long, he turned the family’s living room into what became known as Lego City, a living, breathing, ever-changing town of miniature firehouses, restaurants, mansions, skyscrapers, train stations and lakes. Over time, Lego City grew to be a 4-by-8-foot rectangle.
“It was incredible,” says Stephanie Mitchell, Nathan’s younger sister. “He’d build these huge boats, and sometimes he’d give my Barbie dolls a ride in them. He had helicopters hanging from the ceilings and Lego people everywhere.”
At age 9, Sawaya experienced his first Lego epiphany. While visiting his grandparents in Denver, Nathan and his family happened upon the Alameda Square Shopping Center, where a traveling Lego tour was on display. As most others turned their attention toward Sears and Waldenbooks, Sawaya was dumbfounded by the grandness of the Lego creations. There was the Washington Monument and the White House and the U.S. Capitol, all perfectly scaled down in small, white bricks. It was a new way of thinking about Legos, and, upon returning home, Sawaya immediately destroyed Lego City and built a replica of the Oregon State Capitol, in all its ho-hum splendor.
As other kids his age would ride bikes and throw a football around the yard, Sawaya could be found hunched on his elbows on the living room carpet, digging through heaps of Legos and deciding what to construct. Always a creative kid, Nathan once built an amusement park for Stephanie’s Barbies out of an Erector set. Another time, for Christmas, he formed a Barbie-friendly “Price Is Right” set from glue and construction paper.
Yet there was something about Legos that made the toys his favorite. They were void of restrictions.
“You could make forts with Lincoln Logs, then destroy the forts, but what else?” he says. “Legos are the most versatile things around.”
Upon graduating from high school in 1991, Nathan enrolled at New York University and, for the first time, kept his Legos on the down-low. Back home, everyone knew the Sawaya kid was a gifted artist (albeit with an odd medium). That happens in a small town, where one person’s business is everyone’s business. But in college, especially in the too-cool-for-words city of New York, how would people react to an 18-year-old college student fiddling with a boy’s bricks?
Sawaya messed with Legos in the privacy of his dorm room, but nobody except his roommates knew. Through four undergrad years and three at NYU law, it was pretty much his secret.
“Let’s just say it doesn’t get you a lot of dates,” he says. “People [would] think you’re a little strange ... a little off.”
This might not be hard to argue. In his current position as a corporate lawyer, Sawaya takes home a six-figure salary. Should he become a Master Builder, he will start at $13 an hour.
The financial details didn’t really enter his mind on Nov. 14, when he showed up at the Toys R Us in Times Square to take part in the first regional round of the competition. With 45 minutes on the clock, contestants were given a random theme -- SPACE! -- then asked to sort through 200 pieces and build. Sawaya constructed a rabbit in an astronaut’s suit, which was praised by the judges for its originality.
He advanced to the second round, recorded live on NBC’s “Today” show Nov. 21. This time the theme was Thanksgiving, and only two contestants, Sawaya and Jessica Frantz of Hellertown, Pa., appeared. Again in 45 minutes, Sawaya made a lifelike turkey, with a brown body, yellow beak and red tail. Frantz, whose turkey looked more like a rainbow-colored cow, was thumped.
“Clearly, he’s a very talented man,” says Pat DeMaria, Legoland’s model shop supervisor. “I’ve seen his portfolio, and it’s extremely impressive. He’s a real challenger.” DeMaria says the ultimate victor will be chosen on myriad categories, ranging from past work to personality to Lego passion. “We want someone,” he says, “who is truly dedicated to Legos.”
Now, for Sawaya, it is legit. Fantasy has become reality. Dreams have merged with life. He will fly to San Diego on Jan. 23 and join 29 other finalists from around the country.
For the, oh, 73,103rd time, he is asked whether he’d really, truly, honestly, sincerely consider leaving his serious adult life in New York. Leaning back in his chair, Sawaya smiles. Just recently, a fellow attorney, smirking all the way, asked Sawaya if he was “that Lego guy.” It’s the sort of stuff he’s heard before, soft-core mocking. At his job, those who know of the hobby are generally supportive and curious, yet a bit perplexed.
And no wonder. “Let me put it this way,” he says. “If I were offered the Lego gig, I’d be making five times less than my current salary. I’d be leaving a city I love, and my girlfriend and I haven’t even worked out the logistics. It’d be a whole new world to me, and it’d be scary.” Sawaya pauses. “In other words,” he says, “absolutely. In a millisecond.” There are dreams. And there are dreams.
Nathan Sawaya is beginning to believe they just might come true. All of them.
Jeff Pearlman is a staff writer at Newsday, a Tribune company.