Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Mists of Time

One Saturday, I got a full load of characters: Big Bird, Elmo, and Cookie Monster. Wearing the monster costumes is like being inside a live bear, but Big Bird is even worse. At its best, the costume tended to hinder breathing, since your eyes looked out of the neck, keeping your face pressed against the material. At its worst, it was a death trap.

Big Bird’s head had started to cave. An earlier performer had used a yardstick to keep it in roughly cranial shape. It snapped. He shoved the shards in horizontally and passed it on.

The neck, though, posed the greatest threat to me. While the top of the head no longer sank like a newborn baby’s, this Big Bird was an invertebrate, the face falling to his chest. Big Bird seemed to be snoozing or preparing to feed on the nearest kiddo.

My solution was simple but effective. I used two croquet mallets, the heads resting on my shoulders, as support, and Big Bird was ready to take flight. Or so it seemed.

This first party started but didn’t stop with the Bird. After an hour and a half suffocating hell, I left, and returned in Elmo costume as per the party instructions. Unbeknownst to me, during that time, the mother tyrant had replaced me with “The Reptile Woman.” Great, Elmo can just be part of the crowd, no dancing necessary.

However, part of Reptile Jane’s routine involved allowing everyone to hold various slithering creatures, including a number of snakes. And of course, all the kids wanted Elmo to hold the snake. I played along, gasping loudly and feigning fear. Feigning, that is, until a baby boa worked its way into gap between gloves and sleeve. If Reptile Jane hadn’t handily snagged the snake, the kids would have been treated to one very disturbed Elmo.

I left the party, soaked in sweat. Half an hour later, I clambered back into Big Bird. I was supposed to meet two other performers, hand off a Cookie Monster to one and make sure the other had a functioning Elmo costume. Then, we’d all enter en masse, knock the kids around for an hour and take off. Ah, the best laid plans…

Cookie and Elmo didn’t show. Big Bird was going to have to do this one alone.

The party ended almost before it began. Just as the kids started to flock, one of the mallets popped out of the head, as if shot from a cannon. Six inches to the right and it would have brained a little girl. The headlines write themselves, “Big Bird charged with manslaughter.” Thank heaven for the costume; they couldn’t see me blanch.

Down one mallet and two characters, I did the safe thing: balloon animals. For forty-five minutes. Every kid at the party had a hat and a creature, and Big Bird’s beak, long past looking reasonable in the slightest, kept hitting little kids in the head. Thankfully, Elmo arrived. The Second Coming wouldn’t have made me happier.

With Elmo here and the parachute open, I couldn’t help but think of these kids. I couldn’t imagine more fanatical partisans of a children’s television show. From the moment I set foot at the party, every character’s song played on repeat, and the kids sang along with every word. They had more show trivia at the fingertips than the staff of TV Guide. I fully expected someone to roll up a sleeve and flash an Ernie tat.

These kids wanted Cookie Monster. You could tell from the yearning in their eyes, from the drooping shoulders, from the incessant queries, “When is Cookie Monstah gunna get heawh?”

I did what any man would do in such circumstances. I became Cookie Monster.

I fled back to the car ("Big Bird's gonna find Cookie!"), shed the yellow mess, leapt into the wooly blue sauna, and got back to the party before “C is for Cookie” played again.

I can only dimly recall the rest of the night. Child after child forced cookies into my costume mouth, all of which had to be crumbled with great zeal. Someone broke open the piƱata; out came bags of cookies. Some mother had brought plate-sized cookies. Meanwhile, Elmo lost his mind, repeatedly diving onto tables, which caused an unknown number of enchiladas to be ground underfoot and several beers to shatter. The night blurred into a disturbing fusion of Muppetry and the Satyricon.

Later, as we changed down the street, Elmo revealed the lowdown on the birth of Chuckles. Apparently, Brian had gotten into the clown business just as we had, as a performer. Sensing a business opportunity, he pilfered all the contacts he was making, and created his own enterprise. Strolling around campus at Biola University, a Southland Bible college, he was fond of approaching females at random, saying, “You look like a (Princess/Pippi Longstocking/Mermaid). Wanna work for me?” Elmo couldn’t tell me how many times Brian had been slapped across the face.

Either my grunts or chocolate-chipped UnderArmor persuaded Elmo we had a connection. Standing in his briefs under a streetlight, he rubbed his palms together and revealed his own plans.

“I’m actually saving all these names and addresses for myself. You ever heard of Cutco knives? They’re a great deal and you get an awesome percentage of every sale. And, for every person you recruit to sell knives, you get a portion of their sales and a smaller part of every person they-”

I peeled out before Mr. Ponzi started cutting pennies in two.