The assistant manager left us alone to get dressed in a store room. “Don’t dawdle though. Doors open at nine and some of those people have been waiting since seven.”
Nate and I knelt to unzip the footlocker-sized bags that we’d found in the trunk of the car his agency had rented for us for the long drive to the suburban mall. I found myself wishing that we’d stopped for coffee on the way. “Holy shit,” Nate whispered as we contemplated the impressive, eerie contents. “Which one do you want to be?”
“I have no preference.”
“I’ll be Ernie. You be Bert. Are you going to leave your underwear on?”
“Yes, aren’t you?”
“I don’t know. If Janet had told me we were going to be wearing tights, I’d have brought a jockstrap.”
“The tights are just so your own skin doesn’t show,” I said, sitting down on a box to stretch a mustard-colored pair over my bare feet. “You’ll have his pants on over.” I suited up in a long-sleeved leotard the same color as the tights, green trousers and a perfect copy of Bert’s ubiquitous vertical-striped jersey. For shoes, I had two toaster-sized soft sculpture high tops that swaddled my feet like miniature sleeping bags. “Look, Nate, four fingers,” I said, showing him my fuzzy mustard-colored glove-hands.
“Put your head on.” The moment I did, Nate whooped in delighted recognition. “Oh my god, that’s insane! Can you see okay?”
“Not too good.”
“What?” His voice sounded very far away.
“The mesh is like six inches from my eyes.”
“God, I hope this isn’t going to activate my claustrophobia. What if I freak out?”
“I can’t understand a fucking thing you’re saying.”
“Man, it’s really stuffy under there,” I gasped, shucking the head.
“Seventy-five bucks an hour for two hours,” Nate reminded me, before plopping Ernie’s head over his own, as determined as a Titanic-era deep sea diver.
The limited visibility became disorienting almost to the point of motion sickness as the assistant manager, Nate and I slowly threaded our way through the children’s department, holding hands. Racks of play clothes rocked crazily in and out of frame as I tried to steal a peek at the multitudes. I was experiencing a strange hybrid of stage fright and that hopeless god-I-wish-I-was-finished-instead-of-starting feeling I used to get clocking in at the Children’s Museum. “Now remember, don’t say anything, not a word,” our handler coached as we drew closer. “If a child asks you a question, just give him a hug or something. Okay, we’re about two feet from the platform. Excuse me, boys and girls, Ernie and Bert need some room to get through!” I was aware of the sensation of wading through small bodies, but all I could see were mothers, grimacing with false excitement and/or extreme irritation. The racket the kids were making reached me as the roar of the ocean heard in a seashell. I tried to remain calm, taking yoga breaths so I wouldn’t hyperventilate inside my giant head. What if I passed out from lack of oxygen? I dearly wished the licensing people over at the Children’s Television Workshop had let Bert wear regular old tennis shoes. Walking in those squashy high tops was like navigating the surface of a marshmallow planet … on acid.
The department store woman abruptly let go of my hand and turned to face the crowd. “Does anybody here like Sesame Street?” she screamed coyly. The children and their mothers howled in the affirmative. Several startled infants wailed in terror. Something that felt like a monkey’s paw seized my thigh at crotch level. “Honey,” the department store woman cooed, “Bert’s going to want to say hello to you, but you have to wait your turn.” Whatever was gripping my leg was pried loose, as an adult hand, presumably the assistant manager’s, spun me around by the shoulder and propelled me toward the stage. I immediately barked my shins on the edge of the platform and pitched forward, dislocating my missile-shaped head on the folding chair that was to be my throne. Given the bumping and thrashing to my left, I deduced that Nate was having similar trouble. The assistant manager yanked Bert’s head back into alignment and got me into the folding chair where I sat, waving like an igonoramus, until Ernie had been dragged into position beside me.
For the first dozen kids or so, I worked hard to channel the spirit of Bert. I didn’t want to destroy anyone’s illusions, though it was kind of depressing how readily the little tykes accepted as the real thing an overgrown, mute imposter who avoided answering their questions by patting them in what he hoped appeared to be a kindly, non-lecherous way. Many of them had brought along Sesame Street dolls. I couldn’t help noticing that the Ernies far outnumbered the Berts. In fact, I got the distinct impression that some of these kids only deigned to sit in my lap because Ernie’s was occupied. Nate was eating it up. I could hear him attempting Ernie’s signature snicker and humming that rubber duckie song.
“Remember what we said about talking, ‘Ernie,'” the department store woman chirped threateningly.
Chastened, Nate reverted to patting and waving.
“Pick up the pace,” the department store woman hissed, her face pressed against the mesh panel in Bert’s throat. We tried to step up the assembly line, but failed miserably thanks to the universal parental impulse to photograph their young. I could count on four fingers the number of children whose mothers had made this pilgrimage sans camera. Having waited hours to capture the moment, these women would be damned if they’d see their children leave our laps before they’d fired off enough shots to satisfy themselves that a winner lurked somewhere in the batch. By and large, the subjects seemed ready to call it quits long before the photographers. “Smile,” the mothers hectored. “If you want that Orange Julius Mommy promised you, you’ll pull that tongue back in your mouth and smile, Mister!” For the first half hour I too smiled on command, but as the muscles surrounding my temporal mandibular joint started to seize up, it occurred to me that I could assume any expression I felt like and no one would be the wiser. Good thing Shaggy and Scooby weren’t around to unmask me. After playing around with a variety of psychotic leers, I realized that I’d better buckle down and protect my eyes from all those automatic flashes. The mesh absorbed some of the ocular shock, but who was I to say that all those strobes wouldn’t bring on a seizure of some kind?
“Is it okay if I take a picture, Bert?” a diaper-bag toting mommy shouted as she cradled her infant in the crook of her arm.
I nodded “my” head by rocking back and forth at the waist, wondering what she planned to do with this solo shot. Paste it into the baby book as proof that the great and powerful Bert had once deigned to visit the mall near their home? Timmy, you don’t remember because you were just a baby, but look, there’s Bert and see, the very same platform Santa sits on when he comes to Penney’s!”
Without warning, she thrust the infant into my arms. To say I was ill prepared to receive this bundle grossly understates the situation. I hadn’t held anyone this small since high school, when the neighbors, reassured by the presence of my mother right next door, indulged my desire to earn a dollar an hour babysitting. The giant felt-and-papier-mâché Bert head obscuring my vision did nothing to make me feel more confident that I would remember how. Equine in its ability to sense fear, the baby started to shriek and buck, twisting its muscular torso in its mad desire to get free of the monstrous creature who had taken it from its mother. It was like trying to haul a healthy young sea bass into a rowboat with my bare hands. Actually, bare hands would have come in handy right about then. The accuracy of my Muppet gloves put me at a distinct disadvantage for going the distance with this thrashing mass of fragile human tissue. As the horrifying possibility of the baby torquing itself loose of my grip seemed more and more likely, its mother fumbled with her instamatic. “Oh, darn it, I forgot to turn the flash on,” she cursed.
“Pleasepleasepleaseplease,” I whimpered inside Bert’s cranium, as I struggled to keep the baby from doing a triple gainer. Unable to see the increasingly desperate little creature pushing against my lap with all its might, I kept my eyes fastened on the mother’s camera.
“Oh, come on, you, turn on,” she chided, addressing the small indicator light beside the viewfinder.
Oh my god, her batteries were low. “Turnonturnonturnon,” I begged. “I can’t hold on much longer!” Where was the department store woman? Couldn’t anyone see that I was in trouble? Or that this baby had zero interest in getting its picture taken?
I wonder how many minutes that shaved off my life, waiting for the light on the back of Mommy’s camera to glow orange. Finally, she held the camera up to her eye, snapped the shutter, then frowned. “Did the flash go off?” she asked uncertainly.
Palming the baby, I davened frantically, praying that no one in the crowd would dare contradict Bert.
The baby sapped my energy so badly, I was unable to appreciate the one hardcore Bert fan to cross my lap. He was a little older than the others and chattered on about Ernie’s and my twin beds and Mr. Hooper and I don’t know what the fuck else. He showed me a long length of paper clips he had hooked together. I patted his thigh absentmindedly. “Wrap it up,” the department store woman mouthed, twirling her index finger in exasperation. I tried to hand the kid off to Nate, but he returned, paper clips in hand. “He brought that for you, Bert,” his mother stressed, her expression conveying that management would most certainly be hearing from her. Given the baby, the pesky exhortations of the department store woman and my inability to swab the sweat from my eyes, nothing would have felt better than knocking that nasty mother down, butting her square in the chest with my pointy Bert head, but instead I writhed my way through all sorts of hokey mimed gestures. For me? Really? Paper clips? My heart’s beating like a captured sparrow! I love you! I love you some more! “Just put it by his feet, Jason,” the boy’s mother scowled, when it became clear that the big mustard dummy lacked the manual dexterity to pick up the gift. Only later did Nate tell me that Bert collects paper clips, a trait that must have eluded me when I was a regular viewer between the ages of three and six. I never was part of the college gang that liked to fire up the bong and sing along with Big Bird every afternoon.
We’d been processing kids for well over the stipulated two hours and still the line snaked back into menswear. Nate’s agency hadn’t mentioned anything about overtime when they hooked us up with this gig. The department store lady was losing what little cool she’d had to begin with, barking things like, “Time’s up, sweetheart!” and “Decide which one’s your favorite because you can’t sit on them both.” This last edict was repealed when it resulted in a stampede toward Nate. So help me if he gloated about this when we got home. “Uh uh, sorry, the new rule is you sit on whoever’s lap becomes available first,” the department store woman snapped, hoisting a blubbering Ernie fan onto my thighs. Mercifully, this arbitrary legislation was amended almost immediately. I didn’t think I could take that many crying kids when with every passing minute, the oxygen in my cranial chamber seemed less and less likely to sustain life.
“Boys and girls, Ernie and Bert have to go back to Sesame Street now.” An outraged gasp from the mothers made me question the sanity of this decision. What if the angry mob tried to prevent us from leaving? It would be like that scene in To Kill A Mockingbird where a terrified Scout blunders through the woods as best she can, her progress grossly impeded by her papier-mâché ham costume. How would I ever find the storeroom? Maybe better to head toward the light. If I could make it to the parking lot, I could ditch my Bert gear behind the van and become just another shoeless shopper in mustard colored ‘tard and tights.
“Oh, all right!” the department store woman conceded as mutiny threatened. “They’ll come down the line and shake hands, but that’s all!” As a bottom rung actor, I’d never been able to muster much in the way of sympathy for celebrities who bitched about the hardships of public adoration, but running the low-speed gauntlet past all those grasping Sesame Street devotees and their pissed-off moms changed all that. The department store woman was hustling us along way faster than was prudent. Nate and I kept falling down on top of each other, ending up in the sort of bend-over-boyfriend sprawl the Children’s Television Workshop takes pains never to depict.
There were cries of dismay as the familiar strains of Sesame Street’s opening theme issued from the PA, signaling the event’s conclusion. Waving in a sort of general farewell, we waded through the racks of tiny coordinates, the department store woman blocking the groupies. I couldn’t be sure, given the mesh, but I think she was zigzagging us back to the storeroom along an alternative route, the same tactic State department employees utilize to avoid ambush. It didn’t work. A mother lay in wait behind a pedestal full of mannequins, camera drawn. “My child has been waiting for hours to have his picture taken with them,” she fumed. “How dare you cut the line before his turn?”
“Ma’am,” the department store woman countered in a tone more martial than customer service-oriented, “There were more than a hundred people in that line and I’m afraid Ernie and Bert have a very full schedule today, isn’t that right, Ernie?” Nate rocked from side to side like a dancing bear.
“What kind of people are you to disappoint a child like that,” the mother spat. “You’ll never see another cent of my business, do you hear? Baby, turn around so Mommy can get a picture of you with Ernie and Bert!”
“Ma’am, I’m afraid I can’t let you do that. It’s wouldn’t be fair to the others who waited in line—”
“Fair!? You talk to me about fair?”
As the combatants faced off, I felt a pair of small arms encircling my waist. By arching my back and forcefully tucking my chin, I was just barely able to get their owner in my sights. Untouched by the fury that consumed his mother, he gazed up with the radiant expression of those little kids flocking around Jesus in illustrated volumes of children’s Bible tales. “I love you, Buwt,” he announced, contentedly burying his nose in my foam rubber. Oh, suffer the little children to come unto me. What a little lamb, inadvertently absolving me of guilt for the photo his mother would not be permitted to take. What was wrong with him that he didn’t prefer Ernie?
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Job Hopper, © 2006 by Ayun Halliday