See Spot; Run

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I was flipping through a copy of Sports Illustrated while waiting to get a haircut, and I read an article about sports team mascots, like the San Diego Chicken and the Phillies Phanatic. Apparently, these folks get paid quite a bit to don furry, huge-headed costumes and run around the stadium, annoying fans, players, and officials, and I thought, hey, why not me? I’m small enough for the costumes, and I often embarrass myself in public anyway. This way, I’ll be getting paid, plus no one will be able to tell it’s me.

Then I remembered: I’ve already done it. Sort of.

Years ago, I worked at a Barnes & Noble bookstore. Every weekend, the supervisor of the children’s department (or “juvie section,” as it was lovingly called), would have a book-reading for the kids. Children would pour into the store and someone would read a picture book to them and give them juice and cookies, which is fun for the kids and prepares them for similar events they will be subjected to years later, when they are confined to a retirement home.

Every so often, a costumed character (Clifford the Big Red Dog, Madeline, etc.) would attend these readings as well. This was not a paid, professional costumed character, mind you. The company owned these costumes and would send them from store to store for special events, and some random, unsuspecting, height-challenged bookseller would be forced to don the costume and make merry with the ankle-biters. I’ll give you 46 guesses who was tapped to play the role of Spot during the second week of his (the bookseller’s, not Spot’s) employment.

The Spot costume had a few separate pieces to it. There was the body, which had a big padded tummy and went from the neck to the ankles, including the sleeves. There were big furry gloves, and big furry feet that went on over my shoes. And, there was the head, which was big enough to block three lanes of traffic. It had an adjustable plastic strap inside that circled my own cartoonishly large head, kind of like what you find inside a construction hardhat.

According to the Sports Illustrated article I read, the people wearing the huge heads generally peer out through the character’s gaping, happy mouth, which can be a danger to your eyes if a fan punches you in the kisser, which many apparently do. I didn’t have that problem, since Spot didn’t have a mouth. Spot had eyes, but they were above his huge yellow nose. My human head was more or less inside Spot’s nose, so to look through Spot’s eyes, I had to look up, meaning I could only see the ceiling and the tops of my taller co-workers’ heads. It’s disconcerting enough walking around wearing giant feet (ask any clown), and it doesn’t help if you can’t actually see them. As a result, I wouldn’t really be able to lope around the store like a real dog, I would have to be led around the store, like, well, a real dog. I also wasn’t sure how easy it would be to interact with children without actually being able to see them, unless, of course, someone took the time to attach them to the ceiling of the store, something you generally need a permit for.

I was told it was time, so I gathered my nerve, hitched up my stomach, and walked straight into a wall. A couple of employees came over to assist me, and with one holding each hand, I was slowly led out onto the sales floor and toward the children’s section in the back. There were some cheers as I approached the unseen throng of kids, an excited chatter from the unseen throng of parents, and several fluorescent lightbulbs that needed changing in the ceiling. Spot, the very opposite of a seeing-eye dog, had arrived! Hi, kids! Wherever the hell you are!

I felt little arms around my waist as happy children began to hug me, and I turned, trying to locate the tiny bodies I couldn’t see. My elbow connected solidly with something hard, which I presumed from the resulting cry to be a child’s skull. “Oops,” I said, forgetting that I wasn’t supposed to talk. I waved my hands around slowly in front of me, seeking mops of hair to good-naturedly tousle, miscalculating and jabbing another child in the eyes with my big, furry fingers. More arms linked around my legs and I pitched forward, backhanding some poor, trusting kid across the mouth as I tried to keep my balance. I decided to stop moving, and hesitantly tried out a tender hug, only to find that I was tenderly hugging one of my co-workers, and then, even more tenderly, a Sweet Valley High spinning display rack.

“Time for the story!” someone blessedly announced, and I took a step forward, my knee encountering a small, soft, vulnerable stomach. I winced and stepped backwards, wishing I could apologize, and stepped on another child’s foot. At least, I think it was a child’s foot, it could have been a child’s neck for all I knew, a child I had knocked over and incapacitated with a swinging forearm or elbow. I felt like Godzilla, a blind, spastic, apologetic Godzilla, unleashed upon a Tokyo full of china.

With the help of about a dozen of employees and several volunteers, I made it to the tiny little chair I was assigned, and awkwardly planted my big fuzzy ass on it. The story began, and I found that while sitting, I could actually see some of the children through the eyes in the top of my head, provided I leaned forward far enough, as if Spot were suffering some sort of intense abdominal distress. I tried to act excited about the story as it was read and the pictures were shown, but this was difficult, since I was having to fend off a young boy who seemed intent on pulling off one of my feet. I also saw that none of the children were even looking at the book that was being read to them. They were looking at me. Enthralled. Devoted. As Spot, I was a God unto them. I was their Tom Cruise, their Madonna, their Barry Bonds, their Tony Randall. They knew I probably hung out with Snoopy and Odie and that I never returned Fred Basset’s phone calls. I was, for the first and probably the last time in my life, “cool.” I was the shit. They’d tell their friends about me later, over milk. They loved me. I could have led them anywhere, to war, to freedom, even to the ends of the earth, if the phrase “Follow me to the ends of the earth, kids,” could be transmitted in mime with giant furry three-fingered hands.

I also realized I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was trying to emulate an incredibly happy dog, but how to do so without causing injuries to my rapt yet fragile audience? I wanted to wag my tail, but since my costume butt was four times the size of the chair it was precariously resting on, it seemed a bad idea to frantically wiggle it back and forth. I could wave my arms around, but I’d never heard anyone say “You can tell how happy a dog is by how much he waves his arms around.” I gave a few thumbs up, and clapped my paws (in surprise and delight) to my big hollow nose a few times, which made a big hollow thumping sound. I also did the “I’m a champion” gesture, where you clasp both hands and move them back and forth on either side of your head, which no champion has ever done in the history of the universe. Since my colossal nose prevented me from getting both hands around the sides of my head, the clasped-hands arm-moving bit might have come off as something a little crude.

This Spot book must have been written by James Michner, I surmised, as it seemed to be going on for hours. The little boy who was tugging at my costume foot managed to pull part of it off, revealing my black Reebok sneaker, as I saw when I put Spot’s head between Spot’s legs, which was the only way I could see the sitting child and probably made the audience think that Spot was engaging in the sort of personal hygiene dogs do when you have company. The boy looked up at me curiously, and I tried to playfully swat his hands away from my foot, missing and slapping him in the forehead because, weighted down by my cavernous head, I almost fell forward off my chair at the same time. I fumbled to get my foot back on, a difficult task since I was wearing big gloves, working around a large padded gut, and couldn’t actually see my foot unless I stuck it out straight, which made it impossible to reach as well as severely increased my chances of kicking a small child directly in the face (I think you need a permit for that, too). At any rate, it didn’t signify the behavior of a happy dog as much as it did the behavior of a dog with a considerable mental handicap. It wouldn’t have been so bad if the book was about Spot getting caught in a bear trap and trying to free his foot, as my actions might have appeared more relevant to the plot.

The story ended, finally, so I got out of my chair with all the grace of a woman late in her third trimester and waded back into the crowd of adoring children, generously dispensing head trauma, delivering fond blows to the midsection, and completely mowing down some of the slower kids with my adorable yet dangerously ungainly body. Parents swarmed in to take pictures, and once more, tiny arms encircled my waist and legs while little hands yanked at my gloves and clutched dangerously close to Spot’s personal regions. I had a somewhat odd moment when I realized that I was actually smiling for these pictures, which was pointless due to my face being obscured by a giant yellow dog head. I guess old habits die hard.

Most of the parents and children were filing out and heading for the emergency room, and I was led to the front door, where I waved goodbye in what I hoped was the direction of the parking lot. Then, feeling I’d had enough, I was pulled into the back room by my co-workers to shed my canine wardrobe, and I returned, red faced and sweaty, to the front desk to sell books.

Something seemed wrong as I re-entered the sales floor, helped people find their books, rang up sales, and answered the phones. Then it hit me. The kids were now walking right by me without a second glance. No one wanted to hug me or hold my hand. No one wanted to take a picture with me. No one wanted anything but to know where the latest Clive Cussler book was or to get something gift-wrapped. I was no longer a celebrity, the star of a series of books that taught children how to read. I had no child army to lead, no prepubescent acolytes to faithfully do my bidding. Just a half-hour of adoration, and I already missed it. I missed the rapt attention, the unconditional love, and the blinding fame. Most of all, though, I missed the small children, and especially the gift of being able to punch, kick, and step on them, and get away with it.

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