4 Important Lessons You Learn as a Birthday Party Mascot
There comes a time in every man's life when he finds he's lost his way, or maybe he just never had much of a grasp on it in the first place, because he is a 22-year-old liberal arts graduate and no one is immediately handing him a job for some reason. When this moment arises, there are three -- and only three -- choices he can make to find his way again:
1. Dig down deep and make his family proud.
2. Let the overwhelming weight of life crush him.
3. Dress up as off-brand cartoon characters and tie animal balloons at kids' birthday parties on the weekends.
Success is completely subjective.
Now, while there are few who would look at that list and not immediately be drawn to the romanticism of choice number 3, I'm here to tell you that, just like when you chose creative writing as your major, it is not without its perils and pitfalls. And for those few who think wearing an awkwardly shaped human oven into some of the seediest parts of your respective city is somehow "demeaning" or "the first step in a life of bad decisions," I assure you that it can be much more moderately rewarding than you're anticipating. I'm not here to persuade or dissuade, but merely to offer a few tips and life lessons from one who has acted as the hot, breathy soul of plush cartoon characters and lived to tell about it.
Kids Are Terrified of You (Unless You Are G.I. Joe)
There is a reason that kids love Elmo: He is a cute little lovable monster with a funny voice on their television who teaches them that the letter "Z" is hilarious. Now take that vision of Elmo and blow him up into a real-life 5'9" red monster of body odor who has a nasally voice with a hangover rattle and a "magic box" of candy, and who could possibly blame them for being scared? The question we should be asking is: Why are the kids the only ones at the party who seem to get this? There has never been a parent in the history of time who, instead of making their screaming child take a picture with the thing they currently fear most in the world, has said:
"You know what? My 3-year-old's instincts on this are something that I should probably be encouraging. Maybe I shouldn't force her into the arms of what she perceives to be either a fire monster of death or just a strange man in a mask. I'm going to let her just go hang out at the swings until she has matured enough to realize that it's a real novelty to have a grown man who has chosen the parachute game as a career trajectory just wandering among us."
"He won't eat you. He only eats 99 cent frozen burritos."
Now there are different levels of fear, depending on the costume; Pikachu scares the shit out of kids, as do all of the Teletubbies (especially together). Clowns tend to be a mixed bag; some kids are terrified of them, and some are too stupid to know any better. But G.I. Joe ... well, G.I. Joe is special. Never once did I go to a party as G.I. Joe in which all kids weren't thrilled by the end.
I have a few theories around this. First of all, most G.I. Joe parties skew older. Second, G.I. Joe does not have a mask -- he's just a guy in camouflage face paint and some dog tags. And third (and most importantly): Kids love doing pushups. G.I. Joe's big thing besides making a lot of balloon swords (bazookas take way too much time) is that he tells kids to drop and give him pushups nonstop. A kid is crying because he isn't getting any presents on his sibling's birthday? "Drop and give me 5." The kid has already forgotten what sadness is because he's doing some goddamn pushups. Is there something to be drawn from this? I don't know, except maybe parents should be making their kids do a lot more pushups.
"That's right, I called you yellow."
Kill the Head and the Party Will Die
If you've ever been playing fetch with a dog and pretended to throw a ball for him but actually held on to it, that look -- that brief flash of bewilderment and betrayal when he looks back at you and sees it still in your hand -- that's the closest I can come to explaining the look on a 3-year-old's face when Bugs Bunny reaches over for a piece of candy and his head falls off, and in its place has sprouted the head of a liberal arts graduate.
And thanks to the ridiculously oversized feet, you can't even run away.
The main difference between these two scenarios is that for the dog, this brief moment gives way to total euphoria -- the ball has been found and can now be thrown again -- and all is forgotten. For the 3-year-old, the look gives way to a cranial reactor meltdown complete with tears, a little bit of puking, future therapy and a call to the party agency to explain why Bugs has been asked to leave early.
"Wait ... you majored in creative writing? What the fuck were you thinking?"
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
There are the occasional costumes that aren't sweat lodges and actually provide some room to breathe. The drawback to many of these, however, is that where fur or plastic once was, there is just now spandex ... skintight spandex.
Take for example the Spider-Man costume: It's tight, like vacuum-sealed tight. I don't know how Peter Parker accounted for modesty when he created his suit -- maybe the radioactivity had other effects -- but the makers of his birthday party costume clearly did not even try. Or maybe they just watched Labyrinth one too many times.
And now it's time for the face painting.
I'm not sure if that's also why mothers used to seem more friendly when I wore the Spider-Man costume, but there was a noticeable difference in treatment between that and, say, the gay Teletubby. Most of my really big tips came from Spider-Man parties, but you have to be prepared, because what the Spider-Man costume giveth, it can also taketh away. For example, if you ever find yourself at a party dressed as Spider-Man and the mother of the birthday child comes up to you, places her hand on your back and says: "Those are my two sons over there, do you know what they are named?"
And you say, "No."
And she says, "Peter and Parker. What do you think of that?"
And you say, "I guess you really like Spider-Man."
And she says, "You could say that."
But then you say, "I'm more of a Batman fan."
You are not getting a big tip at the end of that party.
No matter how hard you pose.
Nobody Fucks With Elmo
Here's a fun experiment: Find a neighborhood in your city where you -- a privileged 22-year-old who still sometimes listens to Blues Traveler -- might not feel overly welcomed. Now go to that neighborhood dressed in shorts and a String Cheese Incident T-shirt, park your car and walk up and down the block staring at a map and looking really lost. Also make sure you are holding a bag of face paints and a coloring book. I'm not saying that anything bad is necessarily going to happen to you, but you probably aren't going to be making a lot of Sunday morning brunch plans.
Now, go back to that neighborhood and put on an Elmo costume and watch as you turn from Scott Howard into Teen Wolf strutting the halls of Beacon Hills High. Turns out a little bit of fur does go a long way, and Elmo has a shit ton of it. Car horns will announce you as you walk down the streets, children and adults will stop to ask you for autographs at every corner and "Yo Elmo!" will rain down from windows up and down the avenues. That may be going a bit overboard, but sometimes, in my desperate world, that's how it felt. I've never felt so close to fame as I did when I was staring at the world through mesh eye sockets, in a shower of my own sweat.
Who's up for unlimited mimosas and french toast now, bitches?
There are a few unwritten laws in the universe to which absolutely everyone apparently adheres:
1. Don't shit where you eat.
2. Don't sell drugs in front of a school.
3. Don't mess with the dude going to a kid's birthday party dressed like Elmo.
Wearing the Elmo costume often brought an intoxicating sense of invincibility. It didn't matter that I was completely lost in life, with no real direction, prospects or food, or that I had been turned down for a hosting job at the LAX California Pizza Kitchen last Tuesday. Today I was Elmo. Elmo walked with purpose. Elmo walked wherever he wanted, whenever he wanted. He could even walk through this really sketchy neighborhood after dusk! On this abandoned street! With this cop car slowly pulling up next to him ...
"Hey kid, what do you think you are doing?"
"Just walking to my car."
"What's with the suit?"
"Well, why don't you let us drive you to your car before something bad happens, Elmo."
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For more insight into jobs you probably don't want, check out Why Tech Support Sucks: A Look Behind the Scenes and The 5 Most Impractical Aspects of Superhero Costumes.