Over the Christmas holidays, I dug up a bunch of family photos at my parents’ house to scan, and came across a few things I’d forgotten ever existed. One was this gem, from the fall of 1975 or the spring of 1976, when I was five years old.
If you’re a child of the 70s, you might remember costumed characters making appearances at shopping malls around the country. (Visit Plaid Stallions to see some terrific snapshots of kids posing with the various characters.) In Duncanville where I grew up, Red Bird Mall seemed to have a steady stream of these guys come through, who I recall mostly set up shop in the Sears. Of course, these were just out-of-work actors or such in ill-fitting costumes, but to us kids, they were awesome. (The story is legendary in my family about what happened when the guy in the Howard the Duck costume got his big duck foot stuck in the bottom of the escalator. It was years before I knew enough to explain to my parents that the stream of obsenities he spouted was in fact completely in character.)
But even at the age of five, I knew these were just guys in costumes. Guys in cool costumes, to be sure, but still just guys. So when I met “Spider-Man,” I was a little confused when he asked me a strange question.
“Do you know who I really am?”
Um, no. I just shuffled my feet, glancing over to my parents to rescue me, afraid to make eye contact. Well, I couldn’t make eye contact, since he was wearing a full-face mask, but you get the idea. (My daughter does this shuffle and eye-shift thing now, just one of the many things she’s inherited from me.) I just mumbled something about not knowing, hoping the encounter would end soon so I could get my autographed picture and get the heck out of there.
“I’m Peter Parker, photographer for the Daily Bugle,” the guy said.
“Oooooh, right.” I just nodded, trying to act like this was something I was learning for the first time. When what I was really thinking was something like, “What, does he think I’m stupid or something?”
Then, later, I saw what he’d written on the back of my photo while this exchange was going on.
Looking back, I just can’t help but feel sorry for that guy. Stuck in that suit all day, having to be the equivalent of a mall Santa the year round. Was he friends with the guys playing Captain America and Howard the Duck and the Hulk? (Probably they just hired local guys in every town, but in my imagination, they all travelled together in a bus, like the Twirl King Champions.) Barely literate, clearly, and unaware that there’s a hyphen in Spider-man, at least he got to hide behind a full-face mask, unlike the guy assaying the role of Captain America (whose mustache kind of ruined the effect).
But the fact that a six year old me actually patronized him when he tried to make a little magic? That has got to be the low point.