Air Bear: Beware.
Early in my career as a bear, I learned a valuable lesson: reality is flexible, but only from the outside. So not for me, of course, but for those who see me. Let me explain.
That’s me at fourteen years old, wearing a bear suit for minimum wage. My brother had been the bear before me there at “Cartoonland Restaurants, Inc,” mercifully now defunct and swallowed up by larger fast food chains. No more live bears.
And that’s the problem with flexible reality: whatever people see, you get to be–like it or not. And I kind of did, at least for the pay, but minimum wage made even that a little iffy.
Because it was four hours at a whack of sensory deprivation: I could only see a small bit straight ahead from the mesh covered nose.
So it was far from fun and games from the inner-bear perspective. On top of the sensory deprivation and boredom was the external expectations. And not not just talking about the kids who figured, based on the cartoons, that Yogi could take a punch to the nuts. Rather, it was the manager who, from inside the restaurant itself, monitored and critiqued my every move.
On the loudspeaker that blared over the “pick-a-nick” ground: “Bear, move around. Bear, get off the bench. Bear, give out balloons at the carry-out window.”
There was no rest for the bear. Except on the hour, when child labor laws required I be give ten minutes which I took as my brother did: in the walk-in freezer.
There I could take off the unwieldy fiberglass bear head and cool down for a minute and most importantly, have a moment of peace amid the silent burger patties, the produce, and the dairy products shelved there. Plus–you can see it there–the white bucket.
That was the “special sauce” for the burgers. It was also therapy for the bears. As my brother explained, sure, they could hound you over the loudspeaker, drivers on the main drag could honk and yell obscenities, kids could whack you anywhere they wanted to.
But in the coolness of the freezer, silent save a whirring fan and condenser, payback: open the sauce bucket, expectorate; close the bucket.
Then on the hour, back outside for more sensory deprivation and relentless hounding from the loudspeaker.
Life was not as happy-go-lucky from inside the Yogi suit as it was from outside. And yet, that was the reality for those who enjoyed the restaurant, both adults and kids. Until the day I inadvertently backed into the barbecue pit with its fake logs but very real gas flame. Then the same dull, nagging voice from the speaker: “Bear, you’re on fire.”
And I was, or at least the Yogi suit was. That was pretty much the end of my career as a bear.
Fast forward about fifteen years and a new costume for me: airline pilot. Long after I’d traded the bear suit for an Air Force uniform and ultimately a flight suit, I traded all that in for the current four stripes and wings of an airline captain for the past 19 years.
Mostly fun from the inside and out, but it has its days of dark challenges, long hours and hot airplanes that make one wish for a few moments alone in the walk-in freezer.
But that’s not the only connection between fast-food, costumes, reality and the guy in the suit.
I stopped at McDonald’s in the airport recently for a cup of coffee to go. Had a buck out, ready to pay the usual seventy-some cents. But the clerk says, “that’s one-twenty six.”
Huh? Have you gone up? It’s usually under a dollar. “No,” he answers, with a sly grin, “that’s the senior citizen rate.”
Bear, you’re on fire.
How differently things looked from inside the costume. How flexible, and merciless (I really was on fire) the reality from without. The next time I got charged seventy-four cents for coffee, I saved the receipt. Damn.
This time it was me who’d been fooled by the costume. I felt the same as the day I’d put it on the first time, but that was twenty-five years ago. Well, there’s the flexibility of reality: it depends on which side of the costume you’re looking at it from, and what you’re willing to believe.
I’m not the guy in the bear suit any more, not the young guy in the pilot suit either, except for some days, depending on who’s manning the cash register: some simply charge me for coffee. Others say just give the old bastard his senior rate coffee.
But either way, bear suit or flight suit, seventy cents or a dollar twenty, in flames or not–I’m still just me. That’s reality.
And since I discovered all this as usual at a fast food restaurant, how about a quick break in the walk-in freezer? I’ll cool down and while I’m at it, check on the special condiments. Won’t take but a minute, then I’ll be back out in character with that same secret smile, good as new. Why the smile? Never mind reality–use your imagination.