One summer afternoon, in a bar in Hell’s Kitchen, I met a guy who looked pretty normal. I mean, he looked pretty much like me: receding hairline, dark eyes. But when I asked him what he did for a living, he said, “Don’t laugh, man. I’ll tell you what I do, but don’t laugh.”
I promised I wouldn’t.
“I dress up as Elmo.” He grinned. “You know, the Muppet? The red one?” He said, “That’s my job.”
Impersonating Elmo, the man said, was tougher than it looked. Not only was the Elmo suit itself pricey, but you competed against a phalanx of Elmo impersonators dressed just like you, all hustling for tourist dollars. You had to not only gain tourists’ attention, but hold their attention long enough for them to take a photograph with you. After the photograph, you asked for money, working a fine strain of aggression into the request. The tourists were usually too embarrassed to refuse a Muppet, their kids being right there and all.
“You got kids?” the man asked me. “A wife?”
“I have an ex-wife.” I thought about her shiny hair and added, “She’s in computers.”
“I should have gone into computers.”
“She makes a lot of money.” I turned my drink around on its coaster.
“Hey, man. It’s okay to be mad.”
“I’m not mad,” I said.
“Where do you work?”
I’d lost my job in the recession. Why else would I be here, I asked, in the middle of the afternoon?
The man downed his beer and looked at me. “Maybe you should think about buying a suit.”
“I have a suit.”
He said, “You know what I mean.”
* * *
After another drink I left the bar and walked east, into the heart of Times Square—just for curiosity’s sake, I told myself. The mayor had banned cars from 42nd to 47th on Broadway to relieve crowd congestion. Now there were rubber lounge chairs and food stands and tourists and hustling, rollicking Elmos. I’d noticed the men in Muppet suits before in passing, but today I sat in a lounge chair to make some observations. The Elmos skipped up to families, kids squealed, photos got taken, cash changed hands.
After a few minutes my eyes wandered to an only partially garbed Elmo sitting in a chair close to mine. He’d removed his Elmo head, which sat on his still-furry Elmo lap. He was a man/Muppet hybrid. Trails of sweat ran down his exposed bald scalp. The sun gleamed hard. He bounced the costume’s head around on his lap the way a mother might dandle a toddler. He didn’t notice me staring.
One of the big plastic Elmo eyeballs had a hairline crack.
After another minute, he reached into the head and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. He smoked one, then another. A little boy passed, staring, and he lifted his red Elmo hand and waved at the kid. The boy started to cry. The boy’s mother grabbed the boy’s hand and pulled him past.
Finally the man put the head on and, fully Muppeted once more, rose to his feet. I thought he’d go toward a group of kids, but he moved instead toward a woman walking by herself, a big leather tote bag under her arm, low-heeled black shoes glinting. She wore a blazer with shoulder pads despite the heat and her hair shone glossy. She looked a lot like my ex-wife, actually.
The woman smiled tolerantly when she noticed Elmo, and shook her head. She mouthed, “No thanks, no photos,” as Elmo approached, but Elmo just skipped right toward her, whispered into the whorl of her ear. I watched the big permanent smile on Elmo’s face and I watched the woman’s own small smile vanish. I didn’t hear what he said but I understood. He’d made a proposition, he’d suggested she do something vulgar, he’d said something to make this woman feel like she was lesser. Her shoulder pads seemed to deflate, and she slumped, not like a Muppet but a marionette, one whose strings had been suddenly released. Then she shook herself and walked away very quickly. I saw her take out her phone and hiss something into it and then she disappeared.
When the woman was totally out of sight, Elmo sat in a lounge chair and looked down at his own red mitts. Even though he was smiling, he seemed mad. A jackhammer further down Broadway rattled the air but no one around me even flinched. I pretended to stare at the NASDAQ building, blazing with market quotes in LED lights. Down the street I spied bright red pelts of other Elmos at work, doing furious little jigs.
A few minutes later, two policemen arrived. They went straight to my Elmo. How they knew him from the others I couldn’t say. Maybe he’d been identified by the crack in his plastic eye. Elmo removed his Elmo head, placed it beneath the lounge chair. He said something to the police and his scalp looked too fleshy in all that August light, a pale white grub pushing up from the ruddy body of suit. A jackhammer battered away in the distance. I heard the phrase “a series of complaints.” I heard the word “disturbance” many times. Then one of the police took Elmo by the elbow. He was led away.
When he was gone, I walked back to his lounge chair. Beneath the chair sat the Elmo head.
It sits now on a shelf over my desk at home. When I’m supposed to look for jobs on the Internet, I often look at the empty head instead. Some days I like to pretend it’s a trophy. An animal I slayed. But other days the head transforms, seems less like an animal and more like a suggestion. Its plastic eyes catch the light of my computer screen and take on their own hard gleam. Then I stand up, reach for the head, try it on. Just to see if it fits me.