Although every child I met, was unique in his or her own way, and I was ever on my toes to expect the unexpected, there were several general categories in which I could place the children that I encountered in my travels...
Unfettered with doubt, these kids could hardly restrain themselves in line. They’d practically run past the table when their turn arrived, they were so overcome with excitement. Some would launch themselves into my lap without warning—sometimes to painful results. All would introduce themselves and carry on with me like they’d known Spider-Man personally for years, which, in their minds, they had—through cartoons, books and their parents’ passed-down enjoyment of the character. They’d ask how I was doing; what I was doing in Chillicothe, Ohio on a Sunday afternoon; could they have a comic; whatever. Would he or she like their picture taken with Spider-Man? Hell, yeah! Most times they made it sound like they were doing me a favor by conceding to pose. They were fearless, brash and bold, often surprising their own parents.
There was a little boy I met in a Florida Wal-Mart that could be used as a blueprint for The Exuberant. It wasn’t particularly busy in the store. In fact, I remember wondering where all the children were. The general manager blamed the weather. It was a gorgeous day; people were out enjoying it. At least that was his argument. Listening to him, one might think that mild, sunny days were a rarity in Florida, so unusual that anyone not taking advantage of this headline-making occurrence risks never experiencing another such day for the rest of their lives. Yeah, right. That’s why thousands of Noreasters spend their entire winters here, for the chance—though the odds are stacked well against them—of witnessing a beautiful day here, so they might tell their grandkids one day of the time the sun came out in Florida.
I suspected it had more than a little to do with a lack of promotion on the manager’s part. The prerequisite poster—announcing my arrival with date and time, which Marvel provided—was taped to the front entrance, but when was the last time you tried to push open a door that had a sign on it that read PULL? It happens all the time, because people are inured to posters on shop windows. The sign was most likely all the manager did to promote the event. In fact, I had to enlighten the woman at the customer service desk—who had no prior knowledge of my appearance—to make periodic announcements that Spider-Man was in the store signing free comic books. Apparently, it slipped the General Manager’s mind to undertake even that small gesture of promotion for the event.
My suspicions were confirmed when I was repeatedly confronted by shoppers with “Oh, Spider-Man. I didn’t know you were going to be here,” followed by the even more frustrating, “I would have brought the kids.” What? Haven’t you heard? It’s beautiful out. Everyone’s out enjoying the weather. Except apparently the many parents who were shocked to see me in Wal-Mart.
Fortunately, there was one parent who did make note of the poster. I was standing in the main entranceway, only toward the back of the store. Suddenly, a cry erupted from the entrance. “SPIDER-MAN!” I turned but the midmorning sun streaming through the glass doorway made customers look like the aliens disembarking from their spaceship at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind—silhouetted forms whose outlines were skewed by the intense light enveloping them. This included the tiny form running toward me.
Thank goodness he continued to scream, otherwise I wouldn’t have known he was closing in on me so quickly. I crouched with arms outstretched and girded myself. Standing would have given me more stability, but it only takes one enthusiastic child running into Spider-Man for an embrace and subsequently slamming their heads into Spidey’s family jewels to teach this ole Web-Swinger to crouch in the face of oncoming Exuberants. He hit me like the Dino hits Fred Flinstone when Fred returns home from work. I believe my exact response was “OOF!”
Now, having personalized literally thousands of autographs, I’d heard all sorts of unusual names. And judging from the sari this boy’s mom and grandma were wearing and the turban his dad was sporting, I assumed the boy to be Indian and figured that his name would reflect that. Still...
“Hi, Spider-Man. I’m an ass!” he announced with a big smile on his face and look of excitement in his eyes.
It took me a second to realize that the child’s name—however spelled—was pronounced an-ASS. “Don’t be so hard on yourself,” I amusingly countered.
“What are you doing here?” he continued with nary a hint in his eyes that might have indicated that he heard my response never mind recognized its humor. I gave my standard reply.
“I had some time off from battling bad guys and thought I’d swing down to visit some of my friends in Florida. Would you like a comic book.” I offered.
“Sure, I’d like a comic book” he replied, as if I were stupid for asking him so obvious a question.
He stood by my side, watching closely as I wrote, his hand patting my head. That’s right. He was patting me as someone would a dog. I certainly wasn’t offended. Oftentimes children who were curious and brave enough touched or patted me. They wanted to see what it was like to touch the costume or to make sure I was real. This boys touch was more than that. It was affectionate. Spider-Man was his friend and this was his way of conveying his excitement on finally meeting him.
Oh, the boy’s name? Anas—not far astray from the way he pronounced it. And one name and little boy I will never forget. (Editor's note: Child pictured is not the child mentioned in the anecdote, though he was certainly a member of The Exuberant.)