Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Chill St. John’s, Part II

Having barely survived conditions on a cargo plane that would have been considered “balmy” by Siberians; a “close encounter” with the fair Fiona; the unvoiced recriminations of a pub wench for ordering coffee at 10 A.M.; and an adlib presentation before a roomful of Canadian Chiefs of Police; our intrepid hero is whisked away to meet-and-greet some of his wee fans at a children’s hospital…

I remained in the suit on the way. Changing before I left and re-donning the costume upon arrival was not an option: the schedule wasn’t designed with those time allowances. Pulling off the mask and arms alone would risk my being seen half-costumed and that was a no-no. So when I arrived, I’d been in the costume a good two hours and going insane from the tightness of the mask. Two hours was normally my limit, when I’d usually take a break. Again, the schedule was unforgiving. I also did not want to make the children wait, but I knew my performance would suffer if I didn’t do something to assuage the constriction about my neck and noggin.

I ducked into the restroom and pulled off the costume, only down to waist-point. The seam marks from the mesh eyes were etched deeply from the tops of my occipital lobes around to the apex of my cheekbones and back around the opposite side. My hair was the usual matted mess. I looked like I had just awoken with a hangover. The remedy was much the same. I splashed cold water on my face, my hair, my neck, and tried to massage some feeling back into my face and mold it back into shape, finally resorting to a few hard slaps to re-stimulate the nerves. Minutes later, I was back in action.

This was to be my first visit as Spider-Man to a children’s hospital. Despite the lack of an extended break, I was excited by the prospect. After all, it was the kids that made the job fulfilling. Putting a smile on the faces of children in need, especially those who have been hurt and placed in a foreign environment would be ultimately satisfying. I was unprepared for the realities of the situation. Every moment of joy that I felt was equally juxtaposed with a rip in my heart at seeing the kids in pain and being helpless to do anything to help them. This bittersweet dichotomy smacked me full in the face with the first child in the first ward I visited… the terminal ward.

I don’t remember the boy’s name, but I will never forget his face. He couldn’t have been more than five and he was beside himself to be meeting Spider-Man. He had inoperable cancer, his head hairless from chemotherapy. He also was Quebeçois, and had moved to this facility on Newfoundland, because it offered him the best treatment for his condition. As such, he only could speak and understand French. He could neither talk to Spider-Man, nor understand a word he/I was saying.

I tried to stumble through a few rudimentary phrases I pieced together from the remnants of my six years of studying French in school that still lingered in the far recesses of my mind, but my emotions got in the way. Even French101 social niceties like “Bonjour (hello)” and “Comment allez vous (how are you)?” became difficult to remember. Fortunately, his bilingual mother was present.

As I babbled on about how happy I was to meet him, he gently touched my face. I explained to him that I wore a mask to conceal my identity and let him examine my hands, as well. Mom dutifully translated, although I don’t think it mattered what I said. He was elated and the smile on his face made me forget for a moment that he could be gone in a few months. Then he told me that I was his hero. I was crushed. Some hero. Heaven knows what this child was going through, the pain, the isolation, the confusion… the not-knowing.

“You’re my hero,” I replied.

Repeating it now, the words sound corny and hollow, the perfect title to a made-for-TV movie on Lifetime. At the time, it was all I could think of. I hugged him one last time.

“Je t’aime,” I said, hoping the crack in my voice and the wet spots under my eyes wouldn’t betray me. His hug became stronger.

“Je t’aime,” he replied.

My visit continued less emotionally, but no less heartfelt.

One interesting asset to the costume was revealed to me for the first time. In those areas of the hospital where the sensitivity to an affliction and its treatment required the wearing of a surgical mask to prevent the spread of infection from foreign germs, such as the Burn Ward, Spider-Man could enter unimpeded. He’s already wearing a mask, after all. Of course, I would have donned one had the doctor asked, but I was happy that the children could enjoy my visit without a surgical mask marring the visual effect of the costume. You’ve got to admit it takes a bit away from the “coolness” quotient of the character. So I entered the Burn Ward, leaving my “posse” behind. With a whoosh and exhalation of compressed air, the doors to the ward opened as if I were Maxwell Smart passing through the succession of sliding doors as he exited C.O.N.T.R.O.L. Headquarters during the final credits of Get Smart. Again seeing the severity of such injuries on a young child was shocking. But their smiles at meeting Spider-Man lessened the impact.

Without the brief respite of splashed water on my face and facial massage, I leapt into my awaiting ride and headed back to the hotel. The discomfort of wearing the suit without a proper break for more than four hours was taking its toll. I wanted, needed, to get out of the suit and into a hot shower pronto. I was also bone weary. I may not have been doing any heavy lifting, but staying in character for any length of time is exhausting for any actor. Coupled with the intense physicality of Spider-Man—the bounding; leaping; squatting; tension of angular poses, splayed fingers and concentration—was akin to running a marathon. During the 8-performance run of A Streetcar Named Desire in which I played the role of upstairs neighbor/friend-of-Stanley/Landlord Steve Hubbel, in my senior year of college, I lost more than ten pounds and that character was onstage less than twenty minutes the entire show!

To my surprise and chagrin, the car pulled up, not to the front entrance of the hotel, but to the convention-hall entrance, where I was greeted by my friends of the CACP, who had long-finished their meetings and already averaged three beers in the bag apiece. And they all wanted to pose for pictures with Spider-Man for their families. To his credit, Eric poked his head into the car and asked me if I didn’t mind ingratiating his inebriated band of clients. But I also knew he was feeding me lip service. It was important to him and the project that I do this. And though only having known Eric for a few short hours, I already felt that he and I were good friends, and that there would be many more, crazier, exhausting, but fulfilling, times ahead.

It was excruciating. Oh, I never let my fatigue or suffering show; I kibbitzed good-humoredly with every one of them; asked them about their kids; had them strike Spider-Man–esque poses with me—web shooting stances and such—and never let on that, had I access to a firearm, I would have blown my brains out, just to stop the pain.

“Mind if I get you to pose for a picture,” slurred one.

kill me

“No problem!” I cheerily replied.

kill me

“Could I get another; I have two children and they’ll fight,” a previous recipient asked, stumbling from the portable bar the hotel had set up.

kill me

“Sure, how ’bout one for Mom too!” I bantered.

kill me

“You must be getting tired,” offered another.

kill me

“You kidding? Beats going toe-to-toe with Doctor Octopus.”

kill me

“Hey, Spidey, How about a beer?” shouted a boisterous one with a hearty guffaw.

how about a case? Better still . . . kill me

“Not me, I’ve got to swing back to The States later, and I never drink and swing.”

kill me

Another two hours and it was over. I was shattered. When I removed the mask in the hotel room, the mummified skull of Ramses II that I remember from my high-school ancient history book, stared back at me. Joining the usual seams of the costume, etched on my face and torso were faint swaths of crimson from the suit’s dye staining my underarms. One long shower and nap later and I was ready and itching for copious amounts of food and drink.

I was scheduled to meet Eric at a bar called Trapper John’s. My inquiry at the concierge desk revealed that the pub was on George Street a short walk distant. In fact, George Street was the only place to get a drink in St. John’s as it was the only street on which businesses were allowed liquor licenses. I pondered this curious distinction on my way.

It wasn’t hard to find George Street. As the only thoroughfare where alcohol was available for purchase, the cacophony of partying Newfoundlanders and live music tore through the solitude of the area like an audible beacon in the night. Bar after bar lined both sides of the street, patrons spilling from every door, pint glasses and festive drinks in their hands. There didn’t seem to be any concern about carrying “open containers of alcohol” in public, and revelers drifted from one bar to the next with their drinks in hand. I wondered if the various establishments even bothered to trace back the odd assortment of glassware they’d invariably collect by the end of the evening or if they simply used the same glasses, thus saving innumerable cost when restocking due to the high volume of the shared order. It didn’t seem to unease any of the pubs I visited one way or the other.

I soon arrived at Trapper John’s, a cozy pub with the dubious distinction of being fur-lined. From floor to ceiling—including the ceiling—were hung a vast assortment of pelts: elk, seal, rabbit, otter, moose, every indigenous creature you could name. Not a square-inch of wall or ceiling tile was visible. Light fixtures and the occasional vintage, sepia-tone photo of (what else) a Canadian hunter—newly disembarked from his canoe with pelts in hand—seem to squeeze through the browns, blacks, whites, reds and brindles coating the walls. Even the bathroom did not escape the creative hand of the Grizzly Adams wannabe interior designer who waylaid the place (Dicker and Dicker of Beverly Hills, eat your heart out!). As one might expect, it was dark, and though busy, was relatively quiet, any sound absorbed and muffled by the furs. I imagine this is how members of PETA might envision Hell. As for me, any place with a well-stocked bar is aces. I’m just glad it didn’t.

I’d barely had time to say hello to Eric and meet his friends when I was introduced to another signature feature of Trapper John’s. “Introduced” is putting it politely; “accosted” would have been more apt.

“Hey Eric, has Steve been Screeched-In, yet?!” shouted one member of the cabal who had evidently already primed himself for the evening with several drinks under his belt.

Screeched-In’? As in Screech from Saved by the Bell. And what would that mean, anyway? Will I be screaming ‘Thank you, Sir! May I have another?’ by evening’s end? Or simply talking funny?!!

My confused/worried look was all the answer Eric’s pals needed.

“Screech! Screech! Screech! Screech! Screech!...” they began to chant.

I felt like Horton the Elephant being dragged by the Wickersham Brothers to the boiling pot of water that was to be The Whos’ doom, while being verbally pelted with a chorus of “Boil that dust speck! Boil that dust speck!” by them and the rest of the jungle denizens.

Another participant, who I hadn’t noticed leaving the group a few moments before, returned with a shot glass filled with black liquid.

Ah, Screech was a drink; why didn’t they just say so?

I knew any attempt at my gaining information about the mysterious liquor would have been roundly booed or at best ignored. And it was obvious my Greek chorus wasn’t going to let up until I had downed the shot. It worried me a bit that no one else was joining me, which would have been viewed as bad form in any American bar. How potent or disgusting was this stuff? Would I be waking up with a seal next to me? A veteran of a senior year of college living with four rugby players, I figured I could handle the experience, and downed the drink. I needn’t have worried. Screech was nothing more than dark rum. I've got to say, I was disappointed. In no way did the potable live up to its hype. A roar went up and I was officially “Screeched-In.”

I later learned that Screech was the rum equivalent of Retsina, the Greek white wine made from the dregs of the barrel after the favorable top portion has been extracted. Screech was even nastier. As a liquor derived from fermented sugar, the barrels in which rum is stored acquire a sticky layer of gunk along its walls. This sugary substance was scraped off, then boiled down to make Screech. Though actually produced in Jamaica, it’s bottled in Newfoundland. Go figure. The signature Screech drink was called “Double Dark & Dirty,” which was simply a rum & coke with a double shot of Screech, hence the “dirty” part of the name.

Try as they may, my brothers in the fraternal order of Tappa Kegga Screech, could not induce me into downing anymore shots of the alcoholic ichor. Nor did I want a “Double Dark & Dirty;” I’m not a rum drinker. At the time, my tipple of choice was beer… or red wine. I was still only few years out of college and my taste buds hadn’t aged to the point of appreciating hard liquor. My recent love of red wine came from waiting tables in nice restaurants. “Smokey,” “woody,” “hint of cherry,” intrigued me when I’d learn wine lists, and I felt experiencing and getting intimate with these characteristics would benefit my red wine sales. They did, and I grew to love the favored beverage of Bacchus. I would have liked a glass of good red wine, but I remembered the reaction the locals had with my outrageous request for cup of coffee at 10 A.M. I think if I had ordered a glass of red wine, my skin would have joined the furs on the walls. I also didn’t hold much hope of Trapper John’s having a decent wine-by-the-glass selection.

Besides, Canadian beer was good… damn good! The Canadian beer industry was not under the same restrictions as its American counterpart, which is highly regulated. Simply put, the alcohol content of the beer in Canada was higher. Not that I was looking to get shit-faced; but the greater alcohol content definitely made the beer better, heartier, richer and downright yummy. But scarcely had I finished my first beer than Eric announced that he was calling it a night. Huh? Isn’t this the same guy who wanted me to join him for a beer at 10 A.M.? What kind of drinker is this?

On subsequent gigs with Eric, I would learn that he is more than familiar with pounding a few, but at this moment, I had to wonder. I hadn’t realized what a hugely important summit this was for him, a make-or-break affair that had the potential to do untold good for children and communities across Canada, gain national attention, and earn a great deal of money and future business. The amount of physical work and mental exhaustion at its resolution must have been staggering. I spent little more than a half-dozen hours in a Spider-Man suit, cavorting with grown-ups and sick kids, and I was knackered. Eric certainly spent more than a few months pulling his proposal together. And I later learned that he had follow-up meetings the next morning. Thus, the reasons for his early withdrawal.

Eric’s exit made me realize how tired I was. I began the evening driving on fumes. Add a generous shot of Screech and a couple of Canadian beers and the extras in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? appeared like nervous dogs after drinking double espressos compared to me. So I left the feral confines of Trapper John’s and headed back to the hotel. Still, the palpable party atmosphere of George Street and the preponderance of drop-dead gorgeous gals were too much for my weakened state and I found myself pulled into a bar or two along the way.

It wasn’t long before I discovered that the lady-folk in this small seafaring town were only interested in one thing: seamen (ahem). St. John’s was a major port of call for naval fleets the world over and no amount of charm—in the looks department, I was woefully under-funded—nor New-York-City–allure could overcome that Anchors Aweigh je ne sais quoi. I, thus, resolved to the warming embrace of my hotel bed.

Besides, I’d need my rest if I was to withstand my return trip on “Frigid Air”!


John III said...

My oh my Steve. I'm starting to think Marvel needed to make a steel gray and white Spidey costume for you and your Arctic adventures. I bet you wouldn't have gone home alone if you had your costume on at the bars. Just lift the mask up so you can drink. The women would have said, "Sailors? Who needs em, I have a super hero!" Against Marvel regs I know. I's sure you would have been fired if you were caught. Not to mention every drunk dork in the bars would have tried to pick a fight.

Vroom! said...

I could only get away with it on Halloween... IF the suit worked that way. Contrary to the comic's depiction, the real live costume's head did not detach from the rest of the body.

And there are more cold adventures to come!

Thanks, John!

John III said...

I forgot to mention. I like the play on your title with "Jill St. John." Too bad you didn't run into her to take away the "Chill".