Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Northern Exposure, Part II: Ferry Tales

As you, My Faithful Bloglodytes, may remember (If not, see “Northern Exposure, Part I: Who Was that Masked Man”), I had just begun a five-day, cross-Canada press junket to promote a program to reach children about the evils of drugs, bullying and other social causes via a series of custom Spider-Man comic books. The whole enchilada, though, was in danger of literally not getting off the ground due to a blizzard of Brobdignagian proportions hitting Toronto moments before my scheduled flight to Winnipeg, the next stop on the tour. I was hustled onto the last plane given the thumbs-up for take-off before the city shut down. Rudolph would have told Santa to stick it in his sac…

But take off we did, all the while buffeted like the riders in the last car of the Coney Island Cyclone throughout our ascent. Thoughts of the nonfiction bestseller Alive filled my mind. I started looking at the other passengers like I was at a Vegas buffet. Finally, thankfully, the plane broke through the storm’s ceiling and leveled out in tranquility. It seemed like hours, which was ridiculous, seeing as Winnipeg was less than two hours away from Toronto by air.

Summer in Winnipeg

The rest of the flight was uneventful. The skies around Winnipeg were clear, though the several feet of snow on the ground indicated that wasn’t the case in recent days. But what the city lacked in bad weather that evening, it made up for in mind-numbing frigid temperatures. It was 20º below zero Fahrenheit, and I’m not talking wind chill. Chief Stephen told me that the temp was typical for that time of year. “Typical for that time of year!” It was only December 4!!! What was typical for… oh I don’t know… February 1? Forty below?! With the nonchalance with which he presented the statement I’d swear he bathed in liquid nitrogen. My mind just couldn’t grasp those kind of numbers. Unfortunately, my body was having no problem—I was freezing my tuchus off!

And the inhospitable environment was apparently not lost on the locals. There would be no one telling me during my visit, “20-below? Pshaw! We’re used it,” before stumbling through the permafrost like a Yeti. The thoroughfares were barren of pedestrians. Not even an errant inuit or one of those odd ducks we all know that spends their winters in shorts, because they “love the cold,” was visible.

Meanwhile, at the Winnipeg bus stop...

In moments, Chief Stephen and I arrived at the hotel. Why the Chief was checking in was beyond me. Wasn’t he the Chief of Winnipeg? Perhaps, his abode lay on the city’s outskirts and staying closer to its center would be more conducive to his making the early-hour press conference the next morning. I had nought but my humble NBA gym bag safeguarding the Spider-Man suit—I never traveled separately from the costume if at all possible.

I wasn’t looking forward to spending the next twenty-four hours without my teeth brushed. And my contacts were not the type you slept in. I took out and cleaned them every evening and enzymed them once a week. Remember, this was a few years before disposable lenses and daily removal and weekly maintenance was important for the health of your eyes and longevity of the contacts. Optometrists recommend that one does not keep the permeable slivers in their eyes longer than eight hours, and I was going on fourteen by this point, including a dehydrating flight. My orbs felt like raisins.

Fortunately, the hotel had disposable toothbrushes and paste. Actually, the toothpaste was incorporated into the design of the instrument. It was an odd little thing: shorter than an average brush and composed of a lesser grade of plastic, including the bristles. The paste was stored in a cavity underneath these plastic cilia and forced through tiny pores at their base when the implement was telescoped inward. The toothpaste wriggled up the same way Play-Doh squoze through the Fun Factory press. Alas, the maneuver shortened the brush by nearly an inch, which made holding the thing difficult, never mind actually brushing with it. And it wasn’t quite Natural Tom’s of Maine, either. It tasted like an after-dinner mint that had been hidden at the bottom of a coat pocket since the garment was worn the season before. But it was better than not brushing! I couldn’t bear facing my li’l fans with my breath smelling of cadaver. I even felt bad for the media.

As for my eyes… Blessedly, I had drops on me which, although not ideal, would keep my parched peepers lubricated enough so that my lenses wouldn’t permanently fuse to my orbs before I got to Vancouver sometime the following afternoon. It was still disconcerting to sleep in them, but I was so knackered from the day’s festivities, my worries were no match for exhaustion. At least I’d see more clearly in my dreams.

Despite awaking to a brilliant sun, any hope of a more humane temp—say 0º—were merely a pipe dream. It remained a “normal-for-this-time-of-the-year” twenty below. As Chief Stephen and I were ferried to the venue at which the press event would convene, I noticed that all the buildings were interconnected via enclosed walkways. From one skyscraper to the next, cross alleys and streets, were a network on conduits. The whole city looked like a giant Habitrail for humans. Chief Stephen explained that this was how people got around. All the buildings had underground parking garages—in fact, there was a whole ’nother world of shops, eateries and businesses beneath the streets. Winnipeggians (?) spent practically their entire winter months indoors.

It was then I noticed the eeriness of what would normally be deemed pedestrian areas—sidewalks, plazas, etc.—of the city. There weren’t even that many cars on the roads. Locals got inside as quickly as possible and stayed there. Well, when you live in an environment that can cause frostbite after a scant five minutes of exposure, it makes sense. The intense cold and dryness also made the snow seem like peppercorn-and-rock salt rough-ground dry marinade. A mere moment of the concoction whipping against my face felt as if I’d shaved with a cheese grater.

Kudos to the Winnipeg Free Press, the only paper in Canada to spell Spider-Man correctly

The event was much like the one at the Organ Grinder in Toronto, and held at a similar venue. Heck, it could very well have been an Organ Grinder franchise. Chief Stephen did the honors introducing me and I handled the onus of discussing my adventure in the comic and my role in the program with my usual aplomb before confronting the dreaded notepad holders and mic wielders. Thankfully, the children escaped unscathed from bullying reporters.

The trip to the airport was a far cry from the flight-from-Egypt-esque one the evening before. There was no teary farewell between Chief Stephen and I. As soon as the cab arrived and was ready—and by that I mean heat running at full capacity, passenger door open and aligned with the eatery’s entrance, driver standing by—I bid everyone adieu and sprinted out the front door, diving into the hack like I was dodging a sniper. As frigid as my departure from the Organ Grinder was—Spider-Man-ing through a foot of snow amidst whipping wind and snow—that split second in the arctic climes of Winnipeg clad in a paper-thin layer of spandex and bikini undies was worse.

My whirlwind trip across Canada next brought me to the mild northwest climes of Vancouver. The flight was long—three-plus hours—but blissfully uneventful. By the time I landed, I was a fog-addled, nigh 200-pound mass of flesh, suffering from 48 hours of sleep deprivation and 2000 miles of getting bitch-slapped by the weather and plane travel. Add to that inadequate toiletries which made my contact lenses feel as though they were sucking my soul out through my eyeballs; forced me to endure several teeth-brushing sessions with barbaric, plastic, flagella-tipped sticks coated with Beechnut-gum–flavored paste; and had me smelling like a Frenchman from lack of underarm deodorant; and so much as the plane running out of peanuts would’ve had me out of my seat chanting Attica! Attica!

My memories on that first day in Vancouver are understandably a blur. I think it was overcast—it may have been raining shortly before my arrival—but it was definitely warmer. The city reminded me of San Diego, but with a cold.

As promised, my bag was waiting for me at the Bell Captain’s station of the hotel upon check-in. I dragged my sorry ass to the room and had my Dopp kit out before the luggage hit the rug. Peeling my contact lenses off my tired orbs was like trying to get the address label off a magazine subscription. I swear it made the same sound as well. Unfettered, my peepers gratefully gasped for air. Then, I brushed my teeth for a good twenty minutes, basking in the soft bristles of Oral-B and the subtly minty sweetness of Arm & Hammer. An equally-long hot shower, revived me just enough to stumble to the bed and collapse, succumbing to a much-needed afternoon nap.

Before the CACP conference in St. John’s, Newfoundland, where I began my association with Eric and the venerable institution and where the Spider-Man custom comics program was solidified (see Chill St. John’s, Parts I & II), a similar meeting was held on the west coast in Victoria. Patrick, one of Marvel’s California-based Web-Crawlers answered the call of duty and is seen here with Chiefs Stephen (r) and Snowdon (l) and Deputy Bill Kerr (c).

I met up with Eric and his son Peter later for dinner. It was then that I also met Chief Bill Snowdon. I’m not certain how the police hierarchy works in Canada—heck, I’m not quite sure about how it works in the U.S.—but it was immediately apparent that Chief Snowdon held a spot in the upper echelon of the CACP. There was a gravitas and wisdom behind his eyes that belay a friendly, grandfatherly mien, the type gleaned from years in the trenches fighting the good fight and doing it well. His presence demanded respect, though he did not. He was actually loveable, the way an uncle is. Still, you had the sense that you didn’t want to be on his shit list. He reminded me of Broderick Crawford who played his share of lawmen, including Chief Dan Mathews in the popular 50’s television series Highway Patrol.

Separated at birth?

All that was meaningless. He was a good friend of Eric’s and thus one of the good guys. His base of operation was Victoria, British Columbia’s capital located on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. Though Chief Snowdon would be present for the next morning’s press hijinks, he would not be presiding—that honor being local police chief Bob Stewart’s—but he would be accompany Spidey on the Web-Crawler’s visit to the BC Children’s Hospital after the conference and afterward on the ferry ride to Victoria.

The press event proceeded as the previous two: Organ Grinder franchise or some such eatery hosting, much media, scads of excited kiddies, photo ops aplenty and great aplomb across the board. No kamikaze reporters strafing wee fans, nor any other hiccups of which to speak. The one major difference was the climate. It was blessedly pleasant—I would’ve walked to the medical facility!

Ace reporter Nosy Parker’s and Spider-Man’s rendition of “Summer Lovin’” was a big hit at the karaoke bar

The police cruiser that transported us was loaded beforehand with Eric, Peter and my luggage, as we’d be proceeding straight to the dock following Spider-Man’s visit to the hospital. I’d have to change into my civvies after I’d seen the kiddies. I certainly couldn’t do it in the car, what with Eric and Peter sharing the backseat and Chief Snowdon riding shotgun. He’d probably arrest me for public indecency.

As with my other visits to children’s hospitals, the occasion was filled with a dichotomous mix of cheer and heartache, but ultimately fulfilling on a level few will ever understand. Despite the promotional bent of the week’s activities, all salesmanship went out the window once I entered the hospital. This was all about lifting the spirits of kids undergoing a discomforting, oftentimes traumatic moment in their as-yet short lives. And by the joyous way many reacted to Spider-Man, I was assured of pushing aside the wee patients’ fear, pain and confusion, if only for a brief moment. I was happy to see that Eric and Chief Snowdon shared my views.

Throughout the dozens of hospital visits I made during my decade wearing the red-and-blue, I was always amazed at the politeness of the medical staff. They’d make the Goofy Gophers from the Warner Bros. cartoons seem like Naomi Campbell in comparison. It was nigh sycophantic at times. I realize they were showing me the respect of a guest in their workplace, but they save children’s lives, for goodness sake! I should be bowing to them!

As they sometimes mentioned, part of the reason for their behavior—other than just being incredibly selfless individuals—was that they seldom had celebrity guests visit. So when one did stop by, they were overly appreciative. I was shocked. How easy—taking so little time and effort—was it for a celebrity to pay a visit to a local children’s hospital? Was it the lack of media attention such a gesture would garner or simply a case of overlooking something like a hospital, which stands day in and day out, its workers doing their jobs without fanfare, regardless of media attention? Well, this was one celebrity who’d do anything he could—barring testing the latest serum, that is!

The best medicine...

This particular hospital tour brought with it a unique request. One of their patients—a ten-year-old who needed his tonsils removed—was so terrified by the impending surgery, there was no consoling him, and he refused to accede willingly to the procedure; that is until the doctors promised that Spidey would be waiting for him the moment he awoke from anesthesia. It was a risky move and one assuredly not taken lightly. What if another blizzard or other disaster delayed my trip or forced me to cancel altogether? He’d awaken to bitter disappointment and possibly a complete loss of faith in all his heroes.

There was no question I’d be there for the young boy, though the administrator who asked me did so in such a way as to suggest that the hospital would understand if I was too uncomfortable about agreeing. Lead on, MacDuff! My prestigious posse, however, were left behind. No one other than authorized personnel were allowed in post-op. This was an extreme exception. As with a burn ward, a surgical mask, gown and slip-on booties were required dress. But my handy-dandy Web-Slinging ensemble was already self-contained, so I entered the double-set of hermetically-sealed sliding doors sans hospital attire.

The area was dark; nought but a few fluorescent lights cast an eerie, milky glow from recessed sconces. The quiet was deafening; the rhythmic beep of monitors and swoosh of oxygen tanks, the only sounds present. I felt like I was doing something I wasn’t supposed to. Noticing my arrival, a nurse by the boy’s bed began whispering to him of my presence. A wise move. The lad came out of surgery not long before. having my spidery visage be the first thing he sees coming out of anesthesia might give him a heart attack. Still, I crept slowly toward him, and began waving and delivering greetings as soon as I noticed his eyes shift in my direction.

The boy was understandably groggy, like a child who’s fallen asleep in a car seat and must be lifted to be taken from the vehicle. “Hi, Spider-Man,” he croaked, moving his arm out to shake mine. It slid an inch or two, never raising above the sheets, before I took hold with my own.

“I heard you wanted to see me,” I said. “I’m so glad. I would have never found you in here. It’s like your own Batcave.”

Yes, I know, it may be sacrilege to reference the Distinguished Competition’s icons, but I’m pretty sure both DC and Marvel alike would forgive me in this instance.

And the smile—weak though it may have been—was worth it.

I went on to tell him how brave he was… and lucky! He’d be allowed to eat as much ice cream as he wanted for a couple of days. I had to be careful not to risk harming my heroic physique. Understandably, he didn’t talk much. I winced empathically every time he rasped. I still have my tonsils, and when I have a sore throat, it’s like I’m covered in paper cuts and dunked in lemonade every time I swallow.

The encounter lasted but a few minutes, before the nurse gave me the high sign that I should go. I told the lad the same, and he mumbled a goodbye, then drifted off to sleep. I crept out as quietly as I’d entered, wondering if the boy would think it all a dream and hoping that he remembered enough to know that it was not and Spidey had kept his promise.

I met up with Chief Snowdon, Eric and Peter and the visit continued. In the children’s play area—our final stop—I was surprised to see a photographer from The Vancouver Sun. As I mentioned, I am not enamored of using sick children for publicity purposes. Unfortunately, newspapers won’t run a photo ballyhooing a new social program, regardless of its import, without an emotional hook.

And of course, the child on which the shutterbug focused his attention was the one with the most in-your-face affliction: a ten-year-old boy, named John Irwin, whose wheelchair could not disguise the debilitated body seated therein. The photographer’s presence didn’t seem to bother John, whose toothy smile and wide excited eyes couldn’t hide the delight of seeing his hero. He certainly didn’t need to wear the Spider-Man hat balanced atop his head. Everyone could see this was a special moment for him. He even wore a shirt and tie! Knowing John’s amazing moment would be featured in the newspaper and the boy would experience the added excitement of being highlighted thusly assuaged any ill-feelings I had regarding the media attention.

The ferry trip from the Canadian mainland to Vancouver Island was a treat. My only experience with ferries was the one that transported New Yorkers between Staten Island and Manhattan, a pleasant thirty-minute affair that offered one of the best and assuredly cheapest views of the Statue of Liberty—a mere 25¢ roundtrip at the time!

The ferry that traveled from Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay was a much larger ship. Cars, trucks, vans, commercial vehicles and buses alike packed the lower levels while their drivers and passengers, as well as additional travelers filled the upper tiers. The interior was much like that of the Staten Island variety: sparse, open spaces lined with long hard benches and the typical “refreshment” kiosk which served such standard fare as hot dogs, potato chips, sodas, newspapers and magazines. Where this ferry differed from its Gotham brethren was length of the trip—approximately ninety minutes—and the view along the route.

“A three-hour tour... A three-hour tour...”

With due respect to Lady Liberty, the panorama that greeted me on this aquatic journey was breathtaking. The Vancouver Island ferry meanders betwixt the many islands that sprout from the waterways en route; towering, forest-covered masses of all shapes and sizes, with the occasional homestead peeking through the trees and accompanying path to jetty and boat on the shore below. The late-afternoon sun was brilliant, accentuating the picturesque tableau before me. And the cool evening breeze was both chill and exhilarating. It was Mother Nature at her most awesome; the kind of moment that makes you feel so small in the scheme of things and yet more alive. It was just the spirit-rejuvenating experience I needed to get me through the final leg of the junket.

And I’d need it. I was scheduled to swing by an elementary school the next day. Don’t misconstrue; I enjoyed my school visits. But tweens and teens were the most challenging of my fans. I had to be on top of my game. Sure, reporters may poke and pry in their vain attempts to squeeze a shred of dirt that might expose Spider-Man, but they were pretty stupid. It was easy to manipulate them and I never met one that could match my Web-Slinging acumen.

Occasionally, I encounter a young go-getter who knew that Spidey was married to Mary-Jane Watson-Parker, and they’d confront me with that fact, like it was the clue that would lead them to the Holy Grail (Please! Tell me the name of the gossip magazine J. Jonah Jameson used to publish alongside The Daily Bugle and we can start discussions). But I’d easily swat them aside with far more Webhead lore than they had in their arsenal, leaving them agape.
But the young adults… They were savvy and knew their stuff, and even more tenacious. A battle of wits with them was a true psychological chess match. Sure, the majority were just excited to see Spider-Man live. They’d throw away whatever “cool” pretensions they’d developed in school and allow themselves a lapse back to just being a kid. But some saw knocking down the world-renown superhero phenom as a means to boost their egos. In the end, they, too, begrudgingly got a comic book signed and oftentimes ended up defending Spidey from others who would try to do what they’d attempted moments before. It was challenging, but fun, and these doubting Thomases were perfect for honing my ad-libbing skills and keeping me from getting too cocky.

The students at James Bay Elementary School did not disappoint. They were inquisitive, honest and bright. Helping to temper the veracity of even the most profound quidnunc among the group of fifty was the fact that they were some of the first children in all of Canada to receive the custom comic book that the CACP were handing out. This made them feel especially special, so there was little reason to exalt oneself by attacking Spider-Man, the bearer of the gift that had already raised their self-esteem.

When confronted with a free-range group of youngsters, I try to find a high perch whence I can autograph without worrying about the chaos surrounding me. The costume’s limited vision already raised my hackles when amid an unfettered gathering, so attaining a position of safety and control made for a less stressful situation. Few have been the times when I’ve had a kid punch me, but why take the chance of some misguided youth pulling a Mark David Chapman? Besides, the spectacle of Spider-Man hunkered over a gaggle of gleeful groupies makes for enticing photo fodder for the local rag. Thus I found myself atop a van in the school’s parking lot whilst the precocious yutes peppered me with questions and handing me their comic books to sign.

I discovered later, after Eric had sent me a press packet from the junket—whence the few scanned Xerox pictures in the blog derive—that a picture of the aforementioned scene of Yours Truly signing comics atop a vehicle overhanging a pack of perky pupils did make Victoria’s newspaper, The Evening Telegram. Sadly, it is a bad copy, even muddier than those I’ve included. If any of my Faithful Bloglodytes in the northwest have an actual clipping in their scrapbooks, please send me a scan and I will give appropriate credit and genuflection.

All I had to face now was the 3000-mile flight back to NYC, which included a stop in Toronto where Peter, Eric and I would part ways. I’d have rather confronted a roomful of Bill O’Reillys. Compounding my misery was my impending birthday two days thence. No one likes to spend their day of birth alone and that’s what was awaiting me in my studio apartment in Forest Hills, Queens. Well, that and wall-to-wall Marvel memorabilia, including an inflatable Spidey hanging over the bed. Is it any wonder I was single?! Of course, spending more than half the weekends in a given year on the road only made dating that much more difficult. I was as pathetic as the alias of the character I portrayed. All that was missing was a doting aunt.

Perhaps sensing my reluctance to go home, Eric asked if I’d like to spend the weekend in Toronto with him and leave Monday morning. In truth, I would have jumped at the chance even without the dire circumstances. One regret throughout the trip was how little time Eric and I had to hang out. He said he’d handle the changes in my schedule with the airline, then surprised me with an upgrade to first class. It was his way of thanking me for the good job I’d done. I could’ve kissed him. I’d never traveled first class, and to this day, have not done so again. I still remember the meal: thinly sliced, smoked Norwegian salmon, filet mignon and a strawberry mousse served in a square bowl made of white chocolate; plus all the wine I could drink!

“That is not a picture of my web-shooter...”

But the best part was the leg room. As I am 6' 2", space is a premium for me when flying. I can’t afford Business never mind First Class, so I have to take my chances with what little room the airlines provide in Coach. If I’m lucky, I’ll be able to lower my tray table without shattering my patellas. And if the passenger in front of me is especially rotund, I’m doomed. Airplane seats have about as much support as Anthony Weiner and any above-average–seized person forces the flimsy structures back even further. And that’s before they employ the reclining feature… OUCH! My trip across Canada was fraught with flight accommodations of varying degrees of small, so the ability to luxuriate throughout the six-hour return trip was sheer bliss.

The Conroy men: older son, Ed, Eric and younger son, Peter

I also finally got the chance to know Peter, who was seated next to me. During the junket, he was understandably quiet. Representing youngsters across the country amid a bevy of flashing cameras and inquiring reporters is heady stuff for a thirteen-year-old. And he wasn’t wearing a mask! Still, he soldiered on without losing his composure, which spoke volumes for his character, albeit unassuming and shy. With the spotlight turned off, he was a fun, mischievous kid. So it was no surprise we hit it off.

The “west and wewaxation” continued at Chez Eric. A case of red, visits to the local pub, another case, scrumptious vittles prepared by the Scottish Lady, still more bottles of vino… overall, relaxing, joyful and one of the best birthdays I’d ever celebrated. And Fiona kept her clothes on the whole time!

Happy birthday to me!

1 comment:

Ben Churchill said...

Apparently "Organ Grinder" was a chain. A pizza parlor chain. There were some in the US too.

It must have been interesting for Peter. On one hand, he gets to hang out with Spider-Man, but on the other, he also knows his secret identity!