Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Northern Exposure, Part I: Who Was that Masked Man?

Not long after my jaunt to St. John’s, Canada, to help sell the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) on the idea of financially backing a line of customized, Spider-Man, PSA—Public Service Announcement—comic books to educate the country’s youth on the evils of drugs, cigarettes and alcohol; the safety of bicycle helmets; and other important issues (see “Chill St. John’s,” Parts I and II), I was appointed to participate in a whirlwind, five-day, four-city, cross-country press tour to officially announce the program to the Canadian populace and unveil the cover to the first book in the series.

The million-dollar–plus joint program, with the Alliance for a Drug-Free Canada and Health and Welfare Canada, kicked off on December 3, 1990 in Toronto, and the schedule was unforgiving. An early-morning press event kicked off each day—in the case of Toronto, there were two such dog-and-pony shows, one on the heels of the other—at the completion of which I was rushed to the airport to catch a flight to the next city for the following morning’s media circus act.

In the penultimate city, a visit to the local children’s hospital was scheduled. At that point in the tour, when the subsequent and climactic jaunt was a mere ferry ride away, my stops became less like that of a convict on the lam and more like that of a visiting foreign dignitary, which was not too far from the truth, albeit without the motorcades and bodyguards. Then it was back on a plane to Toronto.

I’m knackered just remembering the whole affair.

I agreed to spend the Friday night prior to the Saturday kick-off at the home of the visionary behind the program, Eric. Even given the brief time we’d worked together in St. John’s, we’d formed a strong friendship. Of course, spending time with a man’s scantily clad wife will do that (I told you to see “Chill St. John’s,” Part I and II!). Come to think of it, staging an accidental encounter with one’s lovely wife in sexy lingerie is a clever way to guarantee fealty in a potential colleague. Even the purest of souls would be drawn to work with the temptress’s hubby, even if only on a subconscious level. And when I think of some of the stunts for which Eric “volunteered” me in the ensuing years in which I gladly participated… Hmm…

This photo of Fiona—The Scottish Lady, as Eric so fondly calls her—was taken recently and sent to me by Eric with the express purpose of using them... AND with Fiona’s blessing!

Eric lived in Scarborough, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto, in the sort of picturesque, wood-shrouded, warm and inviting dwelling one might find in a Frost poem or Currier & Ives print. My lodgings were not in the main house, but above the oversized two-car garage; a cozy apartment with pull-out couch, entertainment center, log-burning stove and bathroom with walk-in shower. It would prove to be my home-away-from-home on many a Canadian adventure to follow.

It wasn’t especially unusual for Marvel’s Personal Appearance performers to stay at the home of a sponsor. Most of the actors who’d built a rapport with certain clients held no qualms about doing so. It proved to be a symbiotic relationship: The graciousness of the actor guaranteed their getting the job and defrayed the appearance’s cost, which in turn helped make it possible for the client to book the gig in the first place. Since Eric would be joining me throughout our grand cross-continental trip, the move also ensured our mutual arrival at the appointed time and location of the opening ceremonies.

Also accompanying us would be Eric’s thirteen-year-old son, Peter. While his father was wracking his brains to come up with a surefire method to reach kids and thus nail the account, Peter innocently said, “Why don’t you use Spider-Man?” Ah, from the mouths of babes. I can almost hear the angel chorus and see the ray of light that cast down upon Eric as the epiphany struck him and the entire program fell into place.

Erics son, Peter, the mastermind behind the CACP Spider-Man comic program

Although the tour would be taking place the first week in December, the idea of snowfall during the affair never occurred to me. Whilst growing up in Boston, snow was rare that early in the season. Cold? Certainly. The frigid temps descended in October, just in time to ruin one’s Halloween costume by the forced wearing of a snorkel jacket by an overly-concerned mother. Had I been more astute, I would’ve embraced the moment and gone out as an Inuit with the family Siberian Husky towing me around the neighborhood on my Radio Flyer. As for the chill, what need I worry? No one would be silly enough to schedule a press event outside in December, not even a Canuck.

You’d think I’d learn…

As it turned out, the press part of the Toronto leg was scheduled to follow a grand announcement in Nathan Phillips Square located directly in front of City Hall. So much for not having to worry about the cold. As for snow—hah! Brisk it may have been, but the skies were clear and the sun was shining. It was the type of crisp autumn day where everything appears more clearly defined, like an animated cell atop a painted background.

Still, the temp would be a problem. Spandex offers little in the way of insulation and seeing as this was a city government event, complete with the mayor or Burgermeister or whatever it is Canucks have, and a retinue of Mounties, I held little hope of it ending before I suffered hypothermia and my wobbly bits had contracted and hardened into colorful agates. It didn’t help that my hosts kept asking me if I was going to be warm enough in the suit. No, I would not, thank you very much. Maybe you shouldn’t schedule outdoor events in December. Canada isn’t exactly an equatorial country, y’know! Of course by the look of the lightweight jackets and loose-fitting attire of the locals, one would never have guessed it was literally freezing.

Fortunately, a member of my posse offered me a sweatshirt, a promotional gew-gaw of a recent city-sponsored event—“Take a moose to work day” or some such—with a garish design of fluorescent pink, yellow and lime-green on a stark white canvas that clashed with the classic Spider-Man palette. I was loathe to wear anything, but had little choice. Perhaps sensing my concern—more likely seeing what a dodo I looked like in the sweatshirt—my police escort offered me his jacket as I made my way from the office in which I donned the red-and-blue and to the building’s lobby where I would await my cue. Since the CACP was a major part of the campaign, it made perfect sense for Spidey to show his allegiance by wearing a police officer’s coat. Gone or ignored by me during all this were the overheard snippets of conversation among my entourage; worrying smidgens of “a fast-approaching blizzard” and “record snowfall.” Must be talking about some other part of Canada; there isn’t a cloud in the sky.

While the mayor did the whole suck-up-to-his-constituents thing, I hid just inside the building behind one of the towering, floor-to-ceiling columns that dotted the lobby, to ensure the optimal amount of delighted surprise in the audience when I appeared, which wasn’t easy. The entry was surrounded on three sides—including the doors—by glass. Any bored attendees, who decided to take a walk-about would see me in a flash. And given the endless drone of each successive government official, the odds of that possibility happening increased with each brown-nosed introduction to the next Mucky-Muck on the agenda.

You’d think I’d be worrying about my speech—not that I had one. I was once again left to my own devices. My hosts seemed unconcerned, probably believing I was prepared ahead of time. And Eric was AWOL. He left me to ensure the press event afterward was set up properly. I could have declared war, done my best Dudley Do-Rite impersonation or started yodeling “When I’m calling you-oo-oo-oo…” like Nelson Eddy. It was a testament to Eric’s trust in me that he didn’t fret over what I would say. He was assured from my behavior in St, John’s that I’d be fine. And he knew the power of the costume would forgive any faux pas I might make.

Finally, I was introduced. I bounded out the front doors through the gathering throngs of reporters, TV crews, government Nabobs and confused tourists, and ascended the platform on which the speeches were conducted. After giving generous thanks to my hosts, followed by the prerequisite opening joke about swinging to Canada—“I thought I was going to be late. Once I left Manhattan, I ran out of things to swing from, so I had to hop on a bus!”—to loosen/wake up the crowd, I spoke a few words on what an honor it was to be a part of helping my Canadian fans and how I looked forward to meeting them on my journey across their beautiful country. It was succinct and genuine, and would make for a nice spot on the evening news cast in that slot after the tragedies, killings, burglaries, latest celebrity meltdown—you know, the feel-good stuff—and before the sports and weather, only if such “cheery” events were few and there wasn’t some sort of weather calamity, like, say, a massive blizzard!

I was soon back in the warmth of City Hall changing into my civvies so as not to be late for the second stage of the kick-off. The press conference took place a few blocks away at a local restaurant called the Organ Grinder, the décor and fare of which could have passed for any TGI Friday’s—now simply Friday’s. In the short time it took me to put my clothes back on and leave City Hall, the sky had turned a disheartening gray. As I entered the eatery, mere moments later, downy flakes the size of tea bags had begun to fall. Still, though my optimism wavered, I was confident there wouldn’t be a problem in the few hours until I’d be on a plane whisking off to Winnipeg for Stage II of the tour. How bad could it get?

(Cue ominous music…)

The restaurant had suspended its afternoon service—Gasp! Where will we get our Illchester cheese-covered, honey-glazed sweet potato fries?!—and closed to the public. Unlike the ubiquitous Friday’s, the Organ Grinder had offered live entertainment. How else to explain the stage at one end of the dining room. The cabaret-style tables were cleared of any dishes, silverware, condiments or specialties signage, leaving nought but a white tablecloth and the chairs. Management hadn’t even bothered to move them to one side, perhaps to more quickly prepare for dinner service once the conference was finished. The room was unlit, save for the stage, which was awash with intense lighting.

Unlike the endless political falderal in front of City Hall, Eric’s presentation was economic, steering quickly to the razzle dazzle of Spider-Man. Unbeknownst to yours truly, Eric had arranged for a group of young children to be present. It was a stroke of genius. Any doubt the muckrakers may have had about the efficacy or cost of the program disappeared the moment I leapt into the room. The children were aflutter with excitement; ubiquitous utterings of “’pider-Man,” delivered in a precocious timber that could melt the heart of the Marquis de Sade, filled the room.

Eric explains the CACP Spider-Man promotion and why it was abruptly cut short after only five of the ten proposed custom comics was produced on his own blog, Drone On.

There were more flashes than at a Brittany Spears sighting—Whew! Glad I (ahem) shaved!—when I made my surprise entrance, making the restaurant seem like Studio 54. The presence of the Web-Slingers wee fans made for excellent camera fodder. I swear I could hear the shutterbugs slavering for a chance to shoot me with the children. To them, a pic of Spider-Man with adorable young ’uns was the next best thing to a dead body. Plus, it would temporarily assuage those annoying goody two-shoes constantly descrying the abundance of feel-bad stories and photos in the paper. I’m sure there were more than a few thinking the presence of a corpse would make the ultimate trifecta. Oh well, there go the Closet fans I had from the media.

Ah, yes, my friends the media. To be fair most were “fair and balanced” with their reporting on Spider-Man’s activities. And this was true wherever my adventures took me, The U.S., Canada and England alike. But it was the occasional smarmy one that soured the whole bunch; those handful of would-be Walter Winchells who were never satisfied with the story set before them, ever digging for an iota of underlying dirt around which they could twist a report into sensationalism. Most commonly, these flibbertigibbits sought the secret identity of the man behind the webbed mask.

“So who are you,” the enterprising reporter would ask.

“Spider-Man… You know? Superhero, savior of the world, idol of millions… You really need to get out more.” I’d reply with more than a hint of “What are you, an idiot?” in my voice. If the reporter was daring enough to query before his colleagues, I might add “Perhaps one of you could fill him in later. He obviously didn’t get the memo;” always sure to evoke a hearty guffaw and certain to put an abrupt halt to the hapless victim’s line of inquiry, until such time they could corner me by themselves.

“No, who are you really?” They’d continue unfazed, if they did happen to confront me mano a mano, in such a tone as to suggest that I didn’t understand the question.

“I can’t tell you that. I have a secret identity to uphold,” I’d answer. “You must work for the Daily Bugle. Did J. Jonah Jameson send you up here?”

“So you’re not going to tell me…” I’m not sure if this disheartened coda to their fruitless interrogation was meant to guilt me into revelation or simply ease their own conscience into accepting defeat. Either way it was pathetic.

“Sorry; no can do. I’ve got loved ones to protect,” or some such I’d say, before leaping away.

At the Organ Grinder, as I left the stage to confront the media, I beelined it to the table on which a giant replica of the first issue cover of the CACP’s Spider-Man comic program was displayed and perched onto a smaller table abutted against it. I wanted to ensure that any photo-taking or videotaping highlighted the cover, thus emphasizing the reason ye olde Web-Spinner was in Canada, even though many of the resulting questions may not pertain to it. I also tried to steer my answers to the program. I was not asked to do this by the Marvel hierarchy or Eric, and maybe other Spideys might have simply taken questions from the stage and kept their replies pithy and comic-centric.

Marvel’s PR department frowned on the characters making unscripted statements—outside of those relegated to the world of the heroes—to the press. And I would have gotten paid regardless. But I’d seen the press release and wasn’t arrogant or stupid enough to take the intricacies of the program entirely in my hands. Any questions that delved deeper than what was on the hand-outs, I directed to the pertinent parties, usually a member of the CACP. I gotta say it was refreshing making appearances knowing an entire nation’s police force had my back!

After the initial barrage of questioning, the media blockade surrounding me broke up and I was left—finally—to mingle with my wee fans, who stood in earnest on the ring’s outskirts, like the children outside the gates of Willie Wonka’s factory watching the lucky few with golden tickets meet the Master Chocolatier.

One such Cindy Lou Who, who was probably more than two, but still getting used to the whole walking-on-two-legs thing, waited trepidatiously while her peers rushed in with high-fives and handshakes. Seeing her brethren come out of the moment unscathed bolstered her nerves enough that she began to slowly approach on unsteady feet. I held out my hand at arms length and coaxed her soothingly. Time stood still as she painstakingly reached out.

Suddenly, my small admirer was side-swiped by the intrusive leg of a rampaging reporter, barreling around the tables to get his chance at a Pulitzer by confronting Spider-Man one-on-one. The little lass kerplopped on her fanny, more surprised than hurt, and the pioneering muckraker delivered a curt, dismissive, “’Scuse me, sweetie,” with the barest of head swivels in her direction, before turning back to me.

I was appalled and fuming, but retained my composure—at least outside the mask. I wanted to throw the reporter on his ass and deliver a meaningless apology, while rushing to the girl’s aid, but I know doing so would be put a damper on the festivities—to say the least—make Spider-Man persona non grata in Canada and severely damage, if not shatter, the CACP’s cause. And it would most certainly freak out the child. She had barely gotten up the courage to touch the Web-Crawler’s outstretched hand. Imagine how she’d react if I jumped forward to help. From her POV, it would be nightmarish. Her mien was that of a child who falls and hasn’t yet decided whether to start screaming or not. I was not about to push her over the edge and force her into years of therapy.

I did the only thing I could think of. As soon as he began to utter his first question, I cut him off with a flippant, “Oops! Spider-Senses tingling… Gotta go!” and bound away from the blighter. I certainly wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of an interview. I little feared the possibility of a missed quote. There would be coverage aplenty without this Cretan’s input.

And how misguided of the reporter. The story was directly in front of him. After years of the CACP and government agencies looking for an effective way to teach children and teens about the ramifications of drug-use and other social concerns, this moment of a youngster reaching out to the country’s new vehicle in championing these important causes exemplified the power of the program and spoke volumes to its subsequent efficacy. The dolt probably had to use a dictionary to spell journalistic integrity.

At some point during the dog-and-pony show—Yours Truly being both dog and pony—I noticed that someone had replaced the view outside the large picture window with a white sheet. It caught my eye because of the way the restaurant’s name—emblazoned in garish colors and appropriate circus font—suddenly took on the characteristics of something out of a gallery showing of famous contemporary American artist, Ed Ruscha. A prominent collection of words against a stark background, no longer fighting the animated view of the world beyond the pane.

As I cheated closer during the interview process with the media, I saw to my horror that what was a beautiful, crisp, sunny, though chilly, day only a few hours earlier had transformed into a raging blizzard! The cars parked in front of the building had already become amorphous blobs of snow; the streets were deserted, save for the occasional vehicle crawling slowly through the two-foot–high accumulation; and I could barely see the buildings across the way. I half-expected Yukon Cornelius to come bursting through the front doors at any moment crying “Ain’t a fit night for man nor beast!” And like Santa, I had a flight to catch, only without a reindeer with a mutant illuminated nose to lead the way! But this is Canada. This is their definition of a light dusting, I kept trying to convince myself as the snow was noticeably rising before my eyes in the seconds it took me to ruminate on the matter!

And the time was nigh; nigher than originally planned. Eric sidled up beside me to report that the blizzard was expected to get exponentially worse with every passing moment and I had to leave now in order to get on the one flight that was scheduled to leave for Winnipeg before the airport shut down. The small NBA gym bag containing my civvies had already been moved to a police car awaiting me in front of the restaurant. I had less than an hour to make the forty-minute trek from downtown Toronto to the airport in a snowstorm that would make the Winter Warlock—keeping to the Rankin-Bass theme—call in sick.

But what about my luggage? I asked. There’d be no time to retrieve and transport it. Neither my single piece—a larger over-the-shoulder carry-on—nor Eric or his son would be going to Winnipeg with me as planned. The next morning’s press conference would be marshaled by Winnipeg Police Chief Herb Stephen, who would be a the lone person accompanying me from Toronto, and Yours Truly. My luggage would be directed straight to Vancouver, where I’d reconnect with Eric and Peter. I’d have nothing with me, but literally the clothes on my back and a Spider-Man costume!

Eric and several officer’s hustled me out of the Organ Grinder like Justin Bieber being escorted out of a mall concert. For a split second I became the Flash, as I bolted from the front doors of the restaurant to the police cruiser, diving into the back seat where my gym bag sat waiting. Had I slipped or my handlers not opened the door beforehand, I would have risked frostbite. Blessedly, my driver had cranked up the heat in advance. I waited until the vehicle had moved away from the building before shedding the red-and-blues and putting on my clothes. Not that anyone would have seen anything had I not delayed my changing. The visibility was so bad I could have mooned the picture window of the Organ Grinder, slapped my hairy ass right up against the backseat window, and no one within would have noticed.

Herb Stephen sat shotgun as the cruiser navigated through the storm. Miraculously, we arrived at the airline entrance. I wanted to kiss the driver, but there was no time, as the Chief and I were hurried through the terminal to the gate and onto the plane. It was surreal. I felt like John Cusack in 2012, decades before he made his fateful escape in the movie. The flight was packed. There was no ambiguity where our seats were—the only aisle and window seat unoccupied—as we entered the cabin. Dozens of faces stared at us, various expressions of frustration and relief mixed with more than a dash of curiosity.

It was then that I realized what a provocative portrait Chief Stephen and I made. We weren’t just a young man and older adult arriving late for a flight. Stephen was in full police regalia. I was a sight in my disheveled, hastily-donned-in-the-back-of-a-car civvies, matted-down-from-hours-in-a-Spider-Man-suit hair, and my drawn, exhausted mien, carrying a wee Leprechaun-green gym bag. Goodness knows how long the flight was delayed waiting for us. And we were obviously traveling together, having arrived in tandem and taking seats beside each other. Passengers probably thought I was an undercover cop or, more likely, a felon being returned to Winnipeg to face my crimes. Regardless, I was a person of import.

Suddenly, my impossible flight to Newfoundland in the back of a cargo plane a few months previous (see “Chill—”, aw, never mind!) made sense. I had the entire police force of Canada—and its political power—watching over me. There was no way I was not going to get to St. John’s that night. If they had to pull George Kennedy out of retirement (Honorary ten loonies to any of my Faithful Bloglodytes who get that reference) and have him pilot the Spruce Goose, they would have made it so. That evening in Toronto, the lives of a few score people didn’t amount to a hill of beans compared to getting Spider-Man to Winnipeg. And Mother Nature be damned, as well!

Me? Given the circumstance, I would rather have walked. Ours was the only flight scheduled for take-off. And from the appearance of the tarmac, which looked more inhospitable, desolate and perma-frosted than the ice planet of Hoth, I’d say there hadn’t been much activity for hours. At least, I wouldn’t have to be kept warm in the body of a recently-deceased Tauntaun (They’ll be a quiz in the morning). Was I the only one who didn’t think it was a good idea to be taking off in this mess?!!

NEXT: Go west, young Spider-Man!


Ben Churchill said...

You can definitely paint a picture with words here, LOL! That little girl should have shrieked her head off, just to unnerve the reporter. I'm sure she had no clue what had just happened, but he should have been shamed by her crying and making others realize what just happened.

I'm looking forward to the next part...hopefully the plane makes it on time and nothing goes "horribly wrong" like they do in most movies or theme park attractions. ;-)

Vroom! said...

SPOILER WARNING: I'm still alive, Ben, but that's as much as I'll reveal!

Thanks for the kind words.


Eric Conroy said...

Great story telling..And almost all of it true! However, you are far too modest to point out that the entire campaign was sucessful because of you. The Canadian Police had never before, or ever since captured tha attention of the entire country with such a positive and constructive education campaign. It was the purest form of community policing they have ever done.You have a great talent!