Looking back on it now, it would be easy to say I did it to bring joy to the children, or that I did it to honor a cherished holiday tradition in New Orleans. But in reality, like a lot of things in those days, I did it for the money.
I confess that for crass monetary reasons alone I donned the noble mantle of the great and glorious Mr. Bingle, snowman adjutant to Santa Claus.
In my defense, it was during the recession of the early 1990s, the hardscrabble days remembered in economic history as the – well, as the Recession of the Early 1990s. The glamour of the ’80s had faded. People walked the streets wearing flannel shirts or handmade skirts. You might say they looked “grungy.”
For my part, I was working my way through college, simultaneously selling shoes, waiting tables and holding down a work-study job. The only pleasure I could afford was $1 cocktails at Ms. Mae’s Place.
Canal Street reflected the times. Shop fronts were boarded up and painted to look like people were inside. There was a porno theater with a naked blowup doll stuffed into the ticket booth. Russell Stover Candies was on its last legs. D.H. Holmes, where my sister had recently worked, was no more.
But one shimmering light remained: Maison Blanche, the grande dame of Canal Street. My oldest brother was part of a cadre of Armani suit-clad salesmen in the back on the first floor. Walking through the front doors to see him, I had the pleasure of passing a multitude of sparkly display cases where exquisite ladies in white sold perfume and makeup and jewelry.
In November of 1991, my brother set forth an intriguing proposition: Put on a costume with a giant head and walk around the store during Hanukkah and Christmastime. The pay was the princely wage of $4.25 an hour, otherwise known as the federal statutory minimum. Now here was an offer that couldn’t be refused.
I was shown to a secret chamber between the first and second floors known as “The Mezzanine.” There, hanging on a hook next to some lockers and glowing almost angelically under the flickering fluorescent lights, was a fluffy, white, man-sized onesie. On a bench below it was what appeared to be an enormous, upside-down ice cream cone. I lifted it, turned it around and came face-to-giant-face with a legend.
I looked into Mr. Bingle’s eyes. He and I became one.
The Mezzanine was a sort of Batcave, a Fortress of Solitude for Mr. Bingle. This is where he came to life. This is where he took breaks. This is where he would simply stay out of sight for periods of time, to maintain the mystique and keep the shoppers guessing as to when Mr. Bingle might make another precious appearance, to be announced over the intercom.
Once on the sales floor, Mr. Bingle made his way through the store in search of little children to greet. This may sound easy enough, but there were three challenges to being Bingle:
No peripheral vision. This will come as a shock, but Mr. Bingle didn’t see from his eyes. (His eyes were about six and a half feet from the ground.) In fact, Mr. Bingle saw through a mesh material covering the small opening of his mouth. As a result, Mr. Bingle had a tendency to bump into racks of clothing and almost fall down the escalator.
Unstable head. Mr. Bingle’s head was actually a giant hollow helmet that the wearer had to keep in place through a strategic placement of the chin. Due to the thick cone-hat extending to a height of perhaps eight feet, it was top-heavy. This led to neck aches and – as you will see – tragedy.
Hot suit. On the outside, Mr. Bingle looked nice and cold, like snow. On the inside was a sweaty, steaming underworld.
Few people knew Bingle’s true identity – just my brother and some red-haired lady from the shoe department, as I recall.
And so it happened that on the third floor, in the bedding department, Mr. Bingle himself fell in love. I say Bingle himself, because the man beneath the ice cream cone head was unknown to the girl in question.
And yes. It was a complicated love.
She was a few years older, a ravishing caramel-complexioned lass who sold pillows and blankets; let’s call her “Clarice.” Each time Mr. Bingle appeared on the third floor, Clarice would call out, coquettishly, “Heyyy, Mistuh Bing-gull.” She would take him by the arm, sit him down on one of the beds and chat him up. She would even put her hand on his knee. Soon, the bedding department became Mr. Bingle’s favorite part of the store. He could be found quite frequently on the third floor. His heart raced on the escalator ride up.
But eventually fate turned against Mr. Bingle. Given the heat of the costume, he found it necessary at times to retreat to The Mezzanine, remove his head and sit directly in front of an air-conditioning unit. This, as common sense would tell you, made Mr. Bingle sick. Soon he was walking around with a stuffy nose or hopped up on anti-histamines.
One day Mr. Bingle was making his way through the store in a daze, trying to keep from bumping into things, when he came across a little boy and his mother. The little boy, perhaps 3 or 4, looked up at Mr. Bingle in wide-eyed amazement. Mr. Bingle stooped down to shake the boy’s hand – and his giant head tumbled off and onto the boy. The boy started to shriek. As Mr. Bingle picked up his head and apologized, the mother took the hand of her poor weeping son and stomped off. Mr. Bingle put his head back on. The mother turned and shot him a hard glower, as if to say, “What the hell is wrong with you?”
Later, up in the bedding department, Mr. Bingle sought solace in the company of Clarice. But today, she intended to take their relationship a step further. She wanted to look inside Mr. Bingle’s mouth.
At first, Bingle hesitated. But he could never say no to Clarice. As she gazed into his mouth, she gazed into his real eyes for the first time. She saw the face of a scrawny, ill 18-year-old. He was just a kid.
Through the gauze, Mr. Bingle could read it in her expression: The magic was gone. The love between them could never be.
Of course, it couldn’t have ended otherwise. Christmas Eve passed and Mr. Bingle disappeared from the sales floor. For a snowman’s time is short, and then he melts away.