{ Walk a Mile in My Paws: My Day As a Bear }
Sharon Mama Spell
photography by Julie Albright

asking - the new yinzerThere are many times I have wished I had a costume with which to either blend in or hide, yet wearing an outfit that looks different than the norm requires risk: I might be laughed at. Kids might beat me up. My makeup could smear! It's taken many years for me to even become comfortable on stage, though I'm still not completely comfortable on the stage of life, so when the day came for me to rent a bear costume and walk around town to see if any of my albums were selling at local retailers, it was almost too much. In the name of music, and fuzziness, of course, I soon learned that I had a lot less stage fright than I thought.
   The costume shop on the South Side opened five minutes earlier than advertised, and I was their first customer that Tuesday morning. I went in and asked for a bear costume, and the sales lady said, "I talked to you on the phone last week." Discovered already.
   She pulled down a brown bear suit on a hanger and handed it to me. The deflated figure sported three different shades of brown (dark, light, just right), soft foam padding, and smelled like fresh laundry detergent. The belly was once a large convex shape, but it had fallen concave on either side, bringing the front to a point—much like the belly of a fat cat who's lost weight. Hanging from the butt was a brown turd-shaped tail.
   As the sales lady helped me into the legs of the suit, she asked why I wanted this outfit. I lied, "It's for a friend's party this afternoon. In Friendship. On Friendship Avenue." She seemed to buy it. Just as she got me zipped, shod, and mittened into the outfit, my friend Julie arrived at the store. Julie's duties for the day were to lead, drive, and take pictures of me on my errands. I wasn't sure how prepared she was for these duties initially, but her smile as she looked at me let me know we were in for a treat-filled day.
   The South Side is home to many artists and actors, and my errands were in this neighborhood, so I felt that a bear roaming around this neighborhood would be a bit less questionable than a bear roaming around, say, Squirrel Hill. Still dressed in my furry suit, we walked next-door for coffee and regrouping. "I like your outfit," a guy called from his table. "It sure is warm. Ha ha," I replied. Julie and I sat at a table by the front windows and formulated our plan of action: post office, lunch, check on my CD sales. When our list was completed, I put on the bear head.
closed - the new yinzer    Our first stop was at the post office. I was surprised that, right off the bat, folks assumed that it was a man inside the costume. "Is he from City Theater?" a postal worker asked. I started carrying my purse with me after this. I may have been dressed as a bear, but I was still a lady. Another one rubbed his eyes and asked, "Um, am I drunk?" Then another person said, "You're a good advertisement for keeping warm."
   At first I wasn't sure how to react to people. I wasn't sure what to do with my arms, if I should speak or not. But I quickly took to it like a duck to water. I decided not to talk, but to respond to everyone with a dance similar to that of the gopher's wiggle dance from Caddy Shack. I was amazed how quickly I got into character (and later when out of the costume how hard it was to stop doing the dance).
   Only one person at the post office asked, "Do you have a gun?"
   As we headed toward Julie's car to go to our next destination, a dark-haired, thirty-something woman approached us on the sidewalk and asked "Do yinz do this? Professionally? You need to go to my kids school; how much do you charge?" The sight of a random bear on the street did not confuse her, nor was she wary of asking two complete strangers to go to her son's school. I was not only stunned that she was asking, but even more so that I had no real reason not to go to her child's school. With no quick defense, I had time to experience the horrifying thought of being in a room with thirty screaming five-year-olds kicking at my padded shins. Fortunately, Julie intervened. "I don't think they'll just let us into your kid's school unannounced." We recommended that she go back to the costume store—they probably know folks who do that sort of thing professionally.
   Trouble averted, we headed over to Premiere CDs. It was fifteen minutes after they were supposed to be open, but they were closed. I guess they're not selling my album.
   Moving along, we passed by my State Farm agentıs office. Her staff always seems so pleasant and happy, always helpful, and I wanted to go in and visit them, but didn't know about chancing the stairs to their office, or negotiating my new body in their tight office quarters. So I waved to my sweet ladies from the street, and they waved back. I don't think they knew who was waving, unless my leopard print purse gave me away.
   As we walked down the street, we got many honks, mainly from city workersĉthe Board of Education, Public Works, the City Police. But there were others, too, old folks in sedans, minivans full of kids. Julie's favorite was a guy in a Volkswagen she saw mouth, "Yeah! All right! A bear!" then clench his fist and do that thing where you jerk your elbow down to you side, like he just scored a point in some sort of sport.
   Then we went to Dave's Music Mine. There we found out that not everybody loves a bear. The guy working there was not amused. None of my band's CDs had sold, and only one comedy CD had been bought. He gave me my money for the one CD, and then asked me to sign two different pieces of paper. As I looked through the bear maskıs mouth at my signature, I wondered, "What happened to you, young man? When did your love of bears leave you? Show me on the doll where the bears hurt you."
sniffing - the new yinzer   Getting in and out of the car proved tough as well. I couldn't wear the head in the car, and in order to get inside the car without revealing too much of my identity, I had to contort into a position that looked like the bear was sniffing its crotch. Julie took a picture of this, and somehow during our photo shoot I forgot we were in public. A man on the street walked up just as I had buried my nose between my furry legs and said, "Hey it's a bear. Oh, I thought you were real." I got embarrassed for a moment, and then remembered that as a bear I was only doing what came naturally.
   Eventually, after walking a block further down Carson Street, there finally came the loud, drunken drama for which this neighborhood is famous. No matter what time of day or night, there's somebody drunk and ready for action. A pseudo-Irish patron from Joyce's Pub stepped outside the door to holler, "Hey bear, do you want a beer? Hey, Furry! Come back! Do you want a beer?" Although his was a kind enough gesture, I stayed away, suspicious of his ulterior motives. I watched that MTV special about Furries.
   Walking toward Kassabıs, we stopped at an intersection to cross the street. While we were waiting, we saw some kids outside school acting like they weren't looking at me. I waved at them anyway. They waved back. We crossed the street and went into the restaurant. After we sat down and ordered our food, I took the bear's head off and our waitress recognized me, "Mama! It was you all along." Not long after that there was a knock on the window near where we were sitting. It was a kid from the school that crossed the street to say, "You're not a real bear? That's not cool. NOT cool."
   Bears apparently bring about a certain nostalgia, or at least spur stories. Our waitress told us about one boyfriend who gave her a white polar bear for every birthday, holiday, or special occasion while they dated. She ended up giving around twenty white bears to her little nieces and cousins over the course of that time. But he thought that every girl likes white polar bears. Every girl.
   They broke up.
   When we finished our meal, I put the head back on and gave our waitress a big bear hug and walked back to Julie's car, passing a tattoo parlor on the way. The guys hanging out in front looked at me, started laughing then shouted, "Dude, how much pot did you smoke?" I counted on my four-fingered paw how much, but then the light changed, and it was time to keep walking. We arrived back at Julie's car and after a quick crotch sniff she drove me to my car. I threw the bear's head in the back seat and drove home.
tasty - the new yinzer    With all this excitement, I had put out of my mind that this was the day that my Ford Escort would be taken away to Goodwill. This was the car of my determined youth, the car that took me from Mississippi to Florida, from Louisiana to Pennsylvania, from Indiana to New York. So many memories from times spent in that car make up the sum of the person I am today. I knew this day was coming, this day when it was time to take the Escort home to meet Jesus, or whoever buys it at auction.
   I recommend wearing a special costume for any break-up; it's a diversion for sadness. Even though the tow truck driver was not amused, he did take my picture next to the car. I felt the pangs of tears forming when he started pulling the Escort away and the muffler scraped against the pavement. But then I looked down at my bad furry self, did my little bear dance and smiled.
   I went back inside and tried to get my cat Pants to snuggle with me. I thought that would be awesome, napping as a bear with Pantsĉhot fur on fur action. He didn't know about that, and spit the bait when I accidentally shocked him with static electricity. I eventually convinced him to come upstairs, and we took a nap at arm's length. Warm and tender, I thought, "I'll never take this suit off."
   When I woke up twenty minutes later, I realized I hadn't gotten a receipt for the tow. I panicked and ripped off the bear costume. Adult matters and dear tax credits were at stake—this was no time for bear-foolery. Fortunately, we got it all sorted with a couple of phone calls. And even though the suit was off, the smell of fresh laundry detergent lingered.
   I decided to not wear the bear costume when I went out later that evening, but I did put the costume in the trunk of my new car in case a real bear emergency arose. Nothing happened. This bear had had her day, but those few hours behind a mask taught me a few things about the people around me. Most folks love a bear, or at least the image represented by a soft furry friend. And even though the outer image doesn't always match who or what is inside, itıs whatıs inside that counts. After my day as a bear, I no longer feel a need to sometimes hide inside a costume. I feel the furriness inside my heart.

goodbye - the new yinzer

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