Thursday, October 22, 2009

Purple Dinosaur

Red Monster, Blue Monster, Yellow bird, this was the secret language that working at a professional costume rental house taught me. This wasn't one of those Halloween stores, open three months a year in vacant retail spaces around town or set up in a mall atrium. This was the real thing. A costume supplier to corporate events, sports teams and high-end clientèle. More often than not, however, we supplied mascot-style costumes for children's parties. It was phone inquiries for this sort of costume that made necessary the code names for the reproductions of licensed characters that lined our walls. While the copyright holders' tolerance of this practice varied widely, a strong level of discipline needed to be observed in all customer interactions in the event of a property owner's lawyer making, what we were told were regular calls to check up on us to see if we would admit to renting out a character under his known public identity. It's the sort of legal gray zone that all costume rental shops operate within. Who's to say that one jovial five-year-old red monster with a helium voice is one corporation's sole intellectual property and not that of the rental house in which it resides if his Christian name is never spoken aloud? This was the system, and the system was enforced with religious zeal. Not so much the zeal of an honest businessman protecting his livelihood and those around him, but more like the zeal of a grade school bully who needs you to not look at him or to walk on his side of the playground.
In my time at the shop it was never determined weather or not the place was actually wired for sound in the employee areas. There was no question that the sales floor was. The cameras were plainly visible and several staffers had been in the owner's office while the mikes were up. That wasn't anything abnormal. In a small store with a minimal sales staff, security measures are a normal and responsible thing to observe. What raised eyebrows was the fact that staffers had a way of getting fired once the idea of quiting was mentioned in casual whispers at the rear of the costume warehouse with a radio playing. There was also the curious habit that the owner had of exploding out of his office if a staffer was on the phone with a customer and took too long to answer a question or uttered the dreaded "I don't know". I didn't have cable television growing up, but I understand that there was a children's quiz show that dumped watery slime on contestants heads for saying "I don't know", and even taking into account that it was my job to handle and keep clean delicate fabric items, being doused with gallons of viscous, green bile might still have been preferable to having a three hundred pound man in hiking sandals, khaki shorts, and a polo shirt, all of which are three sizes too small because he won't let his wife shop at the big and tall shop, come charging at me, snatch the phone away and apologize to the baffled customer on the other end of the line for how bad I am at my job. He'd shoo me away to the sales floor, or to do the laundry as his face slowly returned to it's normal shade of bright pink. He might then grab the intercom and call an impromptu staff meeting lecture us all about the importance of being professional, and "not name names" whilst describing what must never be done and said whilst staring directly at me and laughing with feigned embarrassment. A day like this would often end with him staying until one in the morning and trashing the workroom so that we would all have to clean it up before he arrived.
After a few months, I started daydreaming about the shop being sued by a major corporation for copyright infringement. I knew that causing it myself would mean my instant unemployment and not getting to enjoy the resulting chaos, so I was good. I mastered the phone code. Mother's would call up and ask for specific characters. "Uh, no we don't have him..." I let my voice trail off mysteriously like I was making a drug deal or selling a hot TV. "But we do have a... Red Monster..?" I put a the hint of a question to it, trying to draw them out. I acted like I was telling them a secret or letting them in on a private joke. A lot of callers didn't have the time or imagination for this game, but most of them got it. I encouraged them to come in and have a look before committing to the rental. One of the things I thanked God for was that we didn't take rental orders over the phone. For management this was a credit card issue, but even if we could do it, I wouldn't have had the nerve to lead a customer that I may very well be dealing with later to believe that they would be picking up something that bore more than a passing resemblance to the puppet of their children's dreams. Most of our monster costumes were pretty good. Hardly what one might see at an amusement park but more than up to the task of dancing around in front of a sugared up gang of five year olds and disinterested, possibly inebriate adults, but there were a few that just had be seen before leaving the premises. Sometimes it was a rather shocking level of wear, but often it was a simple indifference on the part of management to what a character,or animal, actually looked like.
"Why can't the panda get the skunk body? It's black and white!" often concluding with, "What the hell do they know the difference?!" My reluctance to assemble a Statue of Liberty with a silver lamae toga, flashlight and a souvenir foam head dress was met with "That's what she looks like! She wasn't really green originally, you know!?" The less said of the "CP-30" costume the better, but copyright infringement was definitely not a danger- except possibly from the hockey pad company.
Purple Dinosaur was a different story all together. This was the most important thing that any employee could learn. Red Monster was our biggest mover, the three duplicate costumes of varying quality testified to that, but it was Purple Dinosaur that could destroy is all. We did not carry a Purple Dinosaur of any kind, and the very mention of his copyrighted namesake was to risk being fired on the spot. Tyrannosaurus Rex was the properties' official species, but such a wide birth was kept that no Dinosaurs were carried in anything on purple's side of the color wheel. No Red Stegosaurus, no Blue Triceratops, and no meat eaters of any shade. Tales were told and retold of souls brave or foolish enough to rent themselves out to children's parties as the engorged tyrant lizard himself without the permission of his creator and parent company. As it was related to us, men in suits stormed the parties serving papers and stripping the suited performers bare before back yards full of screaming, traumatized children. Their favorite after school television personality was torn apart before their eyes and exposed as the sweaty, human registered trademark infringer that he was. I was once watching a music video in which a performer made a brief appearance wearing a purple hippopotamus head. To those paying attention, it was clearly not a dinosaur, but I think we all knew what he was getting at. Even years out from my time at the costume shop, I imagined lawyers storming the closed set. The playback booming over the sound system. The band and video production staff jump the suits who are shouting to be heard over the playback and waving Cease and Desist orders over their heads. Suddenly an electric bass cuts through the air, and the lawyers' point man reels backwards with a shattered jaw. Cherry red blood arks as he twists in the air before knocking the others down like single-breasted dominoes.
What troubles me the most is how such a minor time in my life can still have such a strong hold over my thoughts and actions today. My years spent in retail have caused me to constantly find opened packages and evidence of theft, and I have to exert a conscious effort to not walk though a store in a way that causes me to be asked it I work there a dozen times. The upside of this is that I am more aware of my surroundings, and going into a store holds an entirely different kind of amusement value. I no longer bring evidence of "shrink" to associates attention, because they usually just think I'm covering for myself, and wearing long coats and shopping for toys gets me followed enough enough as it is. I can pick out the real shoplifters. If I don't like them at a glance, I might say something, but I usually don't. I know what the manages never seem to learn. It's much more fun to keep an eye on the customers than on the staff.

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