Instead of mean-spirited routines, we're seeing a return to simple skits and good-natured comedy. Creativity and entertainment are the linchpins of Deschesnes's craft, and mostly what he teaches. His textbook includes 74 everyday fan situations and suggestions for pantomimed mischief—stealing (but ultimately returning) a fan's popcorn, reading over people's shoulders, motioning to a man to stop as he descends the stairs to his seat and then making off with his date.
It is late morning now, in a meeting room off the main lobby of the Wichita YMCA, which Deschesnes has rented for his class. He is working with the two beginners now: myself and Debbie Boyd, a data-processing supervisor at the local utilities board and a giant frog. Boyd will visit schools and work the board's annual Clean Water Festival. Right now she's sitting in a chair, waist-deep in amphibian, one green arm hanging down from her lap. Before she can pull her arms on and her body up, she has to put on her gigantic shoes. Otherwise her green belly would get in her way, and she wouldn't be able to see her feet.
While she and I dress, Deschesnes goes over the cardinal rules of mascotting. Never take off your head in public. This causes psychic meltdowns among very young children, who tend to believe that a big, furry frog really is a frog. Never talk. Never mess with a woman's hair. "And don't mess with the purse"—lest the owner decide that $20 has gone missing and blame you.
Deschesnes has other reasons to be wary of handbags. He tells the story of an Expos game during which Youppi pretended to swipe a woman's purse. The bag was open, and some of the contents tumbled out, including a large vibrator, which rolled across the dugout roof. Without thinking, Youppi picked it up and pretended to use it as a Q-tip. A cameraman spotted the scene, and the entire spectacle was broadcast on the JumboTron. The woman gathered up her things and fled the stands in horror.
Since I have no costume of my own, Deschesnes has lent me Baby Blue, a cheery, mouthwash-hued dog of indeterminate pedigree. Like many mascots, the dog wears a shirt but no pants. I don't know what's up with that. Deschesnes is helping me put on my head, which clips to the dog's body by way of two silver rings located more or less at the nipples. I don't know what's up with that either.
The inside of the head, which is secured by a chin strap, is similar to a bicycle helmet. Mascots see through their characters' mouths. The drawback to this is that when a fan decides to punch a mascot in the mouth, you wind up with a shiner.
For our virgin run, Deschesnes wants the frog and me to work the day-care center down the hall. I'm having trouble seeing because the dog's mouth is too low. In order to look at people's faces, I have to lean my head back, giving Baby Blue an off-putting sort of William F. Buckley air. To avoid looking supercilious and still see who I'm dealing with, I have to keep moving the head up and then quickly down, up and down, which I'm doing when Deschesnes says, "Ready? Good! O.K.!"
Deschesnes claps once, then opens the door for us. The entire staff of the YMCA has gathered in the lobby. Perhaps you remember the graduation party scene at the beginning of The Graduate, shot through Dustin Hoffman's scuba mask. That's what this reminds me of. It's embarrassing and hot and claustrophobic. I imagine this is what it feels like to be an astronaut in a space suit, minus the glory and the high-tech cooling system.
As we enter the day care, I select a two-year-old across the room, being held by a day-care worker. I lope across the carpet, channeling Goofy, anticipating squeals of delight. The two-year-old does what any sensible two-year-old does upon being charged by a six-foot dog with no pants on. He bursts into tears and buries his face in the neck of his protector.
Deschesnes herds us back to the classroom and goes over the basics of dealing with children. Most kids will want a hug, but some aren't sure. You do not force yourself on these children, because they may freak out and someone may think you're a pervert. "Right now, a girl is suing a mascot," says Deschesnes, "because she says he touched her boobs."