It isn't easy living in Orlando and having a violent, almost allergic reaction to "characters." It's like living in Hawaii and hating the ocean. People here think that if you're running anything from a theme park to a seminary, someone ought to walk around advertising it by wearing an oversized fun-fur head sporting a look of friendly idiocy. Every time I see Them, I about-face like Pac-Man. But since there is no self-help book titled "I'm OK You're Chuck E. Cheese," I've had to try to figure out my phobia myself.
The answer has to do with control. Even though you don't know who's inside that suit, you're supposed to interact familiarly, "just play along," a phrase people always hear right before they get screwed out of something. But the unseen always has the advantage. Look at God. You can't. That's where the advantage comes in.
Or it could be that shaking hands with a puppet feels stupid.
You'd think the Miami Book Fair, the most cerebrally stimulating thing that Florida has to offer besides electrodes, would be too sophisticated for these roving carpets. When you're among the likes of Douglas Adams, Anne Rice and George Plimpton, you do not expect big fun-fur paws padding around the same ground. But we were strolling through this very event, seeing these very people, when we saw Them: two bobbly headed characters, a dog and one confused wad that I didn't recognize, all directly in our path. There was no way to dodge them. We were going in.
Cheese to the rescue
In midscreed about how much I hate those evil things, I stopped. The wad suddenly looked familiar -- the peculiar head, the sparse, artistic face, I am told that my eyes got as big as tires.
"Stinky Cheese Man!"
"Stinky Cheese Man!"
Stinky Cheese Man, for those of you have never been anywhere or done anything, is the hero of a children's book. He has a wheel of cheese for a head, green olives for eyes, and two strips of bacon for a mouth. I ran down the half a block to where the ill-shaped creature was standing, looking like a child who had been left alone on the corner wearing the world's worst Halloween costume. I loved Stinky Cheese Man ever since I first saw him at the tender age of 27, with the same sappy warmth most people have for Mickey Mouse or Bambi. If Disney World was Stinky Cheese World, I'd be one of those blithering nerds who want to get married there.
"Are you Stinky Cheese Man?"
He nodded his wheel. "I'm not really stinky," he said.
I asked for a picture. He offered a little hand shrouded in a dirty fun-fur sock.
"Here. You can hold my nub," he said. I grinned like it was a wedding photo. I'm surprised I didn't start crying. People began to gather and I talked adoringly to Stinky Cheese Man as if I had Tom Cruise and Rosie O'Donnell backed into a corner. He nodded his wheel sympathetically. That's when I had another realization: I was looking into his olives.
"I think I have to go now," I said.
While it is a sign of respect to look a person in the eye while conversing, I'm sure it's a sign of many other things, according to your Psych I text-book, if you look them in the olives. I had looked into them to convey my sincerity. I had wanted someone made of cheese to understand that I meant business. But he was looking back at me through the bacon. I felt like people must feel when they wake up with a wallet in their mouth and a crowd standing over them.
The cheese stood alone for a good 10 minutes before someone led him to the children's books area, where he was swarmed by kids. And during the drive home my excitement over my celebrity encounter commingled with fits of brooding. I hate characters. It's fundamental to my sense of self. I enumerated instances -- a fire dog at the fair, Goofy at Disney, anyone at Terror on Church Street -- in which I had avoided them as if they carried typhoid. How then to explain my swooning reaction, over which I puzzled like it was a Rubik's cube? It was as if the guys who used to make the Folger's Coffee switch had done something similar with my DNA.
"What if it were Ren and Stimpy?" someone asked. Or Cartman from "South Park"? The warm cheese glow returned. I would gladly play along to a strange, rude, irregular fuzzball to whom I could fully relate.
Finally the truth hit home, offering solace not just to me but to all who get the creeps when confronted by the characters we have to face. Cooks know it. Con men know it. And now you know it too: Cheesiness if not always bad. You just have to find the kind that is stinky enough for you.