Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street, please?!
My mother had an optical shop, and in the rear examination room, on a short, faux-wood credenza sat a rabbit-eared black and white TV set, the screen no bigger than than ten inches diagonally. It was kneeling on the peach-colored carpet in front of this set, amidst white people coming in to get their eyes examined (exerting surprised, sympathetic smiles as they saw me trying not to see them) and my parents’ fellow Iranian immigrant friends smoking and loitering in the front room of the shop that I, age four or five or six, first found the Muppets. I was surprised and delighted by how much these bouncy American creatures captivated me.
In 1991, while at a Jim Henson exhibit on a trip to New York, I met Richard Hunt, the Muppeteer who manipulated and voiced the Muppets Janice, Sweetums, and Don Music. My enthusiasm frightened him.
“No, you don’t understand,” I yelped. “I was raised by Gonzo!”
Several years later, when the time came to find my first job, I applied for only one: the Sesame Street General Store in a mall on the beige edges of Silicon Valley. I was ideal for the work. My jagged carriage and strangled falsetto essentially make me a Muppet: I’m Disco Grover with a cold. Surely there at the Sesame Street Store, where Children’s Television Workshop videos shows ran on constant loop, I would find my tribe — other misfits with hearts that bleed.
Though I took the job to save up for a car, I hadn’t taken capitalism into consideration: it was a business. When I asked the short, blonde assistant manager Lori — who dotted the i that ended her name with a flat, open circle — where she had worked before, she said Wet Seal. Wet Seal! Where real sluts shopped.
“What brought you to Sesame Street?” I asked her.
“The district manager’s my boyfriend,” she answered, staring at me through dead blue eyes.
I immediately deemed her insipid and tacky and henceforth did my best to avoid her.
The other employees were not as terrible as Lori the Whore, but they were still not the Electric Mayhem that I had hoped for. The second assistant manager was a taut gymnast named Michelle, who reminded me of a trombone; when I told her that my dream was to go to New York City, she chortled and said, “They’ll eat you alive out there.” I grew to hate her. Jarret, the only other male who worked there, was a cross-country runner with a Ken-doll tan. He made his daily sales goal by flirting with splotchy new mothers. I hated him more. I was the only one who believed.
I’m not a religious man, nor I was raised in a religious family. However, I was raised in a passionate family, as in the passion of the Christ. In my family, one is either passionate or invisible, and with that passion comes a good amount of suffering: everything is a matter of life and death. For instance, my mother wields kitchen knives, sometimes as a threat to others but mostly to threaten suicide. She has knives everywhere: in her nightstand, in her desk drawer. In the ’80s, she carried a switch blade in her purse. This was terrifying to me as a child, especially when I could hear the knife rattling alive in her purse, but today, whenever she collapses on the kitchen floor, pressing the cold tang of a knife again her wrist — she’s careful never to get the blade too close to her veins — I’ll go make myself some toast or pour myself a glass of wine. My father’s not one for props, but he also enjoys the floor: he’ll come out with a hot, veiny “Goddamnit!” and then lie down supine, eyes closed, hands crossed, like a corpse. If my mother or I attempt to engage him, he’ll mutter, eyes still closed: “I’m dead; you’ve killed me. Leave me alone.” As for me, I’m a thrower and a smasher. The scars of a 1996 fight about my use of body glitter can still be found along the walls of the upstairs hallway. I think the reason I’ve never switched to contact lenses is because there’s always a smashable object to reach for right on my face.
This behavior is dramatic and ludicrous and ugly, but it’s expressive and somehow noble. Go big or go home: that’s the family motto. (Even if you are at home.) Yes, Lori and Michelle and Jarret were on the job, but there are lots of mall jobs: they could have worked at the Yankee Candle Company or Orange Julius or even The Disney Store. What does banging the district manager have to do with Jim Henson’s intelligent, beautiful vision of a community of freaks and weirdos, with a karate-chopping diva pig and a blue monster who tries so hard to do things right that he never, ever speaks in contractions, and, sometimes, when he wears an armor helmet, thinks he’s a superhero (but always messes up)? Why choose Sesame Street unless you love it passionately? Unless you’re as passionate as its denizens are?
My enthusiasm has served me at times in my life. It’s given me courage when I shouldn’t have had any. Love for New York City waylaid any fears or doubts that the Michelles of the world planted in my head. An abiding obsession with grammar and Indo-European cognates made me an entertaining and engaging Persian-language instructor. I’m not shy at first.
Mostly, though, it’s been hard for people to comprehend. Sarah was a frizzy-haired hippie at the Sesame Street General Store who smelled of vegetation: a rank admixture of pot and overripe cantaloupe. I hated her too. She told me that my excitement over the new glow-in-the-dark Elmo t-shirts was “scary.”
Scary. It must have been what I seemed like to my hero Richard Hunt. In fact, the only reason I didn’t say that one of his characters — Scooter, Janice, Statler, Beaker — had raised me was precisely because I feared my extensive knowledge of his work might freak him out: I’d come across as a rabid superfan. I could also tell, as all San Francisco kids of the ’80s could, that he had advanced AIDS. I tried to be as polite and decorous as possible. I might have even said, “Gonzo raised me, please.”
“I don’t do Gonzo,” Richard Hunt replied, walking away distractedly.
Most people don’t, I’ve learned.