By Andrew Bomback
I’m not sure if crazy is the right word, but I went a little crazy right after my daughter turned one. I thought Elmo was real.
For a two-week period, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, my wife, daughter, and I lived with my parents while we waited for Con Edison to restore power to our home. Juno slept in a Pack-n-Play in my childhood bedroom, while Xenia and I slept next door, in my older brother’s bedroom. In the early hours of the morning, we huddled around an iPad to watch Sesame Street clips on YouTube, trying not to wake up my parents. We watched Elmo give up his binky, Elmo teach his special song to Big Bird and Snuffy, Elmo duet with Jason Mraz about the great outdoors, Elmo fall asleep to the dulcet sounds of the inimitable Andrea Bocelli, Elmo learn how to cross the street with the help of Hootie and the Blowfish, and Elmo try to comfort Norah Jones when the letter Y didn’t come. And, during this time, I never once thought that Elmo was anything other than a little monster. I certainly did not think of Elmo as a piece of cloth with plastic eyes, sitting atop the hand of a middle-aged man who had just been accused of statutory rape.
My wife joked that I was more addicted to the Elmo videos than my daughter, and she was right. I looked forward to diaper changes when I would prop the iPad up next to Juno’s head. Together we’d watch Elmo sing and laugh and just generally be a good kid (good monster) for the next four minutes. I gleefully fell through the YouTube hole, jumping from one video to another. I landed on Elmo singing with Adam Sandler and Elmo playing football with a group of New York Jets players, which struck a particularly nostalgic chord: I used to love Adam Sandler movies, and all of the Jets players on the video were now retired. I found Elmo charming and endearing and, on more than one occasion, intentionally funny.
A month earlier, we had chosen Elmo as the theme for Juno’s first birthday party because she had a few Elmo toys handed down to her from older cousins and, in the weeks leading up to the party, seemed to recognize his face. So we gave her an Elmo cake, we hung Elmo decorations, and my mother-in-law made her an Elmo piñata using chicken wire and paper mache. She screamed hysterically when the first of her cousins smacked the piñata, which her grandparents took to be a sign of her emotional intelligence. I didn’t love the idea of her becoming attached to a single character, especially one whose syntax was just above the level of baby talk and who seemed (to my admittedly naïve eyes at the time) so cloying.
Someone gave her a Sesame Street book at that party. Big Bird narrates and begins with, “Elmo is my friend. He likes to play and have fun. He likes to play pretend.” On the subsequent pages, Elmo pretends to be a fish, a bird, a frog, a dog, a star, and the wind. Big Bird, at the end, concludes, “I know that Elmo is not a bird. Elmo is not a fish or a frog. But it is fun to pretend. It is fun to pretend with a friend.” Each page of the book had a corresponding button that ran along the book’s spine, so that my daughter could press a picture of a frog and hear Big Bird say, “Elmo pretends to be a frog. He hops like a frog. He hops up and down.”
Juno sat on the kitchen floor, pressing the buttons over and over again, which is why I memorized the text. At night, after she fell asleep, I’d walk around the house imitating Big Bird, reciting the book verbatim. I told Xenia my theory on the book’s ending. “I bet it’s a legal thing. Just in case some kid jumps out of a window, trying to be a bird, or jumps into a lake, trying to be a fish, they can’t be held responsible.” She said I was overanalyzing a children’s book. “Seriously, though,” I continued, “it’s such deliberate language. I know that Elmo is not a bird. I know that Elmo is not a fish. He’s just pretending. It’s like a disclaimer on their part.” In my analysis, Elmo was clearly a construct of a corporation, a product meant for mass consumption. He was not real.
My mother was obsessed with the news stories about Elmo’s puppeteer. Every night she gave us an update. “There’s another accuser now,” she said one night. “It’s so depressing,” she lamented another night. “He’s leaving the show,” she eventually told us, “but apparently they already have a number of Elmo backups that have been trained to do the voice.” She urged us to watch the documentary that was made a few years earlier about the man behind Elmo. “It’s amazing to see this big black man suddenly change his voice into a tiny little boy.” She said that the movie makes you feel as if Elmo’s personality is really this big black man’s personality. “That’s why this whole thing is so sad, to think that he was a child molester the whole time.”
The conversations were mostly one-sided. Xenia and I nodded but didn’t really get involved in the discourse. We had other, more important matters worrying us. When would we be able to go back to our home? Would there be any damage when we did go back? What were we going to do with everything in the refrigerator and freezer? What if our pipes burst? How were our neighbors faring? We were also exhausted, because living with my parents added about an hour to our commutes. I suppose I could chalk up my magical Elmo thinking to this temporary state of distress, but, really, how distressed were we? Our house had no power. We were living in my parents’ much nicer house until our power returned. Even at the time, I knew it would sound insane to complain about our situation.
I admired Elmo’s consistency in refusing to speak in first person. When he was asked to do something, he often answered, “Elmo would love to.” Clearly, any monster savvy enough to use the “would love to” construction instead of a simple “yes” was aware of the word “I.” I tried to find moments when he’d slip up and say “I” accidentally but never could find a single misstep. In the video with Hootie and the Blowfish, an instructional song about the importance of holding an adult’s hand when crossing the street, the band and a gang of humans (adults and children) and monsters (adults and children, too) blare out the chorus, “Hold my hand!” If you listen closely, though, Elmo can be heard very clearly separating himself from the others, almost smugly belting out, “Hold Elmo’s hand!”
I found this smugness endearing, though. In fact, precocious is probably a better descriptor than smug. When my daughter was asleep and I had full license to curse, I’d perform for my wife an addendum to the “Elmo’s song” video. In the video, Elmo sings his classic song (“La la la la, la la la la, Elmo’s song”) and teaches Big Bird and Snuffy how to sing it themselves (i.e. “La la la la, la la la la, Big Bird’s Song”). After the song, Elmo calls out for Gordon and explains to Big Bird and Snuffy that he wants to teach Gordon how to sing the song, too. Big Bird enthusiastically responds by suggesting they also teach Gabby the song as the video fades out.
In my addendum, Elmo shifts into a foul-mouthed diva as soon as the camera stops rolling. “Elmo doesn’t remember saying anything about Gabby. Elmo said Gordon. Did you hear Elmo say Gabby? Elmo didn’t think so. Let Gabby do her own shit for a change. Gabby’s always trying to get in on Elmo’s shit. Who the fuck is Gabby?” I did this routine lying in the darkness in my older brother’s bedroom.
As a courtesy for customers who’d called to complain about their power outage, Con Edison placed an automated call when power was restored. I was at work, seeing a patient, when I received the message. I apologized to the patient, told him I had to take the call, and heard a feminine robot voice tell me that I could return home. I hung up and must have done a poor job hiding my emotions, because the patient asked, “Doc, are you okay?”
I answered, “Yes, yes. I just found out my power was restored.”
The patient responded, “Oh, that’s great news, Doc. Great news. I was worried that something bad had happened.”
The house was cold that evening, so we congregated in my daughter’s bedroom with a space heater on full blast. Xenia and I catalogued all the home-related tasks we’d have to do in the coming days, while Juno bounced around from one toy to another. Nearly all of the gifts for her Elmo-themed first birthday were Elmo-related. She “read” some of her Elmo books. She gave hugs and kisses to her Elmo stuffed animal. She threw her Elmo hand puppet up in the air. She worked on a four-piece Elmo puzzle. I was again struck by the sour feeling that Elmo was a product for mass consumption. I did my best Big Bird impression for my wife. “I know that Elmo is not a bird. Elmo is not a frog or a fish or a child molester.”
There’s a video on my phone that I shot during our two-week stay with my parents. One of their dining room walls is a full-length mirror, to give the illusion that the room is bigger than it really is, and Juno loved sitting on the floor and watching herself. I shot the video after we noticed, one night, that she was trying to kiss her reflection. She’d smile, lean in, and then bang her head on the mirror. She did it over and over again, without the slightest hint of frustration. At the end of the video, you can hear me saying through my laughter, “She’s going to hurt herself,” but she never did. When we returned to our home, and I put Juno in front of our mirrors, she never repeated the kissing game. Perhaps, in those two weeks, she learned the concept of a reflection. Or, perhaps, maybe the little girl in the mirror was only real in her grandparents’ house.
Likewise, Elmo ceased being real as soon as I was in my own home, surrounded on all sides by Elmo merchandise. In my parents’ house, where Elmo only existed in YouTube videos on an iPad screen, he was like any other celebrity in my life, someone I thought I knew better than I really did. The same sentiment, of course, applies to the man who held Elmo on his hand and lent his voice to the puppet. We, the consumers of Elmo, did not really know this man. We knew what he pretended to be, and, to quote Big Bird, “It is fun to pretend with a friend.”
ANDREW BOMBACK is a physician and writer. He is the author of You’re Too Wonderful To Die, a novel, and Chronic Kidney Disease and Hypertension Essentials, a textbook. His essays have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Hobart, Essay Daily, Harlequin, For Every Year, Pharos, New England Journal of Medicine, and Journal of the American Medical Association.