I was standing on the concourse of the basketball arena at George Washington University, sealed into the 10-foot-tall inflatable "Big George" mascot costume, when my escort, GW senior Jai Patel, suggested I run up into the stands to rev up the crowd. I took a step but discovered that my right foot had slipped out of the Velcro straps holding it into Big George's giant foot, thus giving me a geriatric gait. As I lurched up the stairs, clutching the railing, I wondered if the undergraduates who normally wear the costume of Big George had ever been worried, as I was, about taking a tumble and ending up needing total hip replacement. I knew I was not projecting the normal Big George joie de vivre, but I thought that my more mature interpretation was bringing something deeper to mascoting, a reflection on the twilight years of the father of our country.
Jai apparently didn't understand my method, because he led me out of the arena and into a stairwell, where he undid the head of the costume, exposing mine. "You're doing great!" he said (a phrase I was to hear many times that day, the actual meaning of which was, "You stink!"). Then he suggested it was time I turned the Big George duties over to him. I had been wearing the costume all of 10 minutes. I refused to step out of the Big George suit, so Jai fixed my foot, strapped me back in, and allowed me to return to the crowd.
The challenge of being a mascot was an assignment I was particularly unsuited for. For one thing, I have a mental condition that renders me incapable of following any team sport, making it difficult to lead a cheer. For another, sports fans are fanatically superstitious. The GW men's team was having a great season, now ranked 12th—their highest spot since 1956. I worried that I'd do something like trip onto the court, causing the Colonials to miss a basket, and I'd end up like the unfortunate Chicago Cubs fan who grabbed a baseball during the 2003 playoffs, thus getting blamed for ruining the Cubs' chance to go to the World Series. But GWU's Spirit Office, in charge of the mascots, cheerleaders, dancers, and band, generously agreed to let me step into the fabled Big George giant feet for my latest Human Guinea Pig column.
To prepare for my performance, my husband, daughter, and I went to see a game. GW actually has three mascots: George, a student wearing a colonial-style uniform topped with an enormous papier-mâché-looking George Washington head; Big George, a goofier rendering of George as a plastic blow-up figure; and (incongruously) Hippo, a blow-up costume of the mud-loving mammal. We hadn't been to a GW game in a long time, not since my daughter was 2 years old and left traumatized by the sight of George. There was something about the normal-sized body and the giant head that undid her, and she howled every time the mascot made an appearance. Later that night, we heard her recounting the game, like a sportscaster, through her baby monitor: "Giant head. NO! No, George Washington giant head. Very scary. Very scary. No, George!"
But now she was a sophisticated 10-year-old, unconcerned about George and able to discern Big George's social role.
"I think Big George is meant to annoy people," she said. This was good news. I had a lifetime of experience at that.
The happy spectacle of the game—the mascots, the band, the death-defying cheerleaders, the dancers, the students in GW T-shirts, fanatically rooting for their team—caused me to fall into a pervasive melancholy. I was an alienated loner during college, and now I was filled with regret about the waste of those years. I needed to pull myself together. I come from a GW family—my father-in-law is an alumnus, my niece a current student—and I had a tradition to uphold. It wouldn't be good if I was the first mascot to be carried out on a stretcher because of an emotional breakdown.
On the day of the game—against University of Maryland-Eastern Shore—Jai helped me into the costume in a waiting area outside the floor. First, he secured my feet with Velcro straps, then belted around my waist a 15-pound battery pack attached to a giant hose. Standing there with the hose and battery pack, I felt like a cross between an astronaut in Apollo 13 ("GW, we have a problem") and Barney. I wondered if Big George was ever fumigated with a spritz of disinfectant but realized how pathetic I would sound asking that. Jai had obviously had the same thought when he asked, somewhat self-consciously, as he pulled the suit around me, "How does it smell?" The only answer was, "It smells like team spirit." But since I was getting into character, I just gave a thumbs-up.
Then Jai sealed me in the suit, which inflated around me. My face looked out through George's vest, and although I could see pretty clearly, I had no peripheral vision. I also could barely hear because of the noise of the blowing air. Nor could anyone hear me. It was like being in a combination sensory-deprivation chamber/sauna. As we waited, the players arrived in the hall, put their arms around each other, and prayed. I threw in my own plea: Please don't let me crush any toddlers. And we were off.
Mascots are Rosencrantz-and-Guildenstern figures. You think you are the center of things, but for the 3,000 fans, you are a marginal character whose job is to stay out of the way of the real action. As I wobbled around the periphery of the arena I could see that my true audience was the children. There was something magical about the utter adoration with which most of them stared into Big George's face, which was about 4 feet above mine. Jai only had to intervene once when an elementary-school-aged boy said, "Hi, Big George," and threw a punch at Big George's chest—my face.