In Character by Cedrick Mendoza-Tolentino
In preparation for your summer job at Six Flags Great Adventure as one of the many tasked with wandering the grounds dressed as a superhero or cartoon character, you decide to rent a Batman costume and wander New York to get “in character.” It is an exercise inspired by Mr. Greenberg, your eleventh grade math teacher and director of the annual school play, who asks all of his performers to do the same.
“Until you can no longer distinguish between yourself and your role, you will never be able to fully realize your character on stage.”
While most treated the exercise as a joke, you took it very seriously. It was only because of the seriousness with which you approached this exercise that you were able to do justice to your last two roles: Pirate Number 6 in Peter Pan and Hyena Number 2 in The Lion King. Mr. Greenberg said that of all his students, past and present, only you could take an ensemble part and turn it into the star of the show (you hope, however, that next year he will cast you as a lead so that you will not have to steal the spotlight from those who it was actually meant for). You know that if you can bring that seriousness to your summer job, you could be the best Batman Six Flags has ever seen.
Once you put on the suit, which you rented from a cheap costume shop in Union Square—the low prices were obviously possible because they did not clean their costumes between rentals—you realize you do not know which Batman you should be. The costume may have been the modern Christian Bale version, but you wonder if that is too dark for children. You believe something in-between Adam West and Michael Keaton’s portrayals would work, but are uncertain (especially because your primary audience will not be old enough to know who they are).
When you call and present the problem to Mr. Greenberg, he is glad that you continue to use his time-honoured acting technique. However, he throws a wrench in it all: “Are you in fact meant to be portraying Batman or an amusement park employee portraying Batman? Before you dismiss me out of hand, ask yourself: Is there any scenario where Batman would find himself pandering to a bunch of children in an amusement park?”
Mr. Greenberg abruptly hangs up and leaves you to ponder his query. The more you think about it, the more you realize that while you should be visualizing a high school student dressed as Batman (in other words, yourself), you did not spend $200 to be yourself dressed up as Batman. You want to be Batman. And so, when you spend your first few days wandering New York, it is as Bruce Wayne beneath the Batman costume. You do your best to move stealthily through the streets, ducking into alleyways when you can and practicing taking on and off the suit at a moment’s notice. The evenings were the hardest as drunk college students had no problems harassing the guy wearing the Batman costume. No wonder Batman chose to lurk in the shadows and travel along rooftops.
After a few days of mixed results, you realize where you should have gone from the start: Times Square. What better place to get the experience needed than in a place full of other costumed folk looking to make money off of tourists?
The next morning, within minutes of exiting the subway at 42nd St., you are mobbed by a brother and sister who want nothing more that to have their picture taken punching the Dark Knight. After standing in various poses, you understand why so many donning costumes in Times Square insisted on being paid: It was hard work. Between the cost of renting the costumes and the patience needed to deal with children, you cannot imagine what kind of person would put on an Elmo costume and do this (or the kind of people who would do it that did not belong in jail).
You continue the afternoon wandering around with the others in costume, posing for pictures and waving at tourists. It is easy to identify the New Yorkers—they barely register your existence and, when they do, they look at you as if you are a nuisance that needs to stop clogging the sidewalk.
But when the clock hits 3pm, the time you have set to take a break, get some coffee and recharge—you assume that Batman must drink loads of coffee in order to spend his days as Bruce Wayne and his evenings breaking kneecaps—you notice one of the three Elmo’s you have spent the day with grabbing at a woman’s purse. In that moment, you realize that your brief time spent as Batman has gotten you ready for moments like this. You react just as Batman would have—you spring into action and jump Elmo.
A few hours later, while sitting in jail as you await your parents and their inevitable lectures, you pray that your actions will not jeopardize your summer job. In those brief moments, when you were raining punches down on a defenseless Elmo, you knew you had truly become Batman. The kids visiting Six Flags Great Adventure would be in for a real treat.
You do, however, wish you had received some of the specialized training that Bruce Wayne had received. Batman would have never allowed himself to be arrested and even if he had, he would never had allowed for his secret identity to be compromised. He would have been devising a plan to get out of jail without a trace.
With all of these thoughts racing through your head, you hope that your parents would be arriving soon—you really needed to get back out there to implement your new ideas and fully immerse yourself in the character.
© Cedrick Mendoza-Tolentino, 2015
Cedrick Mendoza-Tolentino was a 2014 Emerging Writer's Fellow at the Center for Fiction in New York City. He graduated with honors in the Undergraduate Creative Writing Program at Columbia University. He has had work published in Liars' League New York, Gargoyle Magazine, Joyland, Slow Trains and Plain Spoke. His chapbook Alphabetica: The Other Side of Love was published by Corgi Snorkel Press. He is currently working on a novel and a short story collection.
In Character was read by Basil Rodericks on 5th August 2015 for Short & Sweet Flash Fiction