FRESH YARN presents:

When We Were Yogurts
By Thomas Bryan Michurski

The white tights from the yogurt costume were riding up again. I backed up against the wall to conceal my action, but was unable to reach my rear end. I was hoping to do it without anyone seeing me, but someone was bound to notice when I pulled my white gloved hands into the enormous foam barrel with the swirl on top, to pull the tights out of my butt.

The men in my family never dressed like giant yogurts, they didn't even like dressing up as Santa. They were blue-collar working stiffs with calloused hands and bushy moustaches. My great-granddad worked on the railroad, my grandfather in the brickyard, and my father was a beat cop for the city of Minneapolis for 20 years. Together, a stoic collection of hearty Minnesota Pollocks who managed to go to work every day of their lives without wearing tights.

However, the newest generation of our proud immigrant family, me, could be found publicly dressed in a low-fat frozen desert costume at the Sun Ray Shopping Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, a well-designed strip mall off the freeway at the edge of the city. The people who shopped there had seen a bear handing out coupons for cellular service, a clown making balloon animals, and a gopher handing out baseballs. Even a dog with a pervert's overcoat came around once in a while to take a bite out of crime. But in the late summer of 1987 it was the rare sighting of a frozen treat with skinny legs, wearing white tights and red Chuck Taylors that had them staring. Many of them, having just left the dollar store with their bag of scented votive candles, preferred to stand in my blind spot and give me the finger. One patron, who was either a tragic thirteen or a freakish thirty, bravely crossed the three-foot "weirdo" radius that you normally give a guy in a costume, to pound on me, peek up through the bottom and call me "shit head".

Big character costumes bring out the primal emotions in us. Like giant puppets they please us, yet we want to hurt them. It's as if they trigger the memories of our early childhood, when we believed that animated characters were real, which made us happy, until we saw them at the theme park, lumbering around blindly between the dippin' dot vendor and the guy selling plastic swords. We would wait in line with our parents, the two people whom we trusted more than any other, while they presented us to the enormous Goofy. His size, multiplied 20 times beyond what we were used to on TV, made him unrecognizable to our undeveloped brain. Stunned and cowering in the shadow of the grotesque cartoon doppelganger, we'd begin shrieking, until our parents led us away, laughing. It was a baptism of fear, and though most of us have moved on from it and learned to control our anger toward the monstrous Bam Bam and the misshapen foam Snagglepuss that once frightened us, there are some of us who won't let it go.

"Its not shit, young man, its Colombo frozen yogurt, try some," the sweating Public Relations guy said distantly to the man-boy, who ignored him and continued to hammer his fists on the outside of my barrel, the sound reverberating inside my head. I thanked the air for unintentional kindness of the costumer, who, had she been more ambitious with a paintbrush, might have painted the swirl on top chocolate brown, making it look like the biggest cup of whipped poo in the world.

Every great hero has a sidekick, the outward manifestation of his or her inner purity. The Lone Ranger had his Tonto, Sherlock Holmes his Watson; El Kabong had his Baba Looey. I had Spoon, a young woman who stood near me, wearing a large piece of undecorated white foam, crudely carved into the shape of a 5-foot plastic sorbet spoon. It was her duty to help guide me through the shopping mall, and prevent me from stepping on tiny consumers. I'd like to believe that I had earned the important role of the yogurt; I was, I felt, well qualified after performing in a few high school theatre productions. The local newspaper had praised my performance of the Lion in The Wizard of Oz, calling it, "Okay," and adding that I had, "Just the right amount of bravado." After consulting Merriam-Webster for the definition of the word bravado, I was satisfied that my acting chops, having been acknowledged by a printed publication, made me the natural choice for the lead in Colombo Yogurt's life play of the street. Truthfully, the reason I was inside the yogurt barrel was my head was too wide to fit comfortably through the hole cut for the face in the spoon costume.

As a boy, I had never considered a bloated cranium to be a lucky break, but I was thankful for the anonymity. I respected Spoon as she was continuously subjected to the embarrassment of having her face exposed to the public. I watched the crowds nervously through the mesh, hidden by the painted logo on the outside. As a small time local actor, I had always been a contradiction; I wanted fame, yet I ran whenever cornered by people who wanted to give me praise. I preferred it to be written on a piece of paper and shoved under the door.

Acting has always had an embarrassment continuum. There are low embarrassment gigs, the kind you want to tell your friends about, like say, being the Terminator in a summer blockbuster. Playing yogurt man, sadly, was near the other end of the spectrum, along with dressing up, pretending to be a real 13th century English merchant at the renaissance festival, asking people if they want to"try some of the king's nuts."

One day, terror arrived when I was asked to ride in my hometown's Blazin' 4th of July parade -- in the yogurt costume. Standing on the sidelines were my neighbors, and my high school friends. Even a girlfriend or two waved passively to the cup of frozen dairy riding on the trunk of the wine-colored Chrysler Lebaron convertible. I waved my gloved hand like a beauty queen, waxing the air softly, switching hands when I turned to the other side of the street. No one knew it was me, though my subconscious believed that there was a giant sign on the side of the car saying: "Inside this yogurt costume is Bryan. Please throw something at him like those Tootsie Rolls you just received from the panting, overweight girls' dance instructor."

There was much to do as a yogurt. It was like being a minor star on a media junket that no one knew about. We would crash local talk shows hoping for an invitation on air, but were usually ushered outside in the 90-degree heat, holding a dripping pallet of low-fat vanilla yogurt cones.

Once, during a successful entry of a popular radio station, the DJ invited Spoon and I into the studio, during their wacky morning show, and asked me if I wanted to say anything to the listeners. It was one of those few opportunities that God gives us, a chance to say something beautiful and enlighten the masses, a chance most of us fritter away by saying Hi to Aunt Gertie in Akron, or waving stupidly on TV to Mom in Des Moines.

At first I was nervous and disoriented, and froze like the treat I was. I had nearly been driven mad from two weeks of baking in the sun, wearing a three-inch-thick poly-fiber canister, so with a muddled head, I blurted out that I was a yogurt king and that all should bow before me.

A plea for monarchy.

At its best success, I suppose it could have ended with me sitting on a makeshift throne somewhere with a few dozen listeners bowing at my feet. I'd like to think that somewhere, in the suburb of Coon Rapids, a guy who heard me that day still listens to the morning show, awaiting my royal instructions.

The proclamation raised an eyebrow from the PR guy, who let me know that arrogance was not one of the brand traits of a Colombo Frozen Yogurt, and that declarations of supreme power would be best left to the more casual sampling events. Consumers buying taco salad from the insurance company's cafeteria are, evidently, less offended by self-crowned yogurt rulers.

It eventually became time to leave my position as the yogurt. It hadn't yet been recognized as a serious way to make a living, long-term, and I don't think my talents were really compatible with wearing an oversized dessert -- evidence that was supported by my high school guidance counselor, who when suggesting career paths based on my vocational test, would have mentioned it, I'm sure. "Big yogurt" would, by logic, have come between "Anthropologist" and "Cartographer" on the list.

So I retired from the silent world of food pantomime. Spoon and I said our goodbyes. We waved our white-gloved hands at each other in the parking lot of a Hardware Hank, with a tearful "later". Things had changed. I was a few weeks older now and had grown. I wanted to use my talent to make a difference in the lives of others and break through to them on a personal level. I wanted my life's work to be worthy of a proud working class family like mine.

With my new understanding tucked away in my pocket, I went searching. The perfect opportunity arrived just a few short days later -- running around the Met Center Stadium during a Minnesota North Stars hockey game wearing a goalie mask and handing out money to unsuspecting winners in the crowd, like Jason from Friday the 13th hosting the new Let's Make a Deal.


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