(Just Like) Starting Over
Updated: Jan 8, 2022
At 21, I was supposed to be starting the next phase of my life, diploma in hand, ready to make good on 16 years of education. Instead, I felt more lost and confused than ever. I'd gambled and lost everything on a crazy dream and now all I had to show for it was five digits of debt and a lot of unanswered questions.
I decided to pick a pseudonym and see if I could find anyone else like myself on the internet. Croc O'Dile was the first thing I thought of, the image of an Irish gator amused me. But it was never originally intended to be anything more than a way to keep my real identity secret when I spilled my guts to strangers.
I posted my story to a couple newsgroups and waited. Within a matter of hours I had gotten responses from a few people all over the country, telling me I was probably "furry", whatever that was.
So.. what is it, then?
It's people who have a particular affinity for animals, specifically anthropomorphic animals, which are just humanized animals that walk and talk and crack jokes, like the ones you see in cartoons, commercials and animated movies. But this wasn't just people who liked cartoons more than everyone else. It was people who liked them so much that they wanted to identify as them. It wasn't enough to just appreciate Bugs Bunny, they wanted to BE Bugs Bunny. Or rather, their own personalized version.
Furries usually had characters, avatars that represented themselves, a particular animal with a particular nickname. A version of themselves that was more fun, more attractive, more impulsive, more free. An escape from all the boring or unpleasant things about being a regular person. They had places on the internet when they could log on and meet each other as these animal personas (known as "fursonas"). If we felt underwhelming as the people we envisioned ourselves to actually be, we could construct a version that we were excited about, even proud of. We wanted control over how we felt about ourselves and this was an interesting, creative way to get it.
One person that had responded to my post went to school at Purdue University and mentioned that a good friend of his who was furry, was actually also attending Florida. This was the best news I'd heard in forever, and how I met my eventually domestic partner Jimmy.
Jimmy had already been "in the fandom" for a few years. He drew for a comic book, he was making his own "fursuit" (which is basically a personal version of a mascot/costumed character). It blew my mind that someone would have the ability to make their own costume, I couldn't sew a lick and my creative talents were anything but artistic. We hit it off quickly. He was my willing ambassador to furry. We not only shared many of the same interests in mascots, but even the same disappointments - he'd also unsuccessfully attempted to be Albert. He also struggled with self-image and validation, though on the surface he seemed to have it all to me.
In a matter of a week, my life had gone from miserable and hopeless to finding my people and the first friend I could completely and totally be myself around, even if I felt like I had to be careful not to screw it up. I spent as much time with him as I could without feeling like I was overdoing it. He introduced me to his friends, to Mystery Science Theater 3000, to conventions and MUCKs (online roleplay/chat) where I could meet other furries and interact.
On my birthday, he surprised me by mailing a card with several of my favorite mascots he'd drawn on it. It is still my favorite birthday card of all time by far.
For the first time in a long time, I felt sincerely happy, hopeful about the future, that maybe my dreams weren't dead yet.
It would be only a year or so after we met before Jimmy ended up moving an hour south to Orlando. Since he was my only local friend who I felt totally at home around, it felt like a big setback.
Without him around, I spent almost every waking moment that I wasn't working in my menial job at the gas station mini mart or Subway, on the MUCK meeting and socializing with my new animal friends.
This was before YouTube, before Google, before everyone had high speed wi-fi at their fingertips every time they opened their laptop. The internet for the majority of us, was still pretty new (and pretty slow).
Before long, Jimmy was on the move again, this time to Southern California to chase his dream of being an animator. We'd survived being an hour apart, but this was different. I watched him drive away, playing a sad movie soundtrack song in my head as I imagined this probably being the beginning of the end.
But somehow, it wasn't. He still called regularly, even when we didn't have a lot new to say. By 1995, I gave up on Florida and moved back home to Tennessee; there was nothing else left for me here. It was only another year before my mother informed me that it was time to leave. My two stepbrothers and I needed to go seek our fortunes from a different address. Once again, I followed my heart instead of my head, deciding I would start a new life in California, on the other side of the country, where so many of my new friends lived.
Looking back now, it was the kind of risky decision you make when the only thing that consistently makes you happy is in a place where you aren't. I didn't have any big job opportunities waiting for me, just a bunch of people I knew from talking on the internet who were saving me a spot in their house. I had a small amount of money to get me by for a few months, but I'd have to get a job fast, pay my own rent, my own everything.
I packed everything I could into the smallest trailer I could get, drove to California and moved in with one of my new friends and his other current roommates. Within a month I'd found a job nearby working customer service for a healthcare company, but more importantly, for the first time I was in a place where most of the people I was around were like me.
This kind of independence felt different from being on my own at Florida. Before, my success or failure in what I wanted most hinged on a person who didn't know me or what was important to me. They cared so little they hadn't even bothered to sit down and really talk to me to see if I was the right man for the job. Here, the only person who could stop me from achieving my goals was me. Here I was Croc, and I could write my own story.
I got my first suit from a mascot company called Mask U.S., thanks to a generous friend who loaned me the $300 it cost. The vision was limited and through the mouth instead of the eyes, so getting used to not seeing much was a challenge, but I was thrilled. He wasn't already beloved or even known to anyone at all, but he was all mine.
By 1998, myself and some other friends who also had their own character suits decided to form a performing group: Critters By The Bay. We did parades, community events, charity work, mini-golf, bowling.. pretty much anything that gave us a reasonable excuse to suit up and go be entertaining goofballs.
It was the best of times, even when the kids would yank our tails like they were trying to start a lawnmower.
It took some time to learn that a fursuit wasn't exactly a mascot - you could employ some of the same gags and ideas, but you weren't promoting anything other than fun and yourself. Most people upon seeing you would be surprised and curious about what team or company you were representing. Most of us had learned how to perform from either mascots or theme park characters, so we didn't talk in suit, which meant that we had to get skilled at pantomime very quickly. Even so, you'd be surprised how bad a lot of people are at charades. Or maybe you wouldn't. No wonder almost every suiter talks now.
Later, it got even better. Jimmy moved up from SoCal and when San Jose got a major league soccer team (The Earthquakes) and an amazingly cool new cyber-husky mascot named Rikter, he tried out and became the sole performer. To make matters even better, San Jose hosted the MLS All Star Game and as a result, a few teams sent their mascot suits to appear at the events. One of them I fell in love with, an friendly athletic eagle with wing-feathers for hands named Talon, from DC United. Sometimes it pays to be the boyfriend of the dog who's running the show.
I got a handful of opportunities to be Talon at various local events in San Jose in 2000 and 2001. Finally getting to fulfill my lifelong goal of being a real mascot was amazing enough, but getting to do it along with Jimmy at the same time was better than I could have imagined.
Being the opposing team's mascot was a blast, it lets you really push the envelope and mess with people a little bit since you're kind of already playing the villain, albeit a very comic and likeable one. Of course everything I did was in good fun, so pretty much everyone I encountered had a smile and the right attitude.
Not every great opportunity that fell in my lap had a happy ending, however.
Eight years later, one of the members of Critters By The Bay let us know that a new ABC TV show (Parenthood, based on the 1989 hit Steve Martin comedy) wanted to film a scene at Fairyland, which is a sprawling children's park in Oakland that we had done many gigs for. Since the park was standing in as an actual Disney-esque theme park, they also wanted to use some of our characters as theme park characters for the scene.
Needless to say, the chance to be on an actual TV show had everyone excited and anxious as we met with the casting director with photos of our characters. In the end she chose 3 or 4 characters, and Camper (my orange fox with cute huge ears) was one of them. I was elated.
When it came time to do the scene, they needed two animals on either side of the front gate to Fairyland, which the series characters would approach with their kids. They wanted Camper on one side, and Candy Coon on the other. I approached it like my life depended on it, listening to every word the director uttered, watching everyone, treating every take like it was coming out of my non-existent paycheck.
We shot it at least 4 or 5 times in a row, each seeming great to me - no one missed cues, me acting my little fox tail off in a limited but still important role. But the director wasn't happy yet. The lights they had set up back behind us for the shot (that were not actually visible in the shot) were apparently too bright and somehow bleeding into the shot. The solution wasn't to turn them down, or adjust them, or move them. Nope. The solution was let's move the orange fox way in the back in front of the bright light so his tall ears can block it. And bring the lion up to his spot.
Camper obediently stood motionless in front of the offending brightness, all the previous joy rapidly draining out of me like blood from a gaping bullet hole in my heart. The director did one more take, said "perfect!" and the apparently single shot that characters were needed for, was over. I didn't want to talk to anyone, didn't even want to be there anymore in case they asked me to hold the boom mic for the next shot. I quickly changed alone and went back to the car where I could mentally replay how close I'd actually gotten to a once in a lifetime opportunity, over and over and over in my head. It was, as Alexander might say, a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.
Some amount of redemption came a few years when a friend of Jimmy's told us that a wacky web commercial was being shot for a company called Pure Storage that he worked for, and they wanted a few characters. This shoot was everything the Parenthood shoot had not been: fun, lighthearted and respectful. Every member of the cast and crew were friendly and even playful with us. It was so refreshing, and I did a lot of emotional healing that day.
Fursuiting has been good to me. It can be tiring and sweaty work, but you usually don't even notice how you feel until you're done, because you get caught up in the rapture of getting people to believe that you're a six foot tall gator, or wolf, or fox, or whatever. Heck, I even got to be Bugs, Sylvester and Scooby, I'm crazy lucky.
Being able to walk up to strangers on the street, or more often having them RUN up to you, (hi kids!) is a feeling that doesn't ever get old. Having to answer questions solely in pantomime probably would be frustrating for a lot of people, but I love the creative challenge, because it's so much more rewarding when someone understands what you were trying to say without saying. It just somehow makes it feel more rewarding to me.
I know we'll always be weird to people who cannot imagine why a grown adult would want to dress up and act like a cartoon animal, and I'm more than okay with that. It helps me deal with the negativity and stress of the real world responsibilities of being an adult. I get to hug strangers, make random people smile or laugh effortlessly in a world where it feels like we all need more smiles and laugher. My characters feel like the best versions of me, all my good qualities rolled up in a cute fuzzy package. I can't imagine my life without them all. It's like a an old saying that I repurposed years ago:
To err, is human: to give fur, divine.
They say you can never go home again, but it's less that you can't and more that most of what you remember, and what remembers you, are long gone. It's been twenty years since the last time I've been here, and most of it is unfamiliar.
But Ben Hill Griffin Stadium is still a behemoth, and it's the reason I came back, to bring it all full circle to where it started. The only version of Albert in sight is the huge bronze statue of him and Alberta across the street, but another gator is here, one far less known, but no less dedicated. Mostly, the place is empty.
No matter, it just makes the photos easier to get without security coming to ask just why there is an (admittedly cute) imposter mascot running around an empty stadium.
A few people notice as they jog by and smile or wave, a few kids want pictures. No one mentions Albert, no one asks why there's another gator here. In a way, it's almost as if he's supposed to be here, and no one is surprised. It may not be home anymore, it may never have been, but it's still good to be back. I know all the fight songs, all the cheers. I don't know when and if I'll ever actually meet my estranged father of sorts, but it's okay.
I built my own beautiful world out of the ashes of the one I left, and the lyrics of my favorite Bjork song echo true:
You'll be given love You'll be taken care of You'll be given love You have to trust it
Maybe not from the sources You have poured yours Maybe not from the directions You are staring at
It ain't easy being green, but I wouldn't want it any other way.