Puppets. I have a story about puppets.
I forget which birthday it was. Somewhere in my late teens. My friend bought me and a few others tickets to see a live show of Sesame Street at the Edinburgh Playhouse. Why, you may ask, would five grown men want to go and see a live Sesame Street show? Well I have to admit that, even though I don't smoke anymore, at the time I was a stoner and liked nothing better than a few joints and an amusing episode of Sesame Street. And so when the live show was announced around the time of my birthday, it was a no brainer.
I remember us rolling several joints each before we went and powering through them before the show started. By the time we went in I was peering through the tiny gaps of heavy eyelids.
In hindsight our choice of seat wasn't ideal. Most of the other students (and fellow stoners) were sat at the back of the theatre safely tucked away. The central stalls were filled with eager kids yet for some reason we chose a row of seats five from the front beside the aisle.
When the show started we were instantly entertained as Elmo led the opening song and dance. The show had pre-recorded music and speech which the actors in suits would mime to so although Elmo was some just small person in costume and not a puppet on the end of someone's arm the effect still worked. I truly believed it was Elmo welcoming us to Sesame Street.
The show continued to entertain and I remember Elmo bounding down the steps at the side of the stage. He stood in front of us with his hands on his hips. I know now that whoever was in that suit had clocked us the moment we sat down. Five stoned students sitting at the front of a Sesame Street show? I think we deserved Elmo's disapproving finger wag but who cares... we had just been told off by Elmo, how great was that?
It got even better. Both Bert and Ernie came down and shook our hands and we were counted by the Count himself. (He only had four fingers, and feigned confusion when he realised there were five of us. Amazing.)
It was great fun, but joys like these can sometimes just pre-empt the terrible horrors that are to follow.
The interval came and we sped out to smoke as much as we could in fifteen minutes. We were late back and staggered in half way through a song. We picked up the story to find that everyone on Sesame Street was going to the carnival. Unfortunately after several minutes of happy muppets talking about how great the carnival is going to be they notice a forlorn looking Cookie Monster.
'But what could be wrong Cookie Monster?' he is asked. It turns out the Cookie Monster is not just a messy eater but is also messy at home and apparently his mother wouldn't let him go to the carnival unless he tidies his room.
You see what is coming don't you? I didn't. I sat mesmerised, bitter about how unfair mothers could be. I sat wondering who could possibly help Cookie Monster tidy his bedroom oblivious to the fact that Elmo was descending the stairs towards where we sat.
'I think we'll need to get some help from the audience,' Elmo explains. Suddenly I am stricken with terror. He is standing before us, one hand thoughtfully scratching his head. I feel my four friends curl into their seats beside me and I do the same praying: 'not me, not me.'
The kids in the centre of the theatre are screaming to be picked. They're clambering over seats to get to Elmo.
'Not me, please for the love of my sanity, not me.'
'Who shall I choose?' says Elmo taunting us. I know it's coming. I know it's me. At the time I had bleached hair. I was wearing a leather jacket. I thought it was cool. I think Elmo wanted to prove otherwise. He's a twisted little bastard.
'I'll choose you!' he yells and his hand swings round and that fat furry finger points at me. Before I can even wail a protest his hand is around my wrist and dragging me toward the stage. I hear the cries of relief and mocking laughter from my friends but it is already a faint whisper behind me. Time slows down as if it wants to prolong the madness that I am about to endure.
I'm too stoned for this, is all I can think as I'm pulled up the steps. Grover appears and puts a pink frilled apron over my 'cool' leather jacket. This is supposed to be some kid's dad up here not me. Anyone but me. I feel the blood drain from my face as I'm pulled to the middle of the stage. This is my worst nightmare. To be on stage and the centre of attention is everything I hate. To be as stoned as I've ever been in my life and close to throwing up just makes it worse.
I'm handed a broom and I see the muppets line up beside me, two on either side. Grover is to my right. Ernie is to my left. The music begins and I have to copy what the muppets are doing. They're making me dance! Of all the things that could make this moment worse, dancing is the thing I despise most in the world. How can this be happening? It is truly my worst nightmare. I glance up at my friends who are doubled up with laughter. I see kids laughing at me and notice one with a scowl on his face who I know is angry that it isn't him up here instead of me. Please take my place. Please.
Music plays and I try to follow the dance moves. I think it was called the 'Sweep, Sweep Song." I remember flicking the brush head from side to side. I remember stomping my feet and trying to keep up with Grover. I remember the laughter. I remember thinking I was about to vomit across the stage.
But then there was one moment that I think saved me. There was a small guitar solo halfway through the song and the muppets spun their brooms and played air guitar on the handles. Time had slowed so much for me by now that I swung my own broom in perfect synchronisation. The threat of projectile vomit lifted momentarily and for a brief second I realised that I was indeed rocking out on air guitar with Bert and Ernie. What had been the most hideous and terrifying moment of my life had turned on its head. I was in stoner heaven. Ernie looked at me. I looked back. And we nodded our head in mutual appreciation of our air guitar skills. In those glorious few seconds I was no longer in a theatre on stage in front of hundreds of people on the verge of throwing up but I was on Sesame Street. It was a sunny day and everything was a-ok.
The music stopped and I thought my part was played but it was only the beginning. I was dragged to the side of the stage beside Cookie Monster. He was well over six foot and I stared up at him as my brain was crushed with surrealism.
'You did very well,' Cookie Monster told me.
Inside the costume I can hear the actor speaking to me. 'Are you ok? You're looking pale.' I don't think I answered him. Only Cookie Monster existed for me. He needed my help. There was no one else but me who could get him to the carnival but me. I had a mission and I was going to do it as well as I could. How could I possibly live with guilt of being the one who couldn't help Cookie Monster? I was his carnival saviour.
'I need you to pick up all my toys and put them in the basket on the table,' Cookie Monster tells me.
No problem. I'm your man. I'm ready. Let me at them.
'You've got until the music finishes.'
There's a time limit! I panic. What if I'm not quick enough? How long will the music last? Seconds? Minutes?
The music starts and I race across the stage. I grab one teddy bear and sprint toward the basket and launch it in before going for the next. There aren't that many scattered across the floor. I can do this, I think. I get the next two in no time and realise I only have a couple left. As I pick it up something flashes past me and lands on the ground. I look up and see Elmo picking the toys out of the basket and throwing them back on the ground. That little bastard!
I now understand that they probably didn't expect me to run so fast and that they had to keep me going so that I wouldn't mess up the timing of the pre recorded script but at that moment I wanted to punch Elmo's little red head off.
So I kept on running. I cleared that room like my own life depended on it, and you know at that moment, if some victim of biscuit thievery had come to take revenge on the Cookie Monster, I probably would have given my life for him. It was that important to me.
Finally the music ends and I'm standing next to Cookie Monster again. He thanks me for my help and says that his mother will let him go to the carnival. I did it. I helped Cookie Monster. The only thing left to do, he says, is to take the basket of toys over to Elmo and go back to my seat.
I almost faint with elation. My ordeal is over.
'Give him a round of applause,' Cookie Monster cries as I pick up the basket. I turn and march toward Elmo proud that I've helped my new friends but as I look out from the stage I see people laughing. Tiny children at the front are howling with joy. The students at the back have their heads thrown back and their mouths wide. My friends are rolling across the floor. I look around and see Elmo pointing at me. Grover is clutching his sides. Bert and Ernie are holding each other up. Why was every single man, woman, child and muppet in the theatre laughing at me? I look down and see the hole in the basket and the trail of toys that are strewn behind me.
I am a broken man. Elmo takes the basket and hugs me. Despite wanting to punch him a few moments earlier, it helps. Elmo's hugs really are that good.
I trudge back to my seat shaking and say little. Any more shocks could send my brain crashing over the edges of sanity.
I stopped smoking weed not long after that day. It certainly wasn't the only reason I stopped but the terror I felt on stage being that stoned afraid that I was about to ruin a show for hundreds of children by vomiting on Elmo was something I wouldn't wish upon anyone. Maybe Sesame Street did in an indirect way teach at least one person the dangers of drugs.
I've found it difficult to watch even a short clip of the show since without squirming. It tested my brain's capacity for the surreal and though it probably did some severe lasting damage I did learn something.
Never trust a puppet. Even Elmo.