I remember it being hot. Fuck, it was hot! It was the type of hot that causes two trees to fight over the same dog. (No, I don’t know what kind of dog.) I’m pretty sure it was 1982. That’s a long time ago now. I can’t remember all of the little details the way I used to. A stupid alien with a sweet tooth and a glowing finger phoned home that year. I’m about 40 percent positive it was 1982. Stevie Wonder and the cute Beatle sang a stupid, stupid song that year about the way piano keys fit together. Did I mention it was hot? It was so hot I saw a dog chasing a cat and they were both walking; but I didn’t care about that. I had been anticipating this day ever since my father came home from work and said Spiderman was coming to the Baltimore Zoo; and we were going. Excelsior! I didn’t even know what that meant, but stupid words and their definitions didn’t matter. We watched a gorilla vomit an orange into his hand, then watched in fascination and disgust as he shoved the liquified orange back into his mouth. Somewhere, in an air conditioned living room far far away, a family that wasn’t ours was watching Higgins scold Magnum for not minding the hounds. I was sweating like a hen wrapped in a wool blanket, standing in a line longer than a row of cotton; but I wouldn’t have traded places with the loser kid in that loser family for the world. The stupid gorilla made my sister cry and it smelled like…a zoo, but I was able to ignore all of that. The wall-crawling, web-slinging, webhead was coming to my friendly neighborhood and I had a ton of questions to ask him about superheroing. It was going to be the greatest day of my life.
Patiently, we stood in line with the rest of the crowd. And by patiently, I mean me asking, “When is Spiderman coming”, and then waiting at least thirty seconds before asking again. Finally, after what felt like a four day wait (probably less than half an hour), Spiderman poked his head around the corner of a large building to a chorus of oohs and aahs. A beautiful chorus. Not that lousy, “Living in perfect harmony” crap that the Beatle and the blind guy were singing. This was different. This meant that I was only moments away from meeting my hero. Everyone was saying that he looked just like the comic books. Of course he did. Why wouldn’t he? They obviously weren’t real fans. The line was moving along at a Motor Vehicle Administration pace. As each one of the lame kids ahead of me got their audience with Spidey, they just shook his hand or asked to have their picture taken with him. I half watched them, and half kept an eye out for the Green Goblin. This would be the perfect time for him to ambush my hero. That’s the funny thing about eight year old kids. They don’t know a fucking thing. I told my parents I was going to ask Spiderman to shoot some webs or climb the side of the building. I wasn’t going to be content with a handshake and a Polaroid like these other kids. They looked at each other and smiled before saying, “He’s not really Spiderman, buddy. He’s just a man dressed up in a costume. Nobody can really climb walls like a spider.” I thought, “WHAT?!?!” What were they talking about?
(I need to back up here just for a moment, dear reader. I was a pretty quiet kid. There were no children my age that lived in our neighborhood. Sure, I had friends at school. But there were no kids my age within walking distance of our house. I made up for that by having a big imagination. I fed that imagination with comic books. I was a big reader at that age. My favorite thing to read other than superhero comics? The “Children’s Illustrated Bible”, given to me as a gift by my grandparents. I didn’t read the illustrated bible any differently than I read the four color process pages of Marvel or DC Comics. In my mind, they weren’t fiction. The comic books were my thing, but I read that Children’s Bible just as seriously. It was obviously something that meant a lot to my grandparents (still does), so I finished that book as soon as I could. I wanted to be part of it all. Now…back to that story.)
NOT SPIDERMAN?!? This news stunned me. Maybe I could hitch a ride home with that stupid alien. All of the sudden, the line seemed to be moving faster. Maybe they meant that he was a Spiderman stand-in, like those helpers Santa keeps on his payroll and sends to the mall. You know, because Santa couldn’t be everywhere at once (but somehow he alone managed to deliver all the presents in one night…stupid kid). My parents quickly shot this down as well. I was panicking. I had to be asking the wrong questions. “Ebony. Ivory. Living in perfect harmony.” There were just a few kids between me and Spidey at this point. They were shaking his dirty imposter hand and posing for their stupid pictures. In a last ditch effort to make some sense of it all, I asked my father about the stories in the Children’s Bible. They were every bit as far-fetched as the comic books. Walking on water, water to wine, talking snakes, so on and so on. My parents looked at each other again, but this time…no smiles. They were obviously uncomfortable; my father in particular. He answered, “Well, no…those stories are…umm…different.” I was convinced that he believed that, but it was too late for me. He couldn’t put the genie back in the bottle. There was no genie.
Next thing you know, I was face to face with the phony Spiderman. I said, “Hi”, and stuck out my hand. He asked if I wanted a picture. I said, “Yes”. He draped his leg over my shoulder and put his elbow on top of my head. My dad snapped the picture. He sure looked like a real superhero in that suit, but I knew that wasn’t right. I said to him, “There is no Spiderman.” He patted me on the head and greeted the next kid.
It would be inaccurate to say I knew I was an atheist at that point (I don’t think I even heard the word “atheist” until high school.) I did stop believing any of it that day, however. Until now, I’ve only told that story to a few people (now 10 more people will read it). Many of them have told me how sorry they were that my Spiderman visit was “ruined” by learning the truth. I like to respond to that with a quotation from Carl Sagan. “For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.” (Except I butcher the quote, because stupid isn’t just an affliciton I suffered from as a kid). It didn’t turn out to be the greatest day of my life. But that’s only because my life has been filled with some great days since then. It was super important, though and I’ll always look back on it fondly. Well, except for the heat. And the zoo smells.