The dirty laundry has been aired out. As per The Guardian, many EPL clubs enjoy millions of pounds in revenue but have failed to pay staff the UK’s minimum wage. Rather, many are classified as “internships.” How the word “internship” became a magical term that supplanted “unpaid labor” is another story. What’s more interesting is what happened last summer: a young American college grad said “to hell” with grad school and went to the UK to follow his dream: being a mascot for an EPL side.
What he found was a cold, stark reality. This is his story.
PART I: AN AMERICAN LOST IN AMERICA
June 1, 2012: Today is the day after the happiest day of my life, my greatest achievement. Despite piles of student debt and maxed credit cards, I survived and graduated from college in three years. Today is also the day before the saddest day of my life. My family insists I go to law school but I want to be a poet. By poet, of course, I mean a mascot for a professional sports team.
I was able to attend college in part by winning a scholarship as a mascot. I’ve been a mascot since middle school, when I wore a home-sewn dog suit with brown flappy ears that were socks to a basketball game and led the crowd in chants. I still remember that first appearance like it was yesterday. It was spontaneous. It was intense. The blood coursed through my body like a river flows after a fall rain. I could feel the crowd inside me, moving alongside my heart.
I was escorted out of the gym by the school police officer before halftime. The next time I appeared, he sent me to a dark room in the school and called my parents. They came to pick me up, perplexed. They didn’t understand. They still don’t.
June 15, 2012: I enrolled online for my 1L classes and section preferences for Columbia law, whatever those terms mean. I’m apparently set to learn about contracts and torts. I hope torts are like sweet tarts. I doubt it. I also enrolled in a mascot training class without telling my parents. It only meets two nights a week, so I go to class but lie to my dad and say I’m hanging out with friends. I hide my mascot costume in the car trunk.
The course is taught by a dry and old professor whose criticism is harsh beyond belief, but only when he’s sober enough to speak. He spends most of his time reading a newspaper and letting his assistant run us through stretching exercises, chant practice, and acrobatics. At the halfway point of class, each of us does an improvised dance and then a call-and-response. Immediately after, every member of the class has to give criticism.
Today, I juxtaposed the Harlem Shake with wobbly legs and ended with a shuffle. The critiques were brutal. I was told I lacked talent. I was told I lacked imagination. I was told my legs looked like they were made of lead. I was told that I was not, nor ever will be, a mascot. Afterwards, I sat in my car and cried for over an hour. When I got home, I got online and read some of the threats in Columbia’s forums for newly admitted students.
I didn’t feel any better.
June 30, 2012: I returned to my mascot class and one of the other students brought along two friends, Ulises and Arturo. I remember their names because they left a lasting impression on me. Hardly half an hour into the class and they were challenging the mascot professor on everything, from his class schedule to his haircut. He remained calm and accepted their “insight” graciously, but his face reddened when one of them called his haircut a cross between John Malkovich and Bastian Schweinsteiger.
After class, I approached them and asked them if they were mascots at a university or professionals or amateurs. They told me that such distinctions didn’t matter to them, that they were part of the Visceral Realist Mascot Movement (VRMM). They said that only a mascot is whoever wants to be one and society needs mascots for all walks of life, not just sporting endeavors. One of them was even a dog mascot at a Michael Jackson a decade ago. Allegedly.
They invited me to go get a late dinner with them at a nearby cafe and I accepted.
July 14, 2013: I still don’t know what a Visceral Realist Mascot is, but apparently I’m know part of their movement. They meet at cafes to discuss the theory behind proper mascoting and even do all-night mascot sessions in the basement of the house that belongs to the stepdad of Ulises. I know this because after our first late dinner, we took a pesero to the outskirts of town and then walked a few blocks to the house. It is one story tall, covered in white paint that is really yellow, and has no working lights no running water. Somebody dug a latrine in the backyard and there are flashlights placed throughout.
In the basement, known as the “dungeon”, the Visceral Realist Mascots practice their sessions after waxing theory. At my first ever session, I received the best feedback of my life. I was told that I moved like a real human being, that I should be proud that my joints aren’t elastic to the point of looking fake. I was told that the relationship between the mascot and fans is delicate, but that fans could see themselves in my sometimes awkward or “human” movements.
I felt just like the first time I walked out into that middle school gymnasium during the basketball game.
August 7, 2013: The founder of Visceral Realist Mascots doesn’t even know he’s a founder, let alone that the movement exists. In fact, most people don’t even know where the founder is. His nickname is Gizza and he apparently was never even a mascot: instead, he played soccer for the English National Team. Ulises and Arturo say that Gizza inspired them to become mascots but also to approach mascothood as an art form, not just a “pump up the crowd” job.
They are obsessed with Gizza and are actively seeking to travel to England to try and find him. They’ve even invited me to come along. I’m seriously considering it. I haven’t signed any promissory notes yet for law school, but my window of opportunity to escape shrinks with each passing day. I feel like my feet are stuck to a treadmill carrying me to a destination I can’t see. My family stands by the side, smiling and waving and happy. I can’t wave back or even crack a smile.
PART II: AN AMERICAN LOST IN ENGLAND
INTERVIEW with Jane Gourdy, Former Director of Internships at Swinsy City, taken December 7, 2021.
Q: I know that American Jimmy Bullins interned as a mascot at Swinsy City while you were there, but did you ever get to know two individuals known as Ulises and Arturo?
A: [Laughs] Of course. You couldn’t know Jimmy without knowing Ulises or Arturo.
Q: What did you think of them? Ulises and Arturo?
A: Goofballs. Clowns. They were definitely not serious types. Jimmy said they were his assistants, but they’d loiter about the training facility on off-days while Jimmy worked out. I think I maybe saw Ulises at the gym once or twice.
Q: Did you ever believe they were under the influence of any drugs? Did you notice red eyes? Odd odors?
A: Well, I’m admittedly not an expert in this subject, but sometimes Ulises appeared to be drifting about. The handful of times I saw him, his head was in a cloud. He’d smile and say hello and make small talk and be pleasant, but never anything deep. His eyes….I….
A. His eyes never met yours when you talked. At least not directly. They were this brilliant gray with dark black edges but…he looked sad even when he smiled. He looked lost. Jimmy was a clown, Ulises was deep down a somber type I think, and Arturo was the serious one.
Q: Now, I hate to do this, but….looking back, what do you think of Jimmy’s so called “internship”? He poured his heart and sweat into being Swinsy City’s mascot for nine months and only got travel costs reimbursed. Are you embarrassed?
A: Well……I can’t really speak to it. I just assumed he has uni degree and his parents floated him cash. Mascots have never been a well-paid job, not even for those who get earnings. Heck, at the time, even referees for man European soccer leagues were part-timers.
Q: Do you think that not getting paid maybe caused Jimmy to…..
A: I can’t answer to that. I can’t speculate and the legal department has told me not to answer any of those questions. Jimmy’s life was Jimmy’s life.
Q: Well, off the record, do you…
A: If I learned anything in my ten years at an EPL club, there’s never an off the record with you types. I won’t talk about it. Jimmy and I were never close, but I’ll never forget him. If that makes any sense. I still recall his face that last day of the season. His hair was strung out. His face was pale. He was a shell of a human being. Of course I was worried. Of course, looking back, I’d like to have had a budget to pay everybody and pay fantastic thousand pound wages. But I couldn’t. And it happened.
Q: I know this was sometime ago, but did you even see the morgue pic printed in The Daily Telegraph?
A: [PAUSE]. I don’t…I won’t…..
INTERVIEW with Frank Bloom, Former Intern & Current Director of Graphic Design at Swinsy City, taken June 2, 2015.
Q: You were an intern at Swinsy City a few years ago, right?
A: Yes. That’s correct.
Q: Now, you understand that I’m a reporter, right, and not a cop? I don’t know exactly what happened, I’m not interested in getting anybody in trouble, I just want the truth. I’m planning on writing a long-form story about the “disappeared American mascot” and just want to include as many perspectives as possible.
Q: You look nervous. Would you like some water? A cup of coffee? A “fag” as it were?
A: No thanks,
Q: Well. Then. Tell me…what did you think of Jimmy? Did you know him pretty well?
A: Not really. I did graphic design in an office, he was always on the field near training sessions or at games. We were both interns….but that was it.
Q: So you didn’t have much interaction with him?
Q: I’m just curious – were you paid as part of the HMRC investigation for wage violations? What happened with that?
Q:….Look, I’m a little confused. I spoke with some other folks, and they said you and Jimmy were tied at the arms during 2012. They said you went out for drinks after work. Did folks just get names messed up?
Q: Nobody wants to get anybody in trouble. I’m not a cop. I just want to know about Jimmy. And, of course, Ulises and Arturo, if possible.
Q: Your eyes lit up when I said Ulises and Arturo? Did you get to meet them?
Q: Did you ever hear the word “Gizza”? What did it mean? Was it a drug?
PART III: THE DESERT WITHIN
June 1, 2013: We’re so close to Gizza I can taste it. These past few months have been a blur – days just melt seamlessly into another. It’s been rough at times – especially having to bum money from family back home to scrap by, but I’ve never been more proud to be a Visceral Realist Mascot. My performances for Swinsy City have been unreal – the buzz of the crowd, the bright lights of the camera, the pulse of the stadium.Of course, they don’t pay me so I live in a trailer on the outskirts of town with no A/C but England isn’t that hot.
I live with Arty and Ulises, who have really encouraged my performances but I think may be bad influences. It all started a few months ago when random people started showing up to the trailer and then they’d go for a walk with Ulises and Arturo would try to distract me and get me to leave the trailer. I’m pretty sure they were dealing some kind of drug, but I’m not sure what. They’ve also had a few times where they came back from a night out with their eyes glazed over and they speak gibberish.
Arty and Ulises know that I took a deferment at Columbia, though, and plan on going back by the end of the summer. Part of me thinks that they’re jealous. None of them has tried to call a family member back home or even send a postcard. When we go to the library they peruse the ancient tomes section while I get on the WIFI and send Facebook updates to my family. Still, both have been really nice and come to my practice and haven’t missed a game. They’re also the only people who take my craft seriously and give me good feedback.
Arturo and Ulises have even allowed me to tag along on stakeouts when they try to find Gizza. Right now, it seems Gizza’s neither near nor far. His name pops up in the UK tabloids every few months, sometimes panhandling in public and other times checking into our out of a celebrity rehab center. The most recent incident occurred in Stevenage, Hertfordshire. Just saying both those names makes my tongue hurt. The town isn’t too far away, and I think they’re planning on taking out a few pubs in a few weeks.
June 16, 2013: Gizza is so close we can smell him. We can feel him. Stevenage is not the biggest metropolis and we’ve scoped out the pub scene. We even spoke with two guys last night who swore they saw him hanging about at the Drunk Clam bar, asking folks to buy him drinks and singing English national team anthems. He allegedly said that he was living with the brother of his ex-wife or something.
Before, we were scoping out homeless shelters and local areas where vagabonds tend to gather. Now that we think he’s living with a relative, we’ve decided to focus our energies on the pubs and clubs where he probably goes out at night. Here’s the problem: this off duty cop was at one of the bars we visited the first night, he must have overheard us and he got really offended by something Ulises said.
The cop stepped up to Ulises but Arturo intervened and calmed things down and we left the pub, but a few nights later we saw him walking about in uniform near the bar district. He even asked us for our passports because he knew we were American but we didn’t have them on us – they were at the hostel. He let us go, but told us he didn’t want to see us out and about and that we’d best not be seen in town again.
I was kinda spooked – I’d never been treated that way by a cop before. I know that we’ve been staying with tourist visas and just leaving to Scotland every few months to re-new our stay, but I don’t think I’m a criminal. Still, Arturo and Ulises insist we’re too close to Gizza to just give up and be scared by some “pig.” I’ve already bought my flight back to NYC, but have a few weeks left and don’t want to bail just before we find the founder.
I’m not sure what to do or how this will play out.
NOTE: this post was and is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to a real life person, club, or mascot is entirely coincidental.
IMAGES: the Paris Review, the Guardian, Top News, Anagrama