There it was, impossible but true. In my hands. The one thing I wanted more than anything in this world.
Growing up in Grande Prairie, Alberta, the one thing I wanted more than anything in this world was a Batman costume. In the 1970’s, Grande Prairie was a small oil & gas boomtown far from anyplace you could get a Batman costume, or most other tokens of civilization for that matter. There was no Internet, no eBay in those days where you could order any costume -- any thing you wanted with a couple of clicks. Well, there was the Eaton’s catalogue, but they never had anything cool like superhero costumes (I don’t think superhero underwear had even been invented yet). Grande Prairie was just so, so far from the Batcave.
Let me clarify one thing: I didn’t want this costume for Halloween. I wanted it so that I could BE Batman, which was who I really was. That much was obvious to me at the age of ten. The only thing needed to confirm it was the suit, and then I could start my crime-fighting career.
I dreamed and hoped and probably even prayed for a Batman costume. I bugged my parents obsessively. I left little messages on their pillows so that they wouldn’t forget to remember to look for a Batman costume the next time they went to the Woolworth’s department store on main street. I drew pictures of Batman costumes and formed plans in my head that maybe if I found a navy-blue raincoat at the store I could somehow add a cowl and ears, maybe with blue construction paper and clear tape….
One morning I was walking to school with a friend. We were dragging our heels as usual, talking about whatever we talked about back then. Girls? Probably not quite yet. More likely the latest cool thing the Fonz had done on Happy Days the night before. We were almost at the doors of the school when ahead of me on the sidewalk I saw a brown paper bag. I stopped and picked it up and looked inside.
Inside the paper bag was a Batman costume.
Yes, it sounds highly unlikely. So unlikely that years later, after the costume itself was long gone, I remembered this incident and wondered whether it had really happened. Maybe it was just a figment of my overheated comic book fantasies.
So I asked my Mom, the repository of family memory: could she corroborate this event? She could. It had really happened. She remembered how I came home from school that day in a delirium of joy with the Batman costume I’d found lying on the sidewalk in a paper bag on a frosty morning in Grande Prairie, Alberta.
(I should add that, being a good Catholic boy, I took the costume to school and dutifully handed it in the principal, who made an announcement over the intercom that a lost costume had been found. When school got out in the afternoon no one had claimed the mysteriously-abandoned package – the day’s second miracle – and so the principal returned it to me and said I could keep it).
(And we’re talking about the 1960’s Adam West version of Batman’s costume. Or maybe a slightly updated version of it. It wasn’t a full costume, only the cape and cowl. No shirt with muscles drawn on. No gloves. No boots. It might have included a belt, I don’t remember.)
Okay, not only is this story unlikely, it’s also not a very good story, is it? If my family was dirt poor and the bag had been full of one hundred dollar bills…. Or if the Batman costume had belonged to a kid who was teased and bullied at school and I’d had to make the agonizing choice of keeping the costume or giving it back to him….
But no, I was a typical middle-class North American kid with trivial TV-aroused desires. I did nothing to earn it, I didn’t “deserve” it. Maybe I’d dreamed and wished so hard that I actually imagined it into existence. Maybe the universe just gave it to me.
My life has been graced with unlikely gifts a number of times since the miraculous cape and cowl, in ways far more profound and life-changing. Sometimes a gift arrives that you hadn’t even known you wanted or needed.
The Batman costume was great for as long as the cheap fabric lasted, which wasn’t long. Soon enough I was dreaming, wishing, obsessing over something else I wanted more than anything in this world. Like the prettiest girl in school to fall in love with me (no such luck that time). I think now that the real gift I received that day was to be startled into an awareness of the everyday strangeness of life.
I’ve been watching the universe carefully ever since. You never know what you might find in a paper bag on the sidewalk. Or anywhere else. You never know what surprises might be hiding under the bland, boring skin of the familiar.
Maybe that’s how a writer gets made.