Tennessee's mammals are a diverse and stylish bunch. The wild hog (Sus scrofa) wears a blond-tipped mane, ever on the hunt for salamanders, tubers, snakes and other delectables. The male elk (Cervus elaphus) sports a yellowish rump patch; during mating season, he does his damnedest to fend off romantic rivals and assemble a harem. The American black bear (Ursus americanus),the largest carnivore in the state, has short, curved, non-retractable claws and is listed by the Audubon Society Field Guide as a C.B.A. ("Certified Bad Ass").
But among primates, the pink gorilla is in a class by itself.
Sightings are rare during the hot summer months, but the pink gorilla can sometimes be spotted in its native habitat near the corner of Old Hickory Boulevard and Edmondson Pike in Nippers Corner, holding a sign for Vine Street Wine and Spirits, his employer. It may be Middle Tennessee's only indigenous simian, unless you count the mascot propped up outside Gorilla's Muffler Center on Nolensville Road, waving his lonely muffler.
Since it opened three years ago, Vine Street Wine has dispatched the pink gorilla to draw attention to its unassuming location behind a car wash off Old Hickory Boulevard, tucked inside The Brentwood Marketplace shopping center. You'd expect such a creature to have a remarkable origin story, and it does. An employee's wife picked up the costume while on a trip to Tunica.
"It was almost serendipity," says Bill McCorvey, Vine's owner, who as fate would have it is the former lead singer for the country group Pirates of the Mississippi.
But why pink? Why not a blue gorilla, for instance?
"It's just an unbelievably awful color," McCorvey says proudly. "You get people to drive by and they go, 'What?' Because it's all concrete and asphalt and then all of a sudden there is this big pink thing sticking out by the side of the road."
The gorilla may be unique in size and shade, but he's far from alone. Similar mascots and sign flippers can be seen stationed across the area at strategic intersections and occasions — a foam Statue of Liberty at tax time, a 6-foot head of lettuce gesticulating toward a Subway near Wedgewood. But what does it feel like to be the person inside the suit? Whenever you see a tomato in its sweltering costume, waving passers-by into a Snappy Tomato pizza franchise with its wilting tendrils, have you ever thought, "I could be that guy?"
I did. That big pink thing sticking out by the side of the road? I decided that would be me.
I. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (In a Pink Gorilla Suit)
For the past couple years the man behind the mask is likely to have been Timmy. Legal name: Timothy Charles Killom II.
"I danced harder than any gorilla has ever danced. I would just give it my all. I would dance my heart out," says Timmy, 27, who sports a long black ponytail rather than pink fur like crusty cotton candy. As for what got him through the gig, it is said music soothes the savage beast, and this one was no different.
"Bill let me have my ear buds in," Timmy recalls. "Modest Mouse got me through a lot of it. It was a strange thing. I remember listening to that CD, Good News for People Who Love Bad News."
But tragically, Brentwood's pink gorilla is something of an endangered species. Timmy, whose goal is to live in all 50 United States, has moved on. (For those keeping score: Twenty-two states down.) The old suit "literally fell apart," McCorvey says. And no one has yet even worn the new one.
"It's hard to get kids to stand in that hot suit for more than 30 minutes," McCorvey says. Kids today.
At this point I realized I was more than an investigative journalist in the tradition of Edward R. Murrow. I am also a global citizen, a caring human being. I saw a problem: I did not want to live in a world without a guy wearing a pink gorilla suit. And I was determined to do something about it.
So it was that this reporter — taking a cue from Paris Review founder and "participatory journalism" pioneer George Plimpton — found himself in the employee bathroom of Vine Street Wine and Spirits, struggling to put his foot down a furry pink leg.
Normally a shift is four hours. But a journalist of my caliber cannot be expected to stand around on a street corner waving a liquor-store sign, wearing a pink gorilla outfit and dancing for four hours. No. I stipulated that I would dance for one hour, and that's it.
Andrew Perry, store manager, told me to drink plenty of water. He also urged me to free myself within the confines of anonymity.
"It's a suit, not a prison," Perry said. "You can do whatever you want, just so long as you're not flipping off the children."
Next thing I knew I was on Old Hickory Boulevard dancing up a storm, shaking a leg or — as persons under 18 might say — getting "turnt up."
III. Lessons Learned
The main thing I learned from wearing that pink gorilla suit is this: It's hot. It's damn hot. Wearing it is like being waterboarded. You sweat, and you sweat while smelling and feeling like melted plastic. The suit itself is not actually that bad, if you have a high threshold for public embarrassment.
What separates the professionals from the amateurs is the mask. If you are at all prone to claustrophobia, the very second you put the damn thing on you feel like you are drowning. The mask allows no concept of personal space. The first time I put it on, I felt the urge to tear it off immediately. But I resisted. As the saying goes, real men wear pink.
"That's intense," I said, the first time I donned it.
"It is," said Andrew Perry.
For the record: Mr. Perry has never worn the costume, though he once dressed up as a character from Toy Story for a hometown parade.
You'd think that a pink gorilla might have a jolly mien. But the mask itself projects a deep inner life, a sort of strangely pensive expression. The pink gorilla mask is mysterious — an enigma wrapped in a mystery wrapped in fur the color of Pepto-Bismol.
It's hard to see out of, too. The eye slits are small. The rest of the costume isn't as weird. It's like being a big baby in a giant pink furry onesie.
The outfit also comes complete with big pale plastic gloves and pale plastic feet. As a participatory journalist, authenticity is always my paramount concern. (When I put on the costume I could smell both plastic and a Pulitzer.) I wanted to embody the role completely, like De Niro in Mean Streets or Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire, or whoever played Harry in Harry and the Hendersons. Therefore it would have behooved me to also wear the giant plastic gloves and the giant plastic feet that go with the whole outfit.
But for some reason I just couldn't bring myself to go all the way. I could not cover up my worn loafers and my pudgy, clumsy but honest hands in those giant plastic gorilla gloves. I could not go full gorilla.
That said, if you wear just the gorilla suit and dance on a busy thoroughfare, there are some things motorists will do:
Ignore you. Right, ignore the guy dancing on the sidewalk in the pink gorilla suit.
Honk. Others might not see the pink gorilla. Alert them!
Roll down the window so their children can gawk at you and presumably listen with keener interest next time they are told to do their homework so they can have a good job someday and/or attend college.
Surreptitiously take your picture. "See? I wasn't drinking."
Ignore you even if you get down on one knee and point at them while playing the sign like a guitar. Don't act so blasé! This doesn't happen every day, even in Nashville.
Ignore you even if you yell at the top of your lungs, "Hey, how about a honk for the pink gorilla?"
Flash a peace sign.
A personal triumph came when I was able to engage a woman in a dance-off. I would bust a hot move and she, waiting at a red, would respond in kind. I did the disco-era finger point; I did the hip-hop hand wave; and for a big finish I did the heavy metal fist-pump. Those are the only "dances" I really know.
After an hour of this idiosyncratic labor my regard for all those persons one sees on the side of the road holding signs of various sorts had risen to reverence. To paraphrase Three 6 Mafia: It's hard out here for an ape. Through these eyeholes I've seen some crazy things on the streets. As a general matter, as soon as you put the gorilla costume on, people trip out. For example, when I first emerged from the liquor-store bathroom in full regalia I immediately encountered three African-American gentlemen in their 20s perusing the bottles on display. They stopped dead in their tracks.
"Damn. He came out of the cut," one of them said with a laugh. "That's something you don't see every day," said Andrew Perry, my de facto hype-man.
By far the most enthusiastic response that day was elicited from some Hispanic men in a passing truck. This one guy in the front passenger seat was a little too into the pink gorilla. I was embarrassed for him and actually I was embarrassed for myself. The whole thing was just embarrassing. He held a smartphone in his fist and cranked up the already ear-splitting techno and screamed at the top of his lungs while leaning out the window. He looked like he really liked people in pink gorilla costumes. He was in a state of pure rapture. This truck actually passed by twice. Do pink gorillas have bronies?
Overall, that famous Southern hospitality extends to its treatment of persons wearing pink gorilla costumes. Several years ago in California, I was riding my bike beside the road when I felt something hit my shoulder and I heard a car speed off with a "Woo hoo!" It turned out some unknown pranksters had thrown a freaking egg at me. When I put on the gorilla costume and began dancing in front of passing cars, I was worried that history might repeat itself, that the egg trauma might be relived.
But during my grueling labors no one threw an egg or other unidentified objects at me. I took it as a compliment. Though if people had thrown roses or undergarments at me as I did air guitar, I would have been even more flattered.
Being a pink gorilla is not only demanding physically, it is demanding psychologically and spiritually. Paradoxically, even though everyone is staring at you, you feel utterly anonymous. As a high-profile journalist, I am used to heads of state returning my calls within seconds and even hardened criminals trembling when they hear I will be interviewing them on national television with my stentorian voice. At the very least, Pizza Hut picks up on the second ring. But when I was dancing around in the gorilla get-up I could have been anyone. I was no one, really — just an ordinary, hard-working American wearing a fluffy pink gorilla suit, trying to make his way in this crazy world.
Which raises the matter of maintaining one's personal dignity. After 15 minutes or so you get so dehydrated you feel like you might die. But there's a problem: You can't drink water through the mask. To drink water you have to take the mask at least partially off and thereby risk being recognized.
Sometimes there are no good options. I had to drink water or I would die. But if I took off the mask I would, in essence, be committing social suicide.
I reached a compromise. In order to periodically hydrate myself I would duck behind a electrical box and pull the mask up just enough to pour water into my parched mouth, but not enough that a passing colleague or former girlfriend or my in-laws could positively identify the man behind the mask. For some reason this all felt very awkward. Something about standing on a busy street in a pink gorilla costume and desperately pouring water into my mouth felt a little indecorous.
After the agreed-upon hour I was thoroughly disoriented. My vision had been reduced to narrow slits of exurban uniformity, an endless loop of gaping motorists against a strip-mall backdrop. My world had been reduced to but a few sensations: smell of plastic, sweat, honking cars, occasionally a welcome breeze. Maybe that's it, I thought. Maybe I've hit the big pink fuzzy wall.
At that point, Andrew Perry came and relieved me from my post.
Back at the liquor store, still in costume, I took out my wife's phone, which I'd borrowed that day because mine was out of batteries. I wanted to have a couple of pictures for posterity. Her phone happens to be wrapped in a pink plastic case that perfectly matched the professional uniform I had donned that afternoon. I politely asked one customer to take my picture.
"Pink phone," he said quizzically. "Yeah, it's my wife's," I said. Here I am wearing a pink gorilla outfit, and what you comment on is the phone?
When I emerged from the bathroom in civilian attire, wisps of pink faux-fur still clung to my face. A middle-aged suburbanite in plaid shorts greeted me festively.
"That was you? I saw that gorilla," he boomed. "And I thought, 'That's guy's doing a great job!' You should hang out at the liquor store more. It's a lot of fun."
It was also time to reap the rewards of my labor. To recap: I almost died from dehydration and heat exhaustion. Some people screamed at me so loudly it scared me. Some people flat out ignored me. And there's the guy in the truck who's probably still be circling the block looking for a furry pink hook-up. Also: I called down a torrent of public humiliation. What could all that be worth?
Mr. Perry jauntily opened the cash register and handed me the staggering proceeds — a crisp $10 bill.
Was the experience worth it? Absolutely. There's simply nothing like it. There is a quiet dignity that goes along with wearing a pink gorilla costume and dancing in front of cars at the behest of a local liquor store.
As I was driving home, that hit song "Ain't It Fun" by Paramore came on the radio:
"Ain't it fun living in the real world. ... Don't go crying to your mama because you're on your own in the real world."
I rocked out as I have never rocked before.
So the next time you notice someone, anyone, holding a sign for a new mattress outlet or pizzeria — or wearing a pink gorilla costume — don't ignore them. Make sure to honk, or wave, or cheer.
I know from personal experience, they will appreciate it.