When I was six, my mother took me to a big store to meet Susan. To a six-year-old in 1970, Susan didn’t need a last name, I don’t think she even had one. The show was Sesame Street, and this was Susan:
As my mom and I stood in the long line, my expectations got very low, because I was remembering what happened last year. Last year, we had stood in a line like this one to meet Bob McCalister (not the Bob from the above video) from Wonderama. I remembered him as not looking at all like he did on TV, and being cold and unfriendly. In retrospect, this was unfair to Mr. McCalister. As a five-year-old, I had expected him to look exactly the same as he did on television, including being small and in washed out color. Also, he had been dealing with children all day, signing copies of his album, and I stood in front of him.
Bob McCalister: Hi, what’s your name?
Me [shyly]: Doug.
Bob McCalister: Here you are.
I hadn’t given him a lot to work with, and there were many, many, children to get through.
So, expectations lowered, I mentally rehearsed my question. Because I had a question for Susan. I had loved Sesame Street from the first year it had been broadcast and was ready for the logical next step, but that next step hadn’t come. So I was going to ask Susan, “Why don’t they have Sesame Street stuff in cereal boxes?” I had never questioned the progression: Hit Show -> Cereal Box Toy. Except for Sesame Street. The world was not working as the world worked. And I rehearsed and rehearsed. “Why don’t they have Sesame Street stuff in cereal boxes?” “Why don’t they have Sesame Street stuff in cereal boxes?”
And then we came to Susan. And it turned out that Susan was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, except for Mommy. I have a poor visual memory but here I am, over 40 years later, with a distinct memory of how she looked, with stacks of copies her new album in front of her, a blurry store behind her. She had the kind of presence that just radiated. I couldn’t talk, I just stared. She was so, so, pretty in real life, even more than she was on Sesame Street. And her voice when she said “Hi, what’s your name?” – that sounded just like it did on TV. She was Susan.
You know, making fun of the clichéd “Peace and Love” part of the late 60s/early 70s is so established that it is also a cliché. But those of us who were around, even as little children, will tell you that there was something there. Maybe not what it was marketed to be, maybe not what it was claimed to be, but there was something. Susan exuded that magic. I’m sure even the grownups in that store that day noticed it. As a child, I experienced it as almost a tangible thing; I remember thinking, “I can feel her smile.” Take away the 60s trappings, the tye-dye and drugs and beads and long hair, boil it all away until you just get that pure Love, that “All you need is” Love. That Love was all around her that day. And I felt it flow from her into me as she signed my album, with a line of children behind me. I didn’t walk away after she handed me my signed copy of “Susan Sings Songs from Sesame Street.” I had a question.
“Why don’t they have Sesame Street things in cereal boxes?” Last-minute change to remove the slang. Susan gave me complete 100% attention while I asked, and didn’t talk down to me when she answered. That matters a lot to a bright six-year-old. Most strangers talked down to me. But then again, this wasn’t really a stranger, it was Susan. “Oh! That’s an excellent question. You see, Sesame Street gets its money from the government, while other television shows get their money from advertisers, and there is a grant…” I don’t remember everything, and it started to go over my head. Hers too, because I have another distinct visual memory – of Susan rolling her eyes while lifting her head and waving her hand in the air, “…I don’t understand it all myself.” She made sympathetic eye contact with my mom at that point, the first time she took her eyes off of me. But she explained to me that this was why I would never see Sesame Street toys in cereal boxes, and there would never be Sesame Street dolls or toys or clothing or anything like that. And I was okay with it. (And another visual memory – this one that I haven’t thought of in over 40 years – I just found a photo in a mental photo album that I didn’t know existed – I see Susan’s face and extended hand right before we shook hands and said goodbye.)
I assumed, because I knew how the world worked, that next year we would meet Gordon to buy his album, and then Bob the next year, and Mr. Hooper the year after that. People took turns. But that didn’t happen, of course, but lots of other stuff did, and here I am. I don’t talk down to children. That bothers some, and gladdens others. Did I learn that just from Susan? No, my 12-year-older brother Mike never talked down to me, and my other siblings and parents often didn’t. But those few minutes with Susan are such an important memory, and I can’t separate who I am from those few minutes – they are is an integral ingredient in the stew, the stuff – no, the Things That Have Happened. It would have been so easy for her to dismiss my question. “Because Oscar doesn’t like cereal” said with a smile and an implied “Next!” But she took the time, and I will be always grateful to her. Loretta Long. I didn’t know that at the time, but I wanted to thank her by name. Thank you, Loretta Long.