That’s me in those photos—yep, both of ’em. They were taken 60 seconds apart.
I’m not the first journalist to go out in disguise. In the 1890s Elizabeth Banks dressed as a peasant to investigate the working conditions of street sweepers in England. In the 1950s author John Howard Griffin darkened his skin pigmentation to experience the Jim Crow South as a black man. A few years ago freelance writer Nora Vincent disguised herself as a man to study sexism and the so-called “male privilege.” Her book that followed, Self-Made Man, became an instant New York Times bestseller.
I’d always imagined myself following in these brave writers’ footsteps. I imagined getting into disguise, taking to the streets, exposing some double standard or grave injustice with irrefutable firsthand knowledge and then humbly accepting my Pulitzer, my Peabody and my Nobel.
Yeah, that never happened. I never found the right double standard to set straight or the right injustice to make just. Then again, I haven’t really been looking. Unlike Banks, Griffin and Vincent, I was never motivated by a quest for social equality; what interested me about this sort of undercover journalism was the disguise element. What interested me was the question, how does it feel to become another person?
My interest was further piqued two months ago, during a breakfast interview with Steve Daly, a magician who sometimes works in drag. When I asked him how he came to perform as a woman, he asked me a question in return: “Did you ever watch Here’s Lucy?”
“As a matter of fact I did. That’s the one after The Lucy Show—with Mr. Mooney.”
“Then maybe you remember this episode: Lucy and Mr. Mooney go to see Phyllis Diller perform at a charity event. After the show the two go backstage and meet some guy named Jim Bailey, who says he’s an impressionist. Lucy asks, ‘Who do you impersonate?’ and Bailey launches into Diller. It was Bailey the whole time. Mr. Mooney practically has a heart attack!”
“So that inspired you …?”
“I saw that episode when I was young, and it made a huge impression on me. It made the magic I was doing unimpressive by comparison. Getting somebody to believe you’re a totally different person—now that’s deception. It’s exhilarating. You should try.”
“I don’t think I’d make a convincing woman.”
“Then maybe you can pass as something else.”
Sociologists use the term “passing” to refer to the practice of successfully presenting yourself as somebody of a different sex, race, ethnicity, class or disability status. Performers like Daly pass to entertain, others pass in hopes of achieving psychological wholeness (e.g., transsexuals), and still others do it for social acceptance (e.g., the upwardly mobile, the disabled).
Some people seek to pass for very specific reasons. During the Civil War, women bound their breasts to their chests to pass as men and fight in battle. During World War II, German Jews tried to restore foreskin to pass as Gentiles and evade concentration-camp imprisonment. Mixed-race civil rights leader Walter Francis White passed as a Caucasian man to gather information on upcoming lynchings, and African-American FBI agents Kevin and Marcus Copeland passed as Caucasian cruise line heiresses Tiffany and Brittany Wilson to divert a kidnapping plot.
Okay, that last one was the plot of White Chicks, but the phenomenon of passing is very real and very common. According to UNLV professor of sociology Michael Ian Borer, “When a person is intentionally trying to act as if she is someone else, we can call this ‘parallel play.’ This happens more often than we think, especially in cities like Las Vegas where there are so many opportunities to play with one’s identity.”
Borer offered me some common examples of parallel play: “When people ‘dress up’ to go out to a fancy dinner (that they’ve been saving up for), rent a limo for the prom or buy a knock-off Louis Vuitton bag, or when people ‘dress down’ to go to a ball game, a rodeo or a dive bar, they’re playing with visual social-class distinctions.”
When I told Professor Borer about my desire to emulate journalists Banks, Griffin and Vincent by disguising myself and writing about it, he cautioned in an e-mail, “You might realize that your fantasies are ‘better’ than your realities and end up feeling trapped in yourself. On the other hand,” he continued, “you might realize how good you have it by seeing how some identities have been socially stigmatized within the status hierarchy of the dominant culture (e.g., African-Americans, homosexuals, the disabled, the aged, the obese). Some ‘masks’ can be fun to wear, try on and play with; others can be oppressive, alienating or downright dangerous.”
I drove to a local costume shop to search for ideas. There wasn’t much there; just some plastic noses, bushy eyebrows, handlebar moustaches, extra-thick nerd glasses, frizzy wigs—nothing that would fool anybody. The shop’s cheap disguises looked, well, like cheap disguises. I needed something more realistic.
It didn’t take long before I came across SPFXmasks.com. SPFX Masks manufactures over-the-head silicone masks that move with your face. They make scary masks—zombies, vampires, demonic clowns, wolfmen—but they also carry a line of realistic disguises known as RealU Masks. If you’ve got several hundred dollars ($589-$809) and a head, you can transform yourself into an old man (“The Elder”), a square-jawed bully (“The Sarge”), an African-American (“The Player”) or a tattooed, cauliflower-eared gangster (“The Thug”).
- Beyond the Weekly
- SPFX Masks
“If you just want to pass as somebody else and stay under the radar,” SPFX founder/mask sculptor Rusty Slusser advised me, “go for The Elder. He attracts the least amount of attention.”
I told Slusser why I wanted a mask, and he replied, “That’s nothing; you should hear some of the requests I get. A couple months ago I got a call from some guy who got barred from attending his son’s football games because he started a fight with the referee. The league got a restraining order against him, and he called me and asked for a mask so he could watch his son play incognito.”
“Which one did you give him?”
“I had to turn him down. Same with the card counter who got kicked out of every casino in Vegas. He wanted a mask to duck security. These things are for entertainment and fun … and I have a feeling you’ll have some fun with your Elder.”
FedEx delivered the mask and “sleeves” (the fake hands/arms that SPFX customers can purchase separately) a couple of days later. I removed the sleeves first and was taken aback by how closely the silicone flesh resembled that of my paternal grandfather: tan with a speckling of dark brown and off-white. My grandfather earned this skin tone by alternating between the Michigan cold and the Florida sun for two decades, and Slusser had somehow duplicated it with paint, practically overnight. The hands were crinkled, and the wrist bones protruded slightly.
Next I removed the mask and put it on. I positioned the eyeholes before my eyes and the nostrils below my nostrils. I tucked the neck and shoulder flaps under my shirt, and then walked into the bathroom and looked in the mirror. I’d never felt so existentially disoriented in my life. My brain just couldn’t accept that the old guy in the mirror was actually me.
Once the shock died down, I examined my new face. My cheeks had drooped with the decades, and two flaps of skin hung loose from my chin, like leftover bits of elbow flesh. The right side of my nose exhibited a slight red irritation, and faint blue veins popped from my temples. My lips were dark purple and slightly chapped. My bushy gray and white eyebrows splayed in every direction. I’d aged 60 years in 60 seconds.
I put on a white dress shirt, nylon pants, white socks and blue Crocs. Then I opened the front door and set out to retrieve my mail, as an octogenarian. On my way back from the mailbox, an SUV passed by. The driver nodded; he didn’t give me a funny look or point or call the cops; he just acknowledged my presence and drove off. I rushed back to my condo—in retrospect, this was out of character—and poured myself a cup of tea in celebration. I realized the driver hadn’t gotten a good look at me, but I still felt a tingly guilty pleasure, like when I bluff a big pot at the Mirage poker tables.
A couple of days later I visited the Salvation Army secondhand store and purchased a walker. I also bought a pair of off-white pants and an ugly brown shirt. That night I got into disguise and headed toward a nearby bus station. Now, I’ve never been mugged or held up in my life, so I usually don’t think twice about walking around the city at night. As a 27-year-old male, I don’t make an ideal target for would-be criminals. But as an old man, I realized, I made a much more enticing potential victim, so I left my cell phone and wallet at home for security. Still, my nerves got the best of me, and I headed home before I reached the station.
I was equally self-conscious when I visited the park on Spring Mountain and Durango the following Saturday morning. For a while I just stood there and watched the teens in the skate park. At first they ignored me, but eventually I drew points and whispers. I don’t think the kids suspected something was up; they just wondered why the old guy with the walker was staring at them. I got the same reaction from the toddlers on the playground, and their understandably concerned parents.
I ambled over to the dog park and let myself through the gates. I sat down on a bench and received my second nod. This one was from a 70-something Doberman owner, standing about 10 feet away. I sensed it was a peer-to-peer “Howdy, fellow old-timer” nod, so I nodded back.
A couple of minutes later, a chocolate lab ran up to me and began licking my mask. It must not have tasted good, because the lab walked away before its owner could get out her apology.
“Sorry,” she said, “he’s a licker.”
“What’s his name?” I asked, the mask’s lips moving with my own. I didn’t use the stereotypical old man voice (i.e., Herbert from Family Guy), but I did lower my register and retard my usually fast-paced speaking speed.
“You’re a Matrix fan?”
“Yes …,” the woman answered tentatively, probably surprised that I’d picked up the reference.
“My grandkids, too.”
I drove to Walgreens, still in costume, for the ultimate test: Could I buy a bag of Werther’s Original Hard Candy without being read? I call this the “ultimate test” because it involved fluorescent lights, oral communication and touching. I handed the cashier a $20 and fumbled only a bit with the change he gave me in return. When the transaction was done, he gave me what I thought was a suspicious glance—the first one I’d yet elicited. I couldn’t stand not knowing whether the cashier realized something was up. So I got into my car, removed the mask and arms and marched back into the store, still dressed in my old-man pants and ugly shirt. I bought a second bag of Werther’s to see how the cashier would react.
“Selling a lot of Werther’s today?” I asked.
“Was … was that you?”
“Was who me?”
That afternoon I got back into costume, drove to Las Vegas Boulevard and walked around in front of Bally’s, Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall and O’Sheas. Usually when I loiter in this part of the Strip, I get high fives from frat guys and flirtatious eyebrow arches from girls holding frozen drinks. But in the old-man mask, I got ignored.
When I was a kid, I used to have this recurring nightmare that I was invisible to everybody around me. Nobody could see me or hear me—not my friends, my parents or even my dog Jake. I’d jump and scream and get no reaction. Now, I’m no psychologist—this according to my undergraduate psychology professor—but I think this has something to do with being an only child/needing attention. In Slusser’s old-man mask, I wasn’t getting any of it, and honestly, it was starting to piss me off. I felt less like I was wearing an old-man mask and more like I was wearing a cloak of invisibility. I wanted to cry out, “Somebody pay attention to me! I’m a person too,” but instead I took the mask off. SPFX should really be marketing these things to George Clooney, Brad Pitt and other paparazzi-swarmed celebrities.
That night I ran into my roommate’s friend Inessa by the mailbox. She was walking her dog, and I was in costume. Inessa lives a couple of houses down, and we see each other a couple of times a month.
“Hi, Inessa,” I said, making no effort to disguise my voice.
“Hi,” she said tentatively, backing away little by little. It’s not every day that some octogenarian you don’t recognize knows you by name.
“Don’t you remember me?” I asked.
“No,” she answered, picking up her pace.
“Inessa—wait! It’s me, Ricky.”
I removed the mask and sleeves. Inessa looked scared when I had the mask on, but you should have seen her after I’d taken it off. I explained my project and gave her a hug.
She was still shaking.
“So I fooled you?”
It was official. I’d passed—a couple of times, actually. During my adventures as an octogenarian, I went through the same emotions that Banks, Griffin and Vincent went through: paranoia, sadness, excitement and ultimately triumph. I didn’t set out to study ageism (or to do anything resembling legitimate journalism), but my adventures did confirm Professor Borer’s prophecy: I now appreciate how good I have it as a member of our youth-dominated, youth-obsessed culture—particularly when it comes to meeting new people and making new friends. I doubt that observation is going to win me a Pulitzer, but honestly, I’d rather have another SPFX mask. Slusser tells me he’s releasing a Nosferatu mask later this year …