He was made of snow But the children know How he came to life one day.
— “Frosty the Snowman,” by Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins
In the winter of 1980, my older sister Barbara got a job playing the part of Frosty the Snowman at the Frederick Towne Mall in Maryland. I made fun of her, but Barbara was self-confident and gregarious, and the role seemed to fit her well. Then, when basketball season started, her job conflicted with her practice schedule, and she asked if I wanted to take over the role of Frosty. It was easy, she said. Anyone could do it.
I was a shy, awkward sixteen-year-old. I hated the mall, the holidays, and commercialism in general. But for some reason — the money? the challenge? the sheer stupidity of it? — I told my sister I would do it. Being Frosty became my first job ever.
I was nervous as I walked down the long cinder-block corridor to the offices of the Frederick Towne Mall. My boss, who was also head of security, was burly and humorless. He seemed suspicious of me, perhaps because of my long hair or my willingness to play Frosty — for wasn’t that a girl’s job? He quickly went over the rules: Walk around the mall and be friendly. Don’t talk. If you have to take a break, come back to the office or step behind one of the Personnel Only doors that connect to the emergency-exit corridors. Don’t take off the head in public.
Then he hustled me into the windowless break room, where the Frosty outfit lay on a sofa, and shut the door behind me. I picked up the fuzzy white Frosty suit as if it were the skin of a dead animal; I set it back down. A cheap mirror hung on the wall, and I looked into it, as if hoping to find the strength to do this.
My reflection always surprised me; I never looked as I imagined myself to be. I hadn’t cut my hair in eight years — not even a trim — and it hung straight down, almost to my belt. My face was soft and hairless; I rarely needed to shave. Only my height, my flat chest, and my large, wire-framed glasses suggested that I was a boy. Sometimes even these weren’t enough. Kids at school called me girls’ names. Clerks at stores would say, “Can I help you, ma’am?” I told myself that the taunts and mistakes didn’t mean anything. What was wrong with being a girl? But a part of me feared others could see what I still was trying to hide: that I didn’t exactly feel like a boy. It wasn’t just that I was attracted to other boys — an inclination I worked hard to suppress. It was also that I felt genderless. I had no word for it then, though, no way to describe it at all.
I picked the Frosty outfit up and stepped into it, keeping my street clothes on underneath — even my shoes. I slipped my legs into its legs, my arms into its arms, but I couldn’t get the zipper up. I fought with it for ten minutes in the empty break room, wondering how my sister had overcome this problem. I considered removing the costume and leaving without a word, but what if my boss saw me as I passed his office? And how could I fail at such an easy job?
So I waddled in the unzipped Frosty suit back to the mall office and asked for help. My boss told me that everyone else had managed to do it by themselves. Then he zipped me up. I left the office wondering what he thought about me. Back in the break room, I put on the huge white head with the tall black hat attached. It balanced on my shoulders without fasteners. Had I bent over to touch my toes, Frosty’s head would have fallen off. I looked and breathed out of a piece of black foam that served as Frosty’s mouth. His eyes and forehead were far above my own, making me, hat and all, about seven feet tall.
My vision, filtered through the black foam mouthpiece, was limited and hazy. I swiveled awkwardly around the room until I could see myself in the full-length mirror again. There was Frosty, curiously copying my every move. Unlike me, though, Frosty wore a perpetual smile. I tried to create different expressions by nodding or tilting my head, but the possibilities were limited. The costume hid any trace of my own mood or appearance. Perhaps this wouldn’t be such a bad job after all.
It took only a few minutes in the suit, however, to change my mind. Sealed inside the ridiculous fuzzy white outfit, I was sweating profusely. I breathed stale air. My glasses fogged up. I was miserable. I lingered in the break room as long as I dared before starting down the long white corridor toward the crowded mall.
Petrified, I made my way through the mob of shoppers, many of whom turned to look at Frosty. I felt exposed, but also oddly safe, as though I were in a spacesuit sealed off from the environment, watching everything through a TV monitor. The stores were decorated with plastic wreaths and oversized Christmas ornaments. Muzak renditions of carols hammered at my brain.
Then someone came up and patted me on the back. I didn’t know what to do. I nodded and walked away, like I normally would, head down, hoping no one would notice me. But it’s hard to be invisible when you’re dressed as a seven-foot snowman. People stared and waved. I felt obliged to wave back. I sweated and fretted in the costume, but Frosty did nothing but smile.
I decided I was walking too fast for Frosty, so I began to take long, ambling strides, swinging my arms loosely, as if strolling through a field of daisies. The head was like a small cave, and my breath sounded deep and hollow, like Darth Vader’s. When no one was nearby, I breathed out heavily and said, “I have you now, Luke Skywalker.”
As the youngest of four, I’d never been around little children. They made me nervous. But after developing my Frosty persona for an hour, I ventured up to two kids — toddlers, really — to say hello. As I bent down and put my arms around them, they began to cry. Not realizing that to them I was a huge, furry monster in a black top hat, I took their reaction personally. I had failed at what Barbara had promised was the simplest job in the world. I didn’t know how to appear cheerful, even when hiding behind a mask.
At the end of my four-hour shift, I returned to the mall office, sweat-soaked, exhausted, and dejected. I dreaded coming back the next day.
When I was in third grade, my family moved from Washington, D.C., to a farm in rural Maryland. The kids at my new school all were white and not very worldly. I had lived in Paris and traveled around the U.S., whereas many of them had never left the state. I had great difficulty fitting in. My family had always been very private and kept its problems hidden — particularly my mother’s depression. From this, I’d learned not to show my feelings. I found refuge in the woods above our house, where I spent long hours sitting by a small waterfall and crying, although I could not explain why. All I knew was that I felt different, and that I could not talk to anyone else about it. So playing Frosty — this silent stranger among humans — was not so alien to me.
The next day I felt more confident, and I waited for children to approach me. When they did, I bent down to greet them, and a few were so full of excitement they even hugged me, as if I were the star of their childhood world. Sometimes a pack of girls would come up and put their arms around me. Occasionally adults would try to engage me in conversation, but I would only nod and shrug my shoulders good-naturedly. Almost everyone had a blind trust in Frosty. I remember thinking, I could be a mass murderer beneath this costume.
By the end of the first week, I’d shaken off most of my anxiety. Why had I feared walking around in a snowman outfit? In fact, I grew bored tromping up and down the mall, pretending to be perpetually cheery, trying not to step on children or bump into trash cans. I promised myself I’d walk for an hour at a stretch, but often, when I’d slip behind the Personnel Only door and take off my head to cool down, I’d look at my watch and discover it had been only thirty minutes.
While on break, I would breathe the “fresh” air of the emergency-exit corridor and shake the headpiece to help evaporate the moisture that had condensed on the foam. Had there been a mirror there, I’m sure I could have spent hours contemplating myself in my Frosty suit, wondering, Who am I? But the dim fluorescent lighting and bare cinder-block walls were depressing. So, after a few minutes, I was almost relieved to put on my headpiece and walk back out into the mall.
Being Frosty was becoming strangely liberating. I never felt the same discomfort I did in my own skin, trying to look — or feel — like a boy. Although Frosty was technically a snowman, he didn’t seem to be of either sex. My sister, after all, had played the part equally well, if not better. When I was Frosty, I experienced for the first time what it might be like to have no gender. The freedom inspired me to take greater and greater risks. I’d stroll into stores and stand behind people as they shopped. Sometimes they’d turn around and be startled to find a giant snowman peering over them.
When I was at my most confident, I would approach young couples for a hug. In real life, I was too shy ever to ask anyone out — boy or girl — much less hug them. But as Frosty, I found it was safe to express love. Usually I would hug the girl first. She would think I was funny, and the boyfriend could hardly get jealous — after all, I was Frosty!
Then, if I felt particularly daring, I’d put my arm around the guy. His girlfriend would laugh, and he would get embarrassed, but what could he say? It wasn’t cool to be mean to Frosty. And of course he had no way of knowing whether I was a man or a woman inside the suit. It was an incredible rush to hold a boy in my arms without fear of being beaten up or rejected. Once, the girlfriend even took our picture, as if we were a couple. In that moment, I could imagine the world as I wanted it to be.