Tuesday, March 16, 2004

The web he weaves

When he pops a piece of watermelon-flavored Hubba Bubba into his mouth in the early morning hours and muscles the wheel of his rusty 8-cylinder Dodge Diplomat southward to New York City, saving humanity from the forces of evil is not his first objective. Not yet, anyway, even though he'll be wearing a Spider-Man outfit for a good 10 hours in the middle of Times Square.

No, the first objective of Steve Mercier, 34, is raising enough money to move out of his parents' house.

In a darkened corner beside the Marquis Theatre box office off Broadway, Mercier pulls his red and blue superhero body suit out from a plastic milk crate and slips it on, as he's been doing most days for three weeks now.

At 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, he's far from the lean, sculptured hero of comic book fame and box office riches. Yet on Wednesday, as he takes his place on a cement island in the middle of Broadway and cocks his wrists backward as if ready to spew silken thread, he is Spider Man — or close enough — to the scores of people posing for pictures with him and dropping coins and bills into his tip jar.

And when the day is over, when he heads to the corner table of a nearby pizza place to count his earnings — sifting out the foreign coins and subway tokens — he can make anywhere from $100 to more than $300 in a day.

``It's not easy, but it's a living,'' says Mercier, whose jobs have included delivering newspapers and working for a fence company, a supermarket, a sub shop, a paper company and Saratoga racetrack.

Professionally, nothing felt right until that day four years ago when he got a $5,000 bank loan and his life took focus. The money helped pay for his custom-made New York Yankee mascot costume. With the very big mascot head in hand, a street performer was born.

On many Yankee game days, he sets up across the street from the stadium posing for pictures. ``Mr. Yankee'' is very much the unofficial team mascot; George Steinbrenner won't return his phone calls. When the Yanks aren't in town, Mercier can often be found posing for photos in Manhattan's Battery Park, dressed in yet another custom-made outfit, this one of Lady Liberty.

That was where, a month ago, Mercier was raising his spongy-soft torch of liberty and lamenting a slow business day when the Spider-Man idea came to him.

``I mean, the movie was coming out. There's all this excitement. Why not?'' Mercier says.

So here he is. Atop a subway grate that blows stale, hot, morning breath. In the turbulent maw of the metropolis, which at once chews him up and spits him out, or gives him a big kiss.

A bike messenger buzzes by and offers some drive-by commentary: ``You need to be more sexy, Spidey.''

As does the guy in the garbage truck: ``Get a job!''

As does the man leaning out the cab window: ``Imposter!''

Even the Naked Cowboy, the famed Times Square street performer in the white briefs and cowboy boots, peers down the curb, clicks his spurs, wipes his nose on his bare bicep and reckons that Mercier ``is wasting his time.''

But amid the fusillade of indignities, it's hard to ignore the nearby statue of showman George M. Cohan, ``The Man Who Owned Broadway.'' Those white streaks running down the cheeks aren't tears of joy, as the pigeon atop his head can attest.

Tough town, New York.

Mercier can handle it, especially since the money he makes as Spider-Man is, for now, much better than the take of his Lady Liberty and Yankee gigs.

The children love Mercier's Spider-Man. The tourists, too.

``He's a great attraction,'' says Mary Stelling, a visitor from Lecanto, Fla., who posed with Spider-Man as her husband, Harold, snapped a photo. ``We don't get to see this sort of thing back home.''

Mercier, indeed, has become a Times Square landmark in his own right. The New York Post did a full-page spread on him June 30, in a piece titled ``N.Y. Web Sight: Spidey mimic plays Times Sq.'' Since then, even the guys selling tickets for the Gray Line sightseeing tours know Mercier by name.

He's scheduled to appear on VH1 Saturday in an interview with the comedian Carrot Top. ABC's ``Good Morning America'' has called, as has ``Access Hollywood.''

The newfound sorta-fame is highly welcomed for Mercier, who has had a hard-knock three months, beginning with the breakup with his girlfriend, with whom he shared an apartment in Saratoga Springs. The two have a child together. Mercier moved home following the split; he couldn't afford the apartment on his own.

``He's a good man. He's very caring,'' says Mercier's mother, Rosemary, who prefers to remain neutral regarding her son's newfound Spider-Man vocation (``It's a temporary thing, I'm pretty sure'').

He goes down to New York for days on end, working from mid-morning until 8 or 9 p.m., usually. He packs it in each day just as the gleam of Broadway's garish lights overpower the district, muting even the money-making powers of the man behind the mask. From there, he drives to New Jersey to sleep at his aunt's.

Mercier's dreams can be placed on three tiers.

The small ones? Aside from getting his own place, he's saving to buy the really authentic-looking, skintight $600 Spider-Man suit (the $100 suit he wears now is a bit baggy, and his neck shows through at the seam). Then he wants to pay his uncle back the $750 he borrowed to buy the Dodge.

The medium-level dreams? Buying a home somewhere in Saratoga County.

He gets to dreaming big as he approaches the Lincoln Tunnel on the way to work on Wednesday and shoves out the $6 to the toll taker.

``How much money do you think this place takes in on one day?'' he asks the woman in a booth.

``No clue,'' she says. ``I just take it and put it in the drawer.''

``But wouldn't you just love to have just one day's worth of the money?'' he says.

``I don't need it,'' she says.

Clearly he wants to continue his line of questioning, but the cars behind him begin barking.

He pulls away.

Mercier fully expects to strike it big financially -- somehow, some way, someday. He would first take care of his family, including three brothers. Then, himself.


``I'd buy a van, or maybe a truck,'' he says. ``I'd fill it with clothes and give them out to the poor. No, wait -- I'd go to some poor neighborhood and start handing out hundred-dollar bills. How fun would that be?''

The Naked Cowboy -- 100 percent grade A, American-made, cowboy beefcake, and now the star of cola and beer commercials from Texas to Turkey -- says Mercier has a long way to go.

``He's marketing an image and an idea that's not his own,'' Naked Cowboy says, strumming his guitar, standing on the opposite end of the traffic island from Mercier. ``Yeah, you can make a living doing what he's doing, but unless it's something you completely own, you're not collecting on the residuals and putting your kids in college and your kids' kids' kids.

``But when people see a guy like me doing what I'm doing, they're like, `Wow' -- because I'm everything America stands for: trademark protection, individuality, self-determination. I've created an American icon, and people respect that.''

``Now, excuse me. Hiya, honey pie,'' he says, flexing his bicep as a young woman curls in under his arm and drops a buck in his boot.

``He's made a killing,'' Mercier acknowledges, zapping a make-believe web up against a billboard of Lebron James. ``Naked Cowboy has been on everything -- Letterman. It's ridiculous.''

The fulfillment of Mercier's three-tiered dreamscape requires a two-pronged approach: continue with Spiderman through the summer until the movie fuss dies down, then resume his real quest: making Mr. Yankee legitimate.

``That's why I want George Steinbrenner to get back to me,'' he says. ``The fans love me, and they should be able to decide.''

Would Mercier ever consider regular employment again?

``I've had office jobs. I just don't like sitting down for eight hours. I get bored. I can't do it,'' he says, hastening to add, ``unless the money's right.''

He spins and makes his web-zapping gesture in the direction of the driver of the passing Executive Mobile Shredding truck. The driver gives him the thumbs-up and zaps him back.

``See that? People love it,'' says Mercier, waving, spinning, the master of a web of his own making.