In 1992, the Quaker Oats Company sponsored “The Meaning of Life™,” a contest aimed at finding a new face for one of its more ubiquitous breakfast properties. Entrants were encouraged to produce a 30-second video expressing as effusively as possible all of the ways in which the eponymous cereal had most effectively affected their Quality of Life™© - “Quality of Life™©” being a marketing initiative that the company had recently adopted in order to salve the damage done to the brand as a result of the persistent rumors that Mikey, the dyspeptic child star of their most popular ad campaign, had recently died. The most gruesome of these rumors insisted that he had choked to death on none other than a bowl of his beloved Life™ cereal, of which he had for his service been granted a Life™-Time© supply – Life™-Time© being a campaign that Quaker Oats had mounted in the mid-seventies to increase brand saturation by introducing their icons into real-life events and situations. Mikey’s tour of duty had included stops at a host of local granaries and wheat farms; he had helped preside over factory inspections and store openings; he had served a few lunch-counter breakfasts and even, on one very special occasion, had aided the Quaker Oats Man in the raising of a barn wall in Pennsylvania. He had also presided over a then-record number of store openings, at one point encompassing 12 states in ten days - especially relevant considering that he was at the time only thirteen years old, and would not finish the terms of his contract until he had reached driving age.
The whisperings of Mikey’s death had begun to circulate when it was discovered, via leaked information from an inventory clerk at the Midwest distribution center in Indianapolis, that the regular bi-monthly allotment of Life™ Cereal owed to one Michael Simon had been sent back starting with the shipment postmarked August 17, 1990. The next shipment had gone out as scheduled, and was again returned. The Quaker Oats Company sent a pair of operatives to the last known residence of Michael Simon, and they had come back with open shrugs and no hint of a forwarding address. All necessary inquiries made into where the product could now be sent bore no fruit, and so the sales department had to work overtime to try to figure out which markets could potentially bear the brunt of the extra fifty units per month that were on the books through the end of the fiscal year and thus would be on hand provided the ungrateful little shit never turned up.
In the meantime, the company scrambled to control the PR disaster that was ensuing from the fact that the only attention that one of their most stalwart of brands was receiving in the press was an association with death that proved very popular with the new irony-obsessed Gen-X demographic, and which was speedily gaining traction from various online usenet groups. The company was desperate for a way to realign their product with uplift and vivacity rather than the cold morbidity of vulgar rumor.
“The Meaning of Life™©” was the brainchild of Arthur Goodwin, who by 33 had earned a reputation as a marketing wunderkind. He had, in fact, given birth to Wunderkinds, a promotion on behalf of Wonderbread in which randomized slices of bread chemically stamped with one of seven prime numbers had been distributed within limited edition packaging. After finding all of the available numbers, participating children could assemble them and, if able, crack the code that was communicated therein. That campaign had been a vital part of the company’s bid to regain, via their children, the patronage of a generation who had begun to shy away from their product in favor of more health-conscious, grain-heavy brands. It had been enough of a success to spawn a new, permanent Wonder Kids line (the name having been altered slightly by focus groups) and to mark Goodwin’s name as one to pay particular attention to. He was twenty-three years old at the time.
He had become Arthur Goodwin in his final year at the University of Michigan when, as part of a thesis project entitled “Life Imitates Art®,” he had legally appropriated the name of the beloved pharmacist from a series of Crest Toothpaste commercials. Goodwin wanted to make advertising just as much a part of life in a real, physical sense as it was in an emotional, ideological one. He had been largely inspired by Quaker Oats’ “Life™-Time©” initiative, particularly by the work done by Michael Simon. Part of Goodwin’s inspiration for “The Meaning of Life ™©” was a desire, made more intense since Simon’s disappearance, to track down the icon who had had such a vital impact on him as a boy; who had gazed into his eyes out of a television screen in Grand Rapids, Michigan and, by chomping upon spoonfuls of sugared wheat, had chewed through and swallowed any previous notions that Goodwin had harbored of what his life could be. From then on it was a direct path to this moment, sitting at a bank of TV screens in a video editing bay on the fifth floor of the Mendelssohn and Clark building in Manhattan, sifting through tape after tape full of consumer testimonials. This was all a means to Goodwin’s ultimate end, that element of the contest that to most others was an afterthought but which to him took on the sharp, acidic taste of destiny: the eventual winner would be symbolically crowned by none other than Mikey himself. Goodwin had a team of interns working at all hours, hunting down any possible trace that could be made of Michael Simon. They were camped within a maze of desks three floors above him, threaded by phone lines that converged at the white obelisk resting at Goodwin’s left elbow. Occasionally he would glance over to make sure that the red light was not blinking, that he hadn’t somehow missed an important update. Once or twice he had picked up the receiver to check for dial tone, only to quickly hang up and dial *69 to make sure no one had tried to call while he had done so. He was a patient man, but the submission deadline was creeping ever closer and he had found himself beginning to entertain visions of his first-ever professional failure, which would only be compounded by its entanglement within the ultimate dissolution of his life’s goal. Arthur Goodwin was beginning to feel a real, choking anxiety that something was for once not going to go his way. Arthur Goodwin, who had been born Michael Simon on August 29th, 1960, wiped a beaded outbreak of sweat from his brow, picked up the next tape and, even though it was unlabeled (which the rules had clearly stated would result in automatic disqualification and voiding of any entry and postage fees already paid), in his distraction fed it into the VCR and pressed play.
“He likes it! Hey, Mikey!”
- Life Cereal Commercial, 1972
The child who gained national fame as Michael Simon, meanwhile, had been born Arthur Goodwin on August 29th, 1960, in Eaton Rapids, Michigan. His father worked at the Oldsmobile Fisher Body Plant in downtown Lansing and his mother was a waitress for the only Chinese restaurant in the country that had decided that they didn’t need delivery service to bolster their business. He was an only child who, while his parents toiled, received constant companionship from their black-and-white Sony 7-inch and marveled at the thought that there was a hallowed class of people who existed beyond this life. At eleven years old, he saw a commercial in which a kindly old pharmacist had helped out a pock-faced high school junior by informing him that Crest would not only keep his teeth pearly white, but that it would also give him fresh minty breath, so that he need not have any fear of asking Susie Wiedermeyer to Homecoming, nor of getting the utmost out of the experience by dancing as close to her as his courage allowed. For Artie Goodwin, the early onset of puberty, signaled by the flush in his genitals that had flared at the mere thought of pressing his body against that of a girl, ranked second in importance that day to the mortar shell that went off in his head when he saw the name stitched into the pharmacist’s coat: Arthur Goodwin. It was then that little Artie began to consider that maybe the beings within that screen were not unfathomable deities but in reality actual people just like himself. He began to understand that the only way that he could live in a world as meaningful and vibrant as that which he witnessed from atop his mother’s ratty velour couch was to somehow count himself among their number.
His first audition was a cattle call at Montgomery Ward’s Meridian Mall location, which was looking for a Young White Male, 11-13, to be photographed resting his chin atop and from behind various TV sets, washer/dryer combinations, and refrigerators and adorably imploring browsing customers as to why they couldn’t take said appliance home right now. Artie Goodwin passed in front of a panel of auditors, composed of representatives from the corporate office as well as from Mendelssohn and Clark, the marketing firm to which the campaign had been outsourced, who were now tasked with deciding the most polite way possible to tell a twelve-year-old boy that he was simply too ugly to ever be used as an inducement for people to buy their product. They tactfully informed his parents that they would make their decision within the week.
It wasn’t until the cab ride back to Capital City Airport that Rosie Gertz, M&C’s Senior Executive Talent Coordinator (Electronic Stores and Tire Outlets Division), remembered the file that she had found lying on the bedside table of Bob Henderson, her counterpart in the Air Freshener and Cereals Division, which had detailed the need of the Quaker Oats Company for a Young White Male, 10-14, of “distinct physical features,” to play an unpleasant yet voracious child in an ad campaign for a fledgling brand of cereal that was one more quarterly loss away from being discontinued. She called Henderson and told him that she may have found just the boy.
Once he was whisked away from his four-room house on Forrest Road to the Four Seasons Hotel on South Doheny, Artie Goodwin found himself so overwhelmed that it was difficult to figure out just when exactly it was that his life was going to spontaneously become what he had always wanted it to be. The actual production of the commercial had passed very quickly. The premise was simple: two brothers fob a strange new cereal onto a third, convinced that he will hate it, only to have him proceed to eat the entire bowl. He had spent three ten-hour days eating bowl after bowl - it would have been only two days, but no one had told him what the green bucket at his feet was for, and so he had spent most of the second day curled in his mother’s lap with severe stomach pains while a team of professionals checked their watches and swore to themselves on the other side of his trailer door.
Before he had a chance to revel in his new existence within the sanctified and protected realm of the Televised Class, Artie (whose name was legally changed to Michael Simon by his parents when market research deemed Arthur Goodwin “too ethnic”) was carried off to interact with the Real America©. It was an early lesson in the bitter irony of adult life that once Mikey had gained access to the life that Artie had always wanted, he was forced further and further back into the oppressively dull reality from which he had so successfully escaped.
While he was travelling the country, his commercial was playing on regular rotation, first in the 1:00 to 4:00 pm block and then quickly progressing to a prime time slot between 8:00 and 10:00, tucked snugly in between act breaks of All in the Family and Hawaii Five-O (by September of that year, “He likes it!” had surpassed “Book him, Danno” as the most popular TV catch phrase in American popular culture, according to a poll conducted by TV Guide). Little Mikey never saw his ad those first few years (the hotels in which he was booked rarely had cable), yet by the time he returned to Hollywood at age fourteen-and-a-half, when “Dy-no-mite” was threatening dominion around water coolers and on T-Shirts, people were still enraptured by the fussy little malcontent who had so surprisingly chewed his way into their hearts. Michael Simon wanted desperately to cash in on this love, to make his dream manifest by being recognized as the child beaming into living rooms in the middle of the Super Bowl, but over the past two years the ravages of pubescence had taken their toll on his body, and it had been stretched beyond any recognizable proportion. Nobody saw him as Mikey, beloved child icon, but as Michael Simon, physically disproportionate teen, one out of millions. He was once again normal. This realization pushed him into a deep depression that eventually brought about his first suicide attempt at age seventeen, cutting his wrists in the men’s room of a Bob Evans while spending Thanksgiving week with his parents.
The recurring crate of Life™ Cereal, arriving like clockwork every two weeks at whatever door behind which he happened to be living at the time, was a cruel reminder of the bait-and-switch that fate had played upon him and a stern refusal to ever let him forget it. Every now and then he would catch an airing of his ad and despair. He finally lived in eternity among those he had worshipped from his living room floor, but it was in a form that he no longer recognized. Watching himself on TV was like looking at a butterfly pinned to an emery board, something frozen in time but lifeless, stripped of context. He watched himself as he had watched all of the others, and felt the same pressing urge to reach out and make contact. When he first heard of “The Meaning of Life™©,” he saw it first as a chance to reclaim his destiny, yet soon realized that he would either be damning another gullible child to the same cursed existence as himself or, worse yet, would be giving them a chance to succeed where he had failed.
He had not answered the letters.
But then the phone calls had started. Like the cereal, they always knew where to find him, no matter where he went. They always knew where he was. He would never escape.
He knew what he had to do.
“The lie of my existence is all too real, which is why I will never get to live the lie in reality.”
- Excerpt from Video-Recorded Suicide Note of Michael Simon, born Arthur Goodwin, as Transcribed by the Lansing State Journal
Arthur Goodwin, nee Michael Simon, stared slack-jawed at the TV monitor as Michael Simon, nee Arthur Goodwin, took a seat behind a linoleum table in a sparse Midwest hotel room behind a bowl full of Life™ Cereal (box fully displayed – Mikey was ever the professional) and a cup that contained a green liquid that Goodwin could not identify. He could not even hear the words that Mikey was speaking because he was too dumbstruck by what he was watching. All of his searching, all of his effort, and in the end he had come to him. Goodwin was reconsidering his life-long disbelief in God enough to thank him just this once when Mikey picked up the cup of green liquid, poured it over the cereal, and began to eat. The coughs came quick, and Arthur Goodwin furrowed his brow as they began to produce blood. At the first convulsions, Goodwin leapt out of his seat as if to reach into the screen and help Mikey induce vomiting, but he quickly realized how silly he must look doing so and sat back down, watching in horrified disbelief as the internal organic matter within Michael Simon began to break down and erupt from his nose and mouth. Mikey’s gestures became increasingly gruesome and spasmodic, climaxing in a series of seizures that Goodwin was sure were going to tear his body apart before they suddenly stopped, and everything seemed to slowly seep the rest of the way out of him. He steadied himself against the throes of one last spasm before he pitched forward into the bowl and everything that Arthur Goodwin had found unique and special about Michael Simon began to bleed into the milk and solidify like a glucose skin against the edges of the bowl and around the sides of his head before breaking up and swirling about in little eddies of decreasing force, until all was finally still.
The screen went to static. Arthur Goodwin stared at it for a good three minutes, trying to figure out what it all meant, before pushing the button and ejecting the tape. He held it for a long while, as if trying to decide whether he should put it back in, rewind it, and see if what he had just witnessed had indeed been real. His gaze drifted idly past the unlabeled cassette to all of those on the other side of the bay, heaped in a cascading “To Watch” pile that had spilled over the edge of his “Incoming” crate. He numbly and without moving his body shifted his eyes back to the monitor in front of him, staring at it for a moment, and then turned back to the tape and watched the reflection of static dance across the slick surface of the bare white label.