Mickey Mouse in Manhattan



Neighborhood: Manhattan

Around two years ago, I’m walking down Broadway and once again I encounter Mickey Mouse. (Not the actual Mickey—he’s either passed on to the rodent afterlife or is living in a fancy retirement resort on a golf course in Nevada). This version of Mickey I’m talking about (which disappeared during Covid) was a very large metal and plastic mouse serving as a mini-carousel ride for little kids.

I liked watching the kids ride but, even when there were no riders, I was morbidly fascinated by this bizarre rodent manifestation. It seemed to have come from outer space or another dimension.

The children whose parents dropped a quarter in the slot were too little and too modern to have any history with Mickey, so they couldn’t have registered any particular cultural reaction to him. The excitement they felt had nothing to do with the fact that it was the famous Mickey Mouse they were riding; it could have been an ostrich or a kangaroo. For the kids, it was just the fact of climbing up onto a giant (to them) fairy-tale creature and being bounced around for a couple of minutes, while some nursery-rhyme tune played, that supplied the thrills. It was the very same charge a kid (the kid in all of us) gets from riding a horse in a carousel.

My experience with little kids (including, once-upon-a-time, my own) is that they instinctively recoil from anything that is just plain wrong—like this nutty-looking, steroidal mouse. But with this carousel Mickey, the kids I saw had no negative reaction; they held on to his ears and giggled with pleasure.

What’s the reason this manic Mickey stimulated a profound sense of unease in me—and maybe other adults? Well, he was about a thousand times bigger than a real mouse and was dressed like an escaped circus clown or a 1950’s TV used-car pitchman. It was a definite neurotransmitter jolt to be walking down Broadway and experience what seemed like a full-blown hallucination. I mean it is enough to see the occasional live rat scurrying along the curb, but a rodent this size and color? It no doubt reawakened some long-suppressed memory of a bad trip from the 60s.

Another strange thing about this version of Mickey is that the nursery-rhyme song that accompanied the ride—it was Old MacDonald—was being sung by heavily accented Korean or Chinese children (or possibly adults who had inhaled laughing gas). This elicited another spasm of cognitive dissonance in me. Old Macdonald had a farm? Purely for purposes of entertainment and pleasing little kids, it doesn’t really matter, of course, but I wondered if the people who recorded this song in a studio in Seoul or Beijing had any idea who Old MacDonald was?

When I was a kid growing up in Queens, singing Old MacDonald, I had no idea who he was, or, for that matter, what a farm was. They, the kids/adults who recorded this song, could just as easily be singing Old MacDonald had a sneaker factory or Old MacDonald had a hedge fund… More than just the meaning of words gets lost in translation—whole ocean-liners of cultural significance sink beneath the waves.

On the other hand, so what if there was a pronounced cultural gap? There was something about this representation of Mickey that joined disparate cultures and transcended language. 

Obviously, this giant, multicolored mouse was a direct descendant of cave paintings, ancient clay statues, and wooden totems; he was a materialized symbol of a demi-god. All cultures have their particular “pagan” spirit representatives. Native Americans had Raven and Coyote; Mesopotamians had their half-man, half-fish and half-lion gods; Hindus had their elephant god; and the Egyptians and Greeks had their sphinxes. Likewise, the Chinese and Koreans have rich, ancient traditions of imps, demons, spirit gods and goddesses masquerading in animal form—and, following in this ancient lineage of anthropomorphic deities, we Americans have Porky Pig and Mickey Mouse.

Just because I always found Mickey Mouse revolting and scary doesn’t mean that he hasn’t got some enduring universal appeal to children; something innocent that tickles them. But whatever that tickle is, I never experienced it. I never could stand Mickey Mouse. I didn’t find him funny or uplifting when I was kid and I had no change of heart as I grew older. To me there was something, particularly in this carnival ride incarnation on Broadway, that was, at the very least hysterical about him, if not actually psychotic. He gave me the creepy feeling that there was a killer dwarf trapped inside him.

Also, and this could easily be left over from my old-fashioned 1950s upbringing, when Mickey spoke in that squeaky, high-pitched voice of his, he seemed unmanly to me. I know, I know, he’s only a cartoon mouse—and maybe I have been influenced by the old saying: “Are you a man or a mouse?” But still, here was an obvious mouse, yet he was dressed—at least partially—as a man; and, he had a girlfriend, Minnie (or was she his lawful wedded wife?). Maybe Mickey was just trapped in a mouse’s body. These days he might insist on being addressed as “they” or “them.”

Obviously I don’t like this rodent. But there’s more to it. As an urban ethnic type, brought up by verbal, ironic Jews from the inner city and having Italian friends, with their hip and slangy canniness, I just didn’t get Mickey. Daffy Duck I could dig, and Bugs Bunny too. They were fast-talking wise-guys, perverse and loony in a way that seemed familiar to me. But for me, Mickey Mouse was a boring straight arrow without any apparent sense of humor. He was just the kind of teacher-pleasing nerd that got his ass kicked in the playground. And another thing, I didn’t like him cozying up to Annette Funicello on The Mickey Mouse Club show. When I was watching the Mouse Club back in the 50s, I wasn’t sure what I was feeling for Annette, but I knew that I didn’t like this little rat having anything to do with her.

But, in the end, so what if Mickey Mouse repelled me, especially in his Broadway ride incarnation? Little kids didn’t know or care about all the things that bothered me. They loved the rocking-horse ride and the sing-songy music. It didn’t make any difference to them if they were bouncing up and down on Mickey Mouse or Attila the Hun. And right there you have the purity and innocence of childhood as opposed to the muddy doubts and complexities (not to mention neuroses) of a grown-up. Long after I’m gone, Old MacDonald will have his farm and Mickey Mouse will be making little kids giggle. So, even if we don’t want to, let’s sing a song and all join the jamboree, M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E!


Mike Feder is a (now retired) long-time radio host/personality with WBAI-FM in New York City and Sirius XM radio. He has been a New York City welfare worker, a New York City and New York State probation officer, the owner of a used and old bookstore, a paralegal, a book abridger, and a performer/writer of autobiographical stories. (Books: New York Son, The Talking Cure, A Life on Air and, A Long Swim Upstream).He is married, has two grown children and lives (almost calmly) on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

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§ 8 Responses to “Mickey Mouse in Manhattan”

  • Donna says:

    Your story brought back a memory from my childhood in the 50s. In front of Eli’s, which was a neighborhood five and dime in Queens, there was a mechanical horse. I adored this horse and could never get enough of having rides. So much so, that the proprietor of the store would take pity on my parents or whomever was accompanying me, and come out of the store bearing a key. He would turn the key in a secret slot and I would get free rides! Someone, not me, dubbed the horse with the name Elmer.

  • Harvey Reiver says:

    There is also the repellent about racist minstrel/blackface aspects, and the fact that Walt Disney had unsavory racist, sexist, and anti-union sentiments…

  • Rick says:

    Dear Michael,

    A beautifully crafted vignette that reflects upon the regrets and frustrations that haunt your past. How apropos that you released this story on mother’s day. Thank you for another slice which is reminiscent of your Thursday and later Sunday mornings with “Hard Work” and those irresistible chats with the poet “Cash”. Good to see you are back on track. Perhaps a visit to Kurt Elling’s “It is just a thing”…

  • Dormine Aronson says:

    Great essay, Mike. Yeah, I never “got” Mickey Mouse either, but at least he didn’t scare me. What I did find very creepy were the bizarre, evil-looking characters in the Dick Tracey comic strips.

  • Jeanne Feder says:

    ***** Rating. Yes, know him well but especially love this story and do remember relating to Mickey in our childhood. Thanks for posting!!

  • ‘Tourmaline’ (which I have printed out when poetry fancy’s me)

    ‘anthropomorphic deities’ – Yes … That’s IT exactly

    ‘These days he might insist on being addressed as “they” or “them.”’ … Too sad but true..

    ‘Annette Funicello’.. love at first site .. she helped me on my way ……

    The ‘Story Teller’ you are ….

  • Jamie Ratzken says:

    Dear Mike,

    To ease your anxiety about Mickey, Walt Disney was his voice, so when you hear Mickey you know it has a real voice, like Howdy Doody was Buffalo Bob’s voice. Therefore, Mickey represents the child coming out of Walt’s mind with adult supervision. If you watched the Howdy Doody Show when you were young there was always a morale message given, to be kind and good. Perhaps, if Putin had watched Disney shows and Howdy Doody, he would not be destroying the land, buildings, people of a country he wants to take over. Mickey Mouse or Howdy Doody would never do that. Also, think of Mickey Rooney, when you see Mickey and all the great movies Rooney was in; Walt either was inspired by him or vice a versa to use that name. Also, the country mouse and the city mouse is a great story. You probable identify with the city mouse. Remember a mouse is a lot cuter than a Rat.
    And Jimmy Cagney never said, “You Dirty Mouse” I may be related to congressman Jamie Raskin Also, when you think of Mickey remember Mickey Mantle who I am sure you have seen hitting a few home runs at the stadium. And the mice would come out night and eat the traces of popcorn to keep the stadium floors clean for the next game. So my advice to you is to associate Mickey Mouse with positive Aesop’s Fables stories, “The Lion and the Mouse” and old fashioned nursery rhymes, where the mouse ran up the clock. Take care, Jamie

  • Pam Foltz says:

    If it’s any consolation, I never got the Mickey Mouse lovefest although I too loved Bugs–not so much Daffy.

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