The A-Team Of Collectors

For Greg Rivera and Mike Essl, Mr. T helped make up for less than idyllic childhoods. Part of their collection of all things T is on view in New York.
For Greg Rivera and Mike Essl, Mr. T helped make up for less than idyllic childhoods. Part of their collection of all things T is on view in New York. (By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 7, 2005

The first thing that Greg Rivera and Mike Essl want you to know about their massive collection of Mr. T memorabilia -- a trove that includes lunch boxes, ceramic piggy banks, Thermoses, plush toys, greeting cards, pencil sharpeners, toothbrushes, Mr. T crayons, gumball machines, comic books, wallets, badges, action figures, drinking glasses, a Mr. T Chia pet, four boxes of Mr. T cereal, about 600 handmade Mr. T dolls and more than 5,000 other Mr. T items -- is that it is not a joke.

It might look like a joke, particularly when viewed at Essl's one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, where you'll find dozens of cardboard boxes crammed with Mr. T stuff in a storage room, as well as a mini shrine above his dining table and Mr. T artwork and posters on the walls.

And when you meet Rivera and Essl you might assume that they are the sort of guys who might acquire all of this ironically. They are 26 and 31, respectively, which means they were reared in the age of irony, and they look suspiciously like scenesters. On this particular evening Rivera is wearing a Dolce & Gabbana trucker hat, the bill pulled slightly to the left. Essl has brightly colored tattoos up and down each arm, plus studs in both ears and a shaved head. He looks like a bouncer at a club where they offer bands you've never heard of at volumes you won't enjoy. ("There's a whole section of society that is scared of you because of tattoos," says Essl, chuckling. "I think I enjoy that.")

They understand the perplexed looks they get whenever anyone grasps the full extent of their Mr. T commitment. But as Essl puts it, "I don't come at this from a place of irony." Then he tells a story about something that happened a few years ago.

"When I met Mr. T, I cried. It was at an autograph signing, with Mary Lou Retton, of all people, and I got my arm signed and my photograph taken with him. Then I just went outside and I cried."

Even as he recalls the moment, Essl verges on welling up.

"I wanted him to sign my arm because I wanted to tattoo his signature on my biceps. He was totally friendly -- he called me 'big buddy' -- but he had this guy who was there to make sure people moved along and before I knew it, the whole thing was over. So instead I got this."

Essl rolls up a sleeve. On his arm is a huge, brightly colored tattoo of Mr. T.

"I got mine first," says Rivera, smiling. He rolls up one pant leg. Mr. T is glowering on Rivera's shin.

This is what it's like to kneel at the altar of Mr. T: They have collected him, catalogued him, warehoused him, fetishized him. And still, in popular lore, the rest of us tend to consider Mr. T to be a sideshow. He is legendary yet absurd, both cursed and blessed with an instant recognizability that spans decades. He is a 53-year-old walking talking cartoon character sporting a mohawk and several pounds of bling around his neck, always ready to spout his signature declaration: "I pity the fool!"

In his world, fool was pronounced "foo," and Mr. T pitied plenty of them -- Rocky Balboa, or the thugs who'd dare cross him on the 1980s TV action series "The A-Team," or the characters in his Saturday morning cartoon show who lacked his moral clarity. With impish Gary Coleman and regal Nancy Reagan by his side, Mr. T pitied the fool who would not "just say no" to drugs. But his shtick faded, until finally Mr. T was himself pitied as a piece of celebrity flotsam.

Except for all those little boys in the world who adored him, long past childhood, and who perhaps needed him in ways not previously articulated.

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