The assignment: Go cover Mankind at the auto show.

This is Mankind's land. No pretentious book reviewers here. No evil department store clerks who mistake him for a beggar. No normal people.

It's the Hot Wheels 2000, this year's Washington auto show, and the pro wrestler Mankind--ne Mick Foley, a k a Cactus Jack and Dude Love--is reveling in the moment. Upstairs at the Washington Convention Center, folks are lined up for hundreds of yards waiting for him to sign autographs. Downstairs, his big, hairy, one-eared body is plopped in a black chair and he's crowing about his autobiography, "Have a Nice Day! A Tale of Blood and Sweatsocks," which is No. 4 on the bestseller lists now but hit No. 1.

"Sells more copies than those books by our presidential candidates!" he brags. "And I actually wrote it myself!"

Hey, in case you didn't get it when Minnesotans sent his old pal Jesse Ventura to the governor's office, Mankind is here to remind you: People love wrestling. They love wrestlers. And they're buying his book, which he compares to "The Catcher in the Rye" though his life story is "far more fun to read."

"I didn't want this stuff," Mankind says, leafing through the book and cluck-clucking over the publisher's decision to include doodles ("It makes it look a little like a deranged person wrote it," he worries) and chapter headings that have a ransom-note kinda look. "It might scare away some normal people," he laments.

"Normal" people?

"You know," he says, "non-wrestling fans."

Ah, normal people. Well, contrary to his own description, there appears to be a healthy dose of normality in the autograph line at the auto show, where Mankind is the biggest draw in 14 years (way bigger than Redskins running back Stephen Davis, who appeared the day before).

There is the suburban housewife from Greenbelt who is ready to tear up at the news that, yes, Mankind does intend to retire from the World Wrestling Federation next year. There is the father with his two kids, the guy with the baby in the pink bib, the blond woman who goes through the line twice. There is a preteen girl with red hair and freckles clutching a Mankind action figure.

They treat him like a god. They treat him like a hero. Like a cuddle bunny, for Chrissake.

You'd think folks would find him a little scary. He does have a Charles Manson bush of hair, an overgrown goatee, 2 1/2 missing teeth, only one whole ear (the other was torn off during a match, and the plastic surgery was, ahem, far from perfect) and a huge, 297-pound body that has been described--much to Mankind's misery--as "the shape of a bowling pin." He wears a leather mask in the ring, one likened to Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter's. He hurts people for a living. He often spends his workday awash in human blood.

And out of the ring? There he wears shirts with half the sleeves and the tail torn off (he likes them that way) and baggy, linty sweat pants. He agrees, readily, when told he looks like he'd be right at home at a truck stop.

"I'd be right at home anywhere," he says. "People feel like they know me."

He is mankind, after all. Real people are overweight. Homely. And sometimes treated like outcasts in fine department stores.

Mankind is asked whether he ever has been mistaken for a homeless person. Mistake.

"Hey," he says, and maybe he wants it to be a growl but it isn't. "We're going a little heavy on the look here, aren't we?"

His eyes narrow. The point is made. Um, let's talk about the book again. "The Catcher in the Rye" for the non-normal set. Mankind speaks to mankind about the meaning of life. Blood, guts and junior high humor wrapped around a little Horatio Alger tale of a man and his dream and the family he loves.

What could be more normal than that?

CAPTION: Mankind is already a hero to 9-year-old Blake Sisk of Crofton.

CAPTION: Pro wrestler Mankind signs an autograph for Muhammad Abdul-Rahman, 10, and his brothers Ahmad, 6, and, in his mother's arms, Amir, 2.

CAPTION: Ryan Clarke, 8, of Olney, is king of the road in a shiny new Ford pickup.