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My Restaurant Week adventure with the big blue bear

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So here I am, getting chased out of the Pavilions shopping center on the 16th Street Mall because I had the indecency to be hanging around with a guy in a fuzzy blue bear suit.

How did my life come to this? It all started a few months ago when my buddy Tyler Wilcox, online content editor for VISITDENVER.com, the city's promotional organization (which has a thing for WRITING IN ALL CAPS), had to dress up as the Colorado Convention Center's "I See What You Mean" blue bear statue for a stint on Good Morning America. To find out what it was like to embody Denver's favorite blue-hued quadruped, I sat down with Wilcox for a lengthy big blue bear Q&A about mascot envy, learning how to wave at cameras and body odor.

In other words, I sort of made light of the whole thing. For some reason VISITDENVER.com loved it -- so much so that when they needed to spread the word that the annual Denver Restaurant Week extravaganza was extended for a second week (yes, it's going on through this Saturday, people), they arranged a special Restaurant Week-themed promotional excursion for me and the big blue bear. And since Wilcox had the bad fortune of being my friend, they made him strap on the bear suit.

That's why the bear and I are being shooed out of Pavilions by a security guard saying something about how masked people aren't allowed in the shopping center. (Apparently if Wilcox was only wearing the fuzzy blue bear body, everything would be fine). Along with us is Carrina Junge, VISITDENVER.com's PR and communications coordinator, though today her title is "Bear Handler."

As our ragtag band dusts itself off and makes its way down the 16th Street Mall, it's clear Junge is the brains of the operation. Stopping strangers on the street, extolling the great deals of Restaurant Week, handing out food coupons -- she's on fire, promotionally speaking. Wilcox, on the other hand, just stands there, every now and then managing a meager wave or tepid thumbs up. Part of the problem is, it's a little hot to be wearing a full-body fur suit. The other setback is that someone else had worn the suit a few days before -- someone who sweated a lot. Eeeech.

I won't stand for it. I'd come to see wild blue-bear action. Why not jump out from behind mailboxes and scare people, I suggest -- or maybe try riding on top of the free mall shuttle, Teen Wolf style. At the very least, flash a few devil horns, I plead. No can do, explains Wilcox, holding up his paws to show his webbed fingers, useless for anything but thumbs up. So what's your super bear power, I ask. "Promoting Denver Restaurant Week," he replies. "I do it better than anybody -- except for Carrina."

I get the feeling he doesn't want to tarnish VISITDENVER.com and the blue bear's good name. Maybe that's why they don't let me try on the costume: I wouldn't be able to control the fury of my inner blue bear.

Despite his tranquil demeanor, Wilcox's bear can't help but get us into trouble with security guards. One approaches us when we stop to promote Restaurant Week to folks enjoying lunch in a corporate plaza. This guard seems awed by the presence of a six-foot-tall blue animal, watching us warily before radioing HQ for guidance. "I'm down here on the plaza with a bear," he whispers into his walkie-talkie. "They are handing out materials. Can I allow that?"

Turns out he can't, so once again we're back on the pedestrian mall -- where most people act like they see a big blue bear taking a stroll every day. Many don't even break stride, hardly bothering to cast a sideways glance as a mute, smiling creatures waves eagerly at them. Some stomp by with resolute frowns, and it's easy to imagine what's going through their heads: "Must... not... smile... at... blue...bear."

A couple of guys collecting signatures for Greenpeace are fired up, though. "That must suck," says one of them to Wilcox. "I used to be the Greenpeace Polar Bear."

The other seems to believe the big blue bear is on the verge of extinction. "They are coming for you!" he screams as we continue on.

It becomes clear there's not much of a game plan or overarching theme to our excursion. Junge has a great presentation going about Restaurant Week, but often doesn't explain or even acknowledge there's a giant bear standing next to her. Some surely wonder if they should warn her about the wildlife.

Soon the only coupons we have left are for some random tea joint, so we decide to call it a day, but not before VISITDENVER.com presents me with the last piece of my strange press junket: a free meal at the Denver ChopHouse and Brewery. To go along with the bear theme, word from the top is that the bear is supposed to order salmon, but Wilcox, having taken off his bear head, goes for a burger. Maybe he's tiring of the gimmick.

Over food, we discuss what we've learned, like how parents have an innate need to offer up their children for hugs to any stranger wearing an animal suit, and how it's impossible not to grin like an idiot when someone takes a picture of you in a bear suit, even though, with the head on, no one can see you smile.

Then Wilcox admits something: When he was eight, he was nearly attacked by a bear. Something about a trip to Yosemite and his parents leaving beef jerky outside of the tent. I'm blown away -- ashamed that I've helped subject this man to reliving his childhood trauma for some civic promotion and a free lunch. Then again, it's a good free lunch.

With our adventure nearly complete, I have one question left: What does the big blue bear have to do with Restaurant Week?

Beats me, says the man in the bear suit: "I just work here."

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