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Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The Freak Show

I spent a day in a freak show.

The Royal American Carnival was in Memphis,

and I got the feature assignment from my city editor.

After exposes--the weight guesser's prizes

were so cheap he made money even if

he guessed wrong--

I walked into the orange, green and white tent

where the public paid money

to watch freaks.

The smallest married couple on Earth,

two midgets a bit over three feet tall,

were really friendly.

They lived in Wisconsin most of the year,

in a trailer made their size.

They were in love,

two blond burghers from the German-Scandinavian

part of America.

"Do you mind being called freaks?" I asked.

"Oh no," the woman said.

"That's what we are."

They invited me to visit them during the off season.

The man who stuck nails through his nose

looked at me from the height of celebrity.

He wore black tights and a sequined tunic

which was dirty.

"I learned my art from a famous man," he said.

"He used railroad spikes."

Interview over, he paraded off,

barely acknowledging the existence of the other freaks.

"He's a real bastard," the midget man said.

"Nobody likes him."

The woman with the boa constrictor wouldn't even talk to me.

"She hates that snake," he said.  "Everybody knows

she beats it when she's alone."

The world's fattest woman and the tattooed man

asked me where the good restaurants were.

The roustabout, a young man with muscles,

wanted to know what hot bars were open

after 1 a.m.

"I ran away from home to join the carnival," he bragged.

"Normal story around here."

And indeed when I left the freak show

and talked to ride operators or management accountants,

each bragged about not being normal.

"We're a kind of society," the cotton candy woman said.

"Everybody looks down on us,

but we look down on everybody else

because they're not carnie."

The yellow and green neon, the noise from countless speakers,

the screams, the whirl of the Octopus ride

disappeared Saturday midnight to Sunday morning.

I went on with my reporting of hospital committee meetings,

murders, the Mom of the Year, politicians.

I felt there was little difference

between the carnival and the city.

And that within the carnival--

low-class people with greasy hair and crooked teeth--

the lowest level was the freak show.

And that within the freak show

the man who put nails in his nose and the woman with the snake

were higher

than the midget couple and the fat woman.

They were normal and made themselves freaks;

the others were born that way,

and had no choice.


I liked the fair.  I wished I had run away

from the miseries of my family,

as did the boy at the poor end of my street.

His name was Jewel New.

His older brother ran away with the Ringling Brothers circus

where he became a lion tamer.

I don't think life is better in circuses and carnivals,

just more a circle, more us against them.

The police against them, the religious right against them,

the middle class against them, the fashionable against them.

I feel so general I don't know who I am for or against.

I just report.

A man who operated the game

where kids pulled yellow plastic ducks

from a water trough

gave me one of his prizes.

We were discussing romance.

A silence rose between us,

he on the carnival side of the counter and me on the public side.

A few seconds passed when each pictured his ideal woman

in an ideal landscape

lit by a dagger of the full moon.

He reached in his box of prizes

and gave me a toy bull.

The bull was fuzzy and red,

worth about a quarter.

Between his horns he wore a straw hat,

and in his teeth he held

a red plastic rose.

I have the bull still, a quarter century later,

and I have carried it with me through four states

and a year in Japan.

I don't know why.

My education has taught me that he is

cliched and cheap.

But:  me against them;

the carnival versus the academy;

romance versus urban cynicism.

I have been a walking freak who looks normal.

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