Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Human Blockhead

I went back to the fair one more time. I was in college, and I went with my girlfriend. This was not the nocturnal trip of my spotted youth with an entry over the hurricane fence surrounding the back lot, but a mid-afternoon visit on a sunny day in March. We paid and entered with everybody else through the front entrance. Some polish is gained with a good state school education.

I was a walking narrative, I'm sure, as we strolled down the midway. I don't remember (and I probably wasn't cognizant) if she was fascinated or horrified. When we came to the tents that housed the sideshow gang, I stood out front and recited the barker's recorded invitation word for word. Perhaps to shut me up, she agreed to go inside.

I was a zoology major and was losing some of the old superstitions. I no longer believed that horsehair snakes were the result of spontaneous generation when horsehairs fell into the watering trough, even though I could not convince my mother. I still held out hope for the Loch Ness Monster and the Yeti. It is difficult to lose all the religious beliefs that sustain you through your youth.

But this day, inside that tent on that beautiful spring afternoon, my world would turn 'round yet another time. We watched as the "freaks" performed, the sort who have trained themselves or who have exaggerated their own peculiar physical talents, first the twin albino sword swallowers, then the Rubber Man, a contortionist with seemingly no bones in his body.

The next act was the Human Blockhead. In my youth, he had been an old man (I always thought he looked like a grizzled sailor) who would run long pins through his cheeks, wiggle his belly in an exhibition of strange muscular control, and then drive nails into his nose. But this day, it was not the old man but a young boy who I recognized. A BOY WITH WHOM I HAD GONE TO HIGH SCHOOL! I had always known that we were freaks, but here was rock hard evidence. I didn't remember his name. In a school full of marginal people, he was on the outside, someone you saw but never heard, someone who you couldn't recall if he actually graduated. There he was, an obvious rookie, his voice vibrating with a nervous tremolo, his body stiff with fright, a boy become a man to perform as a human freak RIGHT HERE IN HIS OWN HOME TOWN. How could he do it, I wondered? Did he practice in high school? Did he, too, sneak over the fence on dark nights only to come face to face with the Siamese Twins or the woman with no arms? Had he been frightened by midget clowns in his youth? How close, I wondered, had I come to this, to becoming a sideshow performer, a human oddity?

The answer still eludes me, but I do know that the answer is not so clear cut. There is no Manichean divide between those on one side of the stage and those on the other. In another year, I would become fascinated with the photography of Diane Arbus who showed most clearly what freaks we all are.

I don't know. The whole thing still hangs over me.

Here are some photographs that Sasha has sent me to illustrate my stories. He says he is making a series. He is a wonderful young photographer, and he is listed under my links. Aliaksandr Veledzimovich. This is just more of the wonderful ballad of Kate and Sasha.


  1. When I used to work in the carnival I used to hang out with an old side show freak called "Popeye".

    Popeye could made his eyes pop out of their sockets and then back in again to music.

    He used to think his skill was pretty cool, the trouble was, that was about all that Popeye could do.

    He used to pop his eyes out when pretty girls would walk by as a means of showing them he was impressed, but it would scare the crap out of them.

  2. I love such stories. I have a friend who worked in the circus for ten years as an elephant handler. He can go on all night long.

    Any photos of Popeye?

  3. "He can go on all night long"

    Me too (and some) and that's why my wife has told me to start writing my stories down as she's sick of hearing them.

    So far she has three pages of just titles of my various anecdotes.

    I've just finished off a story (with photos and it's on my blog) about when I was in Cambodia during the war.

  4. I went today and read part one. I will read parts two and three tomorrow. It is good to have a wife who remembers what you say. I'm sure it sounds wonderful coming back to her. And, of course, inspiring. Write. Write. What else is there to do?