Electric EDGE
Web Edition of
The Ragged Edge
July/August 1997

Electric Edge


By Robert Mauro

They'rrrrre baaaack. Or should I say, we're baaaack? "Freaks" in a freak show. And where else is this freak show but right on Coney Island in the heart of the Big Apple! Reminds me of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's slim book of poems, A Coney Island of the Mind ". . . where I first/fell in love/with unreality," to quote that beat poet.

His epic wasn't about freak shows; it was about the mind -- our perception of things real and unreal. A true Coney Island of the mind, where there is -- on the real Coney Island -- a real freak show "[c]onstantly risking absurdity/and death" as Ferlinghetti says. Well, not actual death, but maybe the absurdity of life. And perhaps the death of our image. But . . . let's see.

Let me start right out
by saying that as a crip I hate the word "freak." Yet that's what the nondisabled director/producer/ owner /manager of this show is calling it. He says his freaks are all his friends and they love to work for him. He asks rhetorically: where else would they get jobs, honest work? As I listen, I wonder to myself: Have they tried contacting Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals with Disabilities? VESID paid for my college education and the computer I'm writing this piece on. Perhaps VESID can help the freaks. Then the freaks could get legit jobs like computer programming. Something in the area of Special Ed, perhaps. One of those great crip jobs Voc Rehab used to and often still does channel us into. Then these freaks would not have to be promoted as freaks "in the rings of sawdust circuses," to quote Ferlinghetti.

Personally, I envy these freaks. They're survivors. They're savvy! They're in show biz! In the Big Apple! The big time. Maybe it's not the greatest show on earth. But it is performance art. Sort of, I guess.

Why exactly do these men and women with such visible disabilities want to be promoted as freaks? I don't know. Perhaps it's like Billy Golfus said in his article on "Disconfirmation" in The Disability Rag back in 1989: disabled people are so often ignored -- disconfirmed -- that the freaks just might be trying to be confirmed, recognized, seen. Paid attention to.

So, you ask, have I gone to see the freak show on Coney Island? No. Coney Island is a "bad area." Drugs, homeless people, muggers . . . freaks. Too many burned-out buildings. Too many burned-out people. Too many packs of wild dogs and wilder people. (But the Nathan's hot dogs are great! ) Perhaps I'll wait till the freak show moves to Broadway, where Disney's Hunchback is going to be seen soon.

Maybe the freak show will move to a theater near you or me. We can get one of those CripTiks. Just $7 to any Broadway show, including Beauty and the Beast.

I did see the freaks --
on TV. They were on the local evening news. There was some concern by the reporter and by the community as to whether a freak show was acceptable entertainment in the Big Apple. This made me start thinking. You have a few live nude sex shows and XXX-rated movies and they're asking if a bearded lady and an extremely anorectic guy swallowing swords are acceptable?

The reporter wanted to know what message the freaks were sending to children and to their nondisabled patrons. He hinted tactfully that perhaps the freaks were not putting disability in a positive light.


One freak said he was just like anyone else: He needed the money to live. His freak job paid his rent. One of the freaks said he was no different than any other artist. Or any other New Yorker. He watched the same TV shows (Seinfeld?). He had hobbies. (Sword swallowing?) What was different and difficult for him as a freak, he said, was finding someone to love him. That made him unhappy.

. . . What's . . . . amazing is that by the time credits roll at the end of this two-hour documentary, you'll realize these folks are really quite normal . . . proud, unashamed people who laugh, love, pay taxes, and -- contrary to popular notions -- mostly enjoyed their time on the sideshow circuit. "I had a blast," Percilla Bejano says of her Monkey Girl days.

Sideshow turns the camera lens on a bit of rapidly waning Americana. . . . . inexplicably narrated by Seinfeld's Jason Alexander. . . . Along with rare vintage footage, Sideshow deals extensively with . . . Gibsonton, Florida, a popular retirement spot for former sideshow people. . . .

[C]onsider the sentiments of still-working fat man Harold Huge: "If you're going to be stared at all the time anyway, you might as well get paid for it." . . . .

"Sideshows have been labeled everything from 'cruel' . . . to 'pornography of disability' . . . but the performers rarely forgot who and what they really were. . . . "

From a review by Baltimore City Paper's Brennen Jensen of "Sideshow," which premiered on The Learning Channel last February.

"The fact that people are taking notice of this show and talking about the circumstances of differently-abled people in modern society confirms that I've done what I set out to do. The unique performers participating in the "Freakshow" want to publicly challenge people's perceptions and stereotypes. We are helping them to celebrate their abilities, not their limitations.

. . . . [P]rotesters are simply wrong when they call this show exploitative. The audience has paid for tickets to see people [who] are being paid to appear. . . . These stunt performers have been entertaining for years, and all have thanked me for returning fun and dignity to the concept of the carnival sideshow . . ."

Chicago morning show personality Mancow Muller of WRCX-FM, making a disclaimer in advance for the benefit of those who'd registered opposition to his show of over a dozen "sideshow freaks, human oddities"in a Chicago suburb last summer.

And that's what caught my attention. I knew exactly what he meant.

This freak (maybe all the freaks in the Coney Island freak show) was depressed. There was a lot of depression in the freaks' life. Some, said this freak, had pain. Some needed daily medication. Some had had to have corrective surgery.

And a few had contemplated suicide.

Suddenly I was really identifying with these freaks, who were, in fact, a whole lot like me.

The big difference was I was not charging to let the public gawk at me.

Hmmmm, who was the smart one here?

All my life I had been letting people gawk at me for free! Everywhere I went kids pointed and called me names. Yes, I'd even heard, "Look at the freak!" a time or two. Girls stared. Adults pitied me. And I was letting them do it all for nothing! For years!

Was I making a big mistake? Should I join the Coney Island freak show? I only weigh 80 pounds. I have a hunchback. I have a lot of big scars. I'm fairly emaciated. I even have one arm that's shorter than the other and one leg that's longer than the other! Holy cow! I could make a bundle in the freak show. Why am I wasting my time writing books and plays, maintaining my home page? Why am I killing myself trying to sell my short stories, my poems, my articles? I could earn big bucks in the freak show business "[i]n a surrealistic year of sandwichmen and sunbathers" as Ferlinghetti said! I could be a performance artist in the Big Apple!

So what's holding me back? Stage fright? Poor self-image? Or am I just too scared to run away and join the freak show?

If I joined, would I fit in? What would my disabled friends think? Do I have a social responsibility to my fellow disabled Americans not to be a freak? Let's say I forget all social responsibility and think of me. I join the freak show. I'm the kind of guy who enjoys a good book by Tolstoi or Dostoevsky, a poem by e. e. cummings or T. S. Eliot, a play by Ibsen or Beckett. Would the freaks find me an elitist? Would they want to discuss Shakespeare or rap music? Or just Kramer and the Soup Nazi? Would we find any mutual interests? Or would we end up fighting over who was the more popular freak and endlessly renegotiating our contact with the nondisabled guy who, after all, was running the show?

Ah, there's the problem. Who's running the show? It ain't the freaks. Does the word "exploitation" come to mind? Is this ultimately what this freak show on Coney Island is really all about, "[t]he poet's eye obscenely seeing" (to quote Ferlinghetti again)?

The director/producer/owner/manager says it's all about nostalgia. Freaks are a cultural icon kind of thing, he suggests. Freaks are historic. Americana. P. T. Barnumish. Look at the Elephant Man, Ying and Yang, the Lobster Boy, Tiny Tim. (He forgets Tiny Tim is fictional.) America, he says, has a rich freak history. So does the world.

I wonder: has this nondisabled guy read Leslie A. Fiedler's 1978 book, Freaks? This nondisabled freak show director/producer/ owner/manager probably never read that book. Still, he says it would be criminal to let this freak tradition die. And guess what -- the freaks agree! They like the steady work. They claim they are not on any government handout. No SSI or Medicaid for these freaks. (I wonder if their pre-existing freakishness is covered by their employer's medical insurance plan. Then I wonder if their employer even provides any medical insurance plan. He sounds like a nice guy. Maybe he does. Will the Republicans insist on this? Perhaps the Democrats?)

As the news report goes
on, I start thinking: I'd really like to know what these freaks are being paid. Do they get a steady salary? Or do they just get a percentage of the gate?

I have this fantasy about trying to interview the freaks: When I call information to see if the freak show has a business number, the operator gets mad at me. She insists it's unacceptable to call people "freaks." "Disabled" is the acceptable term, she tells me; personally, she adds, she prefers "physically challenged." Then she hangs up on me.

I end up embarrassed, shaken, and figure I should have just ordered that Brooklyn Yellow Pages, but I hear you have to pay for any of the Yellow Pages that are outside of your own county. And they cost thirty-three bucks. So I give up the thought of interviewing the freaks.

Part of me wanted to get to know these freaks as men and women. I also wanted to get to know these freaks as freaks, as they are proud to call themselves. I respect their pride. I do. They are not shy. They are not embarrassed by their freakishness. They have no hangups about their bodies. They are part of the New York scene. I bet they hang out in Greenwich Village with the other "normal" freaks. I wonder: Are there hippie freaks? Are there Beat freaks in the Village? Do the freaks walk in the footsteps of Ginzberg, Kerouac, and Ferlinghetti? Do the freaks drink coffee in the Village coffee houses and buy abstract paintings from the street artists? Do freaks just want to have fun? To have a great time on a Saturday night?

I bet these freaks are even more sexually active than I am. They don't seem to be the type of men and women to just sit around waiting for love to come knocking at their door. And then I really wonder. As proud as these freaks try to be, as they talk to the reporter, I can hear the same isolation I feel. I recall one freak did say love was hard to find. There was loneliness in his voice. There was want.

And yet the freaks talked with a bravado that belied everything I thought about them. Perhaps none of what I thought about freaks was true. Perhaps everything was. Or maybe it was somewhere in between.

I had it half right. And the freaks had it half right.

One thing I was certain of: I did not like their nondisabled freak show director/producer/ owner /manager. He seemed friendly, even kind. Yet to me he seemed more like their keeper than their employer (or their friend, as he kept claiming).

Perhaps that was what was really bothering me about this whole Coney Island freak show deal. The freaks were not, after all, running the show.

But then what else is new?

Robert Mauro is the author of four books and runs the PeopleNet DisAbility DateNet Home Page


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