This just in: The freak show, long banished from polite state fair midways, seems to be making a comeback.
OK, I can’t say for sure. Every lifestyles editor knows you need three to make a trend, and I’ve only been to one state fair this year. So make of that what you will. The freak show was a busy part of the Ohio State Fair midway in my youth; I attended once. There was a man there with hanging tumors all over his body, and I forget his Nom de Freak — Snake Man, whatever — who took the microphone and gave a canned, insincere-souding statment about the horror of his condition, which had a polysyllabic name I cannot recall. The shock of seeing his skin was momentary, though. What freaked me out was this: He smoked a cigarette. My dad smoked cigarettes. It was a more unifying gesture than any phony speech could arouse.
Not long after that — I guess this would have been around 1970 or so — the freak show sort of slipped away. There was a growing sense that it was wrong to put human beings on display like zoo animals, and mainstreaming meant there were more job opportunities than those available in carny culture. (I once patronized a credit union with a real bearded lady teller. She shaved, though.) And the subtext of the shows — that these conditions were curses thrown down by God — dissipated as more people trooped onto talk shows to “raise awareness” of this or that once-unspeakable condition, from cancer to sexual dysfunction. The idea of hiding in a tent and charging admission to look upon one’s hermaphroditic sexual organ seemed impossibly …quaint. Why go for small change when you can get a book contract? Anyway, I saw “Freaks” and at some point it boils down to this: We all gotta make a living.
So I don’t know what’s behind this attraction at the Michigan State Fair. Reality television? Carnivale? Who knows? I always overthink these things. (Actually, when you think about it, the freaks market should be at rock-bottom. What possible appetite for freakishness, in any area of life, can’t be satisfied by the internet or Discovery Channel? Or real life? As my colleague Mike Harden once said (paraphrased): “In my day, we had to pay extra to see the fat lady and the tattooed man. Today they walk freely among us on the midway.” But there she was, Little Linda, with a tape-loop barker reel and a fairly low admission price. Kate and her friend wanted to go in. I briefed them the way any 21st-century parent would: “She’s a person just like you, so don’t stand there and stare. Say hello. She’s just small.”
So they paid their money, walked behind the barrier and exchanged hellos with a Haitian woman with dwarfism.
Of course they were disappointed. Can you guess why? They expected to see someone small enough to sit in your hand, like the painting on front of the attraction. (The painting of Little Linda also features a rather impressive rack, which I’d wager was also no match for reality, although I didn’t ask.) “But the sign says she’s 29 inches tall,” I pointed out. Kids never read the fine print.
I hope Little Linda found the trip to Michigan worthwhile. It’s hard out here for a dwarf, and everybody else in this state, these days.
Now this guy…
…this guy wasn’t a freak at all, just a guy on stilts in a tree costume. The girls wouldn’t go near him, and I can see why. I don’t know what he was about, sorry. Maybe something about the emerald ash borer.
UPDATE: Treeman, identified.
Fairs are all about wholesome family entertainment, so of course they clamored for tickets to walk through a gaping head wound into the Fallen Giant, a giant inflatable dead guy. It was hard to get a read on it from the ground. The website is more instructive — by day a “lightly educational” walk through a giant inflatable dead guy, by night a “scare event” in which pygmies chase you out the exit, in the giant’s armpit. The girls pronounced it cool. I just found it unnerving:
And there were rides and junk food and animals and the milk-a-cow exhibit and the bottomless-glass-of-chocolate-milk booth. We saw the Miracle of Life tent, which will make a vegetarian of anyone. And the pig races were a special treat, if only for a glance at the grandstand, which included an orthodox Jewish couple (don’t eat the pig) sitting next to a Chinese family (eat every part of the pig), as well as a Sikh in a turban (don’t eat the pig or any of his barnyard friends) and a Kentucky-sounding family hootin’ and hollerin’ to “Cotton-Eye Joe” and all the Arkansas hog-calling jokes (eat the pig? Hail yeah!). This is my America.
Finally, inspired by Detroitblog’s recent series of posts on the State Fair neighborhood, I took a little driving tour of the area as we headed home. He did not lie. The whole area is going back to prairie, with some of the most astonishing decay you can see in the city. In a single block, we saw three burned houses, still standing, the worst sort of hazard a neighborhood can have, but apparently not high on the city’s list of demolition priorities. This was the best of the bunch:
“Wow,” said Kate’s friend. “This is a bad neighborhood.”
It certainly was, although probably not an unsafe one for a drive-through. Still, I had two little girls with me, one not even my own. We headed home to suburbia, having met the country and the city, just a few miles away.