Whistle while you irk

Here he comes. Yes, he is coming. I don’t see him. I hear him. From afar. He’s whistling, oh-so carefree, head swaying, body grooving. And he’s doing it loudly and without a whit of shame or self-consciousness. Notes swirling from his pursed lips for all to hear. You just want to smack him.

This middle-aged guy, this oblivious songbird, comes to the cafe almost every time I’m there, which is a lot. He sports sunglasses, a down vest, chinos. And he strolls around whistling, sometimes to a song of his choosing, often to whatever is playing on the cafe stereo. Tweetle-lee-dee …


Why am I so vexed by a man who whistles merrily about a coffee shop? Whistling, it’s said, is a symptom of happiness. One site muses: “Are whistlers so insanely happy that they have some overly elevated level of joy? So much so that it bubbles up and spills out in the form of air molecules passing over the tongue and through their lips?”

If so, am I just madly envious of this fellow’s happy mien? His ability for unfettered glee to pour out and tweetle in everyone’s eardrums unbidden? He’s not a bad whistler. He’s actually fairly adroit, a mini jazz-flute maestro vamping on his facial wind instrument.

No, I am not envious. I have no idea if he’s inflated with uncontainable ecstasy, though he appears pretty content and confident with his hands-in-pocket swagger. It’s that his music is like a yappy-dog bark, or the proverbial nails on a chalkboard. I roll my eyes whenever he passes. I think he knows this and turns up the volume. Toot-teetly-do-da …

Yet I give him license. Whistling Willie, I’m convinced, is simply indulging a bad habit. His tuneful penchant is pure reflex, like the drummer who instinctually taps the table with his fingers. We all have tics, mannerisms and foibles, even if they’re not as piercing and public as full-throated whistling. The dude’s just doing his thing.


The lip-doodling is pretty damn distracting (otherwise I wouldn’t be grousing) when I’m trying to read and write. “If you’re an anti-whistler type, short of duct tape, how can you keep your focus when Tweety Bird starts up?” asks the above web site, Screenflex (a portable room divider company!).

There are no answers. There is only discipline. Tune out the tunesmith. But it’s not just the “music” that kills me. It’s the brazen indifference to his fellow folks, inflicting, without a flinch, his own song list on strangers, like the lunk who hoists a blaring boom-box strutting down the street for all to hear, no matter individual taste and basic social decorum. It’s the principle.


My whistler, my personal Bobby McFerrin, who’s probably a swell human being, despite the cloud of patchouli cologne he resides in, just needs a touch of self-awareness to wake him up — perhaps an actual whistleblower to call him out, bawl him out, and slip a cork into that irksome “O” on his face.


Being gutsy with the ultimate donation

Clearing out emails yesterday, I came across one labeled “Donor registration.” It could have contained all manner of information — my monthly donations to the Humane Society and SPCA, clothing donations to the V.A., etc. — but, no, it was something nakedly startling.

The email, dated mid-2016, regarded my registration to donate my organs when I die. It rushed back to me, and once a morbid residue burned off, I was again at peace with my decision to be chopped up and disemboweled when the big day comes.

Fact: one organ donor can save up to eight lives. That’s a pretty good payoff. I can live —or die  — with that.


I’ve always ticked the donor box on my driver’s license, yet it’s remained an abstract, faraway concept, like: This really doesn’t concern me in the here and now, so why the hell not?

So I signed up for an official donor program called Donate Life America. I have no idea how I chose them. I didn’t interrogate their credentials, and there are many other donor companies. I could be making a terrible mistake. Maybe they’ll drop my eyeballs on the floor, kick them around as they scramble to fetch the errant orbs.


DLA describes itself like this: It’s a 501(c)3 nonprofit “to increase the number of donated organs, eyes and tissue available to save and heal lives through transplantation while developing a culture where donation is embraced as a fundamental human responsibility.”

The group’s website also features the page “The Deceased Donation Process,” featuring tantalizing (terrifying?) links to “Brain Death Testing,” “The Organ Procurement Organization” and “Recovering and Transporting Organs.” (For gooey, grisly FAQs, go here.)

As I’ve said before, when I expire I plan to be torched into fine powder, suitable for an enormous ashtray. Frankly, being harvested for body parts — skin, eyes, heart, liver, kidneys, bones, arteries — makes me momentarily queasy, even a mite scared. But buck up we must. (Still, I am certain I don’t want to be poked and prodded, chopped and chiseled as a cadaver in a medical school. Family, please note.)


My eyes, brown and clear, are strong, though they require reading specs, a big caveat to donor recipients, I imagine. My ticker is in fine fettle, thumping to the mid-tempo pulse of the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” when at rest and Metallica’s “Whiplash” when worked up, and there’s minimal plaque or bad cholesterol gumming up the works. Plus, it’s a big heart: it loves to love and has capacious room for dogs.

Although I’m afraid my liver is probably as useful as a burned charcoal briquette, my kidneys, I think, are performing their business fluidly. I have decent, soft skin, and my bone marrow, healthy, hale, is possibly edible. The subject of my intestines will be mercifully avoided.

Using the one-body-can-save-eight-lives calculus, I reckon I could perhaps save five or six lives. Better than zero. Better than one or two. It’s ghoulish, but golden. This is important work, and really, it’s no work at all.

Want a reminder that you’re going to die? There’s an app for that

I don’t get people who don’t consider their mortality — the actual, undeniable fact that one day they are going to die, forever (because you are, reader, you are) — at least once or twice a day.

Surely that’s because I think about my death specifically and death as a brute phenomenon generally many times a day. This has been going on for years. Like since I was seven. I maintain a shelf of books about death, from “The Denial of Death” to “How We Die.” (My id is a vivid, hyperactive place. My therapy bills, exorbitant.)

Who needs a reminder of death? I wonder. It’s right there in the face that looks back at you in the mirror.

Who wants a reminder of death? my friends retort.

Apparently a lot of people, mostly millennials, do. They want a brief if pointed reminder that they are indeed going to buy it sometime. And they want it exactly five times a day, randomly. On their phone.

10We-CROAK1-blog427That’s what the new app WeCroak offers: quick, jarring jabs calling attention to users that, yup, death is waiting around the corner. With homilies like this from Herman Melville — “Death is only a launching into the region of the strange Untried” — the 99-cent app exists expressly to galvanize consciousness, a little existential poke to nudge you into the now. And maybe to scare the holy hell out of you.

“Each day, we’ll send you five invitations to stop and think about death,” says the WeCroak site. “It’s based on a Bhutanese folk saying that to be a happy person one must contemplate death five times daily. The invitations come at random times and at any moment, just like death.”

By turns soothing and somber, quotes are culled from the likes of Emily Dickinson, Thoreau, Charles Bukowksi, Lao Tzu and Margaret Atwood.

“The grave has no sunny corners,” goes one. (For pessimists.)

“Begin again the story of your life,” says another. (For optimists.)


(That one, for fatalists, I think.)

We think we have control over our lives by doing the right things — exercising, eating healthfully, thinking positive, traveling, communing with art and nature, procreating.

It’s rubbish.

WeCroak’s passages are meant to put you in touch with an untapped aspect of your spirituality, to jolt you out of complacency and into perhaps uncomfortable soulfulness. In fact, hokey as it sounds, I’d say the messages are nutrient-rich food for the soul.

The benighted disagree. People have actually called the app “sick” and “disgusting.” These people are babies. They are in craven denial. No matter — they’re still going to die.

“Death never takes a wise man by surprise; he is always ready to go.” — Fontaine

I don’t know if WeCroak offers that jewel, but it should.



Museums of mortality — spooky, sublime

Last year I paid visits to those twin emporiums of ick and awe, the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia and the smaller but almost equally macabre Kunstkamera Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Festooned with bullet-riddled skulls, deformed fetuses crammed into jars, gnarled, twisted skeletons, diseased human organs, rusty surgical tools and random gangrened digits, these palaces of the perverse satisfied the ghoulishly curious. They were extravagantly ack-inducing, deliciously quiver-making. Paradise.


He’s checking his texts.

As noted earlier, I’m deliberating my next journey, and, because I went large last year, I’m thinking small this year. Which means I might go to Chicago, a 2.5-hour flight away. And which means, more importantly, the International Museum of Surgical Science, a less squishy warehouse of medical wonders than the two above, but still a marvelous assemblage of stuff that spurs contemplation about our mortal flesh and all that can go wrong with it via disease, accident and sheer shitty luck.

Highlights include a vintage iron lung machine (can I climb inside?), an exhibit about pain and anesthesia through the ages and one about the history of wound healing (“From the use of herbal ointments and therapeutic clays among prehistoric hunter-gatherers to Galen’s treatment of injured gladiators in Ancient Rome, the care of wounds is among the earliest applications of medicine”), and the museum structure itself, an elegant, historic lakeside mansion. And who could pass up the exhibit “A History of Blood Transfusion: 350 Years of Apparatus Advancement”?

Caesarean section.jpg

Mural of early Caesarean section. Gleefully gruesome.

Reviewers note that the four-story manse is compact and, naturally, its array of freakish displays is no match for Philly’s world-class Mutter. Small is all right; I enjoy a good bite-size museum, especially one of such narrow scope. Sort of like the Russian Vodka Museum or Tokyo’s Meguro Parasitological Museum.


Iron lung machine. May I?

For more grim exhilarations, I pivoted my research to Chicago cemeteries — I’m always up for a calming stroll through deathly opulence — but decided to skip the offerings. Several notable cemeteries pock the area, boasting the resting holes of everyone from Al Capone to Jesse Owens, Emmett Till to John Belushi, Gene Siskel to John Hughes. I sought out film critic Roger Ebert’s grave, but he was cremated and his ashes are kept by a private party, most likely his lovely widow Chaz.

We should all be so lucky. Cremation is the way to go, although I don’t want my cremains kept by anyone but the wind and the water -— whoosh. Thoughts like these will surely visit me at the Surgical Science Museum, a place rife with death and decrepitude. But they won’t get me down. They’re wondrous in their way and, far from depressing, something of a mind-reeling, soul-stirring tonic for the living.


Bury me in the ball

What to do with your body after you die?

For me, it’s easy. I’ve instructed loved ones to cremate me, then put my ashes in a pickle jar, drive down the interstate doing 70 and dump the powder out the window — although the car behind, wiper blades slashing furiously, likely won’t be overjoyed by the Mount St. Helens-esque storm.

It’s simple, it’s cheeky, and it’s entirely illegal. For someone bent on cremation — I’m not getting leeched of my precious fluids, then pumped with toxic chemicals and put out to rot in an obscenely overpriced box for eternity — there must be another way. And of course there is.

I think about this stuff with unseemly frequency. For as long as I can remember, the specter of death has had its talons lanced into my gelatinous psyche. I read about it, I watch movies about it, I dream about it, I visit cemeteries all over the world to get close to it.

I mull mortality, yours and mine, every single day. I’m a realist, but it’s a quivering kind of reality. As mortician-author Caitlin Doughty writes, since childhood “sheer terror and morbid curiosity have been fighting for supremacy in my mind.” It’s a bifurcated fascination, marbled and complex.


Cremation is flat-out horrifying, but for me it’s the only option, none of which are especially appetizing. But then what? Ashes and bone kibble stored in a handsome urn and set on the mantel like an ornate candy jar? Cremains scattered over the San Francisco Bay or some other picturesque point of personal poignancy?

No, I got it. Bury me in a ball.

What’s that? It’s this: the wonderful underwater reef ball, an eco-friendly, reef-building sphere of cement in which your ashes are placed and then sunk to the bottom of the sea. First you’re cremated. Then your ashes are stirred with concrete and shaped into a hollow, hole-pocked reef ball, which can be up to six feet wide and five feet tall. Resting on the seafloor, its goal is to provide a teeming marine habitat for fish, coral and more.

image.jpgSeveral companies do reef burials, but Eternal Reefs of Florida specializes in more personal balls. Three sizes of reef balls run from about — hang on — $4,000 to $7,500, according to AtlasObscura.com, which goes on:

“The larger reef balls can accommodate multiple sets of remains, so that families can be ‘buried’ together, turning the ball into a sort of underwater mausoleum. Surviving friends and family can leave handprints, markings, and messages in the wet cement.”


The reefs are fashioned from “environmentally-safe cast concrete” and are “placed in the permitted ocean location selected by the individual, friend or family member,” says the Eternal Reefs site.

I grew up on the Pacific Coast, from Santa Barbara to the SF Bay Area, and I’ve always loved SeaWorld and I’m a big fan of grilled octopus. The reef ball sounds like a ball, smack in my bailiwick for the eternal snooze. I’m intrigued by its eco possibilities, that it can nurture fishies and coral and plants and sea anemones and, if lucky, some impish sea otters. In the picture above, it’s not the prettiest grave on the lot, cankered and barnacled with squiggly mysteries of the sea, despite the dazzling Van Gogh hues. (Kind of looks like a six-month-old jack-o’-lantern.)

We should figure this out before it’s too late, while we’re still here, cognizant and, well, alive. We plan for vacations with great care and great expense. This is the most epic journey of all, the final destination, one-way ticket in hand. Not sure about you, but I want to go out with a splash.

Happy Halloween.

Those jarred babies — not quite jarring enough

As promised I made it to the Kunstkamera Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, last week. Also known as the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography — the oldest museum in Russian, opened in 1727 — it’s also known to connoisseurs of the grisly and gross as the Great Hall of Deformed Human Fetuses in Jars (not really). It’s a delight.


And yet there aren’t as many specimens as I was hoping for, nor was there much in the way of the truly macabre. A few tweaked human skeletons — that fella’s really gigantic — a two-headed stuffed fox and some rusty surgical tools complemented the array of squishy, floating babies. Those twisted wee ones delivered the goods, a frisson of the freakish that some of us crave.

I was expecting more in the way of anatomical and medical exhibits, but the museum is largely dopey ethnographical artifacts — Native American beads and pottery, African huts, Eskimo furs, in tiny dioramas — you can see at your local natural history museum, but newer and brighter. There’s just one small floor of jarred bambinos and gnarled bones. It’s up top. Follow the arrows, greedily.


It’s pretty good — three stars — but not quite enough to nourish its reputation as a world-class repository of the ghastly. I went for the morbid, not the ethnography, and found myself in and out in 30 minutes or less.

Philadelphia has Kunstkamera beat. Its famed if smaller Mütter Museum is a richer, more concentrated, more intense experience: jarred fetuses; innumerable human skulls both ghoulish and elegiac; various startling skeletons of the diseased, deformed and degraded; cankered floating body parts; chilling surgical devices; and the topper, Chang and Eng’s death cast and conjoined livers.


Giant’s skeleton at Kunstkamera Museum

I don’t want to knock its Russian counterpart, but the Mütter, as specifically a physician’s institution, is more complete and well-rounded, satisfying the more ambitious demands of creep-seekers. Kunstkamera is very much worth a visit — do go — but know its limitations. While it offers a world of wonder, the Mütter offers galaxies.


A gallery of the ghoulish in Russia

If jarred fetuses bother you, if pickled body parts give you the heebie-jeebies, look away, click away. You have two seconds …

Let’s proceed.


For my tiresomely upcoming trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, I’ve found the East’s beautiful cousin to America’s incomparable cathedral of the grisly, the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. It’s the Kunstkamera Museum, aka the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography. I have to quote the web to get it right and concise (apologies):

“The Kunstkamera is the first museum in Russia. Established by Peter the Great and completed in 1727, it hosts a collection of almost 2,000,000 items. Peter’s museum was a cabinet of curiosities dedicated to preserving ‘natural and human curiosities and rarities.’ “

OK. We got it. (Wait. Two million items? Yes!)

Now let’s get to jarred babies. To unvarnished ghoulishness. To this:


I’ll get to more such stuff for you, via words and pictures, when I get there in a week or so. I imagine this is a mummy, or someone took a picture of me after last night’s bender.

Now some beauty before we all upchuck. The museum resides in a typically wedding-cakish palace-like edifice so common in St. Petersburg:


Right, but let’s not forget its contents:


Three heads are better than one.

Reviewing the museum online, a visitor notes that a highlight is the “fetus floor” (well, yeah); another notes the evocative scientific instruments (probably chilling in a “Dead Ringers” way); and yet one more declares: “After traveling over 50 countries, that’s the most bizzare thing I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s really gross.” (Jittery excitement.)

Why is this appealing? I can’t quite nail it, but I know it’s the same reason why wide-eyed, slack-jawed throngs packed freak shows of yore, why giggly gaggles of school children are whisked to the Mütter Museum, why macabre taxidermy and bone specimens are top sellers at the crowd-pleasing Evolution store in New York’s SoHo.


We are curious about mystery, the outré, the weird and wondrous. We are strangely enriched and even, with a flinch, comforted confronting the repellent and gasp-inducing. It’s not a game. Gallows humor may tinge the experience — hey, that looks like Uncle Mike! — but it’s surely not ha-ha funny. It’s about expanding the mind and the world of earthly experience. It is, with a peculiar poignance, about us. 

Brushing aside loneliness to bask in solitude


“Solitude must be welcomed rather than feared. In the mental and moral equipment of a radical or critical personality, this realization is of the essence.” — Christopher Hitchens

I’m the inveterate navel-gazer, the incorrigible woolgatherer, the loner who picks his moments in the spotlight and never gets dragged into them. Hardly the social butterfly, I prefer the cozy gloom of the cocoon. While getting out is good, solitude is golden.

I’ve traveled the world with girlfriends, but usually it’s a solo affair — much easier, more peaceful, more relaxed. I meet people on the road, lots, and those fleeting encounters are just the right measure of intimate human contact.

I once had a friend meet me in Japan for part of a vacation and I wrote in my journal, almost as a reminder, semi-dreading the company, “I walk the Earth alone.” I was being facetious. Unfortunately my friend read this. She was light years from amused.

“Hell,” said Sartre, “is other people.” One wonders if he said this with a wink or a wince.

“Let me tell you this: if you meet a loner, no matter what they tell you, it’s not because they enjoy solitude. It’s because they have tried to blend into the world before, and people continue to disappoint them.” — Jodi Picoult

I’ve never understood people who can’t be alone. I have friends who would never conceive of going to a movie by themselves. I’ve never understood extroverts. I’m the sort who ducks down a different aisle if I spot an acquaintance in the grocery store. I’m sort of like a film noir antihero, alone in my trench coat, head bowed, buckled with ennui, smoking like a fiend, trying to make my way in an unjust world. (Ha.)

I have a mild misanthropic streak, an anti-social strain, though I’m no solitudinarian — actual word! — or recluse. It’s nothing severe enough to prevent me from enjoying a good party or get-together, even if I’m occasionally the guy who leaves early through the back door without saying proper farewells. (“People-proof your heart,” sang the Posies.)

My own skin doesn’t fit well. Which means comfort among others doesn’t come easy. Traveling, I love to read in cafes, scribble in journals at bars, roam streets, cathedrals and cemeteries alone, without the nattering of companions. I move to my own beat, that of a different drummer — and, as a longtime drummer, a pretty good drummer.

“I don’t like being able to be reached. I enjoy my solitude. Even people having my phone number seems like too much.”Brie Larson

Yes, I quoted Brie Larson. But I like her style here, despite her unbridled exhibitionism as an Oscar-winning actress and all the happy-face fraudulence that it demands. I searched her images and they’re topless this and bikini that. She shares that brainless visual cotton-candy with a boundless global viewership. So much for solitude. And yet I believe her quote, and wholly relate.

She probably doesn’t like to be reached because she gets six thousand calls a day. I don’t get any, maybe two, and it’s still too much. Even marketing calls feel like an invasion on my solo-hood. When my phone rings my first response is, Who the —-?

“Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self.” — May Sarton

There is indeed a difference between loneliness and solitude, and the gulf is dramatic. Loneliness yearns for something more, usually other people, to fill an existential hole. There’s a neediness, even a dependence and desperation, there. It enshrines incapacity.

In solitude one reaps energy from oneself, without the jumper cables of outside forces. You create your own space on your own terms, with your own powers, cultivating your mind, with the option of joining the wide world at anytime. Great freedom defines solitude. It’s the incubator of creativity and art. It’s the locus of self-communion. And, far from being bereft and desolate and unduly selfish, it’s all rather invigorating, nourishing and exhilarating.


A grave interest in cemeteries

Considering my voluptuous fascination with death and dying, I’ve become quite the habitué of graveyards and cemeteries, be they local, regional or far-flung amid my world journeys. I dig graves. And I go out of my way to find them, stroll them, contemplate and photograph them, from Boston to Brooklyn to my personal cemetery capital of the world Paris.

My favorite cemetery is, no surprise, Père Lachaise in Paris, a dense, lush, almost medieval necropolis of winding paths and boulevards, overgrown ivy and shady groves — a crepuscular cosmos unto itself whose edifices just happen to be ornate, angel-crested crypts and poetry-carved tombstones. Famous artists, actors, writers, politicians — Jim Morrison to Oscar Wilde, Proust to Edith Piaf — slumber here. Locating their graves is part of the game at the labyrinthine, 110-acre Père Lachaise, which contains over a million graves. (Cimetiere du Montparnasse is another must-see, star-studded burial spread in Paris.)


Tchaikovsky’s grave

Researching my nearing trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, I was thrilled to find a whole page about local cemeteries. The most popular and famous is the Tikhvin Cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, where Dostoyevsky, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and other luminaries rest. Expect travelogue-y descriptions of my visits to the Russia repositories.

Meanwhile, this is a catalog of recent cemetery jaunts — and more. All the images have to do with death, dying, the great beyond.

Brompton Cemetery.jpg

Brompton Cemetery, London.


Westminster Abbey, London. (How I face the world each morning.)


Istanbul Islamic cemetery.  


Serge Gainsbourg, Cimetiere du Montparnasse, Paris.


Karl Marx, Highgate Cemetery, London.


Highgate Cemetery, London.


Cimetiere du Montparnasse, Paris.


Paris Catacombs. (Alas, poor Yorick!)


Cimetiere du Montparnasse, Paris.


Cast of Joseph Merrick skeleton, aka The Elephant Man, Royal London Hospital.


Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris.


Highgate Cemetery, London.


Cimetiere du Montparnasse, Paris.


Funeral pyre of old woman, Kathmandu, Nepal.



Freaking out, sometimes, about circus freaks

When I was eight, sleeping at my grandparents’ house, I had a sheet-crumpling nightmare. A hairy woman made me cry.

Hearing my distress, my grandpa stumbled into the darkened bedroom. I pointed at the closet door. There. She’s in there, I whimpered. Grandpa had his hands full. Christ, I’m sure he thought. Right, the ugliest woman in the world is in that musty little closet. I was inconsolable, until sleep enveloped me. Miffed, grandpa went back to bed. My persistent visions of sideshow freaks had receded. For now.


Lionel the Lion-Faced Man.

Ever since I received on my eighth birthday the book “Very Special People” — a gift I expressly asked for — I think about circus freaks and human anomalies with worrisome frequency. I’m mildly obsessed with Joseph Merrick, aka The Elephant Man, and I still wonder about Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy and Lionel the Lion-Faced Man and how much they saved on razors.

But I also reflect on Julia Pastrana, a 4½-foot-tall Mexican woman who was carpeted in black, bristly hair, a victim of hypertrichosis terminalis, and cursed with an abnormally huge jaw, lips and ears. She also sang like an angel. A sideshow super-celebrity in the 1800s, her stage names varied from the Ape Woman to the Nondescript. She was mostly billed as “The Ugliest Woman in the World.”

Her life was a disaster.


Julia Pastrana

She married her conniving manager. They had a child. The baby was covered in thick black fur. Julia died of a broken heart days later.

The husband-manager saw his meal ticket full. So he made a business decision. He had both Julia and the baby mummified and exhibited their bodies around the world in one of the most grotesque and morally reprehensible exploitations in the annals of showbiz. Eventually he died. More than a few people were pleased.

Julia’s story doesn’t end there. Her body was eventually stored at the University of Oslo, Norway, before, after protracted bureaucratic folderol, she was finally laid to rest in Mexico in 2013 — 153 years after her death.

BuzzFeed has an excellent report about Pastrana’s bizarre history. Or you can pick up the slim 2005 book “Julia Pastrana: The Tragic Story of the Victorian Ape Woman”, an intriguing précis of her life and an exploration of the bonkers culture of old-time freak shows. Coming in October is “The Eye of the Beholder: Julia Pastrana’s Long Journey Home,” which describes the painstaking return of Pastrana’s body to her native Mexico.

The freak shows of yore groan with heartache, abuse, loneliness, rank exploitation and the flagrant theft of human dignity. Joseph Merrick’s years in Victorian sideshows as the “terrible” Elephant Man are well-documented, filled with physical and verbal abuse and life-threatening illness, not to mention the wholesale degradation of body and spirit.


Chang & Eng, apparently good in bed.

Yet many of these “freaks of nature” were extravagantly compensated, sometimes making $1,000 a week or more — a royal wage for the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They married, had children. Chang and Eng, known as the original Siamese twins, joined at the sternum, had 21 children between them and lived in middle-class prosperity. (They even, reportedly, owned slaves.)

America’s most famous bearded lady, Annie Jones, enjoyed a superstar’s life in the late 1800s, hirsute and happy on the high life — a furry Myrna Loy. She worked for showman P.T. Barnum as a top-billed circus attraction, and had the good sense to lobby to have the term “freaks” banished from the shows. She married twice, divorcing her first hubbie to marry her childhood sweetheart. Jones blossomed early: She had a mustache and sideburns at age five, putting many a latter-day hipster to tearful shame. So famous was she that photographer Matthew Brady, the Richard Avedon of his time, had her pose for him.

Annie Jones

Annie Jones, living high.

Tennessee-born Myrtle Corbin was tagged “The Four-Legged Woman,” the reason manifest in the photo below. “However that moniker was slightly misleading,” according to bodacious site The Human Marvels. “While at a glance one could plainly see four legs dangling beyond the hem of her dress, only one pair actually belonged to her. The other set belonged to her dipygus twin sister.

“The tiny body of her twin was only fully developed from the waist down and even then it was malformed — tiny and possessing only three toes on each foot. Myrtle was able to control the limbs of her sister but was unable to use them for walking.”

(I just totally shuddered.)

Myrtle appeared under the banners of P.T. Barnum, Ringling Brothers and at Coney Island, hauling in $450 a week in the late 19th century. She married at 19, and “it was then that other aspects of her bizarre anatomy became evident,” says Human Marvels.


Myrtle Corbin

“It seems that her twin sister was also fully sexually formed — thus Myrtle possessed two vaginas. She had four daughters and a son and it has been rumored that three of her children were born from one set of organs and two from the other.”

(Long shudder.)

So maybe I shudder and shake my head sometimes when I reflect on my very special people. Their unimaginable lives, their fantastic plights, can overwhelm a sensitive soul. Childish nightmares aren’t implausible, haunted dreams quite likely.

But I don’t have those nightmares anymore. I no longer believe some long-dead sideshow oddity is lurking in my closet. They lurk instead in the mind, crowding it with wonder, curiosity, not a little pity, and a soupçon of sadness. Nightmares or not, I can’t shake them, and I don’t think I want to.