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.

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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.

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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 glad.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Sharing rides, sharing lives

On a recent hot Monday, I bought a big bottle of Dewar’s White Label Scotch. The home supply was running low. It was dire.

I tapped the Lyft app for a ride and soon enough the usual dark, Japanese-made sedan pulled up. The driver was a late-middle-aged guy, tan with a ball cap and a festive tropical shirt from the Jimmy Buffett line. I climbed in back and set the heavy bottle on the floor. It made a gurgly thunk.

We drove in becalmed silence.

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As I opened the door to get out, the driver turned and said, “What do you have there?” I hoisted the bottle so he could see the label. He frowned, then he took the bottle and read the label more closely as if he couldn’t believe his eyes.

“Ack. Dewar’s. Need the good stuff. Need Glenlivet.”

“You’re right, that is the good stuff. I save that for special occasions.”

“Special occasions? I only drink Glenlivet,” he grumbled. “Stopped drinking Dewar’s years ago.”

“Or there’s Laphroaig,” I said, trying to sound whisky-literate, refined, like I clearly knew Dewar’s was rotgut.

“This isn’t even Scotch,” he said, grimacing. “It’s blended, not single malt.”

I told him I knew that it was blended and hinted that with this 1.75 liter bottle, I was getting more bang for my buck. That didn’t go over well with the purist. He scowled.

I wanted to read him the encouraging Dewar’s description: “Up to 40 of the finest malt and grain whiskies are blended together in perfect harmony … Notes of Scottish heather and honey linger on the finish, with the faintest touch of smoke.”

Honey! Smoke! Harmony!

But surely it would sound to him like a paper-sack-sipper’s doggerel. This was outstanding. My Lyft driver was a whisky snob. I suddenly wanted to engage him in dialectics about beer — does he wrinkle his nose at IPAs as I do? — cocktails — would he ever drink one with cucumbers floating in it? — and wine — is vino in a box tantamount to ramen in a styrofoam cup?

I wondered about his life — what kind of music he listened to, if he bet on the horses, does he watch “America’s Got Talent.” Lyft and Uber drivers are fascinating. I talk to most of them, a lot about where they come from. I always tell Jamaican drivers that I visited Jamaica twice as a teenager. A lively gabfest, full of lush places and vivid anecdotes, invariably follows.

The ride sharing phenomenon is patently different from the standard taxi pickup. Lyft and Uber drivers pilot their own personal vehicles, so you never know what you’re going to get. Mostly you get mid-range four-doors — Toyotas, Hondas, Kias, Nissans, the occasional American model — and minivans with maw-like sliding doors. Only once did I get a truck, this towering Chevy beast. The driver told me that all his fares remark upon its hulking exoticism.

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Because there are no physical taxi-like barriers between driver and passenger, the situation is literally open, which makes it socially conducive. We talk. We pry. We joke and laugh. We gripe about the weather and bad drivers. (It’s no “Taxicab Confessions.”) I always inquire about whatever keychain, tassel, necklace or other tchotchke is swinging from the rearview mirror. Stories abound. A sliver of a life resides in that little dangling dreamcatcher.

I try to compliment the driver’s choice of vehicle, especially if it’s extra nice or extra clean. And, with queer frequency, I tell them how pleasant their car smells, because, boy, they are besotted with nose-tickling air fresheners.

It’s a human thing, and the encounters, spanning many cities, are kaleidoscopic. The garrulous, too-much-information pot dealer; the beaming student who has by chance picked me up a few times and now calls me Mr. Chris; the yoga-psychic who insisted I write down my number so she could get my business; the Paris drivers who talked jazz and Trump and practiced their English; and the countless immigrants — so many Haitians! — from Boston to London, whose stories of their former homes and their new home are wondrous and heartening.

Expansive chatting was not to be on this ride. My Lyft driver was a taciturn man. Strictly Scotch. Strictly my Scotch.

As I left I took my bottle and I thanked him with sincerity for the lift. (I went on to award him a five-star rating.) Kindly, he thanked me back.

“Enjoy your drink,” he said. “You’re going to get a hangover.”

Remembering Nicky

Lately I’ve been wondering where Nicky the dwarf wound up. Kids at my grade school used to taunt Nicky because he had an oversized head, was 2-and-a-half feet tall and rode around the playground on his tricycle. He had a heck of time walking with any haste, and he wore his hair in a fluffy manner fashionable during the late ’70s. The whole situation was pretty tragic, a bully’s delight.

I was more of an acquaintance than a friend of Nicky’s, and never a bully. This was in third and fourth grades. Nicky was a little younger than me and always wore this tiny jumpsuit that was gray with red pinstripes running up the abbreviated legs. He always wore sandals with white socks, too. I have no idea why I remember these details, but I’m pretty good that way. Ask my amnesiac brother, whose childhood memories begin at age 30.

Once when I went up the street to visit a kid named Billy, who was closer to my brother’s age, I was startled to find Nicky there. Were they related? Billy had elfin features, so maybe he was secretly an elf, and he and Nicky made toys. Maybe the two of them are very rich men today.

What stuck out most about Nicky was his voice. It was high and piping, yet it also bore the moaning, otherworldly timbres of the humpback whale’s song. Adult supervisors called yard duties walked about the playground with whistles around their necks — bored, lumbering sentinels scouring for youthful mischief. Too often it came in the dependable razzing of poor Nicky, and that’s when he would let out this pitiful cry in the voice of an old woman with laryngitis: “Yaaaa-rrrrd duuuu-tyy!” What broke your heart was that his voice had no muscle, so it didn’t carry beyond the circle of tormentors. It was like steam from a broken train whistle. It’s a sound, so many years later, I still hear precisely. (I actually do a pretty good imitation of it, if you just ask. Bring cookies.)

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Now, I hope this hasn’t gathered into one of those “insensitive” articles that elicit exercised emails. I don’t really care, because I don’t think it should, and I won’t read them. I suggest you don’t put “dwarf” in the subject line.

Truthfully, Nicky comes up only because he’s a vivid memory, and I spend an uncommon amount of time sifting through my past, which thrives in my head, brilliantly and fondly. His random invocation has nothing to do with a book or a movie. Those close to me know I think about that kind of stuff all the time. I can still, if you’d like, expound on Grace McDaniels, the Mule-Faced Woman, nearly 30 years after first seeing her in the book “Very Special People.” (Even Tom Waits has sung about homely Grace.)

My memories are active things. Here are a couple that just popped up: In 1976, at SeaWorld in San Diego, my mom got drenched by a walrus that sprayed a mouthful of water at her. On my ninth birthday, two friends and I threw dirt clods at the house next door and I busted one of its windows. We had to clean up the mess the next morning. At age 13, some friends and I dumped a bag of dog doo on someone’s doorstep. I got blood poisoning from a nasty BMX wreck at about the same time.

Nicky’s there, too, wheeling about on his tricycle, not knowing where he’s going, and unaware that some of us, so many years later, would think about the answer to just that.