By Alex Wukman
(with aplogies to Jay McInerney)
Go back to the fall of 2007. George W. Bush is still President and the US occupation of Iraq is entering it’s fifth year. You’re at a bar one night when a friend tells you about a show coming to town, something that happens two or three times a week, but your friend promises that this show is different.
“It’s a freak show,” he says, “with sword swallowing and lobster girls and all that.”
“I thought freak shows were illegal,” you say.
“Dunno about that but I know that this is the last one in the country,” says your friend. A few weeks later you and your newly minted significant other trek out to The Heights to see what is promised to be one of the uniquest touring acts in the country. You aren’t sure what to expect, but since it’s at Super Happy Fun Land you figure there won’t be much of a crowd. As you navigate the narrow, winding side streets near the venue you see dozens of cars and groups of people walking. And you realize this may be a bit larger than you initially thought.
After parking, four streets over, and a 15-minute-walk over shattered concrete and drainage ditches filled with broken beer bottles you come to Polk Street and see people, so many people that the small building that houses Brian’s brain child can’t possibly hope to hold them. Like any amorphous blob left to it’s own devices, the crowd has started to expand and devour. It moved out from the venue, swallowed the street and parking lot before sending tendrils north and south to the ends of the block. You turn off 27th and head towards the low-slung, ranch style house serving as the nucleus for the crowd’s expansion. The smell of marijuana wafts on the wind and your eye catches the rapidly falling shape of a football. Only in Texas would anyone tail-gate a freak show.
Inside’s not any better, every available space is filled with people. People stand in the middle of the room, obstructing traffic flow and preventing Olivia from getting anything done. They sit on tables used for crafting, lean against bookcases and block the doorway to the bathroom. There are so many that even the idea of getting a drink is an impossibility. Out back, around the nearly perpetual campfire, it’s worse. So many people crowd around that it becomes a concern that someone will fall, or get pushed, into the blaze. Your significant other introduces you to the roommates and you swear you see the guy bristle at the mention of your name.
After a few minutes of awkward small talk, about your life about their life, Brian comes out and announces that the show is about to start. You and the significant other squeeze into the performance space and see hand-painted canvas banners proclaiming classic “Ten-in-One” acts like The Geek or the Elephant Man tacked to the wall. After a short interlude the show begins and it’s everything that was promised, it’s celebratory vaudeville not creepy voyeurism. The performers talk about themselves and their lives, the Elephant Man tells you about the difficulties in trying to get a job with Nuerofibro-matosis and how people think he’s a modern day Typhoid Mary.The Human Tripod sings a heartwrenchingly beautiful song and Lobster Girl eats a worm, which makes you almost throw up for some reason.
Skip ahead four years. It’s 2011, Barrack Obama is President, Newt Gingrich is racking up a lead in GOP polls and The Iraq War is winding down. You’re at a gas station when your phone rings. The voice on the other line says she’s Samantha X from the 999 Eyes Freak Show and that they’re coming back to Houston.
“We’re a vaudeville act written by one of the cast members December 17th at Super Happy Fun Land,” says Samantha X. She goes to talk about the musicians and the nickel museum and how they transform spaces into recreations of early Twentieth Century sideshows. As she talks you feel a slow smile crawl across your face.