January 29, 1999
By Coleman Luck
I grew up in the Chicago area. In the mid-'50s, I was in the sixth grade. During those years I had a paper route delivering the Daily Journal. Talk about anachronism. The only guys who have paper routes these days are middle-aged immigrants from Cambodia who drive around in mini-trucks plastering two thousand driveways a morning. Anyway, I had this paper route and it was a miserable job. Dogs chasing you in the summer ... freezing your butt off all winter long. And once a month I had to collect. That meant wandering up and down the streets on a Saturday trying to get jerks to cough up a couple of bucks to keep me in business. But I was good at it. In sixth grade I won an award. I've forgotten now what it was for, but the prize was something I will never forget.
It was an evening at Riverview.
Now, anybody who grew up in Chicago during that period remembers Riverview. It was one of those great, old, sleazy amusement parks -- a bloated carnival on a permanent location, with a wooden roller coaster and a pot load of other dangerous rides that looked like they'd disintegrate the moment you sat down on them. All summer long, Riverview advertised on the Chicago TV stations. Their main pitch man was a local personality named "Two-Ton" Baker," a really fat guy who did noonday programs for kids. (Another anachronism: kids coming home from school for lunch.).
So, all summer there would be these commercials showing old "Two-Ton" taking up a whole seat on a roller coaster, yelling at the top of his lungs to display his sheer joy, and probably to prove that if the thing would hold him, it'd hold anybody.
Riverview was the last gasp of an era. It died with the coming of the giant, "Nazi-World" theme parks we have today; those places where everything is perfect all the time -- even the plants which they change constantly to make sure everything is always "in bloom."
In contrast to these pristine places, Riverview was honest, straightforward temptation. It whispered to kids, "Come walk in my shadows. Come listen to my rats crawling around behind the boards. Come debauch."
We loved it.
Anyway, I won this trip to Riverview. And the greatest part of it was that my parents wouldn't be going along. I'd be with a group of paper boy "winners" just like me. Young delinquents in training. (This was long before little girls would stoop to do such crap jobs as paper routes). And the peak of ecstasy? Our "chaperones" would be the paper boy "supervisors" from the Daily Journal.
Now, my parents didn't know it, but these guys were absolute losers. A bunch of lazy drunks who had been promoted far beyond their level of competence. Going with them was like going alone. They gave us cash, then went off to spend the day at the local bar.
Oh, joy from heaven! Sixth grade. Money. And Riverview without adults.
Now, when I say this was an old style amusement park, I'm not joking. On the boardwalk there was a freak show. Can you imagine such a thing today? Try to picture a freak show at Disney World! Aren't we glad that we've matured as a culture to the place where such things would never be allowed?
Of course, one could argue that Riverview simply had an appreciation for diversity, but, we won't go there. So, after you've gorged yourself on delicious little bags of dead meat (euphemistically called "hot dogs") and braved all the dangerous rides at least six times, where's an eleven-year old boy who appreciates diversity gonna be found? THE FREAK SHOW.
So, I bought my ticket and walked in.
I found myself in a stark, ugly, little room, standing with a small crowd in a roped-off area. There was nothing fancy about the place. It was as down and dirty as you could get. As my eyes accustomed themselves to the dim, yellowish light, I noticed that three feet beyond the rope, sitting on wood pedestals and little chairs, were seven or eight freaks. And they were the full Monty. Nothing fake here. It was a collection of poor, sad, human beings with bodies that looked like they'd been created in a Hollywood visual-effects house.
The instant you walked in, there was a seriousness about the place. Nobody laughed. Nobody talked. The freaks looked at you and you looked at them ... and then you left.
But on that particular day, something happened in that room that I will remember as long as I live.
One of the freaks was a little old woman, probably in her 60s. No more than three feet tall, her face was deformed beyond ugliness. All of the poor creature's limbs bent in the wrong direction. There she sat, expressionless. You could imagine that she'd done this all of her life. I tried not to stare, but I couldn't help myself. I'd never seen anything quite like her.
Suddenly, into the room walked a man carrying a little girl about 3 years old. Why this idiot had brought her there, no one could imagine. I was only 11 and I was appalled. Of course, at the time, there was no "rating system" for freak shows, so how could you blame him?
Anyway, the man with the little girl walked along the rope staring at the freaks. For some reason, he stopped in front of the little old woman. The instant the child saw this frightening creature, she became terrified and started to sob.
It was a horrible moment. Then, as I watched, that little, deformed, grandmotherly woman started to cry, too. Quietly, without a sound, the tears ran down her face. After all the years of being stared at, all the years of loneliness and pain -- the humanity in her eyes was overwhelming.
Then, as I watched, that little woman began to talk to the little girl. Softly, with a voice like your grandmother and mine, she tried to comfort her, to take away her fear, to reach out with words, because her arms weren't long enough and they bent in the wrong direction. It was one gentle heart whispering to another. Now, 11-year old boys are not known for their deep sensitivity. But, if I live to be a thousand, I will never forget that scene. Over forty years have passed since that night. Riverview has long gone. And I was thinking about freaks the other day...
We've heard a great deal over the past months about the idea that we are a nation ruled by law.
We are a nation ruled by stories. The stories we love reveal who we are and what we are becoming. Based on that fact, William Jefferson Clinton belongs in the White House. He has the moral right to remain there for the rest of his life. Why? Because he is the living expression of our collective story. And if we were going to make that story into a film, it would be titled, "Freaks Rule." Not the good, honest freaks of Riverview. The true freaks. Us.
You and I.
We are the freaks who stand inside the rope, watching others wallow in degradation and pain and enjoying the view. We are the fathers who sit up late at night after our wives and children have gone to bed, sucking cyberporn off the Internet. We are the mothers titillated by the human fecal matter that we chew and swallow, dished up to us hot and steaming every afternoon on television talk shows. We are the hip and cool young executives screwing each other's brains out after hours on the conference table, then popping pills to stave off the effects of sexually transmitted disease. We are the teenagers -- the generation of nightmares -- swimming in fake blood and gore, loving vicarious mayhem and terror ... the spiritual children of Wes Craven's perverted dreams. Freaks all. Freaks -- each and every one of us. Freaks who have managed to be born with the ability to hide our true ugliness.
What is the breadth and depth of our freakhood? Nothing less than this: As a nation we are Monica Lewinsky. That poor young woman is simply our surrogate freak. Monica Lewinsky is our national daughter, sent to spend her Holy Year Of Shrine Prostitution in the temples of power.
Monica knew the proper position of a worshiper. On her knees, being inseminated by her "god." And we worship right alongside her, falling to our knees before the starry host of freaks that we have created in sports and politics and Hollywood -- desperate for our own fifteen minutes of glory.
We need a new Statue of Liberty, and Monica could be the model. Coiffured and bereted. Twenty stories tall. On her knees in her semen-stained dress, staring out at the world from New York Harbor, she could proclaim, "Give me your proud, your arrogant, and your vain, so that I can show them the pleasures of liberty."
As much as you hate to hear it, friends, that is our national story.
And stories rule.
But in my heart, I wish I could change our story and tell a new one. One so radical that everyone would freeze in shock. Maybe I could make it into a film.
Here's the basic outline: Let's imagine that someone new was placed in the Oval Office instead of the current occupant. Maybe for just a month. Of course, the President's chair would be too big for her. She'd need several phone books just to be seen. She wouldn't be able to write very well. No rose-garden, bill-signing parties jammed with the fatuous elite for her. After all, her arms would be too short, and they'd bend in the wrong directions. When the TV cameras focused on her, many of us would be filled with anger and revulsion. We'd demand to know why such a human aberration had been allowed to live; why her mother hadn't ended her life in a merciful abortion.
But, she wouldn't listen to our raging. There'd be nothing we could say that she hadn't heard a thousand times before. In fact, she probably wouldn't talk to us at all. Instead, she'd talk to our terrified children. And with her soft words and tears, maybe they'd be able to see beyond her ugliness into eyes filled with love, beautiful beyond comprehension ... because in her suffering she had seen the Face of God.
If only we had a true, honest freak in the White House to begin a new, national story! And you know what? I think thirty days would be long enough. After all, at that freak show in Riverview, it took only five minutes for the light from Eternity to reach an eleven- year old boy.
Posted by: Lex () *
01/29/99 04:57:38 PST