Day 199: The sideshow historian chapter

Another preview of The Man Who Signed the City. This time, James Taylor, historian of the American sideshow, and a sideshow in his own right.

Ladies and gentlemen never have you met a man like the one exhibited here. By day he is a petty bureaucrat in an agency too fearsome to mention in front of the children. But at night, he becomes the Boswell of the Ballyhoo! The Annalist of the Outré! The Memorialist of All That is Thaumaturgic, Teratogenic, and Transmundane! And for the expenditure of mere minutes of life's precious expanse, you can meet this unique man on these very pages. Please step into our story, where the lovely Zamorah will direct you to your seats. Don't mind her beard, folks, she was born that way.

James Robert Taylor III has some interesting friends. There is Paul Lawrence, also known as The Enigma, tattooed from shaved pate to big toe like a blue jigsaw puzzle, with horns surgically implanted in his skull. Then there is Johnny Meah, the Czar of Bizarre. During his working day he drives nails up his nose and slides swords down his throat. Jeanie Tomaini, the Half-Girl, is 2’ 6”. She would be taller if she had legs, but if she had legs, she might never have made it in show business. And Matt "The Tube" may not want to know what Matt can do with a length of sterile tubing and a plunger bottle.

All these folks delight Taylor, 47, who is dedicated to putting the odd in periodical. He publishes Shocked & Amazed! On and Off the Midway, an illustrated journal of the sideshow, presenting its human oddities, bizarre performers, and Barnumesque heritage. Each issue mimics the entertainment that it chronicles. The cover art recalls the lurid banners that once advertised “Howard the Human Lobster” or “Percilla the Monkey Girl.” The table of contents reads like the spiel, delivered by a talker (carnies, Taylor explains, never use the term “barker”), that promoted the attractions inside and exhorted passersby on the midway to see the show. Once inside Shocked & Amazed! you encounter blockheads (performers who drive spikes up their noses), various anatomical wonders like Otis the Frog Boy, pickled punks (deformed fetuses preserved in formaldehyde), famous sideshow impresarios, and other attractions. Taylor calls the final piece in each issue “the blow-off.” In a sideshow, the blow-off is a last attraction placed at the exit to entice the audience to leave, making room for a new batch of paying customers.

There is an air of the 19th century about him. He wears silver rings on three fingers of each hand and threads a watch chain through the buttonholes of the waistcoats he favors. There is not much hair left on his head, but he does sport a fine set of muttonchops. He used to carry a walking stick and would not look bad dressed in a Victorian cape. He has a couple of physical anomalies himself: a little toe that curves over his other toes, and a heart situated at an odd angle in his chest. “Nothing I can make a buck off of,” he says. He is friendly, profane, and smitten with the sideshow life. His knowledge and friends have landed him on The Jerry Springer Show. He was consultant to The Learning Channel on its documentary “Sideshow: Alive on the Inside.” His collection of books, curiosities, and memorabilia is growing into an archive that he hopes to exhibit someday. He speaks sometimes of growing up feeling like an outsider. Now he is an insider, “with it” in carnival lingo, accepted by a crowd of professional misfits and anomalies.

The entertainment spectacles that he relishes have changed over the decades, but he doubts they will disappear. “The spirit of sideshows is eternal,” he says. “People will look. We're very curious monkeys.” He smiles and adds, “The human race is an amazingly exotic species.”

Day 192: The Way, and another way

Colin Marshall, essayist, wrote a list that could be labeled The Way, if one were in a Taoist sort of mood:

  • Each day, learn a new skill or hone an existing one.
  • Don’t reflexively say no to something new.
  • Know who you admire.
  • Be able to entertain ideas without accepting them.
  • Be autodidactic.
  • Improve learning ability.
  • The more sources of fulfillment, the better.
  • Know what you want to be, but let the world decide if you are.
  • Collect experiences.
  • Make slow progress rather than no progress.
  • Approach trouble as opportunities.
  • Always have goals.
  • Keep a notebook.
  • Think.

Not to be outdone, I wrote my own:

  • Be an artist monk.
  • Always explore, always question, always pursue.
  • Walk a path. When you must, make the path.
  • No act without intent.
  • Practice connoisseurship.
  • Pay attention.
  • Make notes.
  • Love somebody.
  • Keep a cat, perhaps two.
  • Enjoy liquor, in moderation, preferably gin.

Day 184: The computer scientist plays poker

Coming July 15.

Time for another preview of my forthcoming book, The Man Who Signed the City. Up today is Avi Rubin, a computer scientist, cybersecurity expert, and poker player.

Rubin looks so young, he once had a Las Vegas casino question the validity of his photo ID, and there is something childlike in his enthusiasm for poker. On the day we went to Delaware Park, when I arrived at his house I found him already in his car, sitting impatiently at the end of the driveway. Once we were at the casino, the closer he got to the poker room the faster he walked. I half expected him to break into a trot.

His plan was to play a cash game in the morning, then enter the casino’s noon tournament. In a tournament, the entrants vie for prizes awarded to the top finishers. Prize money in most daily tournaments is modest and the players risk no more than the entrance fee, so tournaments tend to attract more casual participants and poker tourists. But in a cash game, the players vie for each other’s money, and because there is no limit to how much can be won, cash games attract professionals for whom a casino is the office. Soon after Rubin sat down at one of the games in progress at 9:30 am, a pro in a black T-shirt called it a day holding more than $4,000 in chips. Rubin was happy to see him go. You do not win that much money at a small-stakes table unless you know what you are doing.

Texas Hold ’em is the game you see on cable television poker shows. In Hold ’em, each player tries to make the best five-card hand out of two cards dealt facedown and a set of five communal cards faceup in the center of the table. The cards come in four rounds—first each player’s facedown cards, then three communal cards (called “the flop”), followed by a fourth (“the turn”), and finally a fifth (“the river”)—with betting after each round. Texas Hold ’em rewards a good head for odds and a good memory for what everyone else does in the course of the game. Cautious at first, Rubin spent several hands sizing up the other players. He guessed that at least three were professionals. They had substantial chip stacks and cool, appraising faces, and they were not making mistakes. Still, after about 45 minutes he began winning some pots and seemed to be holding his own. He played well for another 45 minutes, until he tried to bluff with a weaker hand, failed to fold when he should have, and lost $240 to one of the pros. On a break soon after, he said of the player who had just beat him, “I should have realized he was strong. But every time I bet, the pros on the other side of the table were raising me and I was folding, and I was getting a little fed up. So, they got in my head a little.”

He checked his iPhone. Years ago, he had invested in Apple stock at a great price. Now he noted that the company was up $5 per share in morning trading. He chuckled. “The good news is I’ve made more on Apple this morning than I’ve lost here.”

Day 183: The medal

The new 10,000 Days Newsletter goes out tomorrow. Here is the essay from the previous one.

The Medal

I wasn't much of a Boy Scout. I didn't like the men who were the troop leaders, I didn't like most of my fellow Scouts, and I didn't like to camp. The only thing I liked to do was hike, because I was good at it, a stubborn, tough little nerd who would not quit no matter how far the endpoint. (I walked 50 miles in 19 straight hours when I was 12. No surprise I grew up to be a marathoner.)

My father was not the sort of dad who took part in his son's recreational activities. He rarely attended my baseball or soccer games, and never accompanied me on a Scouts outing, but for once. On a sunny Saturday, he joined me and the rest of Troop 270 on a 10-mile walk through the horse farms outside of Lexington, Kentucky. The hike was sanctioned by the Scouts and called the Bluegrass Trail.

Well, he joined the hike. He didn't exactly join me. After a few miles, he lagged so far behind I became worried that he was going to drop out. That was a silly idea, but not to an 11-year-old kid. When other kids fell behind, it usually foretold quitting, which was scorned. I had looked forward to this day, never imagining that my dad would embarrass me by sagging out.

When he caught up to us at a rest stop, I asked him what was wrong. He looked at me bemused. He'd stopped to take some pictures of race horses, and besides, he didn't see any reason to be in a hurry. It's not like he was going to get lost, and he wasn't the only laggard. Among the others was my friend Kenny, who I don't think had ever finished a hike in all his time as a Scout. Kenny was obese, and suffered for it, physically and socially. On this day he was well behind before the halfway point, but at least he had his father with him. Bob was overweight too, and had a bad heart, but he kept trudging along with his boy, and with my father.

Eventually, for the last couple of miles, my dad walked beside me, maybe finally picking up that this is what I'd wanted from the start. We finished the 10 miles and climbed onto the converted school bus that ferried the troop around. On the bus was a surprise. Anyone who completed an official Boy Scout hike was entitled to a medal, but we usually had to order them and wait a few weeks to pin them on our uniforms. But today the leaders had medals waiting for us. I still have mine—a metal horse head appended to a Confederate flag ribbon. (This was 1965, so there you go.)

I happily sat next to my dad, clutching my medal, only vaguely aware that Kenny and Bob were not on the bus. They were still walking. When I realized it, my thoughts were, Whoa, Kenny might make it. My father's thoughts were, Bob shouldn't be doing this with his heart. Looking back at these events with admiration, I understand now that Bob was not going to give up on his son. If the kid had it in him to keep going, he was going to there for every step.

Not much later, they limped into view and then climbed onto the bus, exhausted. Kenny looked more weary than triumphant. Bob was ashen, wincing as he stepped up into the bus. He was one of the troop's leaders, the only one I liked, and now he looked at the other adults and said, "You have the medals?"

No, they didn't. When they'd preordered them, I suspect they could not imagine needing one for Kenny. They had handed out all. They didn't have one for him.

A bad feeling came over me. Not compassion or sympathy for my buddy or outrage at this small injustice, but dread. I was sure of what my dad was about to do. He had already complained to me during the hike that the adults were not making the older, stronger boys look after the younger, less strong ones. Weren't they supposed to be molding boys into responsible men? I just knew he would lean close to me and quietly tell me to surrender my medal to Kenny, my oldest friend. I was trying not to cry. He was right, of course, I knew it even at age 11, but I didn't want to give up my prize. I was proud of what I'd done in front of him, and already hurt, I think, that he hadn't spent more time with me. Not like Bob had been there with Kenny. And now...yeah, I just knew it.

He put his arm around me and leaned close. I looked up, bleak. "What do you think?" he said. "Will Mom fix meat loaf tonight? That would taste good, wouldn't it."

Day 182: Excavation

How strange to see that I don't want to be the person that I want to be.

— Amanda Palmer

That stark moment when you realize there is no making art until you square up to who you are, and square up to not knowing who you are, and then square up to the task of excavating—from layer after layer of pretense, anxiety, distaste, outright fear, education, indoctrination, expectations of family and society and management and tribe, market pressures and the lure of cashing in and then cashing out, politeness, niceness, laziness, and useless advice—your true self. And that stark moment when you understand that you will have to accept whatever you find to be your true self. And that stark moment when you take a step and start something that will be hard to quit. And then that stark moment when you see clearly that you are so in over your head. And finally, that stark moment when you say, Fuck it, I'm making this thing anyway because while you can't see what I'm about to do or how I'm going to do it, I can.

Day 181: Terrific Teffi

I’ve just finished Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me: The Best of Teffi. Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya was born in St. Petersburg in 1872 and became a writer of note in pre-revolution Russia, writing as Teffi. She was a satirist who fled for Paris when the Russian Revolution turned bad for writers of barbed, skeptical commentary. Along the way she met Rasputin and Tolstoy and Lenin and a fascinating array of intellectuals and writers and artists. New York Review Books has issued two collections of her work; the other is titled Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea.

Her acute intelligence, sly rejection of bullshit whatever the source, and dexterity with language make her one of those writers I want to read regardless of her subject. On the Bolsheviks:

Those Bolsheviks in the Smolny are a crafty lot. They’ve decreed that every woman under forty must report for snow-shoveling duty. What woman is fool enough to tell the whole world she’s over forty? So far, not a single one has owned up. Instead, they’ve all been throwing themselves into the fray.

Bits of conversation:

And I was reminded of a sweet lady from Petersburg who said of a friend, “There’s nothing this woman won’t stoop to if she thinks she’ll gain by it. You can take my word for it—I’m her best friend.

This utterly superb description:

The end of a Petersburg winter. Neurasthenia.

Rather than starting a new day, morning merely continues the grey, long-draw-out evening of the day before.

Through the plate glass of the large bay window I can see out onto the street, where a warrant officer is teaching new recruits to poke bayonets into a scarecrow. The recruits have grey, damp-chilled faces. A despondent-looking woman with a sck stops and stares at them.

No improving that.