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" Crowley...you 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 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 175: "You've never received an icy glare…"

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Celebrating 175 straight days of blogging with another glance at The Man Who Signed the City: an excerpt of the chapter on Drew Daniel, English professor, half of the electronic band Matmos, veteran of world tours with Bjork. (And yes, that's a new cover mockup, ovr there on the right.)

Of the 1,000 copies of Quasi-Objects, they consigned five to a record shop in London called Rough Trade. Rough Trade’s customers included, on at least one occasion, Bjork, and she bought Quasi-Objects. She liked it so much she gave Daniel and Schmidt a call from Iceland. Would they like to remix a song of hers titled “Alarm Call”? “At first we thought it was a prank or something, one of our friends winding us up,” Daniel remembers. “It was a shock. Then, when she started thinking about making her album Vespertine, she approached us to make some rhythms for one song. Then we made a few more, and it started to snowball.” She came to San Francisco to work on the album with them at their house. The first day, Daniel’s computer crashed and he had to call a friend to fix it. “That was pretty embarrassing, but she proved patient with the way we operate.”

Then came the real stunner. “I was working at the Huntington Library in Los Angeles on my dissertation, in the archives looking for visual representations of melancholy, and I got a phone call from Bjork.” She was standing on a cliff in Iceland where, Daniel says, she goes to make big decisions, and she was inviting Matmos to join the backing musicians for her upcoming tour. The tour would be huge, traversing Europe, the United States, and Japan, and it would take a commitment of up to two years. Daniel was in the middle of his dissertation, and had to approach his adviser, Richard Halpern (now one of his colleagues in the Johns Hopkins English Department), and announce that he would be taking a few years off to go on the road. Halpern agreed to let him take a break. “He didn’t have to do that,” Daniel says. “Most people would have been, like, ‘Later, loser,’ but Richard knew I was serious.”

Daniel and Schmidt had to learn Bjork’s full tour repertory and figure out how to perform everything live. One song, “Aurora,” included the sound of Bjork walking through snow. “We couldn’t do snow on stage, though we looked into it,” Daniel recalls. “Martin had this idea to walk on rock salt on a contact-mic platform. So the rhythm of the song was Martin walking. It’s actually a challenge to walk at the right pace for a whole band.” They spent six months in rehearsal and preparation. Says Daniel, “I was scared at the idea that we were really going to do this. But Bjork said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ve got a lot of people to work with you and make this bullet proof.”

The touring ensemble included a 13-piece orchestra, a choir, a harpist, and Matmos. The first performance was in Paris. “We couldn’t believe what the audience for a pop star sounds like on stage,” Daniel says. “You know, we get good applause when we finish a show, but as soon as she walked onstage, the roar of the French fans was really frightening.” His parents were backstage. So was Catherine Deneuve. “We actually met her at the Dancer in the Dark premiere”—Deneuve and Bjork both had roles in the Lars von Trier film—“and Martin tried to bum a cigarette from her. You’ve never received an icy glare until you’ve tried to bum a cigarette from Catherine Deneuve.”

Day 171: Preview of Coming Attractions

The opener for what is, at the moment, the second chapter of The Man Who Signed the City. The subject, biophysicist and cancer researcher Denis Wirts.

Galen of Pergamos was a physician with a practice in second-century Rome. Among his clientele was the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Galen was also a prolific scribbler, so we know a lot about his ideas on disease, including his theory of cancer. Cancer, he wrote, was caused by “black bile” that flowed through the body. Anywhere it became trapped, it formed a malignant tumor.

He was wrong about black bile, though it is one hell of a good metaphor. But he was strikingly close to the mark with his flow theory. There are cancers, such as glioblastomas in the brain, in which the primary tumor can be deadly. But for most people, the original tumor does not pose the mortal threat. In more than 90 percent of cancers, what kills is metastasis. Cancer cells have a terrifying ability to move through the body and form new tumors in the bones, in the lymph nodes, in the lungs, in the liver and other internal organs. If a physician finds your tumor before the cancer has spread, you may survive. If the tumor has metastasized, cancer will kill you. Medicine has few weapons to counter the flow of black bile.

What if that is, in part, because a large portion of cancer cell biology and cancer drug testing has been reliant on a ubiquitous piece of lab equipment? The wrong piece of lab equipment? German bacteriologist Julius Richard Petri invented the Petri dish in 1887. Unless it was invented two years before that by a Slovene, Emanuel Klein, or by a pair of Romanian microbiologists, André Cornil and Victor Babes. Unless it was invented a year before that—we are back to 1884 now—by English researcher Percy Faraday Frankland. Whatever its provenance, the two-piece flat cylindrical glassware (now frequently polystyreneware) has been used by scientists for decades to culture and study cells of all kinds, including cancer cells.

Denis Wirtz is a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Johns Hopkins University. He has dedicated the past few years to developing methods of studying cancer cells in three-dimensional environments. In a Petri dish, cells are cultured on a substrate so thin as to be effectively two-dimensional. Wirtz believes that this 2-D microworld-in-a-dish so distorts the cells and their behavior as to cast doubt on a significant part of critical cancer biology. He and his research team have been growing and observing cancer cells in 3-D matrices that are much more like human tissue. The difference has been so dramatic that when Wirtz talks about it, he becomes an evangelist for cell biology in three dimensions. To figure out metastasis, he says, scientists must work in 3-D. And it would be a good idea to take hundreds of drugs, deemed failures after testing them on cells in a dish, and test them again in 3-D matrices. Wirtz thinks pharmaceutical companies may have missed medicines that will work because of their reliance on Herr Petri's invention.

Day 167: Excerpt from The Man Who Signed the City — Dan Dubelman

Another preview from The Man Who Signed the City: Time Spent with Remarkable People. This time, indie rocker Dan Dubelman and his then-wife Vickie.

Early on a Saturday evening, the Dubelmans are trying to get out of their house in East Nashville to play a gig. Guitars cases are propped against an amplifier as their owners shower and dress. Dan emerges first. He is short, about five-six, and lean from intense two-hour tennis workouts seven mornings a week. He wears his hair shorn to stubble and a soul patch under his lower lip. Tonight he sets off his white shirt and white jeans with a battered black cowboy hat that has had most of the cowboy mangled out of it. Vickie has braided her dyed-red hair into pigtails. She favors skirts or pants slung as low on her hips as she can get away with, and tonight’s dark brown slacks reveal a tattoo south of her lower spine. Over her right collarbone she has more ink, an image of Venus. She climbs up into towering platform shoes and they begin to cart equipment to their truck.

“Did you bring the set list?” she asks.

Uh, no. Into the house to retrieve the piece of paper. Back out to the truck.

“Do we have a capo for your guitar?” Dan says. Back into the house.

“We do this every time,” Vickie says, grinning. She and her husband have matching gaps between their front teeth and a relaxed, affectionately bickerish rapport with each other. Some of their songs are teasing dialogs edgy enough to be interesting and sexy.

At a riverside joint named Windows on the Cumberland in Nashville’s 2nd Street arts district, Dan sets up his guitars while Vickie pulls out Betty Dylan posters, scrawls notice of tonight’s performance on them with a felt marker and tacks them up outside the club. She does not expect this gig to do much for their cash flow, but what the hell, they like to play and the club’s owner, Boots, has called them his favorite band. “We’re always suckers for people who think we’re good,” Dan says.

Provisional publication date for the book is July 15. Stay tuned.

Day 147: Excerpt from "The Man Who Signed the City"

Creation of The Man Who Signed the City: Time Spent with Remarkable People, continues apace. At least, what passes for apace with me. I'm simulteanously revising text, researching typography and book design, mocking up covers, exploring publishing platforms, testing software, and pondering which model Tesla to buy with all the royalties that soon will be surging into my account.

That last one, not so much.

One of the profiles to be included is from 2012—essayist and cartoonist Tim Kreider. Here is how that one opens:

It is simplistic but not entirely inaccurate to say that Tim Kreider drank his way through his 20s, drew his way through his 30s, and has been writing his way through his 40s. As a drinker in his 20s he was, by his own testimony, depressed, but by his friends’ testimony, still fun to be around. As a cartoonist in his 30s he was an adept caricaturist whose drawings were frequently puerile, as frequently obscene, and savagely funny unless you count yourself among the right wing of the Republican Party, in which case you probably regard them as filthy, blasphemous, treasonous, and worth collecting just in case the day comes when he can be prosecuted.

As a writer, however, Kreider reveals himself to be well-read, smart, a fundamentally decent and kind man possessed of rare candor, a pitiless sense of his own shortcomings, and a gift for friendship that makes you wish your number were stored in his cellphone. This summer, Kreider published We Learn Nothing, a collection of 14 essays the author describes as a collection of thoughts about friendship and loss. There is indeed much in the essays about friends he still sees and friends who have drifted out of touch or cut him off, eccentric friends, and friends who were flat-out nuts. There is also an account of the author trying to feel some empathy for people he loathes at a Tea Party rally, his discovery in his 40s of two half-sisters he did not know he had, and a lovely, fond remembrance of a deceased friend who was beloved for the elaborate lies he told. There are rueful tales of Kreider’s hopeless love life; a tough, an unsparing account of an uncle who died in prison; and yet another telling of what he describes as the story he cannot escape, about the time he was nearly murdered in Crete.

The book provides substantial evidence that while Kreider was a good cartoonist, he is a superb essayist, a funny and fluent storyteller who wears his cultural literacy lightly, capable of references, in the same paragraph, to Friedrich Nietzsche, The Dude from the film The Big Lebowski, and Rebecca Solnit, all without affectation. To read “The Creature Walks Among Us,” “The Czar’s Daughter,” “Escape from Pony Island,” or “An Insult to the Brain” is to appreciate a mordant but affectionate observer of life’s rich pageant, and a craftsman who almost never puts a word wrong.

For example, here he is on the sudden recognition of falling in love: “Someone shows you the rabbit’s foot she just bought, explaining, ‘It was the last green one,’ or simply reaches out and takes your lapel to steady herself as the subway decelerates into the station, and you realize: Uh-oh.” On political intolerance: “One reason we rush so quickly to the vulgar satisfactions of judgment, and love to revel in our righteous outrage, is that it spares us from the impotent pain of empathy, and the harder, messier work of understanding.” On embarrassment, derived from observing a man with a very bad toupee: “Each of us has a Soul Toupee. The Soul Toupee is that thing about ourselves we are most deeply embarrassed by and like to think we have cunningly concealed from the world but which is, in fact, pitifully obvious to everybody who knows us. Contemplating one’s own Soul Toupee is not an exercise for the fainthearted.” On friendship: “This is one of the things we rely on our friends for: to think better of us than we think of ourselves. It makes us feel better, but it also makes us be better; we try to be the person they believe we are.”

Forthcoming July 1. Maybe. Let's says Julyish...

Day 135: The Book Formerly Known as Profilia

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Work continues apace on the anthology of profiles that I plan to publish this summer. My working title has been Profilia, or something more like Profilia: Encounters with Interesting People. That had the virtue of employing a distinctive word, distinctive because I made it up. (Though just today I came across a street usage: "profilia, the act of liking every single thing on someone's Facebook page.") But I worried that it might mislead because it sounds Italian, or like some sort of unusual sexual predilection. Or is just mystifying and therefore offputting; I want readers to put the book down after they've read it for about two hours, not before they even open it.

So, I am all but settled on a new title, one that makes use of the title of one of the anthologized pieces: The Man Who Signed the City: Time Spent with Remarkable People. I'm not committed to "remarkable"—that could become "interesting" or "fascinating" or "intriguing." Or, "people who were willing to talk to me."

The contents are all but set, too. One or two of these could drop off—right now this would weight in at around 90,000 words, not unreasonable for a book but a bit pricey to produce—but this could be the Table of Contents (the order will change):

  • Dan Dubelman, indie rock musician
  • Larry Hoffman, composer
  • Jonathan Haas, drummer
  • Drew Daniel, literature professor and electronic musician
  • Leon Fleisher, pianist
  • Stephen Dixon, novelist
  • Rosemary Mahoney, author and travel memoirist
  • Roy Blount Jr., humorist
  • Tim Kreider, essayist
  • Walter Murch, film editor and polymath
  • Raoul Middleman, painter
  • Chuck Keiger, sign painter
  • Avi Rubin, computer scientist and poker player
  • Barclay Tagg, thoroughbred trainer
  • Kevin Tallon, deaf boxer
  • George Kennedy, championship swim coach
  • James Taylor, historian of carnival sideshows
  • Park Dietz, forensic psychiatrist and serial killer expert
  • Sidney Mintz, food anthropologist
  • Denis Wirtz, biophysicist and cancer researcher
  • Kathy Edin, sociologist of extreme poverty

I think that's a pretty good lineup, don't you?