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

Click for a better look

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 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

(click for larger)

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?

Day 114: Likely to appear in Profilia: Kevin Tallon, deaf prizefighter

gloves.jpg

The oldest piece likely to make into the Profilia anthology was written in 1988. It's a profile of a deaf boxer named Kevin Tallon, who, when I met him, was fighting in unsanctionted Meanest Man contests. He went on to an undistinguished pro career. I watched him train one day.

When he can, Tallon trains at the Covington Youth Center in Kentucky. He walks down an alley beside a Goodyear dealer on Madison Avenue and up a steep flight of stairs to a room dominated by a boxing ring with sagging ropes. Fight posters and yellowing newspaper clippings cover the walls, along with eight-by-ten glossy prints of local heroes such as heavyweight Tony Tubbs, who trained here. A radio in a corner blares music from a black station in Cincinnati. There are holes in the ceiling and the walls could use some paint, but this room has the basics: a ring, three heavy bags, two speed bags, Lou George and Henry Ward.

Lou manages the place. Henry is the trainer. Lou’s wife, Karen, put up the money for the gym after Lou had to retire from his job with a car dealer. He charges each kid $20 a month to train here. He admits that he and Henry are strapped for funds, but if a boy does not have the money, he can come anyway and they will teach him to box. Lou loves to talk about boxing. He looks gray and worn until he describes a fighter. Then he jabs the air and circles an imaginary ring, light as a cat burglar who has just stolen another 20 years of youth.

He opens the gym each afternoon at 4:30. First to wander in on this day are two pale white kids with serious eyes, a shy black kid who has just started at the gym, and Tallon, in gray shorts and white thermal undershirt. Lou George likes him. “Kevin’s one helluva boy, when you can sit him down.” He complains that Tallon does not train enough. “I don’t care when these guys say they got a heavy bag in the basement, or a speed bag. It ain’t like being in the gym. The smell, the odor, watching the other fighters. At home, there’s no Ward. There’s no me. Now, that Houser, he’s training.”

Houser is Ron Houser, a 20-year-old heavyweight who is Tallon’s bane. Tallon has won more than 50 tough-guy bouts, by his own tally. At the Tough Man World Championships in Dayton, Ohio last year—sanctioned as a world championship by lord only knows—he placed second. When Tallon counts his defeats on one large hand, Houser gets three fingers. The fighters are well matched from a storyteller’s standpoint. Kevin is flashy, good looking, expressive, the ladies’ choice. Houser is silent, expressionless, menacing.

Lou knows how much Tallon wants to beat Houser and tries to help, but he scoffs at tough-guy fights. He thinks Tallon is wasting his talent. But he cannot convince him to commit to a genuine pro career. Tallon, he says, could be “a helluva thing.” The helluva thing he has in mind is a good white heavyweight. One of boxing’s shames is the constant hunt for white fighters to beat the African Americans and Hispanics who dominate the sport. Lou George cares as much for the black kids in his gym as for the white ones. His best fighter is black. But he knows the realities of the fight business.

... Kevin would need work just to fight the top amateurs. George puts him in the practice ring to spar with the current pride of the gym, a 139-pounder felicitously named George Little. Tallon fights better than 95 percent of the men on the street, but George Little is part of that other 5 percent. Before he has them spar, George tells Tallon to work hard. He tells Little, “Don’t hurt him.” Little is fast as a cobra. He ducks or slips Tallon’s punches. He stays upright, quick on the balls of his feet, eyes sharp and intent. It is obvious he could land punches on Tallon’s face almost at will if George allowed it. After four rounds, a sweat-drenched Tallon climbs out of the ring with disgusted look.

... A fight man like Lou George has reason to jeer at a Meanest Man Contest. But for Tallon, it is a means to an end. He pulls out a scrapbook and shows off photos of some of his fights. In one corner of the living room are 15 trophies, each with a small gold-plated boxer on top. And whenever someone asks his son, Matt, what his daddy does, the little boy puffs out his chest and says, “My dad’s a boxer.”

Day 103: Film editor Walter Murch for Profilia

Another profile on the list for possible inclusion in the anthology Profilia, which is coming latter this summer, is one of my last pieces for Johns Hopkins Magazine, about film editor, sound designer, and polymath Walter Murch. Here's a bit that begins with the journalist Lawrence Weschler:

Weschler sometimes talks about how Murch used to carry around a cloth sack filled with slips of paper. He would extend the pouch and urge you to take out one of the slips. Each one carried a snippet of text, something Murch thought you might find interesting or provocative: “Translate the invisible wind by the water it sculpts in passing—Robert Bresson.” “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it—Albert Einstein.” Receive email from Murch and you will discover that to each note, Murch appends not an email signature but an image or curious fact. In my correspondence with him, he has sent a photo of a 4,650-year-old pyramid at Meidum, Egypt; a portrait of Vasili Arkhipov with the story of how, as a Soviet submarine officer in 1962, Arkhipov vetoed the impending launch of a nuclear torpedo at a U.S. aircraft carrier during the Cuban missile crisis; a diagram he devised to show the atomic particles of the standard model of physics; and a microphotograph identified only as “cross-section of Gustav Klimt’s neurons.” All byproducts of time spent in various rabbit holes.

“Right now, I’m obsessed with the object called Plimpton 322, which is a piece of clay with cuneiform mathematics on it that seems to indicate that 3,200 years ago, the Babylonian Sumerians knew about the Pythagorean theorem and had a kind of trigonometry,” he says. (Pythagoras, again. With Murch, things have a way of coming back around for new convergences, as you will see.) “I’ve been riding that particular hobby horse for the last couple of months. I wrote a paper on the Pythagorean theorem for a course in high school and probably ran across Plimpton 322 then. It was in the news again two or three months ago for some research that some mathematicians have done in Australia. There’s a real tug-of-war between people who believe that it is a trigonometric table and people who think that it isn’t. So, I was trying to determine for myself what it was.” He has been using mathematics software to work out what might have been the Sumerian math. “It’s written in sexagesimal mathematics, which is how the Sumerians worked, base 60 rather than base 10, so you have to convert the numbers. Once I did that, it all seemed pretty clear to me. I finally came down on the side of yes, it is definitely a trigonometric table. It has what we’d call tangents and secants and that kind of stuff.”

The tablet, he says, looks to be an exercise book that would be given to a student. It has four columns and 15 rows. One column is the number of each row, one the length of the hypotenuse of the triangle, one the length of the “short” leg of the triangle. “And the last column is the square of the tangent of the angle shared by the hypotenuse and the short leg, and this would permit a smart student to derive the length of the missing long leg of the triangle,” Murch says. “It’s just a remarkable thing to think that 3,200 years ago, people were dealing with pretty sophisticated mathematics. Then it all seemed to disappear. There was something called the Bronze Age collapse around 1200 B.C. that decimated the civilizations of the Near East, and a lot of that information was lost and had to be recovered later. It was kind of like our Dark Ages in Europe.”

He is patient while he waits to see whether anyone in astrophysics takes up his ideas about Titius-Bode. “These things take time,” he says. “I’m perfectly happy in my rabbit hole. I have a day job making movies. I don’t watch television, so I have to do something in the evening. My wife knits, and I sit here doing pyramid stuff or Plimpton 322 stuff. She shows me her knitting and I show her my diagrams and we each say, ‘That’s nice, dear.’”