Step Right Up

This kind of thing never happened in Florida.

I was driving down the main strip through Asheville and saw some folks setting up a tent in the parking lot of a hardware store. But not just a tent, a sideshow tent. In passing I saw some clowns and a band setting up and a guy dressed as a walrus. So when I found a parking space a few blocks away, I headed straight back.

And--Asheville being the kind of town it is--on my way there, I was hit on by a guy; three people hit me up for change; I saw a Welch street magician do the famous cut a rope in half then restore it trick while calling his American audience Mexican; I watched a guy painted white and a girl painted silver pretend to be statues then play musical instruments at random moments; and I checked out the celestial paintings of an airbrush artist, done right there on the corner. And I won't even begin to mention all the musicians and bands I passed by.

Mermaid sideshow banner

Then it was sideshow time. Turns out the sideshow set up in the parking lot was actually a sideshow to the main sideshow inside the Orange Peel. The main(?) sideshow was a big event called the American Burlesque and Sideshow Festival. I have no idea what went on in there. The one in the parking lot was free. Made up of what I think were local performers and weirdos, they had great costumes and painted banners harkening back to the days of traveling carnivals. "Tatiana the Temptress," announced one banner with a picture of a tattooed woman. Another held the shocking visage of the walrus boy. As the clowns finished up their preliminary jouncing about, I sat down not knowing what to expect, but ready to be amazed, shocked, and delighted. The banners promised I would be.

What ensued was a mixed bag of performances, some of which just involved costumed women walking around as someone read a poem. But the costumes were all fantastic, and as I let go of the depression I had been nurturing for weeks, I found just the experience of being back among my fellow freaks was enough. The belly dancers didn't exactly belly dance, but when four half-naked females shimmy and shake that way, it's art, my friend, call it whatever else you want.

There was a puppet show, the strangest I've ever seen. The puppeteer wore the stage, a giant humanoid being with long, thin arms and a plastic face and articulate mouth. The giant sang about global warming. Then a tape worm/sock puppet poked out of his stomach and sang about the wonderful money-saving and waste-reducing advantages of a rain barrel. Only in Asheville would a tapeworm puppet teach us about water harvesting at a sideshow.

It would be criminal if I didn't comment on the band. Hellblinki. A three-piece specializing in dark cabaret-style music, a bit of Oingo Boingo tossed in with Tom Waits and Edgar Allen Poe. They sang about murder, pirate ships, nightmares. All with an air of gallows humor. I will definitely seek them out again. Save the next Saint Vitus dance for me.

Animal Oddities sideshow banner

Oh but I still haven't gotten to the best part of my adventure. You see, I only thought I was having fun. Then I met Lil. I'm not good at guessing kids' ages, but I'd put Lil at about four. Her sister was maybe six. They sat down next to me on the asphalt and ate tortilla chips. Lil introduced herself and started asking questions, which I felt bound to answer. Why were all the women wearing high heels? Because it made them look taller. How come they were all wearing black? Because it looks spooky and cool. What does that thing do? It's just a piece of art, it stands there and looks neat. Turns out I was wrong about that one. The thing with the wheels and tambourine and drum and spindle and half an dulcimer and whatever else? According to Lil, it chooses a person and wraps around you and makes you dance. I should have known.

Lil was ecstatic to see a Teletubby emerge from the tent and start wandering through the crowd. She had to have constant alerts as to his whereabouts and tried in vain to get his attention. When I heard him say to the crowd, Go home and watch TV and forget all this stuff, I got the feeling Lil didn't really want to meet this particular Teletubby. And what was the Teletubby's name? Teletubby, Lil told me. They were all named Teletubby. But I thought they had names like Po and whatnot. Oh yeah, Lil said, they're named Po and Pee Pee and Poo Poo. Oh yeah.

Poo Poo the Teletubby got into a fight with a giant frog named Tadpoly, and Lil was the only one who didn't want to see the frog knock Poo Poo's block off. But the frog was triumphant, and all the adults cheered, and the sideshow came to a close.

Lil and her sister found their parents and went home. In case you were wondering why they chose to sit beside me of all people, it's because I am also six years old. I'm tall for my age, but other kids can tell.

I didn't want to stay and talk to the performers. I preferred to think the walrus boy had to rush back to his tank of seawater rather than hop out of the gray burlap sack that was his tail or that the tattooed woman didn't scrub her illustrations off and put on something sensible that she didn't threaten to flop out of at any moment.

Tattooed Girl sideshow banner

I left with a smile on my face, the tumbling rhythms of the band banging in my heart, amazed, shocked, and delighted.

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Chokes and Warbles
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Chokes and Warbles, a collection of essays and poems by Michael Channing