Live entertainment provides an experience that cannot be properly delivered through a computer screen. I come from a long line of performance artists, people who made their living by dancing, singing, playing the accordion, or doing all three while taming wild turkeys. Although today’s world continues to emphasize ephemeral, impersonal entertainment, it is my family’s great hope that, through new advances in technology, we can revitalize our treasured, traditional, yet troubled heritage: the carnival sideshow.
Although much of my family history has blown away like a Twinkie wrapper left at the side of the road, a memoir I recently discovered by my great-great-grandmother Aubrey indicates that her own eldritch and elderly relatives were prime draws at that other London’s famous Bartholomew Fair. For over seven hundred years, people from all walks of life would come to the fair to engage in spectacles otherwise undreamt of. Yes, yes, there were merchants galore to peddle their “healing elixirs”, their unusual foodstuffs, their artisanal contraptions – toys and paintings and clothings and so on. But the part of the Fair where my family treasures were most valued was far from ordinary. It was here that myth, magic, miracles and madness could finally be brought to the fore.
We were the jugglers, the sword swallowers, the geeks, the freaks, the midgets, the trapeze artists. We told fortunes, through tarot or crystal balls, dressed up in starry cloaks, bedizened in only the finest of tacky jewelry and heavy makeup. True, we weren’t all genetically family, but there was certainly less… mingling… going on than most people were used to, even in those days. This was all to our benefit, of course, though it occurred without plan, as it all predated Darwin, and the current knowledge of recessive genetics.
Our best freaks, the ones who brought in the largest gaggles of rubes, came about their talents quite naturally: excessive and uniform body hair; extra fingers and toes, among other body parts; supernumerary nipples and breasts (which could only be presented under strict guidelines, given the Victorian era’s rigid snobbery), and even the occasional tail. Oh, how popular the tails were! You can still find people born with those today (like my brother Dan), but they’re usually simple clumps of skin, free of hair or bone. Great-great granny Aubrey’s gift was a full-fledged tail all her own. Nearly two feet long it was, graceful and playful with a very fine coat of hair, at the tip of which she often added a simple bow. It was a subtle, yet dignified complement to a genuinely exotic dancer.
It was a sad day for my family when the Fair was shut down. Many of us continued on in America with Barnum, the Ringling Brothers and their ilk for the next century; steadier work, though it didn’t pay quite as well. Aubrey left the biz altogether to settle down to a normal existence, hooked up with an apothecary and sold bottles of medicinal heroin for 50p a pop. People these days just aren’t as interested, for now, in ogling circus freaks in person. We have CGI movies! TV! The Internet! …
But there are hints of a sea change in our “civilized” culture, and my family is preparing to capitalize on it once again. You may have heard of Monsanto, and other bioengineering firms that develop things like rabbits and cats that glow in the dark, or goats whose milk come out like the silk of a spider. Well, we’ve been working on building a whole new generation of people with equally impressive abilities. Come see us in fifteen or twenty years, and you’ll meet the cyclopean midget who can squirt blood from his eye to a target 10 feet away!; a woman whose bones are hollow like a bird’s, and can be lifted with ease by the average desk jockey!; and a “mermaid”, whose legs are fused together, whose skin can genuinely change color to match her surroundings, and a voice so extraordinary that, in years gone by, she might have easily enticed lonely sailors to their watery doom…
You’ll see. And you’ll never forget.
My fourth Toastmasters speech. Inspired by “Geek Love”, a novel by Katherine Dunn.