Writers get it. Whether it is a blank piece of paper in a typewriter (remember those?), a flashing yellow cursor on a black screen, or thin blue lines on a piece of notebook paper, the feeling of writer’s block is terrifying. I’ve lived through all of the variations of writing I’ve described above and suffered for it.
And even now, when I'm staring at a blinking black vertical cursor on a white screen version of paper, it still grabs hold of my shoulders, makes my fingers rigid, and my mind small.
All weekend long I’ve been playing with ideas about Albuquerque. I’ve got half a dozen blogs half written, and none wanted to come to fruition.
So I asked my teenage daughter, a budding writer herself, what I should write about.
Her answers were delivered rapid-fire.
You should write about fall, how the mornings are nice and cool and the nasty hot weather is finally gone. You should write about how it is almost time for hot soup and hot chocolate, and warm things to eat and drink. You should write about how soon there will be balloons in the sky and green chile roasting will end and so will the tomatoes from the garden.
And then she paused.
Or you could write about the “State Fair” – finger quotes in the sky and just enough supercilious attitude to make me think this is a topic worth exploring.
And she ranted about the lack of healthy food, and the animals in cages, and the general absence of good art, and the fact that you have to sign a liability waiver for the bungee cord jump – just like signing a waiver for your death.
And then she paused and said, “Plus, there are no freak shows. Albuquerque needs more freak shows.”
And I realized she was right.
At some point, the freak shows stopped. When she was young, I remember entering the fair and seeing brightly colored trailers housing a bearded lady, and maybe a human serpent with a woman’s head – or was it a goat with a man’s head?
The paintings were lurid, the marketing sensational. When I was a child, my mother would not give me money to see the freaks. I did the same with my own children – I was not about to pay a penny of my hard earned graduate assistant's salary so they could peep at freaks. But it goes deeper than that.
I was one of those kids who went to the library every week and checked out a stack of books that I could barely see over. I went through the fiction section of the children’s library, and graduated to adult fiction (not that kind) at a precocious age. One day, I wandered across the aisle to adult nonfiction. And I stumbled across a book about by Ashley Montagu about Joseph Merrick
– years before the movie
was made. Right next to it were other books about freaks.
Now maybe it was because I felt like a freak myself, wearing a hearing aid the size of a cigarette pack in a body harness; maybe it was because I was predisposed to reach out to the underdog; or maybe it was just because I was a sensitive girl who worried if it hurt the flowers when you picked them.
I checked out those books on freaks and read them in one night, huddled under the covers with my hot pink alarm clock with a built in nightlight that changed colors from blue to green to yellow to orange every sixty seconds. (Why use a flashlight that requires replacing batteries and explaining to mom why the batteries keep dying before their time?)
I cried at the Elephant Man’s life, rejoiced at the marriage of General Tom Thumb’s
marriage to Lavinia, and wondered if the ‘mustache’ my mother bleached every month would ever turn her into the bearded lady.
I gaped at the size of the giant Big Joe Grimes
’ feet, wondered if the pygmy living at the Bronx zoo
ever missed his family, and tried to figure out how Chang and Eng
could stand all that togetherness, when my own brother and I couldn’t even sit next to each other on a road trip without some sort of shenanigans erupting.
Years later, I started reading up on Disability Studies. And “the Other”. And “normalcy”. And objectification. And what it means to use someone as a means to an end.
I connected it to those freaks I had read about long ago and later saw in Diane Arbus'
And when I took my kids to the State Fair, I just couldn’t bring myself to give them money so they could gape at the freaks.
Last week my daughter asked if I was aware of a psychology experiment that recruited actors to act as “primitive people” housed in a zoo. The purpose of the experiment was to record the reactions of the gawkers. Suffice it to say this did not capture the finest moments of humanity.
This week she is toting around a novel
written by a friend
of mine who sometimes leaves her new home in the City Different to get a fix of Albuquerque’s vibrant creative scene.
It’s about the inner lives of freaks.
Image from the Damn Cool Pics blog. Click on the photo for more public domain images.