1001 Nachts: a Fourteen-minute Journey from Absurdity to Mindfulness

Freak show posters.

I knew the carnival was there, but I couldn’t yet see it. Rounding a long curve at twenty miles-per-hour, around the northern perimeter of the CoolSprings Galleria, with the interstate running parallel on my left, I looked up at just the right moment, and through a break in the tall trees, I saw flashing, colored lights. The lights formed a number and a word: “1001 Nachts.” At first, a tiny spark of excitement rushed through me, provoked by the sight of a carnival ride–a vestige of childhood perhaps, one I wouldn’t have expected to feel as an adult. But there it was, the old excitement: even though I wasn’t going to ride anything or play any games, or even treat myself to some wayward, deep-fried confection, the little surge had come. Second, I wondered why the word nights was in German. The original collection of stories known as The Thousand and One Nights, as you probably know, was written in Arabic, so it had to be translated into something, right? But why not English, for an American audience? Here are two theories: either the ride originally operated in Germany, OR . . . somebody thought “1001 Nachts” sounded more exotic. My measly Google research yielded nothing, so I’ll go with the latter of those theories, a choice allowing me to good-naturedly mock the ride maker’s naming decision while still appreciating the imagination that went into creating this magic-carpet simulating ride.

1001 Nachts

It was 4:45 on a Wednesday afternoon, so I didn’t expect a bustling crowd, but what I found was no crowd at all. In fact, there were no visitors anywhere, except me. There were people milling about, but it soon became clear they were  all employed by the amusement company–each one had on some color variant of the same digitally-embroidered polo shirt. Rides spun with no one on them; appeals to play games were directed solely at me. It was a bit surreal. Finally, someone informed me that the carnival didn’t officially open until five, though I was free to stroll through the premises and be harassed by game operators. I was only a few minutes early, but early nonetheless. It was opening night, and no one was there yet . . . but me.

From an actual conversation.

Some of the game operators wore headsets, the purpose of which apparently was to let them speak to customers without yelling. I found this out after I’d only barely entered the loop, before I’d made eye contact with anybody. “You ready to shoot some hoops?” It took a couple seconds to find the source of the question. Then up ahead, some thirty or forty yards, standing in front of a basketball shooting game, a young man was smiling at me. It seemed ridiculous he’d solicit my money from that distance. But it didn’t seem to matter to these hi-tech carnival barkers whether I was near them or far away. Indeed, a few minutes later, a woman spoke to me via headset from a mere four feet, which was kind of weird, like talking on the phone to someone who’s in the same room. She demonstrated how to stand a bottle upright with a ring-on-a-string so I’d know the secret and all I’d have to do was give her a few dollars and then I’d have my pick of any of the stuffed animals hanging from the canopy’s ceiling. Something I found hilarious, though, was her response when I told her no:  she said, “I understand.” Why this was so funny, I’m not sure. I guess because it was such a real-world answer to a situation that was inherently absurd. It surprised me she didn’t keep pressing. Maybe she too sensed how uncomfortable this one-on-one interchange with a headset was. I moved on, passing through the shadow of 1001 Nachts, which soared atop its flat post, sometimes lit, sometimes not.

The highlight of my solitary, earlybird, parking-lot carnival stroll would have to be the freak show tent. I never expect to see this in modern times, except for maybe at Coney Island, where a legitimate historical–albeit quirky and gloriously anachronistic–culture surrounds it (though to Coney Island’s credit, I’ve noticed the gentler term “sideshow” often used in place of “freak show” in their promotional literature). The phenomenon of the freak show evades the flailing and grasping tentacles of political correctness, somehow; the whole idea of profiting off labeling people as “freaks” seems like it would be an intolerable subversion in our society. But nevertheless, at the very back of the carnival, a red and yellow striped tent stretched wide across the pavement, its facade covered in various classic freak-show style posters, testifying to an uncharacteristic laxity in the aforementioned political correctness.

The posters on the tent might’ve been as much decorative as they were informative. I couldn’t tell from the posters what was actually inside the tent versus what may have been merely a set of freak show tropes, included on the facade for simple effect. There’s no way all the things advertised were really in there: Chupacabra, Bigfoot, a unicorn, Dolly the Two-faced Cow, and the Eight-Legged Freak–all under one roof?! Come on now! (Save something for the other freak shows.) But I do love the freak show aesthetic–part Victorian, part Vaudeville. It’s a look that stubbornly has never changed with the times. Maybe because, every generation, no one can believe it’s still here.

He’s in there . . .

A dry-erase board near the tent’s entrance provided clarity: there was definitely a fire-eater and a sword-swallower inside (the same person, perhaps?). While I was taking pictures, a slump-shouldered and heavily pierced man in a tank top shuffled by and disappeared into the gloom of the tent. A minute or two later, I could see him sitting in there, on a metal folding chair. I wondered if he was the sword-swallower. He was watching me, which was more awkward than creepy. I had the sense he was no freak at all but a regular guy, just waiting for his shift to begin. In that minute, he was the subject of his own life, but when the show began, that’s when he’d transform from man to freak–from subject to object. Questions like “did he choose this life or did it choose him?” ran through my mind. And I guess I could ask that of any carnival worker. It’s no secret those jobs are few people’s idea of desirable. Yet we’ll always have those jobs, and we’ll always have the people who work them–thoughts which remind me of the importance of kindness. It’s easy to look down on people whose job it is to beg strangers to compete for prizes they don’t really want, prizes that probably aren’t worth the money spent trying to win them–stuffed animals that not even kids really care about. But behind that solicitous carnival worker is a person who probably wonders how they ended up there; a person who feels they have no other option; a person trying to stay sober; a person who’s lost everything; a person who never had anything; a person who’s alone; and yes, probably one or two who actually like what they’re doing–people who find freedom in the transience of it, in the camaraderie of it (I witnessed this in those few minutes before the place opened); people who enjoy helping others have fun, and certainly people who don’t get hung up on whether a sign reads “1001 Nights” or “1001 Nachts.” So in addition to me reminding myself to be kind, here’s another reminder I got from my fourteen-minute-long carnival-wandering experience: people are more than their jobs. I wish there was a Netflix documentary profiling carnival workers. I think it would be fascinating.

As I was returning to my car, other people had begun to arrive. A woman took a picture of her daughter posing with raised arms in front of the Ferris wheel. I can only imagine that photo ended up on social media, complete with witty hashtags and links to various family members’ accounts. 50 Cent’s “In da Club” was playing somewhere; it seemed to be coming from the basketball shooting game. A worker near the front was mouthing every word. I drove out the way I’d come in, and just before the carnival disappeared behind the trees, I looked in my rearview mirror, and you can probably guess what I saw, hovering high above where the carnival used to be: 1001 Nachts.

Alan D. Tucker
Content writer, essayist, and novelist.

 

**For a truly, um, “unique” story involving the ride in the first paragraph, 1001 Nachts, click here.

The Sideshow Influence (Part Two)

Clockwise from top left: Amy Winehouse; Donna Reed; Jesse James; Tom Hanks.
Clockwise from top left: Amy Winehouse; Donna Reed; Jesse James; Tom Hanks.

The sideshow influence is highly visible in the realm of celebrity, and in the category of celebrities that appear to share common lineage with freak show performers, there is an unwashed yet attractive quality.  To say unwashed in this sense is not necessarily to say unbathed, though that may be the case.  Here, rather, the description of “unwashed” has to do with a socially subversive quality, the opposite of which is clean-cut and polite.  It is Amy Winehouse versus Donna Reed.  It deals with the adoption of an appearance or persona with roots in subculture instead of mainstream culture.  Take as example the outlaw motorcycle fabricator, Jesse James (not to be confused with outlaw robber Jesse James, though there may be striking parallels).  He is more infamous than famous, a designation that was always somewhat in place but was made concrete by his public headlong plunge into marital infidelity, the victim of which was a perceived “nice” girl, casting James even more solidly as a villain.  Yet we watch him anyway.  There he is, on a television rerun, with his tattoos, muscle shirts, slicked-back hair, and bad attitude, cracking wise and insulting everyone within tongue’s reach.  And the entire time, though amidst a swirl of antagonism and snarkiness, James emits a dark charisma, negativity notwithstanding.  There is something electrifying about his presence.  There is a feeling that, if any time was to be spent around this guy, I would need him to approve of me, for reasons known only to a therapist.  His reference would not look good on a job application, but his acquaintanceship would sure be exciting.

 

Now consider the much-maligned carnival worker, i.e., the carny.  The image that comes to mind will vary from person to person, but it is safe to assume it will be a marginal character, probably dirty and evil-looking (whatever that means, “evil-looking” being a fluid concept that changes from era to era and among the classes).  In spite of the sweat-stained seediness of the soiled-jean-and-undershirt-clad, greasy-haired vagabond that I imagine, it must be admitted that, beyond the revulsion, there is a sense of freedom that is very attractive.  It may be a thing projected onto the carny from my imagination, but it is there, and the reason why is unclear.  Is it attractive precisely because it would be out of character to espouse such a lifestyle?  Is it the vicarious thrill of glimpsing a freedom only hitherto imagined?  It matters less whether the carny actually feels free.  It is the perception of freedom that matters.  Like many of us, these scandalites tend to wallow in the grip of one vice or another.  The difference is, their shortcomings are on display in a way ours are not.  The carny inspires an odd mix of curiosity and disdain that enthralls.  So it goes with notorious celebrities, like Winehouse and James (whose names put together that way make them sound like an indie-rock duo).  Some accept these marginal figures, some reject them, but they are never fully embraced by the general public in the same way as someone safe, like Tom Hanks, is.  Their names tend to come with a caveat:  “She’s a good singer, but…”, or “He builds good motorcycles, but…”  Whereas a celebrity of Hanks’s status may get an unqualified “He’s such a good actor.  I just love him.”  Then everyone piles into the minivan and heads home from the movie theater.

 

By definition, a sideshow happens outside the main tent.  The sideshow influence is the observable phenomenon that takes place when the denizens of the freak show begin to surface inside the tent.  It is not necessarily a bad thing; the main tent could use some variety.  Expand this freak show metaphor to the culture-at-large.  In the vast seas of clean-cut, conservatively dressed men and women expanding and contracting according to the rhythms of the workweek, it is becoming more common to spot a figure of James’s or Winehouse’s ilk, and our collective visual palate may be all the better for it.  These people remind us that life has a gritty side, which is as integral to the whole enterprise as the urbanity for which so many strive.  Chaos is just around the corner, waiting to encroach upon our neatly groomed exteriors and carefully appointed schedules.  We can resist it, accept it, or embrace it, but we cannot make it go away.  Hardly a character from popular media has expressed this notion better than radio deejay Chris Stevens (played by John Corbett) from television’s Northern Exposure.  Upon being asked why he had done something illegal, Stevens replies, “People need to be reminded that the world is unsafe and unpredictable.  And at the drop of a hat, they can lose everything, just like that…chaos is out there, and he’s lurking, beyond the horizon…sometimes you just gotta do something bad, just to know you’re alive”(“Spring Break”).  Maybe the adopted outsider status and anti-conformist posturing of certain groups of people are the very ways in which those people realize they are alive.  Whether it is bad or not, who are we to judge?

 

 

Works Cited

 

Amy Winehouse.  Digital image.  People.  2007.  Web.  11 March 2013.  <www.people.com/people/amy_winehouse/0,,,00.html>

 

Donna Reed.  Digital image.  Women large jaw.  N.d.  Web.  11 March 2013.  <www.womenlargejaw.com/node/2154>.

 

Reality star Jesse James.  Digital image.  San Marcos Mercury.  14 Sept. 2012.  Web.  11 March 2013.  <snmercury.com/2012/09/14/reality-star-jesse-james-to-appear-at-thunderhill-races/>.

 

“Spring Break.”  Northern Exposure:  The Complete Second Season.  Writ. Joshua Brand, John Falsey, and David Assael.  Dir. Rob Thompson.  Universal Studios, 2006.  DVD.

 

Tom Hanks On HBO Pics.  Digital image.  Your Stuff Work.  2011.  Web.  11 March 2013.  <yourstuffwork.blogspot.com/2011/11/tom-hanks-on-hbo-pics.html>.

 

The Sideshow Influence (Part One)

mstrip3aAt the intersection of circus culture, rock culture, biker culture, and intellectual culture, a current flows–distinctly American in its independent spirit–just outside the mainstream.  It is rooted in the gypsy-like traditions of social drifters and outcasts, with their penchants for exaggeration, drama, and garishness, often with a dark bent.  It is a mindset cultivated on the fringes of polite society.  A style that harkens back to the days of the traveling freak show, in which a barker peddled to passersby some fantastical grotesquery just inside a tent, has managed to manifest in a variety of creative ways, from amusement park rides to tatted-up rockers to modern-day hipsters.  The accoutrements of the marginalized have surfaced on Main Street.

 

Attached to this broad-yet-identifiable style are a tough-minded pragmatism and a generous autonomy, and a willingness to embrace differences–even flaunt them–rather than tamp them down.  An assertive stubbornness shows in this countercultural questioning of much-accepted standards, seeing if what those standards are based in is anything more than just widely adopted prejudice.  One may find traces of this influence in places like the French Quarter, or at roller derby bouts and horror festivals, and lest it be thought that dark is synonymous with evil, let it be remembered that evil often wears a guise of moral uprightness–the guise of which is rooted in middle-class Victorian manners, which ironically is the exact time period when we begin to see the emergence of the traveling sideshow.

 

An early glimpse of this freak show aesthetic came to me in the late 1980’s in the form of a thrill ride at the now defunct Miracle Strip Amusement Park in Panama City Beach, Florida.  The rides at this park could have been culled from any carnival—a tilt-a-whirl, a scrambler, something called a trabant—but they were given nuance by their housing within structures unique to their location.  The particular ride in mind was cheekily named Dante’s Inferno (not the only amusement ride with that name–see Coney Island), and it consisted of a black dome with a giant devil’s head attached whose gaping, fanged mouth served as the entrance.  The ride waiting inside could have been anything; the real fun was assured by the ride’s outer shell and the anticipation arising from waiting in a line that entered a wide, demonic grin and disappeared into a scream-filled darkness.  Yet the demonic visage was unthreatening.  Darkly playful is a fitting description.  No one standing beside those massive molars possibly could have felt they were in any real danger, and therein lies the key to the sideshow sensibility.  This is just the type of cheap thrill offered by the traditional traveling freak show, where much of the excitement is generated before one ever enters the tent.

 

The freak show remains an actual thing, perhaps most famously at Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York.  The major difference in the modern version of this historically notorious event is that the culture of it seems to be as much a part of the presentation as the performers themselves.  It is difficult to imagine the freak show without its particular trappings, such as the posters that illustrate the talents of the featured “freaks”.  These posters tend to present flat, almost cartoon-like figures with exaggerated and sometimes monstrous features.  The settings are depicted in lurid colors (lots of rich reds, ghastly greens, and pallid yellows, all with black outlines), and the descriptive text is rendered with elaborate, out-of-date fonts.  The focus has shifted from human deformities (like a third foot) to extreme feats and radical appearances, such as a sword-swallowing woman covered in tattoos.  Without this shift, it is questionable whether a freak show aesthetic could survive in our politically correct era.  Prolific chronicler of off-Broadway productions, Simi Horwitz, offers up an additional explanation for the sideshow’s enduring presence:  “The sideshow is pure Americana, a performing arts offshoot that has not yet been gussied up.”  It belongs to the world of folklore and myth, a realm once-removed from the subconscious.  It is a genre largely forgotten by time, written off by the tastemakers of contemporary society.  Their outsider status has enabled them to fly beneath the conventional radar for so long that a tremendous freedom of expression and identity has been allowed to thrive.

 

This is where we begin to see parallels between the sideshow and a host of other subcultures.  There are the tattoos so prevalent among bikers and rockers; the daredevil tactics of skateboarders and freestyle bicycle riders; the theatricality of actors and actresses; the racy routines of burlesque dancers; the physicality of roller derby girls; the graphic style of comic book artists; and even the bohemian pose and scruffy dandyism of hipsters.  All of these groups are marked by tight-knit inclusion–either you get it, or you don’t.  The majority of these groups eschew middle-class mores, regardless of upbringing, viewing such concerns as either disingenuous or as part of an establishment that does not have their interest in mind.  Likewise, these groups provide outlets for those who must find their identities outside the mainstream.  If current trends are any indication, this includes a significant part of the population.  The sideshow is alive and well.

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Work Cited:

 

Horwitz, Simi.  “Sideshow Performers Define Themselves in the Modern World.”  Backstage.com.  24 Aug. 2011.  Web.  24 Aug 2011.