I am seven and in Coney Island’s Steeplechase Park – a magical relic of a Victorian amusement park. I’m lost in a dark hallway and I’m ascared. I must have taken a wrong turn getting off the Shoot-the-Chute.
I open a door and I’m in the employees’ locker room. Right before me sits a dwarf-clown in whiteface but only halfway into his Pagliacci costume. Baggy clown-pants below. Guinea T-shirt on top. He is smoking and reading The Daily News. He sports a popular tattoo – a black panther climbing up his forearm and drawing drops of red blood with its claws. The dwarf-clown gives me a genuinely malevolent look – not one of those stagey, evil dwarf-clown looks so popular in modern horror-movies. This dwarf-clown hates being a dwarf. Hates being a clown. Hates being the same size as this seven-year-old punk standing before him. Hates me. “Get the fuck outahere,” he rasps.
That same year, I see the freak show at Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus held in the old Madison Square Garden where Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Jake LaMotta, Rocky Graziano and Rocky Marciano fight. It’s where Emile Griffith from the Virgin Islands kills the Cuban Benny “Kid” Paret. At the weigh-in, Benny calls Emile a “maricon” – that’s spic-talk for faggot. In Round 12, Paret is out on his feet but trapped in a corner and held up by the ropes. The homosexual Griffith shows no mercy. Remember what I told you about our dusky brothers not liking each other? Remember what I told you about boxing promoters feasting on that hatred? The Garden reeks of that bloody history. And, with the circus in town, it reeks of lion piss and elephant dung. (Henry Miller, like me a Brooklyn boy, wanted an English language that reeked of lion piss and elephant dung. I doubt Henry ever smelled them in combination. The stench stung my eyeballs and melted the enamel from my teeth!)
The Ringling freak show features sword-swallowers, snake-handlers, fire-eaters, bullwhip-crackers, knife-throwers, fat men, skinny men, rubber men, a family of albino midgets and the star of the show – Johann K. Petursson, the Icelandic Giant – the Tallest Man in the World. Johann is no sissy giant, no puny, pituitary-gland pussy he. Johann is a true giant – 8’ 8” tall and brawny with a bear pelt draped over his shoulder.
Johann wears a tall Viking helmet with horns as tribute to his forebears and to make himself look even taller. My father buys me one of Johann’s green plastic rings as souvenir. The giant places it on his finger for a moment as consecration. I can fit all five of my five-year-old fingers inside it. I still have that ring.