The first time I attended the Monroe County Fair, I got to see an honest to-God-freak show. There was a sword-swallower, a bald guy who pounded framing nails up his nose, a girl who played with snakes and thrashed around in a bogus electric chair, and a two-headed pig fetus floating in a 3-gallon jar.
So, when I went back the following July and was told there were no more prodigies of nature on display - “We’re a family fair now” - I gave up on this annual gathering of rip-off games and tepid rides.
But the hope did not die and when I returned years later delight was mine again, finding that the Fair promoters had gotten back to basics and rescinded the no-freak rule. There, in all its sordid glory, was a tent surrounded by lurid paintings of monsters. A clamoring constant spiel exhorted me to “See the Batboy! He’s only three-and-a-half feet tall. He only weights 50 pounds. The world famous Batboy. Ask him how he got that way!”
Eagerly, I paid my buck and entered the inner zone. This was no fake, no pickled punk as they’d had years before. Yes indeed, there was a real Batboy, if not the real Batboy. He required no cage. And though he was covered with tattoos, and truly misshapen - his ears stuck out and his face was caved in - he proved to be a very polite freak. He sat with a fan blowing on him and a boombox nearby to keep boredom at bay. He nodded and greeted the trickle of fans and nervous gawkers. The kids who hung back, trying to call up a little fear or shock, exited more puzzled than afraid.
When I had him alone, I bought a cheap xerox picture as a souvenir. I lied about my name and he signed it, “Nice to meet you, Boris.”
I got him talking and here’s what I found out: he was from California, he was 26 years old and he’d only been doing this routine for a few months, traveling around the country on the county fair circuit. He did nine-hour stints, with one hour off for lunch.
The general feeling I got was more of embarrassment than terror. He made a few desultory lunges at the kids, but didn’t give even a halfhearted growl or gibber. He seemed more like a bored TV viewer in his temporary living room than a source of freak-show weirdness. He sat in his comfy chair, day after day, and watched the parade of humanity pass by, and he was not terribly impressed. “I see hundred and hundreds of people each day,” he told me. “Some of them want their money back because I don’t scare them.”
But this is not to say that the Fair held no terrors. For free, I experienced the nightmare that called itself The Puppetone Rockers. If Bertoldt Brecht had worked with the Muppets, if a forgotten Euro-trash disco act had its own cable-access kids show, if flea-bitten marionettes writhed in agony in the inferno that yawns beneath Sesame Street, then they might approach the angst generated by Puppetone. Worst of all, a section of the stage detached itself at one point and the two keyboard-pounders drove around the fairgrounds like a float from a Hieronymus Bosch hell-parade. “Superkids! Superkids!” they kept chanting. A curse? A forgotten advertising slogan? A desperate prayer to some unknown, unsavory, god?
I was trapped at one point as a giant pink monstrosity thrashed like a hanged man on the gibbet. Nearer, nearer, it loomed as the drum machine ground out its kiddie death march.
I escaped, barely, and went back to have another talk with Batboy.