Some years ago I was privileged to meet a trans-gendered acrobat who made her living by performing in a side-show at Coney Island. She performed as "the bearded lady" and her act involved riding a unicycle and talking rather directly to her audience. "Whatsa matter? Never seen a bearded lady before? Well, it’s like Toyota: You asked for it, you got it!" And she would wheel back and forth astride her unicycle, skirts ballooning, her long black hair and full beard glinting because, after all, one uses a good conditioner for the sake of showbiz.
I have lost touch with her and I regret this fact. I am just old enough now to have entered that stage of life wherein one can say without affectation: Where are they now?" (I prefer the Latin "ubi sunt" because it’s easier to say under your breath while you’re trying to replace a washer on the well pump.)
Ubi sunt? Where, I wonder, will my Coney Island friend go, now that the amusement park is closing so that the entire area can be Disney-fied. "Ubi omnia sunt?" Where will all of the different people go?
My friend’s "act" was a parody of the old fashioned carnival sideshow and the shabby acreage of Coney Island was exactly the right area for putting on that kind of show.
I worry about the Disneyfication of our nation’s liminal spaces. One can easily forget that parody as an art form requires real ground to walk upon. The current slogan of the National Endowment for the Arts is "a great nation deserves great art" and this is true, but the deeper truth is that "a great nation deserves great irreverent art" and we should all remember that. Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Jackson Pollock, and Judy Chicago are all "not quite ready for Disney" and I fear the evident erosion of free public space where the free thinkers can think.
This has been on my mind lately because I’m in New Hampshire at my summer cabin on Lake Winnipesaukee. I am a lucky guy to have such a cabin. It’s on an island and I have the additional privilege of being able to come here with just my guide dog for company and I get to write and my dog gets to paint–the way dogs do when they have the time.
My cabin faces north and if I could see I could espy the vacation mansion of Mitt Romney who as you know is currently a candidate for the Presidency of the United States.
The old, blue collar shoreline of my beloved New Hampshire lake has been taken over in the past decade by big spending folk who rip down the trees and build pasteboard immensities where there used to be granite boulders and birch trees.
In turn, public space has changed hereabouts. The little town where you could talk to the locals about the virtues of dynamite vs. shoveling when building an outhouse has become a place where one overhears people saying things like: "Let’s fetch this charming little moose-lamp for Grand-mama ,"and the men stand around and talk about the torque of their respective cigarette boats.
And so I find myself thinking about my friend from Coney Island as I blindly replace a nut on my well pump.
I wish for more bearded ladies who ride unicycles and who call the quotidian fashions of her audience into supreme question.
I worry that we’re losing more and more public unicycle space all the time.
By God, America is stuffed with vainglorious and wholly artificial public squares. Even I can see it, and I don’t see so good.