A not-so-tall tale, in short

True story: A woman came into the cafe and she was so short, I thought she was a dwarf. On my third or fourth glance, I realized she was indeed not a dwarf, just spectacularly diminutive, stout and normally proportioned, yet Lilliputian.  

Is my vision that bad? Am I seeing things? Has my fascination with human anomalies and “very special people” warped my lens on the world so that normality contorts into the freakish? 

Upon entering, the child-size woman was immediately surrounded by cafe baristas crying her name in joy as though they had not seen her in many ages. This was a moment of celebration. Hugs were fulsomely exchanged, and every employee had to crouch considerably to administer an embrace that would not be too awkward. 

Who was this center of such lavish attention, this magical elf? From where does she hail? Was she treated so kindly out of pity? That seems entirely doubtful. Short, maybe, but also a human being, and one with many friends. 

Arriving later, a very rangy barista saw the woman and bent down dramatically to hug her, his body a folding, upright accordion. She asked him if he’d sprouted even taller since they last met. No, he laughed.

She also laughed, chuckling, “Maybe I just shrunk.”

Siamese twins: Freaks? Marvels? No. Human.

“There is the 19th-century obsession with abnormality — that insatiable desire of humans looking at other humans as monsters.” — “Inseparable” by Yunte Huang

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Chang and Eng Bunker, the “original” Siamese twins

Siamese twins don’t keep me up at night, don’t chill my bones, not like Julia Pastrana, enshrined in her time as the Ugliest Woman in the World, or the appetite-suppressing Grace McDaniel, the Mule-Faced Woman, that poor, poor dear.

Freaks they may be, but Siamese, or conjoined, twins aren’t freaky enough for me. They are marvelous and reality-bending, sometimes shocking but usually just remarkably human and, despite wincing deformities, almost normal. They are not, as so many freak show stars are reduced to, depraved monsters.

Take Chang and Eng, the most famous of all conjoined twins. Whisked from their native Siam (present-day Thailand) as teenagers by Western opportunists who swore to bring them back to their aggrieved mother in five years time, the twins embarked on a journey that would take them to America and England as wildly celebrated sideshow attractions. They would never return home. 

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It was the early 1800s and the boys, who became forever known as the “original Siamese twins,” wowed spectators used to ogling human marvels, from the limbless to the scale-covered and, later, the extreme likes of the Elephant Man and Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy.

A London newspaper wrote, “Without being the least disgusting or unpleasant, like almost all monstrosities, these youths are certainly one of the most extraordinary freaks of nature that has ever been witnessed.”

That’s the start of the true story told in the sensitive new biography “Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous with American History” by writerly crack reporter Yunte Huang. It’s a strange tale, it’s a sad tale, one of courage, dignity, triumph and increasing oddness, yet one of naked humanity and crackling history, including illuminating nods to the Civil War, Herman Melville, Lincoln (who apparently liked cock fighting) and Mark Twain, who, transfixed, wrote a story based on the twins.

Conjoined twins have existed since at least recorded history, in royal courts (alongside impish dwarves and the cruelly deformed), Indian villages to brimming metropolises. “The occurrence is estimated to range from 1 in 49,000 births to 1 in 189,000 births, with a somewhat higher incidence in Southeast Asia and Africa. Approximately half are stillborn, and an additional one-third die within 24 hours,” notes a scientific journal.  a6667e8dffd824d02b052c8f2a63dba2

Those are abysmal survival odds. Indeed, the whole conjoined-twin phenomenon seems like a hateful prank played by a sadistic God. But somehow Chang and Eng made the best of it, despite inevitable exploitation on the sideshow circuit, invasive, humiliating medical examinations by gawking, prodding doctors, and of course racial prejudices of the era.

They were also comparatively lucky. Chang and Eng were joined by a mere cord of ligament at their sternum, as opposed to twins conjoined at their skulls or buttocks, sharing multiple organs, rendering them certifiably handicapped, facing heartbreaking physical hardships. (Bittersweet aside: If they were alive today, modern medicine could easily and safely separate Chang and Eng.)

They were bound for life by “the connecting band — the key to the twins’ mystery,” writes Huang. The band looks like a slab of rubber stretched to the brink, rather like an arm on Stretch Armstrong, bridging their stomachs. The twins did share a fused liver, an oversized organ on permanent display in a pan of liquid at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. (I’ve seen it, twice. It is disgustingly glorious.)

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Chang and Eng’s death cast at the Mutter Museum, Philadelphia

A single bellybutton was nestled in the center of the flesh tube, which actually grew with daily wear and tear. Once, “as Eng tried to stand up, he was pulled down by the fleshy string that had tied him to his brother,” says Huang. “Over the years, constant tugging had stretched the cord from its original four inches in length to five and a half, allowing a little more flexibility.” (Some Vaseline and a good masseuse might have done wonders.)

Here the story veers to, at minimum, vigorous eyebrow raising. After lucrative years on the exhibition circuit as “freaks of nature,” Chang and Eng moved to rural North Carolina where they bought land, owned 32 black slaves (!!) and married two white sisters and, spectacularly, sired 21 children. (They had separate genitalia.) In the book’s chapter “Foursome,” Huang explains how the twins had sex: gingerly. Tangled limbs, “Pardon me’s,” whispered apologies, averted eyes — one envisions a hot, or not so hot, mess.

During the Civil War, the Bunkers pledged allegiance to the Confederacy, which didn’t work out so well for the brothers financially. Soon they were on the freak circuit again to cover costs. They died of natural causes at age 62 in 1874.

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The remarkable cast of a 19th-century freak show.

“Freaks,” “marvels,” “wonders” — sideshow performers, trading in dubious self-exploitation, were labeled florid epithets to amplify their bizarre and exotic natures. It must have been a beating on their psyche and self-worth, robbing them of a portion of their soul, exposing themselves to dehumanizing gawking. It’s an ugly, despicable racket.

Chang and Eng might have, by virtue of their mostly normal appearances, been spared the worst of it, avoiding fainting audience members, brutish hecklers and degrading qualifiers, like “terrible” and “horrifying,” in their promotional material.

Yet nothing was ordinary for them. They were extraordinary, suffering under constant “otherness,” a state critic Leslie Fiedler so sharply dubbed “the tyranny of the normal.”

Still, they were in their own way normal. Wives, children, struggles, longevity, relative happiness. They were like the rest of us strivers and survivors — human, all too human.

One wedding and a birthday

So I let myself get a little worked up and twisted about yesterday’s big birthday. But it mostly flowed like any other day, except, and this is remarkable, I wore a dark blue Hugo Boss suit, purple striped tie and black and purple Cole Haan wingtips the whole day. It was the very first time I’ve worn a suit, unless you count the three times in my life I’ve donned tuxes (one prom, two weddings).

Worrying about one’s birthday is futile, frivolous, fun-free. Age truly is, as the maxim goes, just a number. I don’t like my new number one bit — it’s ugly and has fangs — but fretting over it is so much twaddle. Life blunders forth. Let us proceed.

Some boldly aver, “Bring it on!” but that’s a scary invitation. I’m not welcoming the disease and decrepitude waiting to pounce as time advances. Death I’m not uptight about. I could use a few extra years of uninterrupted slumber. But hospital beds, catheters, sippy cups, hospice — I’m having none of it. I have given notice. 

But life was lived on my birthday. As noted in a blog dated one day before the monumental occasion, my friend happened to slate his wedding for the same day, so my brother and I hit Manhattan, natty in suits and ties, for the connubial affair, which was intimate and lovely and all manner of florid, fortuitous festivity. 

Set at the tweedy, incomparably cool Library at the Public Theater in the East Village — book-lined shelves, leather sofas, dim lighting, no windows — it was resplendent. The open bar was hugely appreciated by all. (That’s what I call a birthday present.)

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The Library at the Public Theater.

Following the afternoon nuptials, we walked long and far across the city, down Broadway and into the Saturday farmer’s market in Union Square (I bought the dog a pig’s ear), past the Flatiron Building, where selfie-takers swarmed and giggled, to the Todd Snyder shop, where my brother, an incorrigible clotheshorse, shopped for eons. 

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The Flatiron.

As I reclined in a chair while he agonized over product and prices, an employee, kind of crazily, offered me a snifter of The Balvenie Scotch whisky — liquid gold. I accepted. When finished, he offered me another one. I accepted. I told him it was my birthday, to give his lavish generosity meaning. He shook my hand. His name is Carlos. He is heroic.

More walking and a subway ride took us to dinner at Tom Colicchio’s ritzy Temple Court in the Beekman Hotel in Lower Manhattan. Exquisite whiskey sours, divine tasting menu, ultra-classy service, including several congratulations on my birthday. Dessert arrived speared with a candle and the server assured me they would not be singing “Happy Birthday.”

Something clicked yesterday. What was it — the lovely wedding, the big city, the complimentary whisky, the sumptuous dinner, the mindfulness of the staff not singing that goddam tune that made me think: birthdays, they’re not so bad.

Bitching about the birthday

The birthday blues are too obvious, an emotional cliche as lamentably predictable as Christmas cheer and Valentine’s self-pity.

Too bad. I’ve got those jangly, moaning blues, just a little bit, for tomorrow I smash head-on into one of those big, hairy birthdays, the kind with horns and tusks that makes you spin yet makes friends and family giggle. 

I’m getting older when I specifically asked the calendar to cease and desist from advancing. It’s disgusting. But I can do this. 

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Plans for the Big Day? Hilarious. A good friend scheduled his wedding for tomorrow, so I’ll be spending a chunk of my time celebrating someone else’s milestone. That should keep my mind off things. Pass the Champagne.

(Truth be told, I haven’t actually “celebrated” — party, gathering, friends — my birthday since I turned 13. The attention mortifies me.)

Spiffy (or is it scratchy and twitchy?) in suit and tie from the nuptials, I will then be taken to a suave dinner at Tom Colicchio’s swanky Temple Court in the Beekman Hotel in Lower Manhattan, courtesy of my swell brother, who is also attending the marital event. (Kudos, Jeff and Debbie!)

Do birthdays really change anything? Will I wake up tomorrow with a jungly, gray Moses beard? Will my insistent lower-back ache go into sudden overdrive? Will the pain in my left hand morph into full-blown grandpa arthritis? Will my ambivalent outlook on life, a fraught shade of charcoal-gray, turn black, black, black?

On all counts, I think not. Tomorrow, April 7, will be an overcast Saturday, breezy and easy, featuring a soiree that I don’t even have to throw — I’ll pretend it’s my birthday party — a day in New York, and a dinner sure to stagger. 

The calendar pages flip. It happened one year ago, no big deal. It happened the year before that, ditto. A dear friend said not to worry, I have scores more years to go. I’m not sure that’s the best news — I’m really not digging visions of me in my nineties.

I fear aging, not dying. One will beat the other; it’s a race to the finish. My birthday is just another lap.

Art exhibit’s visitors in a nude mood

The naked man looked at the clothed man, and then he looked at the naked people, and then back at the clothed man, all the time wearing a scrunched look that said, “What is this dude doing here?”

This dude (yours truly), fully dressed, was there to talk to naked people. He told the naked man this, and the naked man relaxed. But the clothed man did not relax, for he was one of only a few clothed people in an art gallery filled with naked men and women.

Twenty-one of the naked people were there in the literal, quivering flesh, and about as many were hanging on two long walls, the subjects of life-size photographs by artist George Krause.

m5x00046_9Recently at an urban art gallery, a bevy of nudists came to a nude art show. The nudists, an informal tribe of devoted clothes peel-offers, are always on the lookout for novel ways to gather, and what’s more fitting than naked people looking at naked people?

The gallery owner was happy to give the group a private viewing, and Krause, clothed but bald, came to talk about his work. Each human-size black-and-white portrait depicts an ordinary person, standing stark naked, facing the camera. His singular technique uses white light to create a smoky sfumato effect, bathing the figures in a ghostly, X-ray glow.

Naked people admired the photos’ indiscriminate honesty, and the boxy, concrete gallery echoed with the slappy patter of bare feet. Sipping cheap cabernet in plastic cups, nudists mixed casually in the shocking altogether, proud in their mammalian resplendence. They embodied all sizes and shapes, from pears to bears, though the age scale tipped to ear hair and back aches.

“Seeing the photos in the middle of a group of nudes reinforces how many different kinds of bodies there are,” said nudist Bill Morgan, whose body hair could pass for clothing in some cultures. “Running around with this group has done a lot for me in terms of accepting my own body.”

One thin woman was all bare flesh but for a yellow Livestrong bracelet, while a tall man with a round belly wore only silver-rimmed spectacles. A green, quarter-sized tattoo announced itself from a woman’s right dorsal cheek. Tan lines: oddly scarce.

The nudist group has roughly 60 members, about 40 of whom are men, says club president Steve Bosbach, diminutive and hairless as a fish. The lopsided male-to-female ratio was on full-frontal display at the private party. It was a man’s world.

There was chatter about “liberation,” “society” and the nudist “agenda,” yet a curious dearth about sexuality and the whole nakedy thing. One wondered how these people abstain from . . . looking.

“With some practice, it’s completely possible to maintain eye contact with a topless woman,” Morgan said. “You don’t stare, but you don’t avoid looking in a particular direction either.”

Morgan has a long gray ponytail and lives with his mother, who was surprised by his nuditude. She doesn’t see him naked, though her son likes to spend a few hours a day kicking back in the buff. Like his clubmates, Morgan does many things without attire, cut free from the bondage of cotton fibers. Perhaps it’s the leather seats, but one thing he has not done is drive naked.

“I’ve wanted to drive naked a few times after club get-togethers,” he said. “Putting the clothes back on is the hardest part.”

Human figures, so creepy, so astonishing

For many, Easter Sunday is a time to reflect on one very important body, the one that rose from the dead to make thunderous proclamations and upend the world forever.

For me, Easter Sunday, a few days ago, was a time to reflect on scores of bodies congregated in a Manhattan museum, a reflection that furnished its own transcendence, its own religious experience, if you will.

These bodies — from the gorgeous to the gruesome; the hyper-realistic to the freakily figurative — comprise the knockout exhibit “Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300-Now)” at The Met Breuer, through July 22.

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The old and the new, juxtaposed.

“Like Life” nimbly and epically presents some 120 works spanning 700 years, from classical Greek to contemporary bad boy Jeff Koons, and oodles in between: Donatello, El Greco, Jean-Léon Gérôme, Rodin, Degas, Louise Bourgeois, Meret Oppenheim, Isa Genzken, Charles Ray, and so many more.

The show’s thrills (and chills) include an awesome array of wax effigies, reliquaries, mannequins and anatomical models — including graphic autopsy depictions — plus tiny-scale sculptures from the Renaissance and beyond. There is lots of nakedness.

My visit was a promenade amid faces and bodies, hands and limbs and heads, some bloody, some immaculate. Many of the life-size bodies, often made of wax, are so realistic I practically did double-takes. Once in a while I flinched and muttered, “Christ.

Juxtapositions with ancient and new figures are clever and provocative, almost none of them without wit and wonder. Throughout, spellbound, I contemplated mortality and deformity, the genius of art and the supremacy of the visionary. Gladly, I was just as often captivated as creeped-out. It’s a sweet and savory affair.

Below is part of the population crowding the best show I’ve seen since the Irving Penn photography exhibit at The Met last summer:

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Detail from “The Whistlers” (2005), a sculpture by Tip Toland. Jarringly realistic, profound and whimsical. Just look at that face.
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In “The Digger” (1857), is this skinless man shoveling his own grave? In the background, an especially grisly crucifixion from medieval Germany.
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Faces from the ages: Center is the ethereal “Mask of Hanako, Type E” by Auguste Rodin (1911). At right is “Self,” a frozen-blood self-portrait by Marc Quinn (2006).
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“Housewife” (1969-1970) by Duane Hanson. Commentary that is both witty and withering, this snapshot of quotidian, housebound tedium is a diorama of depression.
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“Michael Jackson and Bubbles” by Jeff Koons. A porcelain monstrosity that’s actually pretty hilarious depending on your mood and/or critical perspective. (I think the consensus is that it’s hideous.)
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“To the Son of Man Who Ate the Scroll” (2016) by Goshka Macuga, a speaking, moving android that pontificates with chilling verisimilitude about life, death and global concerns for 38 minutes. Eerie and mouth-agape mesmerizing, he’s the spiky, intellectual counterpoint to Disney’s anodyne animatronics.
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“Self-Portrait with Sculpture” by John De Andrea, 1980. These are not real people. The frontal view is firmly R-rated, the tableau slightly disturbing and thought-stirring and so true-to-life, it makes you start. (Can you name the extremely famous painting in the background, left? It’s a beautiful juxtaposition with the sculpture. Answer: “Pygmalion and Galatea.)
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I don’t know who this is, or who made him. But he emanates a special brand of banal magnificence.

To hell with Hell

Pope Francis was quoted last week saying there is no Hell. 

Beautiful, or blasphemous?

Bad souls “are not punished,” the pope told an atheist Italian journalist. “Those who do not repent and cannot therefore be forgiven disappear. There is no hell, there is the disappearance of sinful souls.”

Whatever that means. Poof, sinful souls just vanish? They’re off the hook? No eternal rotisserie of mortal flesh and soul? Is Dante discredited? Did my heavy metal records lie? 

The Vatican quickly denied Francis uttered such sacrilege, rebuking the whole conversation, which happened to be between a writer who has historically put words into the papal pie hole. Perhaps the unscrupulous scribe will get a taste of the writhing pits himself. (Or maybe he’ll just disappear. Poof!)

“Had the pope been speaking as the vicar of Christ on earth, he would be contradicting 2,000 years of Catholic doctrine, rooted in the teachings of Christ himself,” writes unreconstructed right-winger Pat Buchanan. “It would be rank heresy.”

APP-033018-POPEI sincerely doubt the pope declared there is no Hell. But I wish he did. Why? Because, I humbly offer: There is no Hell. (Now it’s my turn in Beelzebub’s barbecue. Pass the sunscreen, SPF 50,000.)

The proof is paltry. Yet maybe there is a Hell of the sort Dante depicted in his “Inferno” with such wondrous, gruesome gusto. If so, then there should be a Heaven, too, and I really can’t go that far. All dogs go to Heaven, it’s said. True that. People? I think not, for a panoply of reasons. For one, they’re stinkers. 

Dante limned Nine Circles of Hell for sinners: First Circle (Limbo); Second (Lust); Third (Gluttony); Fourth (Greed); Fifth (Wrath); Sixth (Heresy); Seventh (Violence); Eighth (Fraud); Ninth (Treachery). 

He ticked most of the boxes, though he could be more specific (treachery?). And a little more lenient (gluttony?). And where are rape and murder? Do they fall under the violence rubric? He should have added a Tenth Circle for man buns. I’m afraid Dante’s prioritizing is scattershot.

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Trying to figure with certitude if Hell exists is a fool’s errand. Unless, I suppose, you listen to an evangelical site I tripped and fell upon, chipping a tooth. It talks about people who have had “hellish near-death experiences in which the individual descends into a hellish location — an otherworldly place so frightening, desolate and horrible that it changed their lives instantly” and put them on a path to Christ. 

I shudder. With my luck, if I have a near-death experience, I’ll land at a Celine Dion concert. I’ll return, eyes bulging, screaming the Lord’s name.

But that’s not possible, because I don’t buy any of it. Belief in Heaven or Hell goes hand in hand with belief in the mythological overlords of those domains, God and Satan. They’re like cartoon characters to me, figments of desperate human imagination, magically supervising our collective conscience from an airbrushed ether. 

And Jesus? Well, I’m certain he was an actual historical figure, a masterful personality and a brilliant and wildly charismatic rabbi. He was executed on a Roman cross, for no one’s sins. He never rose from the dead. He was the son of mortals — mom, no virgin — not of gods. He was human, not divine. And he was just one of countless so-called messiahs of his time. But he got the most press. He had an amazing agent.

Queasily, as I type all this, I keep thinking (or am I praying?): I really hope the pope actually said there is no Hell. If not, I’m probably cooked.