Just a typical day out in Austin, Texas

A long time ago in the hip and happening capital of Texas …

AUSTIN — Motorcycles have their place: soaring over rows of parked trucks; buzzing maniacally inside the Globe of Death; revving on stage at Judas Priest concerts. But they really stank up the city over the weekend, when nearly a billion rumbled in with their owners and the chicks who ride on the back for the annual hog-athon.

The bikes were gorgeous, exotic creatures: fetishistically sculpted chrome and steel, sparkling in the sun, low-slung and high-maintenance. Many appeared like they just vrooomed out of TV’s “American Chopper.” And they were everywhere downtown, rolling in parade formations and shredding the muggy air with hot chainsaw screams and crackling flatulence.

8-12-13-386.jpg

In other words, they were noisy and they took every single parking space. (One bike per meter? Please. You can stuff four of those things between the painted lines.) Still, I’m glad these hairy, leather-laden compatriots, who seem to believe a well-tied head scarf serves the same protective function as a helmet, enjoyed the weekend fellowship and Austin’s renowned ethos of tolerance. It gives the city that rowdy edge.

Levitch1
Timothy “Speed” Levitch

I didn’t even mind that the bikes’ symphonic violence (thousands of tubas played in a rain of napalm) sporadically drowned out my conversation with Speed Levitch at Casino El Camino. Through the bar’s ambient chatter, through the jukebox punk and metal, the choppers chopped.

Speed’s the star of the garrulous documentaries “The Cruise” and “Live From Shiva’s Dance Floor.” The movies reveal a young eccentric whorling through funny, far-out reveries, spinning streamers of soliloquy around the neon rave of his own mind. He’s a performance artist, a living one-man show, radiating an internal spotlight. He’s pretty charismatic, if kind of freaky.

Part poet, part gypsy-hippy, Speed has lots of friends in town and performs here often. He came from New York to do his show over the weekend. Saturday night he was merely hanging at one of his favorite local bars to get one of his favorite local dishes, Casino’s eggplant sandwich.

As we wove through flotillas of idling two-wheelers, Speed told how he’s reinvented his famed New York tour-guide shtick into ambulatory sidewalk theater. (Watch the above movies and you’ll understand.) He was inspired by a friend who coached the late Spalding Gray, Speed said. “He told me, ‘Do what you feel and keep a clear communication with your soul, amplify it, and then call it theater.’ ”

Then Speed sped off.

Later, at the city’s premiere arts venue: Some two hundred people attended Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 sci-fi fugue “Solaris” at the Paramount Theatre.

The turnout surprised me. “Solaris” isn’t action-packed summer adventure. It has more in common with Ingmar Bergman, fog and glaciers than George Lucas, androids and lasers. It’s a challenging, deeply spiritual and very long trip. It’s been called the Soviet answer to “2001: A Space Odyssey.” But Kubrick’s film is “Spaceballs” compared to the abstruse, though fascinating, eye-squinchingly wise “Solaris.”

967bf6f366bd28712a7f041b5c36e7f8

Nearly everyone endured all three hours, despite an intermission — an invitation to flee. As the red velvet curtains closed over an elegant “The End” tag, the audience sat in dumbfounded silence. Eventually, murmurs were heard. Blood returned to vital organs.

I’m picturing some of these brave souls walking to their cars in a stun-gun stupor. They drive silently through the dark, the radio off. At home, they strip, lie on their bed in the dark, and softly weep.

Far in the distance, a chopper revs and groans.

Running the Red Light

As we strolled by the famous Theatre Casa Rosso, Amsterdam’s mecca of live sex shows, our Red Light District tour guide, an American expat with an aptly ribald air, offered the small group a couple of tips. 

“I strongly suggest you go to a live sex show, where you see people actually having sex on stage. And I think you should try the nearby peep show, where you can watch various sex acts through a little window at a cost of 2 euros for two minutes. It’s a riot.”

IMG_1078.jpg
Red Light District canal lined with lust and live sex shows. The fabled Casa Rosso on the left.

She chuckled at her naughty proposals, but she wasn’t kidding. While others in the tour vacantly snapped photos, she took me aside and stressed what a kick the peep shows are in language I won’t share on this page. 

Of course I took the bait. I was in Amsterdam last week and, as always in my travels, I strive for an immersive experience. I’d already caught one of the live sex shows during a previous visit to the city years ago. (It was one of the least sexy spectacles I’ve ever seen.)

IMG_1086
Perhaps the oldest coffeeshop in Amsterdam, The Bulldog, where pot and hash are sold and smoked. It’s also the most touristy.

So I went for the peep show, because at 2 euros ($2.37) there’s little to lose. The peep show theater is like most of the live sex show venues on the lip of the canal — dark with black walls and a few colorful lights. I walked into a broom-closet-size booth, dropped a coin into the slot, and a small window slid open. The whole thing smelled of disinfectant.

On view was a young woman in a thong bikini writhing on the floor, occasionally shaking her tush at my window, then writhing some more. Immediately bored, a tad nauseated, I lasted about 52 seconds. It was unsexy, unsavory, underwhelming. Moral qualms weren’t at play; aesthetics were. Yet I didn’t feel burned as I left. I didn’t know what to expect, although the tour guide promised miles more than what I saw. Glad I missed it.

Next to the fierce, hands-on-hips prostitutes rapping their glass windows to get my attention, that was the extent of the “sexy” side of the Red Light I endured on this visit. I skipped the ultra-raunchy Sexmuseum Amsterdam (I did that on the last trip; one word: bestiality) and the softer Erotic Museum, and eschewed the glut of tawdry sex shops selling so much rubber, leather and latex, eye-popping erotica so loony it was comical.

IMG_1072.jpg
Red-lighted brothel windows where sex workers showoff their merchandise.

Shot through with Instagram-ready canals and curling medieval alleyways, the Red Light District is so iconic it’s practically a cliché. Pot-peddling coffeeshops, bondage and condom stores, coitus and cannabis museums — a cornucopia of no-no’s that happen to be gleefully and legally A-OK. It’s a degenerate’s playground, a voyeur’s wonderland, and an exotic otherworld for the blamelessly curious.

IMG_1097
Oude Kerk

Rinsed of its notorious junky past, the Red Light is safe, clean and aggressively touristy. It can be enigmatic, and incongruities abound: Next to the Princess Juliana Nursery School, where children of sex workers attend, are not only brothels, but also the gothic 14th-century church De Oude Kerk (The Old Church), once Catholic and now a bastion of Dutch Protestantism. It’s the oldest building in Amsterdam. Around the corner is the city’s comparatively staid Chinatown, crackling with ethnic eateries, whole cooked ducks dangling in windows.

While pot-smoky coffeeshops and party-hearty bars lace the neighborhood — see The Bulldog chain — hidden gems are nestled amid the mild mayhem. Just off a canal, tucked in a snug alley, sits the jenever (Dutch gin) tasting tavern Wynand-Fockink, a 17th-century distillery of international renown that packs ‘em into its W.C.-sized room. 

The flavored and unflavored jenevers — scores of varieties line the back wall — are poured liberally in tulip glasses for free tastings. I tried a range of five, settling on a lemon-infused concoction that was as refreshing as lemonade, but with snap. 

IMG_1087.jpg
Some of my samples at the jenever tasting at Wynand-Fockink.

Frankly, it had more bite, imagination and personality than the pallid peep show I stumbled out of moments earlier. A good stiff drink is always a powerful antidote to a spirit-sucking sex show.

The Red Light District can’t quite transcend hard-stuck stereotypes. Yet physically it’s startlingly pretty, graced with old, skinny gabled houses, tree-lined canals and cobblestone pathways. It’s one of the city’s homiest hoods. Bicycles asphyxiate streets with a collective smile, wind-blown hair and the musical clangching of tiny bells.

IMG_1071.jpg

The District bristles with fast food stalls and it’s prime for the mandatory frites, or fries, drowned in mayo. A mad confusion of tourist shops tout the gamut: T-shirts and postcards, psychedelic mushrooms, pot-infused lollipops, trip-happy Space Cakes, bongs, pipes and papers, condoms and cock rings.

You can’t help smirking at this uninhibited XXX Disneyland, which broadcasts its checkered past in blazing neon and, with equally cheeky pride, trumpets a checkered present aspiring to smutty heights. Yet if it knows no limits, it’s clear that most of its visitors do. (As you’d expect, the later it gets, the rowdier it gets.)

The District is hardly running amok (see these safety measures for sex workers), even if some imaginations do. With few exceptions, the place is shrink-wrapped, condom-coated, safe and, counterintuitively, good, clean fun. It’s naughty, but nice.

 

A darkly delightful book of the dead

For the record, family: Do not donate my body to science when I die. Let them harvest an organ or two, scoop out my eyes like melon balls, carve off a carpet swatch of skin.

Then burn me up good.

Scary to say, but my obsession with death, dying and the post-life has only rocketed since I recently re-read Mary Roach’s weirdly engrossing, and joyously gross, 2003 bestseller “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.”

51AT2j73sjL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

The title nearly says it all: Roach’s beautifully reported book is a blunt, euphemism-free, aggressively lighthearted examination of exactly what happens to cadavers that are donated to science and research. (Cue: barfing emoji.)

Facts, history, grisly details and the author’s vivacious gallows humor make the unutterable utterly readable. Roach is smart; she pauses for philosophical reflection about what’s before her, providing a finish of deep and dignified meditation to what could have been perverted voyeurism catering to “Faces of Death” sickos. 

The breezy read features jarring chapter subtitles — “Human Crash Test Dummies and the Ghastly, Necessary Science of Impact Tolerance”; “On Human Decay and What Can Be Done About It”; “Medicinal Cannibalism and the Case of the Human Dumplings” — that are so graphic, they may be all you need to get it. For example, that first one: Yes, dead bodies are used as crash test dummies in vehicles. Splat.

Plunge into the pages and you’ll get the smells, sights and sounds of expired bodies rotting, ripping, being gutted and even crucified. (Scientists still want to know how Jesus died on the cross. Freshly dead bodies are a prime instructional aid. Pass the nails.)

The doctors and scientists Roach meets are a reticent assortment. But she intrepidly presses on. 

o-SYNTHETIC-CADAVERS-facebookSometimes a source will turn his back on her, suspect of her macabre motives.

“You want a vivid description of what’s going through my brain as I’m cutting through a liver and all these larvae are spilling out all over me and juice pops out of the intestines?” snaps a vexed forensics examiner. 

Roach responds to us, sotto voce: “I kind of did, but I kept quiet.”

“Stiff” rests on my growing, groaning shelf of superlatively morbid but essential books on mortality, like “How We Die,” “Final Exit,” “The Denial of Death” and other festive titles. I recommend them all. They will, while you’re still living, change your life.

The Church, still possessed by exorcisms

The exorcists are exercising the bounds of belief. They are exercised by exorcisms.

At a weeklong conference on exorcisms in Rome last week, over 250 priests, theologians, psychologists and criminologists “rang the alarm on exploding demonic activity being fueled in part by access to the occult via the internet,” writes The Christian Post.

The Devil isn’t just in the details, he’s got wifi, and he’s online. He likely has a blog. He’s spreading porn, death and general hellfire across the wicked wide web, cackling as he types. He’s possessing people through Facebook and Instagram, known tools of Satan.

So, sure, perhaps thanks to the ubiquity of the internet, reports of demonic possession have mushroomed. In response, the Catholic Church is marshaling and grooming its troops to tackle the epidemic. 

exorcism.jpg

Hence the conference, as well as Pope Francis’s noted approval of the rococo rites, saying exorcists “manifest the Church’s love and acceptance of those who suffer because of the Devil’s works.”

Jesus — er, I mean damn. Because of the spike in requested exorcisms, “There are priests who carry out exorcisms on their mobile phones. That’s possible thanks to Jesus,” an Albanian Cardinal said at the conference, presumably with a straight face. (“That’s possible thanks to Jesus”? What about Verizon?)

Exorcisms on mobile phones? (Dial 666.) It’s hard to imagine. No crosses, rosaries or holy water? No comforting holding of hands and signs of the cross? No projectile pea-soup vomit? Do they use FaceTime, or just speaker phone? 

Most of the aspiring exorcists truly and openly believe in a physical Devil, as does Pope Francis. They believe in full-blown possession of humans by evil spirits. They might actually believe the 1973 film “The Exorcist” is a documentary. 

Demon-possessed people are known to suddenly develop supernatural strength, have radical changes in their voice and speak languages they’ve never known. They sound like superheroes.

“Most commonly they speak Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic,” says Father Pedro Barrajon. “If you show them a holy object, like a rosary or a cross or a picture of the Madonna, they go into shock and start yelling.”

That happens to me often, especially if it’s Madonna on her “True Blue” tour.

the-last-exorcism-part-2-banner.png

Figuring if actual demonic possession has occurred requires ruling out conditions like mental illness, epilepsy, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or drug abuse.

“Not everyone who thinks they need an exorcism actually does need one,” said Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki. “It’s only used in those cases where the Devil is involved in an extraordinary sort of way in terms of actually being in possession of the person.”

I trip over that last phrase: actually being in possession of the person. Sometimes I feel satanically possessed, but it winds up being just a diabolical case of indigestion.

Yet these people, these hallowed priests and bishops (and pope!), honestly believe the Devil, that online prankster, can possess a human being and take over their mind and body, for whatever unfathomable purpose.   

Devil-Father-Amorth-Movie-Real-Exorcist-Director-William.jpg

It’s no wonder that, even within the Church, stigma and cynicism wreathe the ceremony. It remains controversial, yet, as we’ve seen, exorcism’s popularity keeps swelling.

And the Church isn’t fooling around with that puckish Devil. The Albanian Cardinal said sometimes you had to get tough with him amid the magical theater of an exorcism and actually holler hurtful commands such as, “Shut up, Satan!”

There’s that, or you could call him a big ninny.

Flippancy aside, the truth is that the notion of exorcisms is so far removed from real, actual, everyday life, it simply does not make a single speck of difference, and, frankly, means absolutely nothing. It’s a sham, hysterical hocus-pocus, sheer knowing chicanery that does what it desperately needs to do: help keep a tottering Church from buckling.

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 doubtful. Short, maybe, but also a human being, and one with many adoring 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

Chang and Eng Bunker.jpg
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. 

CraniopagusTwins-1024x253.jpg

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.)

chang_engjpg__600x0_q85_upscale.jpg__600x0_q85_upscale.jpg
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.

image-1142642-galleryV9-ovom-1142642.jpg
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.)

libraryatthepublictheaternewyork2.jpg
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. 

IMG_1037.jpeg
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.