Over 20 years ago, I wrote about this experience relating it to America of that day. It’s time for a new telling.
I grew up in the Chicago area. In the mid-fifties I was in the sixth grade. During those years I had a paper route. Talk about anachronisms, newspapers were actually read back then. Anyway I had this paper route and it was a miserable job – dogs in the dripping heat of summer, freezing your tail off all winter long, and once a month I had to collect. That meant wandering up and down the streets on a Saturday trying to get jerks to cough up a couple of bucks to keep me in business. That’s right, payment in cash. But I was good at it. In sixth grade, I won an award. I’ve forgotten what it was for, but the prize I will never forget. It was an evening at Riverview.
Now anybody who grew up in Chicago during that period remembers Riverview. It was one of those great old sleazy amusement parks, a bloated carnival on a permanent location with a wooden roller coaster and a pot load of other dangerous rides that looked like they’d disintegrate the moment you sat down on them. All summer long Riverview advertised on the Chicago TV stations. Their main pitchman was a local personality named “Two-Ton” Baker, that’s what he called himself. He was a really large guy who did noonday programs for kids. All summer there’d be these commercials showing old “Two-Ton” taking up two seats on a roller coaster, yelling to display his sheer joy and probably to prove that if the thing held him it’d hold anybody. Anyway, you get the picture.
Riverview was the last gasp of an era. It died with the coming of the giant fake reality theme parks of today where everything is perfect all the time even the plants, which they change constantly to make sure everything is always blooming. Riverview was an honest straightforward temptation. It whispered to kids, “Come wander in my shadows. Come listen to my rats crawling around behind the boards. Come debauch.” We loved it.
Anyway I won this trip to Riverview and the greatest part of it was that my parents wouldn’t be going along. I’d be with a group of paperboy “winners” just like me, young delinquents in training. And, the peak of ecstasy? Our “chaperones” would be the paperboy “supervisors” from The Daily Journal. Now my parents didn’t know it but these guys were absolute losers, basically drunks who had been promoted far beyond their level of competence. Going with them was like going alone. They gave us cash and went off to a bar. Oh joy from heaven. Sixth grade. Money. And Riverview without adults.
Now when I say this was an old style amusement park I’m not joking. On the boardwalk it had a freak show. Can you imagine such a thing today? Try to picture a freak show at Disney World. So after you’ve gorged yourself on delicious little bags of dead meat euphemistically called “hot dogs” and braved all the dangerous rides at least six times, where’s an eleven-year-old boy gonna be found? I don’t need to tell you. So, I bought my ticket and walked in.
I found myself in a stark, ugly little room standing with a small crowd in a roped-off area. There was nothing fancy about this. It was as down and dirty as you can get. Three feet beyond the rope sitting on wood pedestals and little chairs were seven or eight freaks. And they were the real deal. Nothing fake here. It was a collection of poor sad human beings with bodies that looked like they’d been created in a Hollywood visual effects house. The instant you walked in, there was a seriousness about the place. Nobody laughed. Nobody talked. The freaks looked at you and you looked at them and then you left. But while I was there, something happened in that room that I will remember as long as I live.
One of the freaks was a little old woman, probably in her sixties. No more than three feet tall, her face was deformed beyond ugliness and all of her limbs bent in the wrong direction. She was just sitting there and you could imagine that she had done this all of her life. Suddenly into the room walked a man carrying a little girl about three years old. Why this idiot had brought her there no one could imagine. I was eleven and I was appalled. Of course at the time there was no rating system on freak shows so how could you blame him?
Anyway, the man with the little girl stopped in front of the little old woman. The instant the child saw this frightening creature she became terrified and started to sob. It was a horrible moment. Then, as I watched, that little deformed lady started to cry too. Quietly, without a sound, the tears ran down her cheeks. After all the years of being stared at, all the years of loneliness and pain, the humanity in her eyes was overwhelming. Then, that little woman began to talk to the little girl. Softly, with a voice like your grandmother and mine she tried to comfort her, to reach out with words because her arms weren’t long enough and they bent in the wrong direction. It was one gentle heart whispering to another. She said, “Don’t be afraid, sweetheart. It’s all right. Nothing is going to hurt you. See? I am crying too.” Eleven-year-old boys are not known for their deep sensitivity, but if I live to be a thousand I will never forget that scene.
Over 60 years have passed since that night. Riverview is long gone and I was thinking about freaks the other day. Often, we hear that we are a nation ruled by Laws. Untrue. We are a nation ruled by stories. The stories we love reveal who we are and what we are becoming. And, at this dark moment of American history our collective story should be titled, “Freaks Rule.” Not the good, honest freaks of Riverview, the true freaks. Us.
What is the story of our national freakhood? At its heart, is an addiction beyond politics and parties, beyond religion in all of its forms. It is the center of our lusts and aspirations, the hidden claw that rakes our lives, the chimera behind every lying story and every broken dream. Our money shrieks it to us, “In God We Trust” and money is the dark god in which we believe. Beyond all other gods we worship at its altar. From courtrooms to boardrooms, from churches to casinos, from shacks to mansions from whore houses to White Houses, without our green god, we are filled with fear. In money we trust and in our tattered freakhood, we pray desperately that the science money buys will save us from Covid-19. In this diseased and dying nation our doom is smeared on restroom walls. We have mocked the true God who loves us. We have mocked the Righteous Judge whose fingerprints of majesty are everywhere on earth. We have mocked the blood prints of His Dying and risen Son who came to save us and will return to rule.
In this awful year of 2020, to commemorate our mockery, I have written a new American Psalm. It goes like this:
Let’s all mock God together, as a pastime, it’s delightful, and there’s nothing more insightful than sleek souls that are self-satisfied.
Let’s all mock God together, some are sure He’s non-existent, so they disregard that strange, but very persistent, tiny, gnawing fear.
Let’s all mock God together, let’s trust in our blind science, to excuse our cold defiance, as we prepare for the living darkness that lies ahead.
Let’s all mock God together, obsessed with streaming distractions, to make us forget our evil actions, for certainly we answer to no one but ourselves.
Let’s all mock God together, in a culture dithering toward senility, we glorify scurrility, and claim every wretched sin to be a human right.
Let’s all mock God together, while black men die under bended knees and hang from barren trees, above their corpses flies our patriotic flag.
Let’s all mock God together while frightened families are torn asunder, we continue to oppress and plunder the poor who pick and carve the food that gives us life.
Let’s all mock God together, in our well-insured complacency, with frightening indecency, we watch sufferers without help go bankrupt and die.
Let’s all mock God together, while we FUND the skilled aborters, the dead baby sorters, who cut out souls, then chop and sell.
Let’s all mock God together, maskless shrieking offenders, freedom’s great defenders, infecting all with the spitting selfishness of hell.
Let’s all mock God together, toilet paper hoarders with excremental disorders flushed through texting fingers to screens throughout the world.
Let’s all mock God together, porno cyber suckers, groaning, spermy muckers with minds that reek of rotted flesh.
Let’s all mock God together, while wealthy men buy someone’s daughter, to use, abuse and slaughter, hell awaits their final day.
Let’s all mock God together, while we bloat like good consumers, pushing shopping carts of tumors, blind to the cancer that eats our souls.
Let’s all mock God together, with ventilators wheezing, millions go on pleasing the little god that gasps between their ears.
Let’s all mock God together, while patriotic churches worship mammon, their souls are starved in famine without a morsel that will save.
Let’s all mock God together, though His judgment is long in coming, we can hear the death march drumming for nations too evil to repent.
Let’s all mock God together, I’m sure He doesn’t hear us, and we have Amazon to cheer us while America grinds slowly to her grave. Yes, let’s all mock God together.
That, my friend, is our tragic national story. And stories rule. But in my heart I wish I could write a different story. It would be so radical that everyone would freeze in shock. It would start this way. Into the Oval Office, rancid as it is with tweeted droppings, I would bring a new person to lead our land. For her, the President’s chair would be too large and the desk would be too high. There would be no rose-garden signings jammed with the fatuous elite. Her arms would be too short and they would bend in the wrong direction, so putting her name on our great laws she could not do. When the TV cameras focused on her many would be filled with horror and revulsion. They’d demand to know why such an aberration had been allowed to live, why her mother hadn’t ended her in a merciful abortion. But she wouldn’t listen to the ranting rage. Every slithering insult, every denigrating whisper, she had heard a thousand times before. In fact, she wouldn’t talk to us at all. Instead she’d speak softly to our terrified little children. And with her words and tears maybe they’d be able to see beyond her ugliness into eyes filled with love, beautiful beyond comprehension, because in her suffering she had seen the Face of God.
If only we had a true, honest freak in the White House to lead us to national mourning and repentance instead of national death. It wouldn’t take long for that little grandmother to touch hearts that hadn’t yet turned to stone. I can tell you, at that freak show in Riverview so long ago, it took only five minutes for her to touch the heart of an eleven-year-old boy.
Cry for our beloved country. The evil freaks rule.