A couple of years ago while strolling the boardwalk at Coney Island I stumbled upon a strange display of American ingenuity that was both fascinating and disturbing at one and the same moment. A large crowd was gathered at the threshold of what appeared to be a vacant lot. My curiosity piqued, I wandered over to the edge of the crowd to find out just what in the hell all the excitement was about. A carnival barker, I shall henceforth refer to simply as Barker, stood shuffling off to the side, bullhorn in hand, belting in rhyme a sadistic appeal to all who dared draw near.
"Shoot the Freak, Ladies and Gentlemen, shoot the freak, shoot him in the eye make him cry, shoot him in the head, watch him drop dead!!!"
Peering through a small opening in the crowd I finally saw what all the fuss was about. Armed with a paintball gun and a half full party cup of Budweiser, an overweight middle aged gentleman wearing a ball cap with an American Flag emblazoned upon the front, stood braced behind a beat down barricade, firing off a rapid succession of shots at a heavily padded carnie shuffling dispassionately at the opposite end of the pit below; the Freak as it were, buried beneath a complete outfit of haphazardly assembled protective gear, entirely inhuman in appearance and easily superimposed with whatever object of Freak inspired hatred one wished to project upon him, her or whomever.
In the case of Mr. America the Freak quite likely represented Osama Bin Laden, Ralph Nader, or Tinky Winky, the purportedly gay Teletubby, or some other such Freak of the Week within his preferred paradigm. What else had I to go by? I could have been wrong. I frequently am and wouldn't be surprised to prove so yet again. There's always the chance he might have entirely misrepresented himself, in staunch betrayal of the liberally minded, down to earth dude, philosophical dude he truly was. There's always the chance he might have been a huge Bill Mahr fan. Chances were however, he wasn't nearly as clever as I'd imagined him to be and so far as he was concerned what you see is what you get. At any rate I turned my attention back to the man of the moment, Mr. America, hell bent on victory in the fight for freedom.
After several missed shots, an orange ball of paint splattered across The Freak's Shield. The Freak, however remained unphased. There's only so much melodrama a disillusioned young carnie can conjure before crapping out entirely and merely go through the motions. Either that or there was more going on there than was immediately apparent.
"Ooooo!" the audience exclaimed in utter amazement, doing their best to celebrate Mr. America's hit, despite the marked lack of response on behalf of the Freak.
"The Freak's been hit, but he ain't gonna' quit, do better than that if you wanna' make him fall flat!!!" taunted Barker with all the bluster of a bully on a grade school playground.
Down in the pit, the Freak taunted Mr. America half heartedly as he fired off another missed shot.
"Aww!" the crowd lamented.
"C'mon, guy that ain't gonna fly, just one shot, is that all you got?! Hit him with two, show him what you can do!!!"
His pride on the line, Mr. America tossed back a thirsty gulp of Budweiser, swiped his mouth with a flustered forearm, steadied his aim as best he could and launched a rapid volley of shots at the Freak. Not one of them hit.
"C'mon, guy, your wife's standing by, you keep firing blanks, she'll start sayin' no thanks!!!"
Having depleted his initial supply of paintballs, Mr. America tossed a shameful glance back at his wife who nodded in reluctant approval. He plunged a grubby mitt into the pocket of his shorts and withdrew his wallet, slapping a five dollar bill firmly on the counter. Barker's assistant, likely an alternate Freak himself, swiped the five and reloaded Mr. America's weapon with a fresh round of ammo, as Mr. America finished off the last of his beer.
"Alright, buddy...you got you some balls, now give it your all!!! Make your wife proud, no sissies allowed!!!"
Mr. America fired one, two, three, four, five shots in a row, none of which successfully restored his shaken manhood. His face flushed, he tossed his left leg behind him and leaned nervously into the barricade taking careful aim at the Freak who stood in staunch defiance in the pit below.
"C'mon, dad you can do it!" his teenaged son rallied in support.
"Don't be a clown and make your son frown, lay down the law, shoot The Freak in the jaw!!!"
Mr. America turned and shot an angry glance at Barker. He paused a moment, took a deep breath and focused intently on his target. He fired a single shot. It missed, disappearing into a pile of garbage. He fired another, even further off the mark, flying high over the back wall. He shook his head in disgust and launched his remaining eight shots recklessly at The Freak who staggered from side to side narrowly dodging each one.
He adjusted the bill of his ball cap, stood stone still for a moment, staring scornfully down at The Freak and turned to Mrs. America for yet another nod of approval. She shook her head side to side in an overt display of disgust. His account overdrawn, Mr. America shook his head sheepishly, plunked his paintball gun down on the counter, stuffed his hands in his pockets and shuffled shamefully back toward his embarrassed wife and son.
"Well ladies and gent's, it look like he's spent, every dog has its day, what else can ya' say?!!" Barker barked from behind his bullhorn. "How 'bout your son, maybe he can shoot a gun, give it a try, shoot The Freak in the thigh!!!"
"Yeah, dad can I try?" pleaded the son.
Fearful of being shamed yet further, Mr. America shook his head disdainfully as he ushered his young son through the crowd.
"No, Junior, that's it, it's over, we're done!!!" declared Mrs. America as they pushed their way through the crowd and disappeared amongst the masses.
"Shoot the Freak, shoot the Freak, ladies and gentlemen!!! Shoot him in the hand, say it was planned, shoot him in the chest and prove you're the best!!!"
Suddenly, the crowd scrambled in all directions, save for a small group of college kids, stoned out of their minds and entirely incapacitated with hysterical laughter. Barker suddenly shot a glance my way. I froze.
"C'mon buddy, you got the guts?! Throw down some cash, shoot the Freak in the nuts!!!"
Apparently I'd hesitated a few seconds longer than I should have. I thought for a moment.
Loathe as I am to admit it the temptation to "shoot the Freak in the nuts" was there, if not for the novelty of shooting the Freak, then surely for giving Barker a run for his money. However, having nuts myself and a full fledged acquaintance with the pain of having them so much as lightly tapped, let alone shot at, I found hypocrisy of doing so to one of my testicular contemporaries entirely unsavory. Further to that, having witnessed the cruel demise of Mr. America at the hands of Barker, the fear of failure in the face of such a challenge was eclipsed by the fear that the nuts of my male psyche would most certainly suffer an assured shot or three, a prospect perhaps more painful than its physical counterpart.
I turned and took a few steps in the opposite direction.
"Alright buddy, it's all up to you, if you ain't got the balls I'll find a guy who has two!!!"
I paused for a moment. Despite all rational reassurance I couldn't shake the sudden sense of rage that rose up within me. I closed my eyes and envisioned myself tossing Barker a twenty, stepping up to the plate and launching a relentless round of paintballs that'd knock the Freak flat on his ass with a precision that'd make an Army sharpshooter blink twice; thus striking Barker speechless and in need of a good several years worth of speech therapy that'd render the Freak show terminal without it's essential antagonist to play upon the fears of all passersby.
Clearly there was no escape. Having long since entered the realm of the "Shoot the Freak" show, I'd surrendered the bulk of my dignity to begin with, what had I left to lose at that point? Five bucks? Enough to pick up an order of chili cheese fries and a Coke at Nathan's? Given the choice between restoring my dignity, an improbable prospect at best, and losing it entirely, I chose Nathan's; wondering all the while if there was in actuality any difference between the two. At that point however, I could care less. I was hungry as hell. Thus hunger, as opposed to hubris, won the day. A wise move on my part, prompted more by necessity than anything else.
Just as I reached Nathan's and took my place at the end of the line I caught sight of Mr. and Mrs. America seated at one of the picnic tables, shouting back and forth at one another, engaged in their own verbal version of "Shoot the Freak". Young Junior sat silently devouring a plate of nachos.
"For cryin' out loud Otis, would ya' let it go already?!" she implored him.
"Aw, hell Arlene, all I'm askin's for five more dollars, that's it, that's all I'm askin's just five more dollars, five more dollars and I'm done, I'm through, I promise!"
"How many time's' have I heard that the past hour'n'a' half, Otis!!!" Arlene challenged.
Otis was dumbstruck.
"Five is ten is twenty is forty is...for Christ' sake Otis, you damned near spent a hundred dollars messin' with that stupid thing!" she fumed.
I couldn't help but feel sorry for Otis. The ridiculous nature of the situation was all too familiar. I'd felt Otis' pain on more than a few occasions. I'd been there myself, in similar such instances, having suffered the pains of public humiliation in the presence of those I knew and loved, my manhood mangled beyond all recognition over some trivial matter equally as absurd; like riding the damned Cyclone with a former girlfriend so as not to arouse her suspicions, all the while screaming like a school girl scared shitless and in need of a good swift slap in the face; just one of many such moments I've suffered at the expense of what otherwise needn't have been proven.
I felt the urge to stroll on over to Otis and give him a hug with the full fledged assurance he'd redeem himself at some point; if not in New York City, then certainly when he'd arrived back in Omaha, full of tales to tell, which could be altered accordingly to the expectations of his intended audience. Amid Arlene's detailed account of how she met Matt Lauer after a taping of the Today Show, Otis could wax victorious about how he shot the Freak shitless while Sharon Stone looked on in wide eyed wonder. The folks in Omaha'd never know the difference. Then all would be well indeed and he could then resume going about the business of maintaining his stature in the community, if not until the next financial dispute between himself and Arlene at the local Sonic.
"Excuse me sir?! Sir?!"
I returned my attention to my place in line. There was nobody left to place an order but myself and the two dozen or so folks waiting impatiently behind me.
"You gonna' place an order, sir or you just gonna' stand there?!"
"Oh. Yeah. Right. Sorry. I'll take a small order of chili cheese fries and a large Coke."
Apparently I'd become so absorbed by Otis' and Arlene's argument I'd taken complete leave of my senses.
"That'll be five dollars and thirty-five cents" the vendor declared. I glanced at his name tag. Reggie, it said. Suddenly recalling I'd only five dollars left in my wallet, I felt a wave of embarrassment wash over me.
"Ah, hell, I...I'm afraid I forgot to...stop by the ATM. All I've got's five dollars. Is there an ATM around here anywhere, Reggie?"
Reggie's irritation increased visibly as he paced back and forth, nervously anticipating a mad rash to the counter.
"How much do you need, son?!" an old woman a good ninety some odd years old whispered from behind me.
"Oh, no, don't worry about it maa'm, I'll just…is there an ATM around here anywhere?!"
There's nothing worse than making a purchase and not being able to pay for it. ; aside from the burden of an angry horde of hungry tourists and a ticked off hot dog salesman glaring at you all at the same time.
"Here you are dear", the old woman muttered, handing me a dollar bill. "You keep the change dear, you never know when you may need it."
"Thank you, maa'm. I appreciate it", I responded with gratitude only outright humiliation can offer up.
"Oh, don't you worry dear. You just give someone else a hand when they need it."
"I will", I promised. "You wouldn't mind if I asked your name, would you maa'm?" I asked.
Of course, I wouldn't. Doris, my name's Doris."
The prototypical elderly woman behind the counter in a large town. A deus ex machina of the geriatric variety.
"Thank you, Doris."
"You're welcome, dear", she smiled.
To the relief of Reggie, I paid the remainder of my balance and made my way to an empty bench at the edge of the boardwalk. Taking a seat I turned and glanced back at the table where Otis', Arlene and Junior were sitting. They were gone. I turned back toward my chili cheese fries, stabbed my fork into them and withdrew a healthy heap, washing it down with a swig of coke. I lit a cigarette, took a drag and stared out at the water. Amid the laughter of children showering themselves under a rusty spigot, amid the crying gulls in search of synthetic sustenance, I could hear Barker in the background, taunting the tourists as relentlessly as ever.
As I sat there, staring out at the water, it occurred to me that "Shoot the Freak" was a perfect metaphor for an America that appeared to be in the midst of a schizophrenic breakdown of sorts. We take pride in our individuality and yet at the same time we loathe it. We define ourselves not so much by who we are, but rather, by whom we are not. And in so doing, we lose sight of ourselves. We trivialize and marginalize, stigmatize and dramatize the differences between ourselves in the attempt to establish whom we believe ourselves to be, all the while turning others into external caricatures of what we despise within ourselves. We render one another Freaks, in order to perpetuate the illusion of our own normalcy.
Given such sentiments it occurred that perhaps we'd be far better off aiming our arsenal at the Freak within, than the Freak without. I've no doubt we'd be far less inclined to take fire upon ourselves, given the prospect of perishing at our own hands, or at the very least emerging with our egos bruised and our pride pummeled. And that the very thought of such a suggestion defies the current socio-political power play in which we find ourselves embroiled, perhaps that's the very thing we need in order to redeem what little is left of our integrity. Perhaps if Otis had taken a moment to ask himself why he was so hell bent on proving his manhood at the expense of his dignity, he mightn't have endured the shame that made an otherwise eventful trip to Coney Island a disaster.
However, I strongly suspect such a suggestion would fall on deaf ears. After all, to engage in the kind of rigorous self examination Socrates praised, seems contrary to our survival instinct. To do so, poses the prospect of self immolation, a virtue we love to preach, but loathe to put into practice. Look what happened to Socrates for cryin' out loud. What otherwise might have altered the course of human history, was branded the propaganda of pedophilia and promptly put down with a frothy cup of Hemlock. That Socrates urged introspection as a virtue by no means was a declaration that we should examine others. But such was the way of the world back then and sadly such is the way to this day.
No it's far more fun to "Shoot the Freak" without than examine the Freak within. We all do it. The Republicans shoot the Democrats, the Democrats shoot the Republicans. The Pro-Choice Activists shoot their Anti-Abortion Activist contemporaries. All the while under the impression they're shooting someone other than themselves. To paraphrase that wise old scoundrel Mohandas K. Ghandi, a freak for a freak makes the whole world, what…freakless? Hmn. Maybe there's something to this "Shoot the Freak" phenomena after all.
Perhaps the day will dawn wherein we no longer feel the need to "Shoot the Freak", without, within, or otherwise. Perhaps the day will dawn wherein we engage in such a form of entertainment as say, "Hug the Freak". I can see it now, old Barker standing there on the sidelines crying out in plaintive plea:
"Hug the Freak, ladies and gentlemen!!! Hug the Freak!!! He needs some drugs, just give him a hug, he needs your love, like a hand needs a glove!!! Hug the Freak, ladies and gentlemen, Hug the Freak!!!"
And just as we once did when playing "Shoot the Freak" we'll superimpose whatever image we wish to project while we "Hug the Freak". We'll hug the Republican; we'll hug the Democrat, The Pro-Choice Activist and the Anti-Abortion Activist equally, favoring one no more than the other. However, having arrived at such a place of compassion and empathy for those unlike us, we'd likely have done away with our differences and simply become human beings as opposed to Freaks, utterly fallible in all of our foibles and more like ourselves than we'd previously cared to admit.
Realistically, however, we just ain't there yet. The mere notion of "Hug the Freak" at this juncture in human history poses an absurd proposition at best, let alone hugging Republicans, Democrats or otherwise undeclared partisan peoples. Why else would we find such a notion humorous? Hell it's hard enough hugging those outside our immediate circle of friends and family let alone whatever Freak we happen to loathe.
Until then, there's quite likely a "Shoot the Freak" booth somewhere within the vicinity of your immediate environment. Such is the popularity of Freak shooting these days. And if there isn't, well, hell just purchase yourself a paintball gun and practice your aim upon your favorite antagonist until the upcoming mid terms hit the stage. There's sure to be Freaks a' plenty upon which you can fire your ire.
Locally established Freak show or no, get the hell out there and have yourself a blast. I'll even donate the sixty-five cents remaining from Doris' donation on my behalf, just to get you started. And when you've exhausted your supply of paintballs and subconscious self loathing, carve a brief moment or two out of your busy Freak shooting schedule, take a flying leap down into the pit and give the Freak a hug. He needs it. She needs it. We all do.