I never shot the Freak, and now I never will. I loved him too much to open fire. To the Freak, I turned the other cheek. He is my brother. And now he’s out of a job.
Whenever I had complicated problems to solve when I lived in New York, I would take the N Train to the end of the line, buy a hot dog at the original Nathan’s on the corner of Surf and Stillwell on Coney Island, and walk down the boardwalk with it. I liked this especially when it was cold and windy, when nearly no one else was around. I would walk to the Aquarium or Brighton Beach, turn back and walk down to where there used to be a roller rink that used to be a beer hall before that.
If I ever had a moment where I thought, given the sound of the ocean, that I was in a natural setting, fostering romantic reflections like a cloud of blooming daffodils, I was reawakened to how urban my setting was by the booming voice on a karaoke-purloined microphone set, with a man who shouted, over and over again, “Yo! Shoot the Freak Ovah Hee-yah! Right Hee-yah! Come on! Ya gotta Shoot the Freak! He’s Freaky! He’s Beggin’ for it!”
This man, shouting in a vernacular that let me know that Brooklyn was in the Freakhouse, had a partner — a man wearing an X-File alien rubber mask, who would wear a little bit of protective gear and allow himself, in cold weather and hot, daytime, evenings and weekends, to get shot at with paint balls.
Here we see him on his vacant lot by the Boardwalk, a few junk yard items to hide behind, some milk crates, an old washing machine, and a pastel splatter of sublimated aggression from people who needed to let off some steam.
As I said, I never shot the Freak. I loved him too much. If I ever thought my existence was the worst one out of eight million people in the Metropolitan area, I looked to him for affirmation that things weren’t as bad as they might be, my job was not the worst one in town.
After a walk down the boardwalk, after a greasy and delicious hot dog, after the Atlantic had spat its salt in my face, and after a harangue about shooting the Freak, I inevitably had the answer to my most pressing and complex problem, whatever it was.
When problems in my life became legion, I moved to Coney Island. I loved its delicious seediness, its tattooed-artist-and-carny-Bohemia, its bubblegum-and-rusting-cog ambience, and the Freak was my neighbor. I loved him as myself. The salsa music blared off the pier. The bells rang on the carousel. A few screams emanated from The Cyclone, and always, always a man sounding like he was straight out of a DeNiro art film shouted at me, “Yo! Ya Gotta Shoot The Freak ovah Hee-yah! What are you — chicken?”
The New York Times reported this weekend that certain businesses on the Boardwalk near the now-defunct Astroland will not receive a renewal of their leases. I’m sure that running the Shoot the Freak sideshow in the vacant lot it occupied was not expensive. However, real estate developers intend to gentrify the Boardwalk, charge more money, and create a more upscale environment than the man asking for cash for his next fix in the nearby parking lot, the old portly woman muttering to herself in Russian as she wrestles with a rubber swim cap, the skate rats trying to jump the iron-arm-wrest benches, and the Freak and his business associates.
They misunderstand their own investment. The Freak is the holy icon of Brooklyn, her martyr. The crier of the Freak is Brooklyn’s prophet. The Freak is begging to be shot at in bright colors. His alien mask is a metonymy for corporate facades required by the employed in middle management. The vacant lot is the spiritual wasteland of an American dream turned to wig heads and mismatched bowling pins. They have bought the cornerstone of what it means to be an American. They cannot read the cuneiform in which the message is written. Let me translate — it is begging for you, begging for you to try better, to know you will survive the catastrophic, to imagine smashing your idols and starting over with better intentions, a watchword that the mighty have fallen, that all is lost — long live all, and you are still standing. You are not the freak. He has taken the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune upon himself for you, and by his paint splatters, you are (at least in part) healed.
One day, I was walking by the shoot the freak show in the morning with my husband Chuck, before we got married. The haranguer’s microphone was on the ground. He was getting himself a beer. The paintball guns were not loaded yet. There was no Freak in sight.
“This is where the guy with the worst job in New York City works,” I told Chuck.
A man, shirtless, wearing padding on his legs, but no alien mask, jumped up from under the boardwalk’s edge.
“Speak for yourself!” He shouted at me.
“Man, I’m telling my fiance you’ve got the hardest job in town!”
I really didn’t mean to insult him.
“No!” He told me emphatically,”I’ve got the best job in the whole world ovah hee-yah. I’m in show business. Nobody ever seen anything like me. I give them something to remember forever.”
Freak, you spoke truly.
I will remember you forever. Thank you for the chastisement of my peace upon your recycled football gear. Thank you for dovetailing with my recovery from 9/11, from midlife crisis, from domestic violence, from wishing I were dead. Thank you for bearing the malice of capitalism, of divorce, of all things embittering. Thank you for taking one, for taking a million and one, for the team.
Freak, without you in Brooklyn, I can return to see a gentrified Coney Island, but it will not be the same without you. One may never enter the same river twice. One may never shoot the same Freak twice.
I can never go home again, Freak, if you are not there getting shot. Brooklyn will go on, but it will be someone else’s Brooklyn, not mine.
Freak, I will remember you forever. Long live the Freak. Blow out your candles, Freak, and so good night.
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