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The Freaks 

The man was sitting on the hotel bench, staring straight ahead.

We were in the small town of Kinder, Louisiana, several days into the Katrina evacuation; to see someone sitting on a bench outside the hotel, or on a couch inside the hotel, and staring straight ahead was not unusual. But this man had struck me from the first meeting as being a little odd, and it wasn't because he was, as he had told me, an Elvis Impersonator, thank you very much. Still, not wanting to be rude, I told him hello as I passed, only to hear him answer, through his fog, "He fell."

I stopped, and that was all the encouragement Elvis needed to continue. "The man in the wheelchair fell," he said. "The Man-with-No-Legs fell." 

He didn't have to add that last detail; at that moment, there was only one man at that Best Western who was wheelchair-bound. Actually, the wheelchair was a scooter, like the kind you see advertised over and over on television, promising freedom and mobility to senior citizens, and a better life in general for many others. He was not all that old, but he was without legs and, as I watched him effortlessly maneuvering through the breakfast buffet every morning in the hotel lobby, it was easy to believe in that better life. As he pointed to this hot item and that, steam rising from the metal containers, his wife would pile the plate high with biscuits and sausage, and then follow him back to a table where he glided to a stop.

"I picked him up," Elvis continued, and this seemed to be what shocked him the most. It wasn't so much that the man in the scooter had been rolling along, his mind perhaps in the same place all our minds were - home - when he suddenly fell that bothered him. What was disturbing to Elvis was that he had had to lift the double amputee, and with the help of another man at that.

This was no simple let-me-help-you-sir; the scooter had wiped out, and the man had fallen suddenly and loudly. The lobbyfolk had panicked, then watched as the two able-bodied ones locked their arms around the amputee's sizeable trunk. The stumps flailed crazily. And as Elvis and the other man tried to ignore this humiliation, they sheepishly maneuvered to support the man from underneath his struggling body.

"Ya done good," I said, and walked on to my car. I did not want to encourage conversation; I wanted to leave. I wanted to go to the library, to sign up for my 30-minute allotment of Internet time with all the other Katrina evacuees who were staying in that small town. I didn't want to talk to Elvis or anyone else at the moment. Life was coming at me in overpowering waves, and my toehold on sanity was tenuous. At one moment it was the first week of the fall semester, and I was greeting a class of new faces, ever so ready to lead them though freshman comp; the next moment I found myself in a circus bustling with an assorted cast of refugees that featured Elvis as head clown and a man darting about in an Amigo as the star attraction. I am not supposed to be here, I kept telling myself, time and time again. This isn't happening.

But it was.


I had decided to base that composition-and-rhetoric course around the theme of Freakery, an off-center topic sure to keep students awake in class, and perhaps the occasional night.

"Step right up!" I had barked at them - freshmen all and science majors, many. "For the next fifteen weeks we will be reading about the strange and the unsettling! The bizarre and the heartbreaking! We will be seeing films about people who have to be seen to be believed, living lives most of us cannot imagine...and will be writing about."

Learning sideshow lingo and reading chapters from a book on how "human oddities" once displayed themselves (or were displayed by others) in order to make a living wouldn't teach them how to write, but it would give them something to write about. Viewing a documentary and a movie would not clue them into the mystery that surrounds comma usage, but I could work on their transitions and organization skills as those essays were written.   

One of the main attractions would be Tod Browning's Freaks, a movie that bombed at the box office and horrified many.  While Depression Era audiences surely watched it for its shock value, later viewers would come to appreciate it as a documentary of sorts of sideshow acts. The freaks perform their "bits" - rolling cigarettes with lips, eating dinner with their feet, all while slogging through choppy dialogue.  The film also offered a slice of sideshow life. Yes, this vision had been sanitized and glamorized, but at the film's heart the lifestyle is preserved: the new-to-town otherness, the cramped reality of trailers, the fellowship found in a circumstantial community, the townies who stared and crossed themselves.

Teaching this course at a Historically Black University, I had a majority of African American students. I certainly did not have to explain marginalization to them; as a white woman born and bred in Suburbamerica, I knew this was one area

of their lives that I could only imagine, as sympathetic as I might be. In this case, though, they were clearly members of the physically privileged and mentally blessed majority. Yes, the majority, not the "normal."  I wanted them to eschew that word when considering the stories of the malformed, limbless, and conjoined. I wanted them, when researching the lives of sideshow performers, to see past the caprice of nature and (at that moment in medical time) the inability of man, to the real people.  To help them in this matter, I assigned other issues to consider.


Throughout the film, Freaks, are countless references to manhood in the story between the love triangle of midget Hans, circus strongman Hercules, and Big Top beauty Cleopatra. Using details from the movie, write an essay about what the film seems to be saying overall about what it is to be "a man." Remember, the details you note should support your thesis statement.

The texts were in the bookstore; the film was ready to roll. Life, for the next fifteen weeks was all set.  And, on the hot afternoon of August 26, 2005, I  announced the first reading assignment to a group of people I would never see again.


At that Best Western, two hours and one tragedy away from the flooded university, there was confusion, tears, and questions.  I had evacuated with my parents, and at that moment my own children were with their father. How to handle joint custody during a diaspora was not something covered in Divorce 101. Hurricane 100 had taught about booking a hotel room for longer than a few days in the case of longterm evacuation, but we evidently had been absent that afternoon; the Best Western was our second "home" only a few days into the disaster.  It was a good fit, that place: it was only about an hour from where my children were staying, and my parents could find amusement at the nearby casino. As for me, when I wasn't at the library I would find myself floating around the downstairs lobby. There, evacuees ate chips and candy, desperately tried to call others (the calls to the 504 area code were not going through on a regular basis), and passed along insider information when word of any sort came through. We were all desperate for news. CNN blared images of the Interstate and the Superdome, but none of that helped us. None of us lived there. We lived in houses as ordinary as our lives had been up to that moment.

There were people from all over the Metropolitan New Orleans area in that lobby - people from Orleans Parish itself but also people from Jefferson, St. Bernard, and St. Tammany parishes. Before August 29, 2005, we would have claimed these differences, but at that moment, as we watched reporters squint into the camera and declare the city we loved was dead, we were all New Orleanians. We were blessed by the ritual that is Mardi Gras each winter. Our collective joy hung on the score of a Saints game each fall, and roux coursed through our veins year round. But among our particular gathering of evacuees, a people distinguished by creased trousers, wrinkled t-shirts, lined brows, and red-rimmed eyes, one man stood out. And that was the Amigo Man.

The Amigo Man had two grown sons, who were also part of our evacuee village. Bobby was a trucker. If camouflage doesn't lie, then Jim was a hunter of sorts; if nothing else, he was one schooled in self-reliance.  He had cooked a Crockpot of roast beef in his hotel bathroom and brought it down to the lobby to share. 

"You sure you don't want a sandwich?" Jim asked a woman who shook her head no as she sprinted toward the elevator. She was the Funyun Woman, the one always chomping on a bag of the crispy rings while talking about her son, the architect, and his young family. They had evacuated to Texas and she was thinking about joining them, maybe.  She talked a lot to the Rubber Thong Sandal People, a married couple who liked to compare Katrina's path to that of 1965's Hurricane Betsy.

When Jim asked me if I wanted a sandwich, I, too, declined the offer. His brother laughed and said, "Nobody wants yer damn roastbeef, brah!"

"I've already had lunch," I explained. I wasn't too sure that I would have called it lunch. Time had no meaning and meals were timeless at that point. I looked at the clock on the wall: 1:15. Tuesday. I should have been in my office at that moment, eating plain tuna from a packet with flatbread crackers from the nearby healthfood store. The store had only been open a month or so when the storm hit. I wondered if that store had been flooded. Or looted.

I mentioned that I was planning on heading back to Jefferson Parish later in the week to check on my home; the parish president had said residents who were in a position to do so could come back briefly to gather their things and bury spoiling food. Jim told me of their drive back to the New Orleans area the day before, and his talk was peppered with rumors of National Guard commandeering vehicles or gas. "But we didn't have no problems," he said. "Ya got a gun?"

Bobby and Jim were large men, manly men, the type that drive big Ford trucks, go hunting, don't put up with much, and not only had a gun or three but kept that gun by the bed. They likely learned this from their father, a man I imagined had lost his legs in a war, or maybe a factory accident. I could picture him, legless or not, in the blind with his boys on a cold November morning as mist rose from the bayou, sipping thick coffee from a thermos, frosting the air with his breath, wordlessly awaiting the flap of mallard wings.



Throughout the film, one character who makes perhaps the biggest splash is the "half-boy" Johnny Eck, who scampers about on gloved hands. Using details from the film, write an essay about Johnny's role in Freaks. Does his contribution to the story go beyond his shocking appearance?  

I had first seen that B movie as a college student. The likes of Diane Arbus, Joey Ramone, and a multitude of creative others over the past 50-some-odd years had also seen the movie in their early adult years, and I liked the idea of showing this oddity to my students in a sort of rite of passage.

This sense of cult ritual was lost on them; however, for many it was their maiden voyage to the world of black-and-white film.

In the dark, we would have watched the grainy story of Hans, the midget who is duped by the beautiful, "normal" Cleopatra.  The film hits its climax when Hans, in retaliation for Cleoplatra's plan to slowly poison him, mars her beauty and castrates her Strongman lover. He does this, of course, with the help of his sideshow buddies: the armless, the legless, the Freaks.  My students cheer at this point, and clap loudly when Hans suddenly produces a gun. 

What is it to be a man....

"What is it to be a freak?" I always asked as the credits rolled and the lights popped to life. Physical deformities aside, this always led to a discussion of what is it to be the outsider, to have permanent stranger status. The side shows rolled into town, stayed for a while, then left; it is no accident that travelling performers are called gypsies.  When strangers arrive, townies gawk. How can they not? Curiosity is always roused by the new and different, and if there is a bit of the there-but-for-the-grace-of-god element thrown into the mix, all the better. Who can turn away?

But instead of asking students to consider one thing or another, I found myself asking questions of another sort. The calendar had not rolled along as usual. I did not show the film. Rather, I found myself wandering around a small town I would likely have never have visited had I not been seeking refuge. I was part of a community of people who were not local, had only come for a while (though who knew how long that while would be), who were looked at and then quite pointedly not looked at everywhere they went.

The town was throbbing with evacuees, but they were not everywhere. I recalled a meal I took at a Huddle House. Crying when the pancakes arrived, I stared at the wall next to me. It was the only place I could look without meeting the glances, shifting suddenly, of locals: I was, after all, a Katrina Refugee. It would be another week or so before I would come to realize, upon seeing a televised fundraiser, that I was part of a group that the world called Katrina Victims.     

At that moment and in that Huddle House, I was the Crying Woman, and a far cry from Picasso's Dora Maar.  I gobbled and paid and got the hell out of there.  I headed for the place where furtive glances did not grow into stares when opportunity allowed. In the Best Western lobby, I was among my kind.


If it weren't for the fact that I was sleeping on the floor of my parents' hotel room, and for the fact that said room was stuffed with bags and belongings, some set atop an ice chest packed with drinks and meats and a new bottle of mustard, and some, like the box stuffed with crackers and granola bars, cookies and bread, resting on the imitation oak desk, and others, like the slender metal trashcans, overflowing as they were with the ripped boxes and torn bags of another drive-through lunch, edging the wall, I could fool myself into thinking I was on a little vacation.

Forget the fact that I spent most of my time in the lobby, and the only place I visited was the library, and that I spent half my time worrying and the other half crying, I could have convinced myself still, in that oddest of already perverse moments, that I was on a jolly holiday.  After all, sunlight beamed through clean windows, and outside those windows a pool beckoned. The pastel and patterned bedspread had that stiff scratchy feel of hotel comforters; the towels were replaced daily. And the lobby was usually a-bustle with the comings and goings of strangers. The latter was particularly true in the morning when the buffet tables were filled, then emptied.

One morning, as I was looking for a place to sit and eat my breakfast, a  woman motioned me over.  "Looking for a spot? We got one here." 

And at that moment, I met the Amigo Man. He didn't have to tell me his name as I sat next to him with my grits and white gravy. The name was right there, on the hand-tooled leather plate fastened to the front of his scooter. 


"My sons got that for me," he said, laughing. "Got it for me after I got out of the hospital." As I ate, Hans explained how he had lost his legs to smoking. It had killed his circulation. He had gone into the hospital for two months to save his legs, and then spent another two learning to live without them.            

Dishes cleared away, second doses of coffee warming white cups, we chatted. He and his wife had learned that their Northshore doublewide had been spared. "My boys checked it out," he told me. I mentioned having met his sons the day before, and he beamed as he spoke about them, telling me what a handful they had been when they were young.

"Oh, but you kept those two in line," his wife said.           

"Yeah, still do," he said. He slapped the table. "One time, those two..." he started. It was a story that started with a prank and was sure to end with "a whippin'," and Hans, relieved of the burden of an unknown fate, happily leaned forward and held forth.            

Though I nodded and looked attentive, I felt a daze coming on. The voices on the television mingled with the story Hans was telling and I could make head nor tails of either. I was there, but I was not. I was safe, but I was clearly not OK. What is it to be a man? I wanted to ask, not him but my class as we spoke of another Hans, and of another legless man. But here I was, in a room crowded with the Katrina Refugees, the Katrina Displaced, the Katrina Victims, a raw and wandering bunch whose fates had been cruelly determined by the caprice of nature and the inability of man. 

I looked around the room. I did not see any young people about. Where were my students now? Had they waded through water to safety? Were they stranded? Were they staying with their parents, or maybe distant relatives? Had they made their way to other Best Westerns, the comfort of instant villages and the discomfort of sympathetic eyes?

What is it to be a freak? I would have asked that question on a day very like today, but not like today at all.           

What is it to be a freak? I paused to consider how I would have answered that question myself on August 26, 2005. I do not know. I do not know what I would have said, but the answer would have been formed in a vacuum of innocence and tempered by well-intentioned sympathy.            

What is it to be a freak? Innocence is a kind term for inexperience. But sympathy is only that: just sympathy. My god. I would answer that question so very differently now.


Katheryn Krotzer Laborde

Katheryn Krotzer Laborde is a writer of literary and general prose who lives and works in the Greater New Orleans area. Beyond some wind damage, her home in the suburbs was not damaged; however, her job was momentarily erased. Unemployed and with no home of her own to gut, she donned hard hat and steel-toe boots to hit the streets as an Exterior Damage Assessor for the City of New Orleans. She was awarded a Louisiana Cultural Economy Recovery Grant for her efforts to document evacuation and early recovery experiences, the fruits of which appeared in Poets & Writers,  CallalooCrossRoadsFresh Yarn, and you are here. The book Do Not Open: The Discarded Refrigerators of Post-Katrina New Orleans, published by McFarland in 2010, captures the phenomenon of the marked and messaged appliances that temporarily dotted the ruined landscape.   Laborde won a Louisiana Division of the Arts Artists Fellowship in Literature in 2003, and the Pirate's Alley Faulkner Society Medal for Best Novella in 2010.