Real Freaks of Venice Beach
by Gail Wronsky
When my daughter told me she’d be working at a freak show I assumed she was speaking figuratively—I mean, the people I work with are freaks, even though they pass themselves off as college professors (there’s a couple of two-headed snakes, a fat lady, a tattooed lady, a fire breather . . . ). Everyone’s job is a freak show, right? I just wanted to know what part of town I’d have to drive her to.
But Marlena was stating a fact. She’d gotten a job at the Venice Beach Freak Show, which is a real, traditional museum of freaky things with a real, traditional sideshow. And she’s lucky she did, because unlike the metaphorical freak shows the rest of us work at, it turns out that the Venice Beach Freak Show is operated by an extraordinarily kind, generous and loving family.
Marlena started working for them last June as the Snake Girl. She stood on the steps in front of their nookish venue on the Venice boardwalk with her python, “Eve,” while kids came up to run their fingers over some real snake skin and tourists took her picture, all the while enticing people to pony up the five dollar admission charge and go inside. This job lasted for a couple weeks until the old Snake Girl, who was no longer a member of the Freak Show family, and who’d been fired for selling dope in the alley behind the boardwalk, poisoned Eve. Larry, the Wolf Boy, had seen her do it, but hadn’t been able to save the snake. Marlena was heartbroken.
“You almost can’t blame her,” I said. “You’re younger, prettier, and not a tweaker. You have a future.”
“But I don’t have a snake,” she said.
Even though the old Snake Girl still had her old snake, Todd and Danielle, the owners, wouldn’t hire her back and instead, they transformed Marlena into “The Wild Woman of Borneo,” dressing her in a feathered bikini, bone jewelry, and a cape of rabbit skins. She painted eyeballs all over herself, even on her eyelids, and barked and roared at people from her perch on the steps. She had a blast, and evidently, charmed or frightened sufficient numbers of paying customers inside.
“I know you think this is postcolonial, ” she said to me when I caught her leaving for work in her costume.
(Call me old-fashioned.)
“It isn’t exactly everything I’d imagined for you,” I said.
A college graduate, at least she’d looked up Borneo on Google Earth.
“What do you want me to be—The Wild Woman of Santa Monica?”
After a few weeks, out of curiosity, I went to Venice to see the place for myself. Outside I met Todd and one of his two-headed turtles. I saw Marlena and Todd’s daughter Asia, both in fabulous, crazy costumes (Asia in striped tights and a fluffy petticoat), hanging out on the stoop. Moving inside, it took a few minutes for my eyes to adjust to the dark. The interior, cramped and a little airless, might have felt creepy had Todd and Danielle not been so unreservedly welcoming and warm. They wouldn’t let me pay to enter, and immediately gave me one of their cool Freak Show t-shirts. They were clearly very fond of my daughter, which told me a lot about why she loved being there.
After the greetings and introductions I was invited to look around, and the first thing I noticed, on a countertop, were half a dozen more two-headed turtles swimming lazily in small aquariums. They all seemed healthy and clean—and looked to be fairly content, although I’m sure that’s an unacceptably anthropomorphic observation. They paddled softly and slowly in their pools, the two heads of each one bobbing benignly. One turtle, however, off by itself in a larger tank, was different. It was slightly larger than the others and had a double shell (the rest of them had single shells, with two necks and heads poking out of the front). Or maybe it was a large, folded, single shell. Whichever it was, it had been formed in a way that prevented both heads from surfacing and breathing air at the same time, which forced the creature to rock side to side constantly in the water so that each head (each turtle? Are they one animal or two?) alternately emerged, inhaled, and then sank back down below. Air, water, air, water. It rocked kind of like an upside-down boat, left to right, port to starboard, back and forth non-stop inside its aquarium. It was transfixing, in its way—something about the consistency of the rhythm making it almost seem as if the creature had been intentionally, even cleverly, designed—like a clock: tick tock tick tock. Air, water, air, water. The system worked, even though you couldn’t help feeling sorry for the creature(s).
But the tiny, two-headed ball python in a neighboring terrarium had it worse—only one of its heads seemed to be connected to its lungs. That head breathes normally, fully. The other head wants to breath, but can’t take in air, so it gasps and coughs—constantly. Less than an inch apart, identical-looking: yet for one head (one animal?) life is peaceful; the other is trapped in a kind of perpetual frenzy of near-suffocation. Very distressing.
According to Marlena, two-headed mammals tend not to survive long after birth, although the Venice Freak Show has a skeleton of what looks like a fully-grown, two-headed sheep. She told me that a two-headed kitten died soon after Todd acquired it, even though he stayed up all night feeding milk to both mouths with a medicine dropper. Todd, who looks like he ought to be playing a sympathetic cop on a tv crime show—handsome and approachable, buys every two-headed animal he learns of—not just because they’re good for business, Marlena says, but because he wants to save them from the bad situations they might end up in if he didn’t. Having met him I’m sure that’s true.
But back to my tour: after peering in all the aquariums, terrariums and vitrines, and meeting Rocky, the five-legged dog, I meet Larry Gomez, the Wolf Boy from Mexico. He’s been in People magazine and on the Tonight Show. From across the room he looks as though he’s wearing a mask of tar. Up close it’s obviously very thick, very short, very black hair.
“Say something to him in Spanish,” Marlena says. “He’s shy.”