I went out to Coney Island on New Year's Day and it was good to see all the oddballs again. I used to love to go out there, but I don't anymore, though New Year's Day was an exception. It made me think about all the colorful characters we used to see in the East Village, before the life was sucked out of the neighborhood, and I was thinking especially of Baby Dee. Here's something I wrote sometime back in the 1990s:
One hot afternoon I took the train out to Coney Island to see the Sideshows by the Seashore. I got off at Brighton Beach and walked out under the shadowy roar of the El, bought a hot knish at Mrs. Stahl’s, and then followed the boardwalk to Coney, past the old Russians playing chess, and one lone trumpeter blowing his song to the sea over the stretch of sun-bright sand.
Coney was jumping with the summertime crowds, a giddy throng of sweaty bodies, half-naked, sticky with ice-cream drippings and cotton candy, tipsy on cheap beer. I passed the Cyclone, that ancient, rickety wooden coaster, and walked by the Wonder Wheel, Dante’s Inferno, and the Tilt-A-Whirl, heading straight for the Coney Island Circus Sideshow. I wanted to see the freaks.
Outside the sideshow, the banners rippled in the wind, painted with images of performers both old and new. There was the Human Pincushion and the Lobster Boy, the Bearded Lady and the Half-Man/Half-Woman.
Inside the crumbling theatre, the Escape Artist was onstage, wriggling his way out of a straight-jacket. Then came the Glass Eater, who chewed and swallowed an entire light bulb. Then Enchantra, the snake charmer, who did a sexy dance with her albino python. And then Xenobia, the Bearded Lady, played by Jennifer Miller, the lesbian-feminist performance artist. She had a long, thick beard and mustache and long hair. While juggling several gleaming machetes, Xenobia tried her best to raise our consciousness. She said, “Hair is a symbol of power and that’s why men don’t want women to have too much in too many places.”
Michael Wilson, via Sideshow World
After the show, I stopped to talk with an old-timer who ran the sideshow museum across the street. His name was Eddie Sudan and he sucked on a soggy cigar and wore a gold-brocaded vest with a red velvet fez perched on top of his head. Standing before the banners for the Eubangi Beauties and the Giraffe-Neck Women of Burma, he told me about the illustrated man, Michael Wilson, “tattooed from the top of his head to the souls of his feet.”
Eddie said, “Mike told me once, some days, everything's beautiful. You step out into the sun, grab a handful of sand, walk into the surf, everything's beautiful. Other days, it's Hell, with everyone staring at you all the time and you know you can't hide everything." Eddie paused a moment, looking out towards the boardwalk and the ocean beyond.
"What's in your head?” Eddie asked then, of no one in particular. “What makes a person do that to themselves?"
“There was another great act,” he went on. “Baby Dee, the harp-playing hermaphrodite. They were a classically trained musician. They would get on stage and play the harp, while the contortionist would go through her contortions. It was a beautiful show, one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen."
I wished I could see Baby Dee, but Eddie told me that she had left the show at Coney Island and headed out west to California.
Baby Dee, playing the classic "half and half" at Coney
Soon after my visit to Coney Island, like a strange and enchanting apparition, Baby Dee appeared. She came riding through the East Village pedaling a giant tricycle, a golden harp in tow. She wore a tutu and angel wings and played the accordion. She stopped in front of me and sang a song. I thanked her and dropped a dollar in her bowl.
An old Ukrainian man came over and slapped her on the knee, playfully, and called up to her, "Why are you doing this? You shouldn't be up there, you are too beautiful!" Then he looked at me and said in a conspiratorial kind of way, "When I look at a leg like that, oh boy, you know what I think!" We said goodbye to Baby Dee and she pedaled away singing, disappearing around the corner, like a ghost.
The Ukrainian man had a friend with him who was giving him a hard time. He said, “That was a man you old fool!”
The Ukrainian turned to me for help, "Tell me, that was not a man. Was that a man or a woman?"
"It was a man," his friend muttered.
The Ukrainian turned to me again. "You're smart," he said. "Tell me. Please. If it's a man, it's okay. If it's a woman, it's okay."
"She's both," I told him.
“How can that be?” he asked, searching my eyes for the answer.
I shrugged my shoulders and, as I turned to walk away, added, "She’s wonderful, isn't she?"
The old man’s face brightened, and he called after me, "Yes! She is wonderful! I wanted her to stay, but she went away!"
Baby Dee is still doing her thing--just not here.