Kitsch and That

Kap-Dwa

Though it might seem sometimes like you’ve nothing to write, of course you do.

There are countless moments of your day. You could catalogue them via Instagram, Facebook, or what have you, and to you those social transmissions will conjure pleasant memories of the recorded moment when you later review your own profile. All this quiets the desire one might have to write and to laboriously render experience into words. It is easier to passively consume experiences than to engage with them and question why they seemed significant to you in the first place.

Last Sunday I walked through Fells Point, Baltimore’s historic waterfront area. Parking was scarce, but I finally found a spot in front of the garish red and yellow Antique Man storefront.

An older couple, evicted from their house last fall, left all of their possessions behind. “Floor to ceiling with old crap,” declared a friend who’d walked through the place before it was auctioned off. Classic Baltimore, in other words, this city laden with kitsch, tacky folk art and pop remainders everywhere masking dead rats, poverty, and abandonment. A two-story tall pink poodle on wheels, a giant flamingo on a storefront, a life-size Santa Clause staring at you from a screen door, the latter being what greeted visitors to that old house around the corner.

It’s not too hard to get yourself a rambling house to yourself here, but keeping it is. And when those women’s possessions had nowhere to go, they probably went to The Antique Man’s store, a cavernous garage jammed with carnival relics and yard art. Safe scares abound. A leering, over-sized plaster Marilyn Monroe, a stuffed bear next to dead-eyed porcelain dolls, and a twelve-foot, two-headed mummy encased in glass beside a cheap fake sunflower arrangement and beneath a stuffed bird preserved in flight. The mummy is black-brown and battered, carrying a rough shield and clad in a yellowed loincloth, retired to collectible status after a career as a sideshow attraction. “He started at Barnum and Bailey’s,” the woman at the store told me, “Then made it down to smaller and smaller carnivals. Got stuck in Baltimore at some point, I guess.” Standing near the cash register placed directly across from him, she admitted to forgetting he was there, most of the time.

Leaving the store, I felt like a kid stumbling out of a haunted house. Why did the mummy, a likely forgery,* upset me more than any other experience that week? I imagined him living, if he ever had, a thyroidal anomaly that might have been more like two people, brains functioning independently, than one. Felled as a trophy and traded for profit to a freak show manager, who himself was probably a marginal individual, scraping by on ever-less as the years passed. Even if this mummy wasn’t real, there must have been a prototype, a tall man who had seemed a novelty to an opportunistic English colonist, perhaps brought to the Americas to be exhibited at the World’s Fair. Maybe it was anger I felt, directed toward the shop owner displaying this cultural fetish without any context of apology. Toward Victorian fair-goers for patronizing such spectacles, and for later telling friends about them and hence perpetuating the mythology of frightening, primitive, “other” bodies. It could even be that too much Twitter reading has made my “offense” reflex way more sensitive than it needs to be.

But instead of dwelling on any of this, I chose to take a surreptitious photo, apply a filter, post it on Instagram and caption it with the words, “In a strange place.”

* Like any good sideshow hawker, the owner of The Antique Man will not admit directly that the mummy, supposedly a slain ancient warrior named Kap-Dwa, is fake. You are welcome to pretend for a little that he is real, or at least that he is a copy of a real thing. Imagine The Fortean Times is an actual newspaper and you will be well on your way.

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