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The height of folly



There is gilding the lily. Then there's gilding the lily, giving it tattoos and a wig, framing it with LaCroix and lighting it with a color wheel.

This is what one does when one decides there aren't enough off-the-rack freaks in New Orleans and goes on a mission to snout some up like dysfunctional truffles.

Well, what else is there to do on Easter weekend? New Orleans seemed apropos to that holiday, since raising the dead is a lifestyle there. It happens on Bourbon Street, where the wake-the-dead party ethos makes all frat shindigs look like high tea at Our Lady of Personal Dryness. Thanks to voodoo and Anne Rice, this is a company town of the undead, so you can't spit your gum across the street for hitting something that looks like Tim Burton. And the real dead are literally raised -- bodies go in above-ground mausoleums because the city is below sea level and corpses float away in heavy rains. This place is the Nosferatu's Branson.

So a deliberate freak hunt in New Orleans seems like a Veruca Salt level of greed, which I'll cop to having. We had heard there was freakier, and we were willing to pay for it.

In the Warehouse District in a club called the Howlin' Wolf, there is a guy with Christmas lights in his hair. He says he was born like that and his poor mama had a helluva time coughing him up into this world. There are guys dressed as fairies and girls with pencil mustaches. Most auspiciously there is a vile, menacing clown (in other words, a clown) molesting audience members with a breast pump. This was our introduction to an evening with the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus.

Period piece

The Bindlestiffs aren't family by blood; they are drawn together by a similar sense of aesthetics. They travel the country delighting, sickening and stupifying audiences with acts that range from vaudevillian goofiness to the hysterically obscene (though their website says they work for a family crowd).

Due to a heroic ingestion of Abita Turbo Dog beer, the actual order of events described here is fogged. But you'd have to drink a water tower's worth of kerosene to forget the events themselves.

You don't forget it when you see someone play viable music on a tampon applicator. Sxip Shirey endeared himself to every woman in the audience by requesting a tampon applicator. Not, he said, something smooth, small or comfortable; something instead with hard edges and unforgiving contours: "Something," he said, "designed by a man." Like wind blowing through leaves, a wave of heads in the crowd bowed to look into their purses.

He went on to play foot-tapping tunes on the Tampon-O-Phone -- something that we'd all agree we wouldn't want in our mouths. This guy was better than all the million-dollar production numbers that have ever been performed at the Oscars.

Display of ingenuity

We were also treated to the talents of Magic Brian, who swallowed five razor blades and a piece of dental floss and regurgitated them, strung together. There was Una the acrobat, who did amazing feats without a net; Rocket Johnny, whose space uniform consisted of a toaster strapped to his face; Dr. Henceforth Flummox, who ate worms; Mr. Pennygaff, who swallowed neon and swords. And then there was Philomena.

Philomena Bindlestiff. What can we say? A ringmistress, a fire eater, a long, tall whip cracker able to snap the end off a lit cigar from across the stage with a 6-foot bullwhip -- a cigar that was sticking out of her lovely assistant's butt.

That ought to be enough to terrify and enthrall, but it was just a warm-up for the feat to come, when Philomena teamed up with Mr. Pennygaff.

Pennygaff is a plate-spinner -- you know, where they get a stick and spin a plate on it, which is probably not easy, but a little goes a long way. Well, not with the new spin provided by Philomena, who laid on the floor, naked from the waist down, legs spread like the gates of heaven while Mr. Pennygaff inserted a marital aid in her and stood a spinning-plate stand on top of it. The crowd goggled, open-mouthed; she maintained her composure, open-legged.

And here we all thought body glitter and mineral bracelets were cool accessories. Not one woman who saw this will be able to endure another ob-gyn exam without imagining a plate spinning and laughing hard enough to eject any examining tool. And no guy who saw it is going to be able to think ... ever.

The Bindlestiffs prove that even in the most mondo-bizarro town, it's worth it to seek out serious freakdom. And that while there are plenty of garden-variety wackos out there, only the elite truly deserve a stage.


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