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Bob Melvin the Two-faced Man told me long ago that you can’t eat money but you can live on happiness. For a guy with two faces, I couldn’t have imagined a happier guy than Bob, two faces or otherwise. He’d wander around the freak show tent at the Royal American Show midway at the state fair, tapping people on the shoulder who were gawking at Lobster Boy or Rubber Man while he sold the world’s smallest Bible out of a cigar box for a quarter.
Bob wasn’t the star of the show, never had been. He was simply a curious curiosity with a large misshapen growth on the back of his head that looked somewhat like a rumpled smiling face.
“Better to have two smiles than one,” he would say as people fingered through the tiny Bibles, more than a bit distracted by their surroundings but still wondering how a whole Bible could fit into something not much bigger than a thick postage stamp. “Oh, it’s all in there,” he’d say, “every Psalm and Proverb.”
After several years of working at the fair in my youth, I was used to the folks in that tent, wasn’t surprised by the sword swallower in the unbuttoned gold shirt and gold bellbottoms that were too short when he’d walk up to you, tilt his head back, and drop a two-foot Prussian blade down his gullet. He drowned during the fair in a St. Paul lake when a late-night party got out of hand, and Bob later reminisced that a fellow can’t poke things down his throat too many times without causing a leak somewhere.
Lobster Boy was an irascible little fellow, a chain smoker and whiskey drinker contorted by thalidomide, who spent his days at the fair in a box with fairgoers leaned over him. It cost an extra quarter to see Lobster Boy, and it seemed to go to his head that he was a feature a step above Bob Melvin or Popeye, the man who could bug his eyes out of his head, a step above all the other more pedestrian human oddities who worked the show.
Once when I was taking tickets for Lobster Boy, he demanded that I give him a cigarette. We had about as good a rapport as a teenager could have with a freak, and I told him that I didn’t smoke. He nearly jumped out of his box, he was so edgy.
“I didn’t ask you if you smoked,” he glared, his bent arms and claws for hands waving around angrily. “I told you I wanted a smoke. Find me a smoke.”
I ran off into the tent and bummed a cigarette off a fellow with a pack rolled in his shirtsleeve, telling him it was for the Lobster Boy, not me. I returned and handed the cigarette into the box, where he clamped it tightly and drew it to his mouth. We stood and looked at each other for a moment, until he realized I didn’t get it that he was shrugging his shoulders and wagging the smoke in his mouth for a light.
“Find me a match, it won’t light itself for chrissakes,” he sputtered.
I ran off into the tent and found a book of matches and lit the smoke, and he sat there under the lights in a meditative pose like a Buddha.
Bob was never that impatient. But then again, while Bob may have had two faces and spent his youth hidden from view by his parents, he was a worldly philosophical curiosity with two legs and a driver’s license. I would occasionally accompany Bob and Popeye to the beer gardens, where the two older fellows would buy me a beer before I was 18.
Popeye was a dapper fellow with skin the color of dark leather. He always wore a fancy suit and shades that made him look like Ray Charles. He could play the piano and had a very nice voice, but he was better at bugging his eyes out than he was a musician. Once we left Bob selling his Bibles at the end of the bar and moved to find a bartender, all winos in stained aprons who took the work for a couple weeks’ pay and all the beer they could drink from the tap when nobody was looking. Popeye pulled me up close and flagged the bartender, and when he arrived, Popeye lifted his sunglasses and said, “Give me two,” while bugging his eyes out emphatically.
The bartender shook his head. He’d seen the act before.
“Put ’em back in your head, for crying out loud.”
Popeye just loved that little trick and he’d pull it all over the fairgrounds, from the Dairy Building to the Grandstand. He was an entertainer.
I’d accompany Bob out of the midway to various exhibits on occasion, feeling a bit in the limelight, like I was part of the show even though I was only a ticket taker and a kid who cleaned out the barns and picked up trash after darkness fell. I especially remember his politics, which were far left of center. He was adamant that people have to look out for each other or we’re sunk in this world. This was the late 1960s, and he was curious when working people would wear GOP buttons and proclaim that they were for freedom and liberty and standing on your own two feet and keeping the government out of their lives, while they supported a war in Vietnam and a war on crime that was growing more intrusive and were suspicious of people who didn’t look like they did. He loved to go and debate with the politicians who sounded much like Paul Ryan, people who love the myth of America more than the reality, self-proclaimed rugged individualists who clung to the safety of conformity.
He told me that too many people forget that most of us were settlers, not mountain men. He said a lot of those folks also seemed to believe that TV westerns were real. He never said that people were ignorant, just that they “aren’t being honest with themselves.”
When I visit the Minnesota State Fair this week, I’ll go visit the GOP booth and debate with a politician once again in Bob’s memory. It’s the least I can do for a man who had two smiles and told everybody he knew that we’re all in this together, that we are our brother’s keeper no matter how hard we try to fool ourselves otherwise.