Everyone is scared of something. Fear is a universal human experience. Spiders are common, as are snakes. Heights, small enclosed spaces, the dentist, dying. I have small anxieties that take hold now and again. But I am truly afraid of only one thing: dwarfs.
Being afraid of dwarfs is not a particularly attractive fear, nor is it politically correct. They’re humans, like anyone else, and to be afraid of them implies that I might be a bit intolerant of those different from me, which is generally untrue. I don’t have time to explain to everyone I meet that I was terrorized by a dwarf when I was five years old, but perhaps if they knew the truth of what happened, they would understand.
In 1941, I was five, and my sister Gerry was three. We lived in a two-bedroom apartment on 5th Avenue in Brooklyn with our mother and her two sisters, Ethel and Lillian. Ethel and Lillian were both unmarried, and my father had left us years ago. My mother and my two aunts functioned as a kind of parenting trio. Gerry and I were raised by these three women equally.
Ethel was my mother’s oldest sister. She was a sweet, feminine woman who worked as a secretary. She wore pretty dresses, set her hair in a hundred pin curls every night, and sang in the church choir with her lovely soprano voice. Gerry and I were both partial to Aunt Ethel. She was kind and nurturing. She also brought us truffle candies once a month, an action which will endear almost any young child to almost any adult.
Lillian was entirely different from her older sister. She was gay, or at least that’s what we all assumed, though no one said it specifically at the time. She wore her hair cropped very short and no makeup whatsoever. Her wardrobe consisted almost exclusively of men’s trousers and tweed jackets. She had a long-time best friend who also wore men’s clothing. Her name was Margaret, but they called each other Bobby and Billy.
Aunt Lillian wasn’t our favorite and not just because Aunt Ethel outdid her in the truffle department. She drank, for one thing; not all the time, but enough that you got to know the pattern. Saturdays were the day that our mother and aunts cleaned our apartment. Nine times out of 10 you’d hear Aunt Lillian’s first beer getting cracked open at 11 a.m., and you knew the day wasn’t going to get better. She could be a bit mean, too, even when sober. She would give us Indian burns, twisting our skin until we cried out, or she’d pinch the underside of our upper arms.
At five, I was a smart, quiet girl with curly brown hair and dark eyes. I was well-behaved, though I was starting to get a bit sarcastic. Talking back always got me a literal smack on the wrist or kick in the ankle, so I chose my moments wisely. There’s something to be said for perfectly timed snark, and I carefully weighed the satisfaction of seeming clever against the risk of injury. Gerry was a basically uninteresting toddler. She showed no signs of a hobby other than following me around a lot, which hardly counts. She also showed no signs of hair for the first several years of her life, and could have easily been confused for a tiny, furless monkey.
The summer that Gerry turned three, it was decided that we were old enough to go to Coney Island. In 1941, Coney Island was made up of three amusement parks: Dreamland, Luna, and Steeplechase. We were pretty poor, but we got into Steeplechase Park for free because our grandfather had been friends with the founder, George Tilyou. There were hundreds of rides and attractions, but the most popular, by far, was the mechanical horse race for which the park was named. The steeplechase ride consisted of eight mechanical horses attached to a metal track that ran around the perimeter of the park. The ride’s motto was “Half a mile in half a minute, and fun all the time!”
That first Sunday, we all got dressed up for our outing. Gerry and I wore frilly dresses that made me look adorable and Gerry like a tiny hairless monkey wearing a dress. Aunt Ethel and my mother both looked lovely, and Aunt Lillian looked almost handsome, which I guessed was as good as it was going to get for her. We rode the subway all the way to the last stop, Surf Avenue, bouncing quietly in our wicker seats the whole way there. Walking up the stairs to the street level, you could smell the ocean on the breeze, and it was all we could do not to sprint the last quarter mile to the entrance of Steeplechase Park.
The first half of the day was perfect. The crowds were huge, and the streets were packed with food stands and games. Carnies were shouting, encouraging the masses to step right up, and we could actually hear the tigers roaring from inside one of the tents. We made our way along the boardwalk and bought creamies. I couldn’t believe all these adults were here just to play, like kids. It was the most joyful place I had ever been.
After the boardwalk, we made our way to the steeplechase ride. The mechanical horses went so fast, and my mother was more nervous than my aunts, so she waited on a bench until we were through. Gerry got in line with Ethel, which left me with Lillian. After a time, we were ushered through to choose our horse. I sat in front with Lillian behind me, and I hung on for dear life as the gun sounded. The horses took off, the wind taking my breath away and nearly blowing the hat off Aunt Ethel’s head as they raced along beside us. It was thrilling.
When the horses came to a stop, I climbed off and turned to ask if we could ride it again, but Lillian pointed ahead of me, indicating that we weren’t quite through yet. Then she said what sounded like, but couldn’t possibly be, “Blowhole Theater.” I turned back around. The exit sign was above a doorway that led into a dark building. I could hear laughter and applause coming from inside. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I realized that we were standing at the back of a stage. Pairs of men and women were being ushered one by one onto the stage by a dwarf in a clown costume. He held the gate open with one tiny hand, and in the other was an electric cattle prod. As a woman walked onto the stage, jets of air came from below, throwing her skirt up around her waist. Her underwear exposed, she hurried off stage and down the steps to take her seat in the audience. The date followed and to my horror the dwarf shocked him with the cattle prod on his way by. The man rushed after the woman, the audience roared. Soon it was Gerry and Ethel’s turn. Ethel took Gerry’s hand, and together they crossed the windy stage, Ethel’s skirt whipping about, the dwarf laughing wickedly. He turned as Lillian and I approached, and his face became enraged. Lillian, of course, wasn’t wearing a skirt.
Furious, the dwarf charged at us, threatening us with the cattle prod. Lillian was composed, and marched across the stage, barely flinching as the shock landed on the back of her thigh. I ran as though my life depended on it, tripping down the stairs behind Lillian and collapsed into Ethel’s waiting arms.
It was the most terrifying event of my life, and it happened every Sunday for two months. I don’t know why I didn’t speak up against going on the ride again. I suspect I did, maybe once, but was told my fear was foolish. In any case, I faced that damn dwarf at least six more times that summer, Lillian by my side every time. Despite his anger and attacks, Lillian never once wore a dress to Steeplechase.
To my knowledge, Aunt Lillian only wore a dress three times in her adult life: twice to weddings and a third time as she lay in a coffin at her own funeral. Lying helpless in a heap of pink fluff, her face painted with layers of coverup and bright, badly done rouge, poor Lillian looked like some sort of clown or prostitute. I could hardly recognize her. My mother’s aunt, Anna, who had very little basic human compassion and even less tact, waited until the family was all gathered around the coffin to exclaim, “Doesn’t Lillian just look beautiful? Why she looks lovelier now than she ever did when she was alive.” Despite Lillian not being my favorite aunt, I liked fearful, bigoted Anna even less. “Why don’t we stuff her and keep her then?” I asked. As expected, my mother kicked me in the ankle, but I knew she was glad Lillian had been defended.
It occurred to me then that Lillian had not been afraid. She wasn’t afraid of the things that made her different, and she wasn’t afraid of people’s opinions. Cliché aside, she was true to herself until the day she died. That’s why my being afraid of dwarfs is so misleading. It’s not about difference. The women in my life taught me that difference in others is nothing to be feared.
But I think an exception can be made for maniacal little dwarf clowns brandishing electric cattle prods, wouldn’t you say?