"Cute, but not freaky," she says, eyeballing a gent with a flashy shirt and bow tie. "Twelve dollars." She points out a bowl of consolation candy, and the man passes under a sideshow sign that blinks on and off irregularly. "Welcome to the Freak Show," read the bulbs. "Nite of 1,000 freaks." A man with neon orange hair, a military cap, and a tremendous rubber nose collects the money with a leer. It is just the beginning.
Inside, Club 181 is murky (a wall of illuminated wine bottles being the strongest source of light), but abundant balloons and tinsel suggest that the demented circus theme is in effect. A cursory glance at the crowd confirms the notion. The room swarms with hundreds of vivid and macabre characters dreamt up in some Edgar Allen Poe-Clockwork Orange-mushroom haze. The first table is occupied by a group of gals dressed like Jetsons space-port waitresses with silver and red wigs, see-through dresses, and glittery 9-inch-tall platforms. To their right, a Hellraiser clown with an infernal jester's grin and thumbtacks glued to his face lurches across the room toward the curving bar. He rubs elbows with a majestic black man in animal prints and pooka shells and a dapper chap who hides behind a masquerade vizard and a Zorro hat. The devil-horned bartender passes drinks and suggestive notes across the well-polished bar.
"After a while the only person who looks really strange is that guy in the flannel shirt and the baseball cap," says Carmen Frassinger, herself conservatively attired as some sort of Raggedy Ann gutter spawn. "I heard that this was one of the more interesting crowds in town, but I had no idea that everyone would be so fantastic. This is better than Halloween." Nearby, a galactic go-go boy wrapped in a clear plastic cloak begins to vogue. On the dance floor, two small girls with shorn heads rub pelvic bones. They pause to light a cigarette -- the one in the PVC bikini dangling upside down with her legs wrapped around the neck of the one in overalls. A svelte man draped in an American flag and little else jumps on a riser and begins flogging the air with a small riding crop.
"I'm slowly getting into the whole gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender scene," says Dirk Ludigs, a foreign correspondent for German television who moved here last November. As we watch, a parade of harlequins in velvet uniforms and cone-shaped hats slips between a group of San Francisco's drag luminaries: Joan Jett-Blakk, Jaunita Moore, Erica Candye Kane, designer Dana Peter Porras, and Billy de Herrera (in the largest wig that has ever been worn outside of Beach Blanket Babylon). In the center, Freak Show producer Cougar Cash holds court. The harlequins glide past and enter the side lounge.
"Welcome to Toast 101," says Sister Reyna Terror, an elaborately made-up Sister of Perpetual Indulgence. He indicates a small white toaster on the table before him.
"Burnt toast is an abomination," he hollers. "It is the body of our Lord corrupted by a possessed household appliance. We must drive out the unclean spirit." He flogs the unsuspecting breakfast-time apparatus and offers purified toast to the row of people kneeling before him. On a nearby couch, a demonic vision in red satin and black antlers reclines, watching with mild interest as a man in a fez and a tutu with a 4-foot-long tail plays a small accordion.
"Have you ever seen such wonderful freaks anywhere else in the world?" sighs Cory Congdon. "We have such deliciously wicked freaks."
As if by invocation, the Insane Clown Posse arrives at the Trocadero only a few nights later. The stage is decked out in fun-house mirrors and a giant jeering clown head. ICP hail from Detroit, a depressed, postindustrial city where the power of the clown takes on a slightly more sinister nature. Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope enter the stage in full face paint. They are uncompromising, irreverent, evil-minded, foulmouthed, gangsta-rapping clowns. Their dreadlocks leap and jump like Medusa vipers as they expose their gang-style tattoos and penchant for derogatory lyrics. They tear through their galvanizing hip-hop album, The Great Milenko, periodically dousing the crowd with 2-liter bottles of Orange Crush and Mountain Dew. The soda is continuously replenished by two large skeletal monkey beasts. In the crowd, bare-chested young boys -- also in face paint -- scream, "I-C-P," and thrash about. Some carry West Coast Cotton Mouth Ninja T-shirts, the official insignia of ICP fans from Humboldt. By the end of the set, the floor is three inches deep in soda. The blissed-out "juggalos" stomp and splash about in the sticky mess as ICP laugh maniacally. Their road crew and monkey demons amble onstage, dumping huge buckets of sticky liquid over everyone's heads. Clown makeup runs in bright streams down prepubescent chests. Shirts are wrung out over dry heads. ICP dub San Francisco an official "clown town" (like we didn't already know) and promise to return.
"ICP's got the phat clowns," giggles a sodden girl with mascara raccoon eyes. She wraps her arms around her slender, clown-faced boyfriend. "The world better watch its ass."
(Perhaps the Go-Nuts -- the wholesome snack-rock-superhero-all-star-gorilla-revue -- will save us.)
By Silke Tudor