A dwarf walks into a bar.
I was searching for a funny anecdote that would begin with that sentence when I ran into Danny Black, a dwarf who has walked into a lot of bars. At the time, I was writing a book about conjoined twins and had decided to open with amusing bar stories from people born with body types that mess with ideas of normal.
So I asked an acquaintance with a positive reputation in the dwarfism community to post an inquiry from me on one of the online lists. Danny answered, and when he answered, it was in part to exclaim that, hey, we live in the same town, we should meet up. I looked at his email address and realized that I’d seen his car around my neighborhood. It’s hard to miss. It’s a white 1989 Honda Accord emblazoned with a bunch of corporate endorsements and, in the biggest font possible, the name of his company: shortdwarf.com.
Turns out Danny’s the kind of dwarf that gets paid to walk into a bar – as Cupid on Valentine’s Day, as Santa’s elf just before Christmas, as a leprechaun on St. Patrick’s Day. He also does private parties, including children’s birthday parties (he ties a mean poodle balloon), bachelorette parties (he strips down to boxers while teasing the bride), and the like. For adult birthday parties, he’s got a very funny doctor routine involving an enema bag. Danny’s company also manages other dwarf talent nationwide. In deference to his critics, Danny calls himself the Heidi Fleiss of dwarf entertainment.
The gig for which he’s become somewhat famous was the 2003 Miami bachelor party of Thomas Bruderman who was, back then, a darling trader for Fidelity. Bruderman was marrying the daughter of now-defamed Tyco head Dennis Kozlowski. The story about Danny’s involvement in the bachelor party broke on the front page of the Wall Street Journal:
The fun included a stay at the ritzy Delano Hotel for some, a yacht cruise and entertainment by at least one dwarf hired for the occasion. “Some people are just into lavish dwarf entertainment,” says the 4-foot-2 Danny Black, a part-owner of Shortdwarf.com, an outfit that rents dwarfs for parties starting at $149 an hour.
That story won’t die. The feds have ended up conducting an investigation into whether the party and similar events represented a misuse of investors’ money, and, four years after the event, Danny’s still getting calls from reporters interested in unusual Wall Street business practices. Lobster is apparently one thing, a rented dwarf is another.
At the time I met Danny, I couldn’t understand why anyone would go out of his or her way to hire a dwarf entertainer, though I did quickly come to understand why Danny did the work. When there’s work, it pays well. He doesn’t make a fortune – he rents his apartment, and his car’s odometer reads 390,000 miles and counting – but it’s a living. I remember that when he got back from Miami in 2003 he told me about the crazy money flying around, some of it into his hands. He also really likes doing entertainment work. I know it sounds corny, but Danny likes to make people laugh. And he’s good at it. And it feels good to do work you’re good at. His stock saying is this: “Why shouldn’t I use my disadvantage to my advantage?” Height-plus-talent: it’s a well-known money-making formula in professional basketball, modeling, and politics.
Still, much as I liked Danny from the start, and though I quickly came to see him as a good friend, it was hard to reconcile my life’s work with his. Mine has been about getting people past anatomical stereotypes – past the idea that you can mark people off as different simply because they’re conjoined, or really short, or physically between the sexes. His work seemed to be about making money off of those very stereotypes.
The leading support and advocacy organization for people with dwarfism, Little People of America (LPA), was started by the dwarf actor Billy Barty as a publicity stunt for the city of Reno, Nevada. The idea was to get all these very short folks together for a weekend in Reno, “the biggest little city in the world,” so that the national press might sit up and take notice of the town. As often happens when you get together people who have in common a stigmatized identity, a peer support group spontaneously coalesced. For years, the group was informal, mostly centered around happy socializing. Bit by bit, over the years, the members started sharing information about employment opportunities, about medical treatments for the physical problems associated with some kinds of dwarfism, about specialized products like portable step stools. But they kept taking time just to socialize, too. Everyone who goes to an LPA convention tells me the same thing: you go to LPA and get useful information, sure, but you also go to play cards and knock back a few and meet potential mates.
Although a number of the early members of LPA were entertainers – like Billy Barty then and Danny Black today – it didn’t take long for LPA to celebrate a very different ideal: the fully-assimilated dwarf. The icon of this was Lee Kitchens (1930-2003). The bio of Kitchens in Betty Adelson’s book, The Lives of Dwarfs, sums it up this way: “Lee Kitchens: Engineer, Inventor, Role Model.” Indeed, Kitchens’ professional career would have made any parent proud: white-collar engineer, university lecturer, corporate executive, mayor of his town. The picture of Kitchens and his family in Adelson’s book looks like a promo shot for “Leave It to Beaver,” except that mom, dad, daughter, and son all appear to be dwarfs. (As it turns out, the son grew to five feet seven inches.) Kitchens’ stereotype-breaking life showed that people with dwarfism could get good educations, good jobs, live in nice houses – and stay out of entertainment. Parents of children with dwarfism didn’t have to fear that their children would have the options of sideshows or nothing.
Danny used to attend the LPA conventions in part to sell the specialized products he markets to people living with short bodies and short limbs. His bottom wiper has been a best-seller; he sells them mostly to fellow dwarfs, but sometimes also online to very fat and very buff people and folks with other kinds of movement impairments. But, of the money Danny earned through the convention, most of it came from the sale of his dwarf-themed t-shirts. A popular one reads simply “short happens.” Over time, these shirts got increasingly in-your-face. The young folks at LPA were partial to “Go ahead, call me a midget. I can use another felony conviction.” Then there’s “Midget Porn Star.” (He jokingly offered that one for sale in a plain, brown paper bag.) Danny also made location-specific shirts for the annual conventions. For the Utah gathering he created “Utah, me short” (you have to read it aloud to get it) and “One wife, seven dwarfs: we had the idea first.”
Then there was the (in)famous “Midget Petting Zoo.” I assumed the phrase made reference to the obnoxious habit some people have of “petting” the heads of strangers with dwarfism, supposedly for good luck. Danny explained to me that was the main impetus for the shirt, but that it also turned out to be read as an insider reference to the meat-market atmosphere that sometimes breaks out at LPA conventions – “petting” in the sexual sense. In any case, it caused a good bit of agitation. But the t-shirt of Danny’s that finally set off a firestorm within LPA showed up at the 2003 Boston convention and featured the words “Amish Midget Militia,” along with a cartoon of an Amish man with dwarfism holding a musket. I took it as absurdist, an avant-garde commentary on identity politics and political correctness. And I still suppose it was. But several leaders in LPA – people who had been smarting for years about Danny’s liberal use of the word “midget” – said they found it phenomenally offensive. When Danny pointed out that the ironic use of the word “midget” didn’t offend all little people in the way they claimed, the objectors found a formerly-Amish member of LPA and got her to say the shirt was oppressing her.
Ultimately that t-shirt – well, that plus the fact that Danny was giving kids at the convention soda straws and navy beans to create some mayhem – got him kicked out of the Boston convention and out of the organization, too. At the Boston event, Matt Roloff, the then-president of LPA, marched up to the shortdwarf.com booth and handed Danny a legalized “get out” letter. This was soon followed with an official notice that his membership in LPA had been revoked along with his convention-selling privileges. (Incidentally, this is the same Matt Roloff who now makes a small fortune via the TLC “reality” show, “Little People, Big World.” In an early episode, Roloff’s son can be seen wearing a shortdwarf.com shirt.) Danny made a deal with the cops called to escort him out of the convention hotel: he’d given them “Amish Midget Militia” shirts if they’d lead him out with the police car lights in full swing. The cops obliged. This, of course, only irritated Roloff and company more.
When I called to get her thoughts on the matter, Angela Van Etten, a very well-respected, well-liked lawyer and activist and the former president of LPA, explained to me the political valence of the term “midget,” saying that many people within the dwarf community consider the word “midget” akin to “nigger.” It’s a term of derision or mockery at worst, a term of ignorance at best. But it wasn’t always this way. In fact, when Billy Barty helped organize what became LPA in Reno in 1957, it was under the banner “Midgets of America.” At the time, “midget” was what you wanted to be if you were a dwarf. “Midget” meant that your limbs were proportionate to your trunk – that your body looked like an average-sized person’s, but in miniature. “Dwarf” meant you had the shortened arms, legs, and fingers typical of, say, achondroplasia – the kind of dwarfism Danny happens to have been born with. In the 1950s, an achondroplastic dwarf like Danny would not have been anatomically privileged enough to call himself a midget.
But somewhere along the way “midget” turned into a slur. Presumably this happened around the time when the politically conscious people in what became LPA realized they had to take control of the language to take control of their identities and lives. They couldn’t control “midget” or “dwarf” – those words were already out there, already full of negative connotations – and in any case, the distinction between those two terms just caused confusion and hierarchy among people with short stature. So they recreated themselves, one and all, as “little people.” Unity above diagnosis.
I learned from Van Etten that the folks who are LPA’s counterparts in the UK hate the term “little people.” British dwarfism advocates prefer “people of restricted growth.” I can’t stand “little people” either – it’s the name my five-year-old uses to refer to his Fisher Price toys, and I’m still laughing about the time recently when Danny was over and my son, showing Danny a toy, asked Danny, “Do you know about little people?” Danny answered, chuckling, “Oh, boy, do I know about little people!” On the other hand “people of restricted growth” sounds strangely horticultural to me, like they’re victims of the Bonsai craze or something. Van Etten says that occasionally someone suggests it is time to change the name of LPA but that so far the proposals haven’t gone anywhere.
After Danny got booted from LPA, I held a dinner/discussion at my house to brainstorm about what Danny should do next. The invitees included local folks that Danny had come to know and trust, plus a graduate student who was writing her thesis on grassroots political attempts to retake words like “midget,” “nigger,” and “queer.” Over a grilled pork tenderloin and several bottles of wine, we pressed Danny on why he was so intent on using the word “midget” – what it meant to him, what he thought it could do. I noticed that, in his responses, Danny wasn’t completely articulate about his own work – he couldn’t always say why he did what he did – and it was then that I started to realize Danny is at some core level an artist, one who picks up on the political and personal vibrations around him and channels them into short phrases and images and performances. How else could you explain “Amish Midget Militia”?
One thing was clear, though: Danny had found, again and again, that when he was out in public in a t-shirt that had the word “midget” on it, something interesting happened. Usually the word “midget” (and all its attendant images and meanings) followed him around like an unwanted aura, creating a sort of distance between him and each stranger he would encounter. But when he put the word midget on his chest, it was as if he had released the pressure that existed behind the “m”-word’s silent presence. The graduate student at our dinner told him this is called “resignification.” By wearing the name “midget” front and center, Danny forced the first response to be to that – to the word “midget” – so that the word and its thick ideas could be exorcised.
Danny told me, for example, that he would on occasion wear one of his “midget”-themed shirts to a fraternity party where he was hired to work, and a frat boy would come up to him and say, “Wait a minute. Now I’m confused. What do you people like to be called?”
And Danny would answer, “Um, white. How about you?”
And after the awkward laugh, Danny would take a moment to talk a little about the politics of various words, and in simply being there talking, he would convince the frat boy that Danny is pretty much like everyone else – pretty much like the frat boy. Only funnier.
When Len Sawisch helped start the Dwarf Athletic Association of America (DAAA) in 1985, he purposely used the word “dwarf” at a time when it was largely unpopular at LPA. Len told me over lunch a month or so ago that, in 1985, he knew from working through LPA that there were plenty of parents – especially sports-fanatic dads – who couldn’t deal with the word “dwarf” because they couldn’t deal with the fact that their kids – especially their sons – were dwarfs. But these dads wanted their dwarf sons (as they wanted all their sons) to be athletic – to power-lift, to play basketball, to be jocks. By using the word “Dwarf” in the name of the DAAA, Len made sure that these fathers would have to come to terms with the word, and in so doing, would have to come to terms with their kids being dwarfs.
Len was one of the people who attended what came to be known as the Amish Midget Militia Dinner at my house. When I emailed Len to ask him if he’d give me an interview for this article, I was reminded that he likes to say he retired as a dwarf a few years back. But I asked him to do it as a favor to Danny and me nonetheless. Nowadays Len, who holds a PhD in psychology, works for the state of Michigan as a communications and customer technology consultant. He used to do professional disability activism as well as stand-up comedy that centered on his dwarfism – Len was featured in the 1982 Emmy-nominated documentary “Little People” and in the 20-year follow-up, “Big Enough” – but these days he doesn’t do many gigs qua dwarf. It got old for him.
Len and Danny met by accident. At the time – this was years before Danny got into the specialty product and entertainment businesses – Danny was selling Kirby vacuum cleaners door-to-door. One of the other Kirby salespeople happened to ring Len’s door and encountered his wife Lenette (yes, that’s really her name) who is slightly shorter than her mate. The salesperson decided he had to send Danny back to this house, and when Lenette met Danny, she asked him to come by when Len was home. A friendship and mentorship was born. Which is not – Len hastens to add – to say that Len ever bought a vacuum cleaner from Danny.
Len occasionally expresses some level of amusement around Danny’s political misadventures and some confusion about what certain shortdwarf shirts mean, but he is invariably affectionate and supportive. I sometimes wonder if Danny actually got his impatience with political correctness from Len. I do know Len gave Danny the idea for an early t-shirt that on the front said “Real live dwarf!” and on the back “Not really. It’s just a costume.” When I asked Len about his reading of Danny’s struggles with LPA, Len pointed to two seemingly contradictory messages that seem to circulate among the LPA membership, of whom about nine percent do some work in entertainment: first, that being a dwarf entertainer is an okay way to make a living, and second, that, if you go into dwarf entertainment, it’s going to make it harder on those of us with “real” professions to make a living.
Everyone I interviewed for this article, including Len Sawisch and Angela Van Etten, was quick to point out that they personally know that working in the entertainment field means having a real profession. It is work that takes skill, talent, and determination, and only if you’re good can you make a living at it. And Danny is good at it. So he knows the breadth of his market. He knows that some people are going to be attracted by the fact that one of his phone numbers is 1-866-U-Midget. But I told him not long after we met that I would personally never use the term “midget.” I told him I was beginning to understand how he was using it – as Len articulates – to do a particular kind of American street theatre wrapped up in an avant-garde sort of disability activism, but that I couldn’t say the “m” word. Danny looked at me with a big grin and responded, “It’s just a word, Alice.” I blushed and reminded him that I am a card-carrying member of humanist academia. I assured him we’re never, ever allowed to say “it’s just a word.”
So, this is chief objection people have to the kind of work Danny does when he’s working as an elf or leprechaun or arranging for other talent to appear as Mini-Me or an Oompa-Loompa: It drags down the progressive image of people with dwarfism. It objectifies them. It reiterates classic stereotypes about dwarfism and feeds a culture of oppression that many advocates have worked long and hard to overcome. In this sense, it is like a minstrel show at best, prostitution at worst.
Danny’s basic response to this is libertarian. He feels he should be allowed to do whatever he wants with his body – even dwarf-tossing, a bizarre act in which a short-statured person is thrown about by taller people, if he is stupid enough or desperate enough to take on the physical risk and social grief. (Incidentally, he’s not.) But when I talked to Angela Van Etten, she clearly had a different take. She argued that these things must be understood as issues of common decency – that, just as we don’t allow prostitution because it is dangerous, dehumanizing, and affronts common decency, we shouldn’t allow something as risky and degrading as dwarf-tossing. While she did not explicitly object to leprechaun- or Mini-Me-type acts, she did evince her highest regard for performers like Peter Dinklage (star of “The Station Agent” and now “Death at a Funeral”) who have become mainstream actors in serious roles. And she had little patience for the kind of comical, stature-specific gig Steve Vento does, where he walks around a Milwaukee Mexican restaurant that he co-owns wearing a large sombrero, the brim covered in chips with a bowl of dip nestled in the top of the hat. (Restaurant patrons are encouraged to partake in the snacks, which they can easily reach, given Vento’s height.) “It certainly makes you cringe,” she said. “I wouldn’t go there. It’s like, well, that’s a shame. But the organization [LPA] didn’t do anything to try to stop it.”
If it were up to Anthony Soares, LPA’s former vice president for public relations, the organization might try. Soares was one of the people most angered by Danny’s t-shirts, and as Adelson’s book notes, Soares has publicly denounced Steve Vento’s sombrero routine as barbaric, humiliating, degrading, and disgusting. Soares is also well known for attacking former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich for making jokes about his own short stature on the campaign trail.
All of which is kind of strange, given that Soares himself campaigned for public office under the slogan “a councilman who will stand up for the little guy” and given that his publicity shots were explicitly taken from the vantage of a tall person looking down at him. Pressed about using public interest in his dwarfism for political gain, Soares’ response was simply this: “It’s been a disadvantage enough times that I might as well use it to my advantage.” Hmmm…. the same line Danny had long used to justify his own work.
I asked Danny recently how he felt about this – about folks like Matt Roloff and Tony Soares giving him such grief and then turning around and using public interest in their bodies to their personal advantage. And, by the way, how did he feel about some folks on the online dwarfism lists giving Roloff and Soares grief for their occasionally-stereotypical public performances? Danny answered that people should just cut Roloff and Soares some slack. It’s not easy being out there in the public eye, and it’s their lives, their bodies, their self-representations. And, he added with a wink, maybe the more Roloff and Soares do this, the more they’ll understand what Danny does.
By his own admission, Paul Steven Miller is the ultimate assimilated dwarf. Now a distinguished legal scholar on faculty at the University of Washington in Seattle, Paul was appointed by President Clinton in 1994 to be an Equal Employment Opportunity Commissioner. When we met at an ethics workshop on pediatric limb-lengthening surgeries a couple of years ago, Paul was finishing out his second term with the EEOC. (He introduced himself by saying “I’m a civil rights attorney in the Bush administration. I have a lot of free time.”)
In a phone interview, I put to Paul the argument that, when Danny does an act that makes reference to his dwarfism and the stereotypes associated with it, he’s making everyone with dwarfism look bad.
“That sort of gets tiring,” Paul responded, “and he didn’t sign up for that.” He went on:
Not everyone in LPA can or should be Paul Miller, Lee Kitchens, Ruth Ricker [a national disability activist], Matt Roloff, or whatever. There’s a wider range. And he’s not hurting or damaging anyone – he’s being a little bit more in your face. That may ultimately be offensive to average-size parents of children with dwarfism in LPA who think we have to be hyper-normal, but look, I understand my own life, and it’s pretty hyper-normal. I worked hard, excelled, went to Ivy League schools, worked for the President…. I couldn’t do what Danny did, but I think that’s OK.
Paul expressed frustration at the idea that everyone should try to grow up to Be Like Paul. “I think that there is room outside of a monolithic Father Knows Best kind of image of who dwarfs are in America.”
Paul likened the reaction to Danny’s work – especially to his use of the word “midget” – to reactions to the work of black male comedians like Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, and Dave Chappelle who have channeled and spoken the reality of race, racial identity, and racism as they have seen it. “He’s holding up a mirror to the LPA community and especially to society and calling it like he sees it…. [He’s] saying out loud what he imagines a lot of people are thinking. I sort of get that. I can appreciate that.” I asked Paul why his own attitude seems to differ in that way from a lot of other public figures who are little people. Paul speculated, “in some way I am secure enough, or confident enough, or egocentric enough that [what Danny’s doing] doesn’t intimidate me or freak me out, or offend me in any way. Because what he’s doing in a sense doesn’t distract from who I am.”
Of course Paul can literally afford to laugh at himself – to wear the “Midget Porn Star” shirt he bought from Danny a few years back – given that he’s also got a resume that’s as long as a government whitepaper and a dozen pictures of himself working alongside the President. But I felt nonetheless like he had hit on something with his likening of Danny to black comedians like Pryor. Because, even though Danny’s critics feel like he’s just metaphorically stepping up in blackface, shucking-and-jiving, he always seems to be doing something more. Messing with his audience’s minds while making them laugh. Taking the stare and answering it confidently with a joke, first at his expense, and then at theirs.
Danny is no dupe; he knows how to manage image and representation like any professional actor. Paul is right in suggesting that Danny knows what Pryor knew – that performance that can at first seem exploitative can actually be subversive, even progressive. The Emory University disability studies scholar Rosemarie Garland-Thomson has written about this, noting how self-display “provides a medium for positive identity politics and an opportunity to protest cultural images of disabled people.” Although Danny’s clients don’t typically hire him to come and do explicit disability activism, I’ve noticed he almost always manages to naturally do at least a little. This is because, as Garland Thomson argues, the performer uses the opportunity of the performance to control how she or he is seen, to alter how people with that body type are understood, to change the terms of the discussion. Look at Danny as he’s working the room, and you can see he’s necessarily reworking how the room is thinking about the short guy.
Danny does this by being out. As out as out gets: “Go ahead, call me a midget. I can use another felony conviction.” Or this: This culture thinks dwarfs are elves? OK, it’s Christmas, so today I’m working as an elf, but I’m not going to just stand there for you to look at – I’m going to talk to you and make you treat me like a human. You’re going to get that this is an act.
Maybe this is part of what bugs a certain set of people in LPA – that Danny is so out, when they’re just tired of the problem of always being out when you just want to get by. It’s a classic problem I’ve seen in groups like LPA that try to do both support and advocacy: the people who want support pretty much want it because they’re not ready to be too out. Meanwhile, the people who do the advocacy and the public work are by definition out, done with shame, tired of shame – and all attempts to squelch their being-out feels like a reinstatement of the shame the group was originally formed to dispel. Arguments ensue about whether privacy is the same as shame. People make claims about who really has the right or obligation to represent the identity group. And on and on.
Danny’s critics want to claim that what he does must be a manifestation of internalized self-hatred. But it looks to me like maybe it’s just the opposite – self-acceptance, self-confidence, a serious sense of empowerment. In this sense, Danny is indeed living in the tradition of the freak show. James Taylor, who has studied and written about the history of anatomical exhibitions, reminded me of this when I called to ask him about how he reads Danny’s work. People think the “freaks” of old-time sideshows were essentially held captive and forced on display for the pleasure of a gawking public. But in fact most people who exhibited their anatomical curiosities made a point of remaining in control of the show – deciding how they would be seen while maximizing profit and maximizing the sense of being unique, valuable, powerful.
The customer would basically pay to go and meet the featured star. And what would happen? The star would do some kind of little act, and then just talk to the customer. “What little else went on with that person’s act,” Taylor notes, “usually paled by comparison with the audience’s chance to feel up close and friendly with someone who was different.” (Danny tells me this is so true. Audience members want a picture with him, want his autograph, just to feel like they got a little extra connection.) If the customer acted like a jerk, the star made a point of making the customer look even more like a jerk. This was all standard practice – the pay up front, the act, the personal connection, the control. In the nineteenth century, Chang and Eng Bunker, who coined the name “the Siamese Twins” to advertise themselves, used exactly this formula to make a fortune. Same with Charles Stratton, the guy who billed himself as General Tom Thumb.
“It’s not demeaning to the people doing it,” Taylor insists. He adds, “Danny is one of my heroes in the business…. If you can get into the business nowadays and have his attitude about who you are, what you are, and go into it with the knowledge of how people see you, and you can work that with a sense of humor and enough finesse to poke fun at yourself, but also take it seriously enough to make your living off of it, that’s success in this business.”
What about the claim that an act like Danny’s just reinstates the image of the person with dwarfism as a freak? When I put this to Taylor, he immediately recalled a maxim told to him by Johnny Meah, a man Taylor describes as one of the greatest sideshow banner-painters who ever lived: You only ever meet a freak once. After that, it’s just a guy. It’s inevitable. You think you’re coming to see something totally different, then it turns out it’s just a person in a different shape. “Once you meet these people, you don’t feel compelled to stare at them again; they’re what they are – they’re who they are.” Taylor’s point reminded me of the way that, when interviewed by the New York Daily News about the Fidelity bachelor party, Thomas Bruderman’s father assured the press, “There was only one dwarf. His name was Dan. He wasn’t a clown or anything. He was just a nice short person.”
I’ve asked Danny about that – whether he ever considers that he might drive himself out of business by humanizing people with dwarfism during his acts. Once people understand he’s “just a guy,” maybe they won’t want to hire him anymore. But he says he isn’t worried. Most of his customers are repeat clients. They hire him the first time out of curiosity. They hire him the second and third and fourth time because he’s funny, personable, and professional.
I was secretly starting to find the idea of the sombrero act really funny. Particularly after I talked with James Taylor, I found that, anytime I pulled up the mental image of a short guy serving chips and dip out of a big hat, I couldn’t stop chuckling. Was I losing my moral center? Was I becoming an exploitative jerk? Or was I maybe finally getting comfortable with the idea that some people are really short, and that human variety is kind of a cosmic joke?
In early February last year, I met Danny for coffee at a cafe near my house. Between fielding business calls, he told me about an inquiry the office staff had triaged to him the day before, a classic Valentine’s Day call from a new customer. It went pretty much like this:
Novice: “Is this… um… is this the number I call for…um…. What do I call you people?”
Danny: “Most people call me Danny.”
Novice: “I was thinking about hiring someone – a dwarf – to deliver a Valentine’s Day greeting to my girlfriend. Is that weird?”
Danny: “I dunno. Do you love her?”
Danny: “Well, then it’s not as weird as if you didn’t love her.”
Novice: “But, I mean, why would I hire a dwarf to do this?”
Danny: “Maybe you love her, and maybe you’ve told her you love her in a hundred other ways, and maybe you want to do something different, to get her attention? So you want to have a dwarf do it.”
Novice: “Yeah, I guess so. Are you a dwarf?”
Danny: “Yes. Are you?”
Danny: “Well, then, I guess you need me. Shall we talk rates?”
I myself talked rates with Danny not long after that. In early March, just before my fortieth birthday – realizing the cosmic joke aging surely is – I asked Danny if he would do me a favor and work my party for an hour. He was going to be there anyway as a guest, but I wanted to know if he’d let me pay him for one hour of his professional time. I wanted him to do the sombrero thing, and I wanted him, while he was serving the chips and dip, to pose one question over and over again to my academic friends:
“Resignification, or dehumanization?”
I had only ever hired Danny once before. Years ago, when I was working on the twins book, I had contracted with him to go to the Mütter Museum at the College of Physicians in Philadelphia and tell me what he thought of the displays of dwarfs’ remains there. Some of them are pickled, some dried. One particular case at the Mütter features the skeleton of Mary Ashberry, a nineteenth-century woman with achondroplasia dwarfism who apparently survived via sexual prostitution, and who died in childbirth. The Mütter has her skeleton posed holding the skull of her fetus. Danny came home with this reaction to the display: “You want dehumanization? That’s dehumanization!” He was as upset as I’d ever seen him.
So Danny came and worked my party for an hour, and stayed as a guest for another two or three. Most of my friends knew him from my previous parties where they were guests together, so they weren’t really playing along when he asked them the question I had paid him to ask. Like typical academics, they wanted mostly to talk about what they had written about dehumanization or resignification or other vague postmodern concepts. I was afraid Danny was going to charge me extra for having to listen to all this. But he was a good sport.
And the truth is, although we celebrated my birthday that year on March 18, my birthday actually falls on the March 17: St. Patrick’s Day. I never celebrate it on that day, partly because I don’t especially like the color green or large crowds of drunks, and partly because I’m still smarting from believing my parents who told me when I was little that the big parade in New York every year was in my honor. (“I don’t get it,” I finally said to them, “We’re Polish. Why a big Irish parade?”) But that year, because I was working on this article, I decided to recognize St. Patrick’s Day just long enough to stop down at the local brew pub and watch Danny work his annual gig. As a consequence, this is what I’m going to remember from my fortieth, more than the sombrero:
A dwarf walks into a bar. He’s dressed as a leprechaun. He starts working the crowd. It’s physically exhausting work – he spends a lot of time standing and bending his head back, so he can talk to the other folks standing taller than him – but he seems to be enjoying himself nevertheless. The scene is mostly college students wearing Kelly green, drinking green beer, taking pictures on their cell phones. The bar’s owners are paying the dwarf well, but it’s clear they’re making a tidy profit on both the beer and the entertainment.
Folks come up to talk to the leprechaun, because it is, after all, St. Patrick’s Day. They soon learn his name is Danny, they tell them their first names, and they joke around pleasantly with him. Occasionally someone makes an ass of himself in response to Danny’s act, and when that happens, Danny takes a few extra performative steps to make sure it’s clear who the ass really is. The vast majority of the encounters are polite, upbeat, in a holiday spirit. The conversations often end in a firm handshake and a genuine smile. A few people recognize him from previous encounters, and those people come over to say a warm hello.
Danny comes off looking ever better from these small encounters. The longer he’s there, the longer I watch him, the more obvious it is he’s a winner. And the more its clear the people around him get that. Yeah, he’s a dwarf, a midget, a little person, a person of restricted growth, whatever. Yeah, he carries around all the medical and social challenges of his achondroplasia. But mostly he’s a nice guy with a great sense of humor and a sore back from standing up working so long. He’s just a guy. And I’m thinking, Johnny Meah was dead-on. You only ever meet a freak once.
© 2007 Alice Dreger (all rights reserved)