Regular readers of this column might well guess that I’m a fan of the absurd. I’ve travelled the country taking photographs of preposterously oversized stuff. Usually these are advertising icons that have been positioned outside of factories responsible for regular-sized merchandise. Twenty-foot-high ice cream buckets, enormous folding chairs, hammers larger than Thor could lift, all have a place in my scrapbook.
I also like larger-than-life mascots: giant chickens, the Big Boy and my personal favorite — the carpet giant. Folks who live in central Arkansas probably recall the carpet giant. He was a fiberglass Viking measuring a good 30 feet tall. He stood sentinel outside a local flooring company for many years. I believe he may have retired to a used car lot. Then again, perhaps there are more than one. It seems logical that the company responsible for making giant Vikings probably made several.
If you have one that needs a good home, my large backyard is available. My neighbors would likely take a momentary notice and shrug it off as “Pate being Pate.”
I also like small absurdities. Especially if they are mechanical or of a certain vintage. In my travels, I have come across what is likely the most peculiar and eclectic collection of contraptions in existence anywhere.
This den of oddity is known as the Musée Mécanique (http://www.museemecaniquesf.com). It’s located in a pretty touristy place: Pier 45 at the foot of Taylor Street in San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, but this is no “I heart NY” t-shirt. It is a repository of more than 300 mechanical amusements.
The proprietor of the Musée is a roller skating chap named Dan Zelinsky. Every time I’ve gone there, he’s scurrying between machines, making repairs and entertaining visitors.
Zelinsky’s lair is dark and foreboding. If it’s foggy out — which it often is — the darkness is amplified. The glow of red electric clown noses gives the place an aura somewhere between Fellini and Hitchcock. It looks like a good place to get dead.
Once you find your bearings, it’s more an engagingly macabre curiosity than a place of fear. The cacophonic din of a mostly in-tune band organ bangs and tweets over everything else. There are animatronic fortune tellers. Pinball and other gaming machines ding and crack.
The thing that always gets my attention is an animated vignette that’s part fair, part circus, part city park, but all wonderful. A tiny dog jumps for its master. A lady sells tickets in a miniature both. Little carnival ride airplanes circle their tower.
Then there are other tableaus of a more sinister nature. The one I best recall is a Chinese opium den. The walls are lined with fabulous and frightening cased marionettes, who each have a little skit to perform.
Mash pennies. Test your strength. Feed quarters into metal slots like an addict. In very few places will a handful of loose change return so many memorable images. Even if you don’t like it, you’ll know you saw something.
Whether the impossibly large or amazingly small, I like having that experience. Everybody who knows me has suffered through endless prattling stories. Maybe there’s no great tale in these weird sights, but they have led me down my own personal road less traveled.
In the end, I love the Smithsonian Museums. I was awestruck by the Grand Canyon, but these oddities beg for explanation — explanation that inevitably leads to eccentrics and iconoclasts, rebels and visionaries. Perhaps that is why I find them so deeply resonate.
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Matthew Pate is a former law enforcement executive who holds a doctorate in criminal justice from the University of Albany and who has advised police agencies around the country. He writes from Pine Bluff. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.