Back in 1869 a scalawag in upstate New York perpetrated one of the greatest hoaxes in American history by arranging for a fake fossil- a huge slab of gypsum carved in the shape of a man- to be unearthed on a farm in the village of Cardiff. Folks instantly decried that “the Cardiff Giant,” as it was called, was proof that giants had once walked the Earth, as the Bible foretold. Suckers came from great distances to see the Good Book made manifest.
Even P.T. Barnum, the father of American showmen, got into the act by commissioning a duplicate of the fraud- a fraud of the fraud, as it were- to exhibit when his efforts to rent the “real” fake failed.
If you would like to view the Cardiff Giant today you may do so at the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. Or drive down to Pennsylvania Station in Baltimore where our own Cardiff Giant looms large.
Baltimore’s new statue Male/Female easily holds its own with the Cardiff Giant, or any other of the great hoaxes. The presence of Male/Female in Baltimore is not biblical proof that giants once walked the Earth but that suckers still do. Male/Female stands tall alongside Bigfoot and the Shroud of Turin.
Americans have an insatiable appetite for hoaxes, a near craving, the need to be duped. The nation hungers for spaceships, extra-terrestrials, things that go bump in the night, pseudo science, quackery. This is especially fertile ground when it comes to art. Or “art”! The rube does not want to be thought an unsophisticated, so nowhere is the con easier than in matters of culture. The last half of the 20th century proved that.
The scene at the railroad station is a grotesque monument to smalltown bumpkin-itis completely out of scale and style to its setting. That it stands in front of the major railroad station in the city that was the birthplace of railroading in America is nothing to boast about. One would normally expect a county seat in Nebraska to buy the Brooklyn Bridge. But no, Baltimore got there first. We have out-yahooed the yahoos.
Here we establish for the casual traveler proof, if proof is required, of how gullible we are. We are hayseeds. The shame is so great that when I go to the station, as I do every weekday, I must avert my eyes.
As I was musing over what Dylan Thomas used to call “the crumbs of one man’s year,” I thought too about the day the University of Baltimore tore down the old Odorite Building. Granted, it was not the work of Adler and Sullivan, but it had its charms.
I realize that it is necessary to make the University of Baltimore as ugly as possible and that no expense will be spared to do this, but I thought it small and cruel to demolish the Odorite at virtually the same time that the shiny tumescence that is Male/Female rose.
One of the few things Baltimore has going for it is its architecture. Strangers often remark on this. This has not prevented cretins from denuding the old town. Must everything look like a Jiffy Lube? Must every corner have a CVS?
We tear down with impunity grand old reminders of our once grand past. We demolish the charming, the quirky, the harmless curiosity. Remember the Peabody Bier Stube? That had to go. Remember the old Southern Hotel? Let’s knock down the Shot Tower. It’s useless.
Actually, the only thing Male/Female has going for it is that it is obviously a thinly disguised rip-off of the 1951 science fiction movie gem “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” In that great early-Cold War classic, a flying saucer lands on the Mall in Washington, D.C., bringing with it the alien Klaatu and his faithful giant robot companion, Gort. The army shoots Klaatu. (Perfectly understandable, as he was bringing a message of world peace to Earth. Our army still does that.)
Klaatu is worried that if he dies, his robot Gort will destroy the Earth. He tells his American friends that the only thing that will stop Gort are the words “Klaatu barada nikto.”
Since it appears that Male/Female is here to stay, Baltimore should parlay this two-headed calf into something. First, a contest to name the thing. It’ll be good for tourism. Baltimore had a bad year with tourists. Water taxi?! Inner Harbor balloon ride?! A lot of frightened visitors (and sadly, a few casualties). I foresee no such problems with Male/Female. For the working concept we’ll call it Gort, after the robot in the movie. Unless the damn thing falls over, no one is likely to get hurt down there.
With the right sort of public relations we could have people coming here to see the giant space alien. This could single-handedly revive the moribund Station North district. Next exit: Giant space alien.
Face it, the uber-suckers who latched on to Male/Female are digging in for the long siege. We’re looking at Stalingrad here. So let’s make the best of it. Turn the statue into what it really is: a sideshow freak. Barnum would have understood this perfectly. This is an American moment.
All together now: Klaatu barada nikto.