In the late 80’s, I was still living in a small town outside of Houston, and was trying to figure out what to do next. I was recently out of high school, and trying to make that awkward transition into adulthood.
I was casually dating a lady I’d known in high school, someone I’d had a crush on and really liked, but the whole situation was confusing to me. Most things in my life were at that point.
I still enjoyed silly things like going to the County Fair (to be honest, I still enjoy stuff like that) and so the girl I was dating (I’ll call her “Alma”) and I went on a double date to the Fort Bend County Fair with my friend George, and his girlfriend “Donna” (also not her real name).
The night went well, a fun but typical outing to the Fair, when we stumbled across a seedy collection of freak show attractions in the back corner of the midway. I always loved freak shows, and while they were not common by the late 80’s, they were still a lot more common than they are now.
One had huge elaborate banners advertising “The Lobster Boy.” The garish paintings showed a little boy with red lobster claws instead of hands, engaged in a variety of activities befitting a mutant kid.
I knew I had to see whatever lay behind the door of the trailer framed by those banners. I assumed that it was probably some sort of gaff – a fake of some kind, probably a guy wearing fake claws. That was fine with me, I loved the fake stuff too, and had already seen a “Spider Woman” several years before that was nothing more than a big fake spider body with a woman poking her head through a hole in the floor. I counted that stuff as worth the price of admission.
So after a brief discussion, we all headed towards the line to get in, paid the admission, and were allowed entry.
I don’t think any of us were prepared for what lay behind that trailer door. The inside looked like some old guy’s home. It might as well have been anyone’s trailer house. There was no stage, no glassed off display area displaying a fake stuffed Lobster Boy or anything.
Instead the place was occupied by a slightly rotund older man with badly malformed hands. he happily berated us, and offered me his hand to shake. Instead of the normal five fingers, he had two large ones that really did resemble lobster claws. I shook hands, but we were all shocked by this meeting. I don’t think it really had anything to do with the man’s deformity as much as we all suddenly felt like low-lives exploiting some old guy with a genetic disorder.
I shouldn’t speak for anyone else that was there, but that’s how I felt. The Lobster Boy himself wasn’t particularly strange, nor did he seem uncomfortable. Decades of plying his trade in this manner probably made the experience completely normal to him.
After leaving the trailer, it seemed like a slight pall had fallen over our outing, and we left soon after that.
Years later, I found out that Lobster Boy was a famous sideshow performer named Grady Stiles that had been in the business since his boyhood in the 1930’s. He lived for years in Gibsonton, a town in Florida famous for being home to many circus and fair performers when not on the road. Stiles was an abusive alcoholic, and tormented his family members for years. He even shot and killed a man his daughter was going to marry. Despite showing no remorse for the crime, Stiles was only given 15 years of probation due to sympathy for his medical condition. Apparently this light treatment by the law gave him a sense of invulnerability, and his abusive tendencies became even more severe.
Eventually, certain family members had enough, and Stiles was himself murdered in 1993 by a hit man hired by his wife Maria.
I own the true crime novel about his life and murder, and every time I see it, I’m taken back to that moment at the Fort Bend County Fair all those years ago. Alma and I didn’t last together much longer,and that date sort of tanked, but we’ll always have our moment with the Lobster Boy.