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|November 27-December 3, 2008
United States of Abnormalities
Harmon Leon on the good, the bad and the fugly
by Dale Bridges
There are a lot of weird people in the good ol’ U.S. of A. I once took a bus from Denver to Chicago and sat next to a man who made two of the most audacious claims I’ve ever heard: 1) that he was Jesus, and 2) that he was an atheist. Although his Messianic assertions were slightly undermined (in my humble opinion) by the fact that he smelled like cheese, I found him to be a wonderful conversationalist. We got along swimmingly and ended up killing 12 hookers together (just kidding — it was 10, tops).
In a quasi-democratic, pseudo-capitalistic society like ours, citizens tend to create extremist subcultures, and Gonzo chameleon Harmon Leon has made a career out of infiltrating those eccentric covens. In his latest book, The American Dream: Walking in the Shoes of Carnies, Arms Dealers, Immigrant Dreamers, Pot Farmers, and Christian Believers, Leon penetrates (in a completely non-pervy way) all the groups in that unreasonably long title and more. We caught up with Leon in his hometown of San Francisco and interrogated him about his unorthodox investigative methods.
Boulder Weekly: Do you remember the first time you created an alter ego?
Harmon Leon: I kind of played around with it as a kid. I remember we used to go into Dairy Queen and order ice cream, and right after they gave it to us, we would just smash it on our heads and leave. I don’t know why we did that, but it was fun.
The first time I created an alter ego in writing, I went out and got a job at a fast food restaurant with the sole intent of getting hired and fired within three hours.
BW: Were you successful?
HL: I got the job, but they wouldn’t fire me. It was the graveyard shift at Jack In The Box, and no matter what I did the firing wouldn’t take place. Which is kind of a sad sign of the times.
BW: About how many personas have you adopted over the years?
HL: This is my sixth book, so, God, there’s been hundreds of them.
(Writers’ Note: Just now, Leon sent me an e-mail, asking if I could subtly mention his website, freedomhaters.org, where he posts blogs that are so funny they sometimes make me pee my pants. I am nothing if not subtle. We now return you to your regularly scheduled program, already in progress…)
BW: There are a lot of weird, crazy people in this book. Was there one person or group that scared you the most?
HL: The most horrible experience was with the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, and their subtly named picket group “God Hates Fags.” It was just me on my own, with a lot of Bible quotes being spewed in my face and hateful protest marches and stuff like that. In the end, it just kind of crescendoed with the Sunday sermon delivered by Fred Phelps who started it all. He’s probably the most hateful person I’ve ever encountered within a close proximity.
BW: I’ve seen a few documentaries about him. He’s a scary motherfucker.
HL: Yeah, he’s scary. But how closeted gay is that guy? You couldn’t be that angry without something happening in your past that you’ve been jilted by.
BW: Have you ever been recognized or called out?
HL: When I infiltrated the Celebrity Impersonators Convention as a fourth-rate Austin Powers impersonator, I got outed as an impostor impersonator. Those fake celebrities are pros; they can really spot a fake fake celebrity.
Then there was another time at a Teen Abstinence Educators Conference — toward the end of the conference they realized I was infiltrating them. The minute I got home, there was an e-mail from them saying, “We’ll be interested in reading your story on our conference.” Which was kind of creepy.
BW: Do you ever have trouble getting out of character after the project is over?
HL: (Laughs) Like Sean Penn doing method acting or something. No, the minute it’s done, it’s done. Most of the time, if it’s a particularly horrible place, you just want to take a shower and be done with it.
With all these groups, I do research on them. I try to find as much about the group as possible: their lingo and philosophy and past history. The character I’m creating is an extreme stereotype of that group, which I use to hold a mirror up to their absurdities.
BW: That’s interesting. So many people’s lives are defined by their perceptions and environments. How do you know if your own life is crazy?
HL: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. You look at some of these people as an outsider, and you go, “I can’t fathom that people would actually think like this.” But then you spend a little bit of time in the confines of their subculture and you have moments when it does seem real and it does make sense.
BW: In every situation, you seem to find at least one thing to like about any group of people.
HL: Yeah, it’s really weird because I’m kind of an easy-going guy, and there are always moments amongst any of these groups when we’re just sharing a genuine laugh. In a way, it’s about finding these common threads that connect everyone, even though a lot of these people seem so extreme.
On the Bill:
Harmon Leon will discuss The American Dream at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 1, at the Boulder Book Store.
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