Every year, it seems, another chunk of old Coney Island is sold off, boarded up, demolished or just plain left to rot, and the pace of it all is quickening. This spring, the city announced a new plan that would cut the proposed area for amusements from fifteen acres to nine, thereby freeing up room for the Vegas-style hotel development conceived by developer Joe Sitt. There will, someday soon, be a spiffed-up, brand-new Coney Island, not unlike the not-so-new-anymore Times Square. But there are certain remnants of the old carny town that find a way to survive year to year, and most important among them is Coney Island’s Sideshows by the Seashore. It represents a bit of bona fide Americana that doesn’t really exist anywhere else. The Astroland amusements have long been superseded by rides at even the most dog-and-pony theme parks, but if you hanker to see a man with a ’nad the size of a crash helmet, or a woman with an unfortunate birth defect eating crushed lightbulbs, there’s only one place left to go.
Which is why I decided to enroll in the Sideshow school. How many chances in life do you have to be part of a dying breed?
The first day of class, I go out to Coney Island and find a steel door where the school is supposed to be. I pound on it. Fifteen seconds later, it’s flung open by a tattooed women with blue hair who wastes no time in charging $600 on my credit card and having me sign a “hold harmless” agreement. Then I am led into an unheated theater. In the darkness, six figures are perched on the bleachers, their eyes glued upon the gentleman behind an opossum-size mustache who is sinking a whirring six-inch drill bit into his left nostril. He pauses for cheers and removes the drill, now strung with great silvery cords of snot.
“Obviously, it took a while to work up to that,” says the man. “I started doing the act with an ice pick, then larger and larger nails, and then…”
He sees me slink in.
“Hi there, welcome to sideshow school!” he says. “I’m Donny Vomit. Take a seat.”
He turns his attention to the rest of the class. As my eyes adjust to the darkness I see the people I am sitting among. Directly to my left is an extremely enthused Jason Schwartzman absentmindedly threading a silver dollar between the fingers of his right hand at incredible speed.
“So that’s the Human Blockhead,” says Vomit, a.k.a. the Gentleman Oddity. “By the end of the week some of you may be able to hammer a nail into your face, but today you’ll all be starting with a Q-tip. Follow me, please.”
Mr. Vomit takes us into an adjacent room, which is bare save for an old-time dressing-room mirror. With varying degrees of success we all insert Q-tips into our faces. There are eight of us in total. Seven of us male, one of us a little person (two if you count Schwartzman), and at least three of us making minimal progress at finding the correct cranial cavity.
“So there are a few holes back there, okay?” says Vomit. “You want to get it in the right one because … well, it would be bad to get it in the wrong one.” A good sideshow performer is always creating a sense of imminent risk to life and limb, and it seems as though Vomit can’t turn this foreboding patter off. He leaves the room and comes back moments later with an X-ray of what he claims is his skull with a large nail inserted into it. “See?” he says. I keep working on my Q-tip, certain I’m about to perform an auto-lobotomy. “It’s going to take time for some people,” says Vomit, now looking only at me. “Blockhead, sword swallowing, and fire are the three things that will take some time and effort, so we will review these on each of the five days.”
I introduce myself to Schwartzman, and quickly realize I misidentified him. He’s actually Joseph, a working magician from Los Angeles attending sideshow school in hope of expanding his repertoire. “I do a lot of corporate gigs,” he says with a sigh as we retake our seats in the bleachers. When not taking fastidious notes, one or both of his hands are cutting and fanning decks of cards in a seemingly infinite number of ways.
Vomit gives us some color about sideshow culture. He tells us, for example, about the three classes of sideshow performer. The first and most revered are the “natural borns,” which includes your bearded ladies, your dog-faced boys, your little people, your lobster girls, etc. The second group are “made freaks”—people who have in some way modified their physical form—your tattooed men, your 800-pound ladies, and so on. On the lowest rung, the rung that the students at sideshow school are aspiring to, are the working acts. One of the most time-honored of those acts is sword swallowing.