Our sword-swallowing lesson begins with each of us being handed a wire coat hanger to shape into the rough dimensions of a sword. Before we begin, Vomit pulls a large trash can in front of the stage. “There’ll be some gagging,” he warns. “Possibly some barfing.”
Vomit takes a sword with an eighteen-inch blade and, with revoltingly audible effort, swallows it to the hilt. He then removes it and wipes away the tears that stream down his cheeks. Chris, a campy Englishman, is particularly excited about the sword swallowing. An aerialist with a circus company from East London, Chris came here to master this act. He’s the first to wipe his hanger-sword with Listerine, throw his head back, and shove it down his throat. Within seconds the theater sounds like backstage at Fashion Week as our bodies noisily reject the second foreign object we’ve attempted to force into them in minutes. Thankfully, no one actually hurls. “It’s thought that if you practice this seven times a day for seven days,” says Vomit, “you’ll sort of desensitize your gag reflex.”
Suddenly, there’s pounding on the steel door, and some seconds later another sideshow performer appears. Heather Holliday, who looks more hipster than carny, was originally the sideshow’s “skin”—the term used to describe a pretty assistant whose Vanna White–like job it is to hand the performer props. Holliday, however, soon started sword swallowing and became extremely good at it. “Hi, Heather,” says Vomit. “Why don’t you come up here and show us what you do?” Before uttering a word, Holliday takes a sword almost a foot longer than Vomit’s—despite the fact that she’s almost a foot shorter than he is—and effectively drops it into her gaping maw. Damon and Alex, two thirtysomething friends who’ve decided to take the course together, share a lascivious smirk and applaud wildly.
A ten-minute intermission permits me to run around the corner to Nathan’s for a corn dog. There, I am joined by Cady, the only woman among us. I’m immediately struck by the fact that Cady has no eyebrows and has flecks of paint in her short shaggy hair. I ask her why.
“If I tell you that I am a living statue,” she says hesitantly, “will you promise not to judge me?” Cady is based in Boston, where she says she makes a good living standing still for tourists for hours on end. Over the past few months she’s expanded her business and become a statue pimp, training others in the art of motionless standing as well as designing and making their outfits for them. “One of my statues is 250 pounds and hypoglycemic,” she says. “She thought being a statue would be easy, but after 25 minutes she began to faint and almost crushed a little girl to death. Anyway, I am making her a shepherdess outfit, and she refuses to hold a crook.”
“How will people know that she’s a shepherd without a crook?” I ask.
“Thank you!” she cries. “That’s what I said!”
Cady is staying at a frightful-sounding hostel near Penn Station and hopes that she can make enough statue-ing in Times Square over the next few nights to cover the sideshow-school tuition. “I’ve been told that I’ll probably get moved on a lot,” she says. “Apparently, New York cops hate statues.”
I feign surprise.
After our recess we go straight into playing with fire. Vomit demonstrates a few crowd-pleasing moves, including transferring a flame from a lit torch to an unlit one by way of his fingertips, palm, pant leg, and tongue. He includes a quick primer on what to do should we really catch alight, then scares us with stories of his carny brethren who have, often as a result of their own intoxication, ended up in the burn ward. Nevertheless, within a relatively short amount of time, all of us are more or less comfortable with flames dancing on our skin and clothing. Vomit seems taken aback by the pace of progress and consults the clock. “Y’all are doing so well, and we have a half-hour left,” he says with a shrug. “Do you wanna eat fire?”
“Hells yeah!” says Joseph on our behalf, and pretty soon we’re all shoving flaming torches into our mouths. Every time I burp it tastes like gasoline. I feel as close to badass as I ever have.
At the beginning of day two, it appears that I am the only student who hasn’t made progress with Blockhead. To atone, I offer myself as the first volunteer for our next trick, the bed o’ nails. I’m asked to remove my shirt, and as I do so, Vomit pulls a face.