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One With the Freaks


“Oh,” he says, giving me the up and down. “I should mention that the scrawnier you are, the more you’re gonna feel this one.”

I lie on the bed of nails and distribute my weight over the 700 or so sharp points. It’s not comfy per se but not too painful. Yet. Heather Holliday produces a smaller be-nailed board and places it atop my chest. Then stands upon it.

“When you’ve had enough, just tap her foot and she’ll get off,” Vomit says.

Holliday dismounts, and though I have avoided a messy puncture, my entire torso looks perforated. For the next 45 minutes we all take turns being sandwiched between spikes, then we move on to an act that Vomit favors as much for its simplicity and portability as for the visceral reaction it produces in an audience. He takes a mousetrap from his pocket and sets it while reciting a creepy poem about the snapping of rodent vertebrae. Then he holds the trap to his lower lip and inches his tongue toward the trigger, causing all of us to wince with anticipation until the trap explodes with a cracking report and the bleachers bounce as we all flinch. He removes the trap from his tongue.

“The mousetrap is something that we’re all familiar with—we may have all caught a finger in one at some point,” he says. “So we know how much it can hurt.”

I am about to gamely join in with the rest of the class in trying out this new skill when Vomit tells about the time he broke his two front teeth in half while performing this stunt, and so I happily watch the others. I also sit on the sidelines as he demonstrates the proper way to extinguish a cigarette on the tongue.

Aside from Damon and me, the students all aspire to do more with their new knowledge than bust it out at parties. To that end, a lot of the instruction covers hard information about constructing beds o’ nails, blade boxes, and electric chairs, as well as the best places to buy straitjackets, animal traps, and swords. Vomit then gives us a little tour of the building, stopping to show us a diorama of Coney Island that at the flick of a switch becomes a nightmarish vision of Surf Avenue after Joe Sitt has given it the Epcot Center treatment.

“Yeah,” he says twiddling the curled ends of his mustache. “We like this a lot.”

After a brief recess, we reconvene to practice more ensemble gagging with our wire coat hangers. Chris seems to have progressed the most, venturing past the epiglottis and to a point where the hanger simply “gets stuck,” about seven inches in. Expanding upon yesterday’s fire tutelage, we are now playing with “vapors,” essentially putting the flames into our mouths with a lit torch, taking that torch away, then igniting an unlit torch with the burning fuel vapors that we’ve been holding there. It’s quite nerve-racking. I mildly burn my lips on my second attempt.

Day three kicks off with us walking on broken glass, before we get into an act that won’t make me retch or injure me. Vomit gives a stunning demonstration of exactly how to get out of a straitjacket. As I wait my turn, I see that there’s something slightly different about Cady’s smile. She notices me register it and says, “I was drunk and was showing people the mousetrap trick.”

“Oh, shit! I’m sorry,” I say.

“It didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would have.”

Toward the end of the week we meet Dick Zigun, the founder of the sideshow who is known as the mayor of Coney Island. He talks for 35 minutes, and this is the wisdom he imparts to us eager soon-to-be graduates: Don’t get a snake. “There’s the shit and the piss,” he deadpans, “the financial burden, the getting bit every once in a while, the killing rats and mice…” Even professional freaks have their limits.


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