One With the Freaks

The author demonstrates one of his tricks.Photo: Phillip Toledano

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 The Astroland amusements have long been superseded by rides at even the most dog-and-pony theme parks, but if you hanker to see a man with a ’nad the size of a crash helmet, or a woman with an unfortunate birth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.

Photo: Phillip Toledano

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.

Photo: Phillip Toledano

“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.

One With the Freaks