Get Your Freak On

Itching to eat fire? Roll up for the Coney Island Sideshow School.

The students often come home with small burns, queasy stomachs, bloody noses, and scratchy throats. "The first week, I had blisters all over the inside of my mouth," Cohen says after class. "Right now, my nose really hurts. Sometimes I think, 'Why am I doing this to myself?' But then I remember, 'This is really fun.' "

Class ends at 10:30 p.m. The students begin the long subway ride, all their practice equipment in tow, from Coney Island back to Manhattan and Queens. At Bay Parkway, four teenage toughs bound onto the car, swigging from a 7UP bottle. They shout insults at each other. The students avoid eye contact. The shouting teenagers approach.

"Are we entertaining you?" one says with a menacing smirk. Silence.

Fire in the belly: Cohen demonstrates his skills.
photo: Dennis Kleiman
Fire in the belly: Cohen demonstrates his skills.

Cohen rifles in his backpack.

"You wanna see something?" he asks. He takes out a nail, the length of an index finger and girth of a drinking straw. He inserts it all the way into his right nostril. It hangs from his nose like a metallic goober. The young men drop their bad-boy posturing. Mouths gape. Eyes widen. They circle him, looking for strings or gimmicks.

"Oh my God, did you see that?"

Ramon opens the subway car's windows. Cohen lights a metal skewer and lowers the flames into his mouth. The teenagers stare. They do not move. They ask for more.

As the train nears 42nd Street, Cohen belches fuel and adjusts the practice skewers that hang out of his backpack so they won't poke passersby. He says, "I'm going to be so sad when this class ends."

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