Get Your Freak On


When you shove a 14-inch blade down your throat, rub olive oil on it first so it goes down smoothly. Drink milk to coat your stomach before breathing fire, otherwise you’ll get a nasty case of the fuel burps. And don’t forget, file the burrs off nails before hammering them into your nose.

The Coney Island Sideshow School teaches the nitty-gritty on how to swallow swords, charm snakes, eat fire, walk on broken glass, and other keystones of a venerated and fading performance art.

On this blustery off-season night, four students slip past the skeleton of the Cyclone, beneath the “Freaks Alive!” sign and through the sideshow’s orange door. Time for class.

Todd Robbins, 45, who helps run the sideshow and stars in the Off-Broadway Carnival Knowledge, acts as “dean,” molding malleable minds—and gullets and nostrils. Rather than the grisly geekfest advertised outside, the school offers lessons in exacting, if risky, techniques developed over the course of a century.

The students huddle on wooden bleachers four feet from the rickety stage and garish banners. Animal handler Nancy Bommer, 33; telemarketer Santiago Arana, 34; massage therapist Philip Cohen, 23; and child-care intern Heather Ramon, 18, signed waivers and paid $600 each for the classes. They endure pain and risk mutilation, burns, and lung devastation. They love it.

“It’s the thrill of doing stuff that other people can’t do or won’t,” Cohen explains. Sideshow school offers them a taste of the extraordinary, the studied science of shock and amazement, and a portal into carny lore and an exclusive subculture. They say they don’t intend to pursue it professionally, although of the two dozen that Robbins has taught, a few now have their own acts.

The students see their teacher putter around, then stop short and plunge a 14-inch sword down his throat until its cold, T-shaped handle rests on the sides of his mouth. Robbins, who more resembles a sober investment banker than a light-bulb-munching carny, also eats fire, spouting flames six inches into the air. “It’s all based on principles of physics and anatomy,” he says. “There are no tricks or deceptions.”

Sideshow performers take calculated risks based on a knowledge of physics, biology, and chemistry. Robbins advises them that camping fuel is best for lighting skewers and eating flames but too combustible for breathing fire. Teaching “blockhead,” he instructs students to push nails through the big nasal passageways, the ones that lead into the throat. And sword swallowing is a matter of squelching the gag reflex, achieved through grueling daily practice over several years. The student begins on a coat hanger folded in half into the 12-inch outline of a sword, with the hook where the handle would be.

In this class, the students admit that they have been gagging and even vomiting during practice. “It’s good to keep a hanger in the bathroom,” Robbins advises. “In the morning, you get up, brush your teeth, drop the blade.” Better to practice before eating, Arana later explains—you’re less likely to throw up. The bathroom is best because it’s easiest to clean.

Robbins asks to see everyone’s progress. Cohen, who used to gag on the doctor’s tongue depressor, goes first. He licks the length of the 12-inch wire hanger to lubricate it. He bends his head back to face the ceiling, feeds the hanger slowly into his mouth. Four inches go in smoothly. His throat seizes. The hanger stops. He steels himself, keeps pushing. At seven inches, his eyes begin to tear. His hand slows. But he continues. Finally, only the wire hook hangs out of his mouth. Hook in mouth, he grins. Then he coughs and spits out the hanger.

“That’s good,” Robbins says. “Halfway down, I could see the panic pass over your face and you quelled it.”

Overcoming discomfort is part of the appeal. “You have to have good technique,” Cohen, a former high school athlete, says. “You have to be in good shape. You have to do it right or else you’re going to hurt yourself. You practice. It is definitely like a sport.”

Now it’s Ramon’s turn. Ramon, petite with pink hair and safety pins in her ears, pushes the hanger two inches down her throat and winces. She tries again in vain. Last week, she flounced around coyly and then downed the entire hanger in one swift, seamless motion. Now, it hits something in her throat—perhaps her fear—and won’t go any further.

This is the frustration. Just when you think you have mastered something, the body revolts. It creates barriers. This happened to Ramon before when she was practicing blockhead on the subway. The membranes in her nose suddenly sealed, and she had to ride from Coney Island to 42nd Street with a stuck nail dangling from her nose. Pulling didn’t help, and eventually it fell out on its own.

There are worse things. Robbins, who swallows swords up to 27 inches long, once found himself in a Wichita E.R. after inserting one too zealously. He lacerated his esophagus (“the worst case of heartburn you can imagine”). He’s also sliced open his foot walking on glass. He warns the students about fire-eater’s lung, a life-threatening pneumonia caused by inhaling while swallowing fire.

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.

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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