In 2002, I had the extreme pleasure of attending the Coney Island Sideshow School. At the time, I had been taking frequent trips to the Island, which often included paying admission to see the sideshow and on occasion the burlesque show. Discovering that there was an opportunity to learn the things I had witnessed filled me with joy, to the point where I had a hard time even properly expressing how thrilled I was. Noted here, I had been friends with Jon for about two years at the time. We often discussed performing together, which came into reality in May of 2001 when I was introduced to the members of Outlaw Cirkus and subsequently became part of the troupe. Unfortunately, due to constant drug use, Jon was not in the right frame of mind to beome the mentor he wanted to be, but we had numerous shows together with Outlaw Cirkus nonetheless. When he learned that I had enrolled in the sideshow school and saw that I dedicated myself to absorbing everything I could, he made a promise that upon graduation, we would have a serious discussion about becoming long-term partners. However, those stories are meant for a different time, and instead I am sharing my experience as a stundent in Coney Island
11.18.02 What I learned in Sideshow School
My weekend technically started on Friday. Woke up to go to school, but upon checking my e-mail prior to departing, something better came up and I didn’t go.
Instead I hung out with Jon at the diner, and while he didn’t say much about the absence of metal in my face, he did mention that he thought I looked fine the way I was. The encounter had to be brief, but he promised we would have an outing after my sideshow class.
To keep it short and sweet, over the course of three days, I was introduced to where the sideshow came from, what it was all about and learned some history of Coney Island itself. [Most of which I already knew]. Invaded our nostril cavaties with Q-tips to prepare ourselves for the Human Blockhead, stuck matches in our mouths to get used to having fire in our faces for fire eating, and put wire hangers in our mouths as a preliminary step to sword swallowing.
There are only five other people in the class, one of which happens to be from Jersey. So I have his contact info and said that maybe in the future we could work together.
Was surprised at how many members of the press were hanging around, as I didn’t think that many people even knew about the classes. A film crew from the Discovery Channel was there for fuck’s sake. They took our names and asked us where we are from and why we were there, so on and so forth.
Watched a few performances by Todd, the Great Fredini and whatever that other guy’s name was. He was really good at the fire-eating. Learned how to stick our hands in an animal trap, walk on glass and how the electric chair works. Moved on to small torches and putting nails in our noses. We learned Carny speak—which I want to start using—and other great things.
There really isn’t any big secret to be revealed. The great thing about a sideshow act is that—for the most part—what you see is absolutely real. Sure there are a few gaffes here and there, but when you see someone swallowing a sword…well, what do you think they’re doing?
There are three basic types of sideshow performers: the working act, the freak, and the self-made freak. [Kind of aiming to be a part of the latter category, which I have to say I am rather proud of.] To be clear, I’m not going to jump ahead and say I’m great at anything right now [except for the Human Blockhead], but I definately have the hang of it, and the more I practice, the better I will get. Next weekend is more practice of what we have already learned, as well as bed of nails and other fun things.
This entry could have been a lot more interesting, but as I said, there’s no big secret to reveal. Most importantly, I am doing this because I want to. It’s a great tradition that deserves rightful recognition. Just being in that [cold] building and learning what I am is a great honor. The sideshow didn’t die out because the humanitarians were bitching; people took an interest in staying home and watching television or going out to a movie.
There is a new generation of people who are curious about things that they don’t see on a day-to-day basis. There is always going to be an audience for this kind of thing, because it is just human nature to be curious. And I am definitely one of those people who can dedicate theirself to doing this.
The other parts of my weekend were spent in South Jersey [what a trip that was from one beach to another] and celebrating with Jon. He said he was happy that I had found some great people to teach me the history of sideshow and all that. Don’t get me wrong though; I have learned a great deal from this man over the past couple of years that we have been friends. He knows quite a few of the acts himself and speaks Carny. However, he admitted that he had strayed from that lifestyle for various reasons, but seeing the passion I had renewed it in himself.
That basement birthday party was just pure debauchery. Tons of metal heads, punks, squatters, hobos and other assorted misfits all crammed into a cemented cube. The music was loud and gritty; people were moshing and spilling alcohol everywhere. Our set was short but tight, and the people loved it. Much consumption of illegal substances occurred, to the point where I don’t recall what I had or how much of it. Not like that really matters; it was all good fun and I am so happy to be putting my skills to use. It only makes me want to do this more.
11.24.02 Proud Graduate of the Coney Island Sideshow School
Did not think I would ever see those words gracing this journal, and perhaps don’t even have the right amount of words to properly express all of these feelings currently coursing through me.
The remainder of sideshow school was spent practicing the acts we had already learned, and introduction to a few more, such as the bed of nails and electric chair. Met Harley Newman, who holds the record for laying on four nails I believe it was. Also got the chance to handle one of the huge albino pythons that is used for the Coney Island sideshow during the season. Maybe it was the black leather trench coat, but that snake really seemed to like me. Oh how I would love to have a baby of my own some day. Also got an up-close-and-personal look at Tyler Fyre’s swords.
Our graduation consisted of having to get up on the stage and perform one of the acts we had learned before we got a ‘diploma’. Sure, it’s a bit cheesy, and only a piece of paper, but there is so much more that I am taking away from this whole experience. It’s changing me in ways I did not think were possible.
Definitely worth spending the money, not only the tuition itself but the gas and tolls in order to get there. [Of course between hustling and having Jon pitch in, that wasn’t really a big deal]. What I’m trying to say, is that this is one of those priceless moments where I am still kind of in awe that it’s all real.
After departing the Island, I made that long journey down to the Shore. When I walked into Jon’s house, he was standing there with a huge smile plastered on his face. There were colorful balloons and streamers everywhere, and a table set for dinner, complete with fancy foods and wine. Following that most wonderful feast, we drank mushroom tea and went out on the beach to smoke a proper blunt and whittled away the hours talking about performing together in the future. It was definitely a nice way to celebrate my accomplishment, especially since it was with the only person in the world who understands why I want to do this.
There was one last surprise waiting at the house when we returned. A group of people were gathered at the back door, and I smiled when I realized it was the Outlaw Cirkus crew. Rounds of congratulations came my way as they shook my hand and said I made the Family proud. The hours that followed are a blur of partying on the beach with mushroom tea and weed-filled brownies until the sun came up and we all passed out.
Part of me is still waiting to wake up and realize that this has just been some really awesome dream. However, grasping the fact that it’s not, I am overwhelmed and finally feel as though I have found what I was searching for, and I love it.