July 25th, 2005
|08:37 pm - Chillin' with the freakshow|
The best bar in Coney Island is the Freak Bar. It's not exactly well-publicized which isn't such a bad idea, since it keeps out the shirtless Guidos and other assorteds who hang out in the boardwalk bars hollering on their cellphones. In fact, any signs on the outside of the Freak Bar's building are overshadowed by larger, louder and more fascinating signs hand-painted on canvas. These signs are adorned with scantily-clad women and sinister-looking gentlemen and fire and snakes bordering on religious symbolism, featuring words screaming THE HUMAN BLOCKHEAD! and SHE EATS FIRE! and ALL ALIVE ON THE INSIDE! And don't consider the $5 admission a cover charge. Instead, the $5 is your admission to Sideshows By The Seashore, the last remaining "10-In-One" in America, run by Coney Island USA.
And there's a talker outside, too. Don't call him a barker, now, that's incorrect. There are no such things as barkers on the American midway. Besides, he doesn't bark, he talks! And oh how he talks. He'll talk up the acts inside, he'll describe the wonders therein, he'll get you to ask yourself "How does the contortionist girl do it, wiggling her way around EIGHTEEN STEEL BLADES OF DEATH as they plunge into her cabinet? And what, pray tell, is the Inflatable Boy?" If you're lucky, he may bring the Snake Girl out to do a little bit of her thing... but don't expect the full show out here, boys. To see it all, you've got to see it on the inside!
The "10-In-One" circus sideshow is an American tradition. Ten sideshow acts are continuously presented, one at a time, on a small stage. The acts are constantly revolving; you pays your money and goes in when you do, and you stay until you've seen the same act twice. The acts lydian (aka The Parsnip) and I saw on Sunday included fire eating, sword swallowing, knife juggling, a walk up and down a flight of sword edges, and a snake girl whose "Dance Of Death" with her albino python included a finale where she dipped the snake's head briefly -- and phallically -- into her mouth (the kids in the audience wondered why some of the grown-ups were chuckling.) All these acts, by the way, were presented without a single "Don't try this at home!" No wussy legal ass-covering for CIUSA, no way. George C. Tilyou didn't need to use disclaimers to build his nickel empire. Thompson & Dundy didn't tell Luna Park crowds about "paid professionals" and the like. This is tradition we're keeping here.
The main draw of the sideshow is, of course, twofold: physical oddities and titillation (or the promise thereof.) In days gone by physical oddities would have included fat ladies, dwarves, para- or quadriplegics; Sideshows By The Seashore has none of these in their current retinue. They've had some before: Helen Melon ("It takes four men to hug her and a boxcar to lug her!") and KoKo the Killer Clown, a dwarf whose act included a "bizarre comic monologue" are part of the outfit's Sideshow Hall of Fame (KoKo, so the legend goes, disappeared for parts unknown one day and hasn't been seen since.) Otis Brown, who had stunted arms and no legs, had been exploited in other sideshows as "Frog Boy" even though he bore no resemblance to a frog, and was kept in the back of a tent so he couldn't mingle on the midway and show the marks that no, he didn't look like no frog. This was not a good thing. However, Otis had a great knack for rolling (and lighting!) cigarettes using only his mouth, so when he joined up with Sideshows By The Seashore, they changed his stage name to "The Human Cigarette Factory" and he did his thing until 1990. And he got to terrorize the midway in his motorized wheelchair all he wanted. At Coney Island, freaks are celebrated, not exploited -- of course, that's assuming they wish to be known as freaks to begin with. The pay can't be all that great but hey, it's show biz.
Sideshows By The Seashore does, however, make up for that apparent lack with more titillation than you'd expect. Innuendo flies fast and furious, skimpy outfits help the dancing of the acts, and as with all sideshows, the Promise Of Seeing More is the driving force behind any exchange of cash. Take the Elastic Girl's act, for example. Wearing a skimpy red dress, she shimmies into a BOX OF DEATH, then twists her body around as the inside talker (slang for emcee) shoves EIGHTEEN STEEL BLADES OF DEATH into the box. When roughly 2/3 of the blades have been shoved in, the talker begins to explain that the top of the box is mostly open, so that if you wanted, you, too, can come up onto the stage and peer into the box and see how she does it. Perhaps you're not that curious -- or perhaps you've figured out how she does it -- so then the second lure is cast.
While talking up how much of a "small contribution" that Miss Elastica wishes for you to make, the talker is still pushing blades down into the box. One of the blades sticks -- he pushes harder. The blade finally sinks through the box with a little squeal from Miss Elastica... and then her hand reaches up through the viewing slats, clutching her skimpy red dress.
I don't know how effective it is, but me and the Parsnip certainly put up our eight bits apiece to see into the box.
The Coney Island USA stage is a small affair with a passel of bleachers for seats and minimal crowd control. After sitting down, we were constantly being told to "scootch over to the right" so that newcomers could be seated. (The only viable exit, however, was out through the same entrance door, which made leaving a difficult affair once you'd scootched over as far as you could to the right.) Economy is the mantra at CIUSA; all props for all acts are kept onstage at all times and when not performing, the acts are outside on the bally stage with the talker enticing passersby to open their wallets and start shellin out the dough.
Additionally, many performers double and triple up on acts. Diamond Donny V, for instance, is the inside talker as well as the knife juggler and the Human Blockhead. A Human Blockhead such as Donny is the one who sticks nails in his nose ("A great way to get iron into your diet") as well as an icepick and, for a finale, a big spoon. For an encore, he sticks his hand into a ouchy pressure animal trap.
A pleasant young lady by the name of Heather Holiday doubles as both Miss Elastica the contortionist and the World's Youngest Sword Swallower, all of 19 years old and a "recovering Mormon." Of course, she works the crowd well with the saucy remarks.
"Give a hand for Kyle!" Heather cheers, after the audience volunteer helps pull a sword out of her throat while she's bent at a 90-degree angle. "What a great find! I mean, how many guys do you know who like to pull out?"
"GET HER NUMBER, KYLE!" a heckler hollers at the lad, barely hovering around drinking age himself, who at this point is trying to slink back to his seat as quickly as possible. The grown-up jokes hover around the risque, the outfits skimpy, the titillation factor high, but things don't devolve into the purely lewd. Mostly.
Heather Holiday may have earned the title of Smuttiest Mind in the Sideshow were it not for The Inflatable Boy, a German performer whose first trick is to swallow a 5-foot pink balloon. Later on, Mr. Boy accidentally on purpose snaps a rubber glove on his hand, wincing in pain. He then gets a nice young lady from the audience to kiss his hand and make it better. Back he goes to the stage and accidentally on purpose snaps his glove again, but this time it smacks his crotch. Then there's a beseeching glance at the audience member, and we all laugh. C'mon, what would you expect from a place once nicknamed Sodom-By-The-Sea?
Once the Inflatable Boy has stuck a rubber glove over his head, he poses for a brief second.
"Now zat I have gotten your atten-shun," he says, "I should like to talk to you about Chesus!"
We were also treated to Eak The Geek ("The Man Who Tattooed His Face Like Outer Space"), the sideshow's veteran performer. Eak actually did time on the carny circuit as an actual geek -- that's the performer who'd bite the heads off of live chickens. Eak gleefully described in vivid detail how he'd streeeeetch out the necks, "twist once! and twist twice!" and bite they tiny heads off. Of course, you can't do that anymore, so Eak focused his energies on tattoos and other stunts. He worked the crowd as well as any professional wrestler, and his Bed of Nails sandwich act, where two audience members actually stood on the nails on his chest, was pretty darned amazing.
I was most impressed by Insectavora, the woman with tribal tattoos over half her face and piercings everywhere else, who doubled as both the sword stair-stepper and fire eater. Her patter for the sword stairs was enjoyable, if a bit faint: "Being stranded on an island in Fiji was a soul-hardening experience... the soles of my feet, that is!" But her fire-eating act, which closed out each 10-in-One rotation, was classic and exciting. She blew fireballs, lit her torches by hand, drizzled kerosene along the stage and set up trails of fire, and danced around to the Squirrel Nut Zippers (whose album, "Hot", is pretty much a perfect soundtrack for freaky-deaky sideshow acts.) The Parsnip and I watched through to her act twice, then adjourned to the Freak Bar to provide some valuable concession income as well.
The Freak Bar is out in a corner of the sideshow foyer, with stools for maybe four or five and a narrow selection of drinkables -- Corona, Heineken and Guinness Draught ("I know it's in the bottle even though it says draught," said one tippler. "That's OK.") for like $5, Bud and domestics for $4, and Rheingold, the official beer of Coney Island, for $3 a bottle. Much like eating hot dogs solely at Nathan's when you go to Coney Island, I don't think you're supposed to have any beer that's not Rheingold. Besides, although two fucked-up hipsters ambled over to the bar and ordered two while we were there, Rheingold has yet to achieve Trucker Hat status like Pabst Blue Ribbon, so it's still a good cheap drink.
The walls of the Freak Bar are decorated with Coney Island ephemera, including one Rolling Rock thermometer that has the Steeplechase hed pastede on yay over the Rolling Rock logo (you can tell it's a Rolling Rock thermometer, still, because the number '33' is featured prominently.) Adoring the back wall are two space-age 8-track players and a wide selection of cassettes.
"Do the 8-tracks work?" I asked Jodi, the cute bartender. She looked up from what she was doing -- re-attaching the back plate to one with a screwdriver -- and responded in the well, duh affirmative.
"And it's open request here, too," she said.
While drinking, the ticket taker, a young black man whose name I didn't get, came up and asked Jodi if she wanted any food on the run he was making. She fished through the tip jar and gave him some bills and ordered some delicious jerked chicken dish. Sensing the "Eat Where The Locals Do" opportunity for some prime Coney Island knowledge-dropping, I asked Jodi where he was off to, and she mentioned some little grill down on Surf Ave. A few minutes later, though, he came back with entirely different food -- chicken sandwiches described as "the best there is around here," cooked over at Ma's, one of the summer shanties that go up, Brigadoon-style, around the vacant lots on Surf Ave between the El Dorado and Astroland.
"But you gotta go when this one dude's working," the guy said. "He's bald and he always wears PJ pants. He makes the sandwiches the best. Don't order the sandwiches from anybody else but him."
"And the best part is that this is just chicken," Jodi said, "But the grill's been cooking other stuff all day, so the chicken picks up all the flavors of the peppers, and the onions, and everything."
"They call it the Sideshow Sandwich," the guy said. "If you go, tell 'em we sent you. Hey, what do you think of this vest? Just got it at the Luna thrift shop. I got it to complete the carny look. I was going to go for the green one, but someone said it clashed with my red shoes."
"That'd make a nice Christmas ensemble," I pointed out.
"Oh, yeah! I could be the Homicidal Elf or something."
The rest of the afternoon was just a blur of fragments. As we sat and drank and ate, some of the freaks stopped by briefly to say hello to Jodi and ticket guy, then milled out to either the bally stage or back inside. Still on the job, nobody wanted a beer, though I'm sure if we pestered Diamond Donny V enough, he'd have had one. If we paid. A large printed document hanging on a clipboard described the bartending duties, obstensibly for Jodi's benefit. Handwritten under the rules was "No beer for on-duty cops in uniform." There was another rule that forbade free drinks to anyone without the consent of Dick Zigun, the owner of the joint and self-proclaimed Mayor of Coney Island. "Otherwise you will find that there's suddenly a lot of Close Personal Friends of Dick," the sheet said.
Jodi, the Parsnip and I chatted amiably about movies. She recommended The Saddest Music in the World and we repaid the favor by recommending The Apple -- though I did point out that it is "Really, really, really bad." The Parsnip, of course, insisted that it was high cinema and the pinnacle of 1980s EST-fueled filmmaking.
Jodi also mentioned she was really from Indiana, and is heading back there in a week or so.
You're running away from Coney Island and heading back to Indiana?
"Well, for school," Jodi admitted. "This place isn't very affordable when you don't know what you want to do with your life."
I eventually made an 8-track request, seeing a Frank Zappa cassette in the bunch. Turned out to be one of his experimental albums, and soon the crazy strains of melody-less time-signature-changing freeform Frank Zappa noodling filled the bar area.
"What is this, chase music?" the ticket guy asked.
"You can change it if you like," I said to Jodi. "This isn't Frank's best."
"What do you mean?" she asked, dancing around. "This is cool!"
Dick Zigun, aforementioned Mayor of Coney Island and whatnot, eventually walked up to cash out part of the bar till. Jodi handed him a stack of twenties and marked the amount off on the clipboard. Riffling through the bills, Dick squinted at the 8-track player, still going Zappa strong.
"This has got to be the least-requested 8-track we have," Dick noted. "It's too freakin' weird."
"Too weird?!" Jodi gestured wildly, as Dick climbed the spiral staircase to the office. "TOO weird?! In this place?!!"
Well there, Spatch--you wuz at Coney Island a mere three days after me and the missus. We didn't stay long; just enough for one whirl on the Cyclone, a walk down the boardwalk, and a dog.
The next day, we enjoyed some olive-oil gelato at Otto. I highly highly recommend it.
TAKE ME THERE TAKE ME THERE TAKE ME THERE TAKE ME THERE TAKE ME THERE TAKE ME THERE!
Oh, what the hell. I'll see if I can get a research grant to go out and write a paper on "the normalisation of the body; freakdom and display" or something.
Hey, why don't we join the show - they must have something weird for two Tiny English Girls to do.