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JunkBoy inhales condoms through his nose and pulls them out his mouth

And he's one of San Diego's fire-eaters

One thing I’ve learned: go looking for fire eaters and you don’t know what you’ll find. After putting out the word that I was looking for fire eaters (I have a few, um, unique friends in San Diego), after Internet searches, after placing an ad in a newspaper, I found two fire eaters in San Diego and got several more leads on fire eaters in San Diego County and Tijuana.

Actually, I found one fire eater in San Diego, and she was willing not only to demonstrate her craft to me but also to teach someone else, to initiate another into the society of fire eaters. Therein lies a good deal of this tale.

Let me tell you something about the initiate first. JunkBoy is his name, and I’ll hereafter refer to him as JB. It doesn’t say “JunkBoy” on his birth certificate. It’s his stage name, his nom de plume, his alter ego. He’s a born-and-bred San Diegan, about five feet ten inches, has medium-length sandy hair, wears one of those tiny beards just below the middle of his lower lip, and looks younger than his 38 years — and this is a man whose body, as you will see, has taken more than the usual wear and tear.

One of the first things JB said when we met was “I strap large amounts of explosives to my body and blow myself up.” Trying to act nonchalant, I scanned the room for the nearest exit. Given what’s going on in the world, this did not strike me as a good act for your average cabaret. I want to make it clear: he hasn’t done this publicly since 9/11. JB may be a little crazy (judge for yourself), but he’s not dumb. A machinist by trade, he’s made himself a steel chest protector. Very importantly, JB has access to professional pyrotechnic materials supplied to him by a man known as PyroBoy (natch). You could never get PyroBoy’s real name from JB, even if you used grisly torture. (Whereas, you could get from me JB’s real name if you worked me over with a rubber hose made of whipped cream.) As you will see, he is almost impervious to pain.

This is what he does: he hot-glues four or five rows of brick firecrackers to a black powder tape called quickmatch, which he then glues to the breastplate. Then he adds several “gerbs” — devices that shoot out sparks. Then some percussion devices (“Not so much an explosion as noisemakers”). Next, he attaches all this to a nine-volt igniter box (“with a safety switch”). He puts a sheet of Mylar over the explosives and puts a shirt on over it all. He says it’s a little bulky, but if he wears a coat it’s hardly noticeable. He plans a route to and from the place of his “performance,” always the kind of club where edgy acts take place, climbs on the stage unannounced, behaves boorishly until he starts getting heckled, and then he hits the switch. The explosion is designed to take place right on his chest, with very little outward or upward thrust. He makes sure he’s several feet from the first row. Sometimes, he says, paper from the crackers, and even a loose cracker or two, reaches the audience, but nobody, including himself, has ever been hurt. Though, he says, “My shirt usually catches fire.” He runs out and disappears a few seconds after the explosion.

I am one of those people, employed by a university English department, who still believe language is not the Betrayer, that, though not perfect, it is still by far the best way we have of communicating with each other. So I asked him what he called what he did. “Gosh, performance art, shock art, hit-and-run art.” I thought to call it Rubber Neck Art: like looking at a car crash — we may not want to, but we must. I remembered the performance artist who covered her body with slices of bologna — a euphemism for her talent? Most performance art I’ve seen over the years struck me as banal and pretentious, and usually with a PC point as subtle as a sharp stick in the eyeball. It always whiffed of narcissism, an excuse to climb onstage, preferably alone. It always seemed to me to lack discipline, a true passion to make something. Why study dance or singing or even writing when you can jump on a stage, act self-indulgently, and call it art?

But there was something very different about JB and his motives. Namely, he doesn’t seem to have any, at least not consciously. After blowing up, he doesn’t hang around waiting for applause. And, as you will see, there is nothing self-flattering about any of the other feats he performs. He is aware of the extreme commercial limitations in what he does. Indeed, he is much more at risk of being fined than of getting paid for his work. “I do it [remember, he is referring to not only exploding but also other feats as yet unspecified] for the reaction; that’s what I kind of get off on.”

He loved horror movies as a child and dressed up as characters to scare the other kids, unconfined by Halloween. He became obsessed with Houdini and read voraciously about him. One thing he never forgot about Houdini: much of his early career was spent hanging around with freaks and other sideshow people. JB knows the movie Freaks almost frame by frame. He taught himself many escape acts. He loved magic and was good at sleight of hand but “always too fast.”

Lest you’re wondering about his childhood: pretty normal. His parents were divorced when he was a young teenager, but he’s close to both of them and a brother, and he visits his grammy regularly. He had a monkey for 27 years, recently deceased, whom he mourns. The monkey was fed LSD by previous owners and therefore was a little jumpy. She (her name was Onion) had a lifelong fear of brooms and gloves. One can only shudder thinking of what those heinous hippies did to bum out the poor monkey in such a way. JB had some bad-boy years and his share of run-ins with booze and drugs, but he’s been clean and sober for some time now and in a stable relationship.

Okay, what else does JB do? When he is not exploding, of what does his act consist? He inhales condoms through his nose and pulls them out his mouth. This was the first feat of his career, and it began on a bet from a former girlfriend: “Twenty bucks says you can’t inhale that condom.” He did it first try. What kind does he use? “Ribbed, for my pleasure,” he says, and, “unlubricated because the spermicide tastes lousy.” He eats king worms and crickets. Sometimes he’ll chew a mouthful of crickets and, feeling a few still alive in one cheek, will then open his mouth and let the living cricket or two crawl over their dead and half-masticated comrades to his lips and onto his chin and freedom. These he later releases into the wild. Ours is not to reason why. But I asked, “What’s up with the worm and bug eating?” JB, nonchalantly, “I’m a big fan of protein; there’s a lot of protein in bugs and worms.” I assumed crickets were pretty crunchy. “Yeah, they’re a little crunchy, and they’ve got a strange, bitter taste. So do king worms — really bitter. Must be a defense mechanism, like ants — when you crush them, they smell funny.” Uh-huh. He’s searching for maggots but can’t find any commercially, and it’s too difficult to gather enough from the festering wounds of roadkill. He’d put this little twist on maggot eating (as if maggot eating wasn’t twisted enough): “Everybody has this thing about maggots looking like rice. I’d bring ’em in a Chinese food carton and just start spooning them up.” I guess he is one of those people, like me, who are clumsy with chopsticks. He talks about eating maggots in the same way other people talk about going out to the front porch to pick up the newspaper.

What else? He puts a four-inch electrical drill up his nose and turns it on, or inserts it while it’s turned on. He pounds a spike into his nose with a hammer and then pulls it out with the claw end. He swallows butane gas, swallows several puffs of cigarette smoke, waits until he feels a burp coming up, dips his hand in dishwashing liquid, makes an O with his thumb and forefinger, burps a bubble of butane gas and smoke into this O, and, while the bubble is still stuck to his hand, lights it: boom! It “makes a little mushroom cloud of smoke, just like an atomic blast.” I asked him if he ever consulted his internist about the long-term effects of swallowing butane gas, and he said, “I figure if I’m burping it right up, it can’t do me any harm.” This guy is crackers. I love this guy.

He does many other things, some of which wouldn’t get by the editors of a family newspaper. JB wanted desperately to learn how to eat fire. He also wanted to learn to sword swallow but was procrastinating: “People can get killed doing that.” But he wanted to learn to eat fire, and I could help him.

In fact, I had the perfect teacher for him, an experienced fire eater with a pedagogical bent. Her name is Karen Shelby; she’s 32 years old, a visiting scholar at UCSD. Her field is political science, with a special interest in women in politics. She’s writing her dissertation on Simone de Beauvoir and on women and the Algerian War. Beauvoir was a French novelist, philosopher, and protofeminist who wrote the groundbreaking book The Second Sex. She was a lover of, among others, the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre. Brilliant, immensely gifted, independent, Beauvoir always reminded me of Lou Andreas-Salomé, a woman about a generation younger and a lover of both Rilke (the poet) and Nietzsche (the philosopher) and a protégé of Freud (the shrink). She told Rilke to eat rocks (he was a whiner) and found Nietzsche breathtakingly neurasthenic and needing a whip. What I love most about her, though, is that when she was old and knew she was dying, she was pissed off. Not afraid, sad, etc. Pissed off. She had too much more to do.

Shelby will be a professor in a few years and is married to a young professor of linguistics at UCSD. She did her undergraduate work at the University of Louisville in Kentucky and learned to eat fire from a woman named Liz Carter, the wife of a University of Louisville dean. Carter asked (it was at an outdoor gathering) if anyone wanted to learn to eat fire — not your usual invitation at a student/faculty picnic. Shelby and a few others stepped forward. The others backed off when the reality of putting a flaming torch in their mouths and closing their lips and teeth around it sunk in. Shelby’s an attractive brunette, very articulate, and one of the most naturally and continuously ebullient people I have ever met. Ten minutes around her could pull the darkest person out of the deepest funk.

I met Shelby and talked to her before she gave me a demonstration. I was struck by her normalcy, particularly in comparison with JB. (Notes to principals: Shelby, By normalcy, I don’t mean bland! JB, Am I right? — the last thing you want is to be thought normal.)

I asked Shelby if she was an eccentric child. “No, I was a smart kid, got good grades…but I did follow my own mind.” She has no ambitions to further her fire-eating career — she does it only a handful of times per year, usually at a party or picnic. Her father and mother (divorced since she, too, was a young teenager, and, respectively, a mortgage banker and a sales manager) are blasé about it, but her husband, Eric Bakovic, loves it. In fact, they met and fell in love over fire eating. They were both at a baby shower while graduate students at Rutgers University when Bakovic first saw her. She was beaming. He approached her and asked what she was smiling so broadly about. Not a bad opening line — it’s simple, plausible, original enough, and made it clear he was attracted first to an element of Shelby’s personality rather than just to her looks. Shelby responded, “I just ate fire.” Even better answer. He was fascinated, impressed, and BAM, just like that, he was a goner. I asked her if he still liked that she ate fire. She said, “Oh, he’s very excited when I’m going to eat fire!”

I got a close-up demonstration of fire eating in the kitchen of my rented condo in Coronado. I was a little nervous about this. The woman next door had, obviously, been elected (by a landslide!) to the office of Village Scold and took her responsibilities seriously. There’s a note from her on the refrigerator of my condo that says “No laughing or dish washing after 10 o’clock.” She’d left a note once saying I opened and closed my door too often. I pulled the shades. “The kitchen floor is tiled and the ceiling’s high,” Shelby said, and, “I like the proximity to water.”

There is one basic spoken but unwritten rule about fire eating: you don’t reveal its secrets unless you pass them along, teaching another to eat fire. You can explain technique, but the real secret to eating fire is not technique — that can be pretty much figured out by close observation. The secret is in the sauce, the flammable liquid that the torches are dipped into and that’s then lit. Shelby calls it, appropriately, “secret sauce” and never revealed to me what it was. I had considered trying to learn to eat fire myself, but after I met JB and learned (1) he’s nuts and (2) he very much wanted to learn, I decided: Better him than me.

First, Shelby showed me her tools, including a jar of the secret sauce. It’s a light blue-green, somewhat viscous, and smells a little like airplane glue. Its most important properties? It burns at a lower temperature than most flammable liquids and is extinguished more quickly than most flammable liquids when deprived of oxygen. She had a few ounces of it in a squat wide-mouthed jar.

She showed me her three torches, which she made herself. She takes a 16- to 18-inch dowel, about the circumference of a fat pencil, and paints it black. Then she wraps lantern wicking three or four times around the top of the dowel and nails it in place with thin, tiny nails. It’s very important to drive the nails deeply into the wicking (but not so deeply they go through the first layer) and into the dowel: you don’t want the nails to get hot when you light the torch. The torch head was about the size of, say, a golf ball. She put a small candle on a plate, laid down another plate on which to put the torches, and that’s all she needed. She dipped a torch into the secret sauce. You want it “squishy” but not dripping excess sauce. She lit it from the candle, held out her right hand palm up, and tapped the torch to it: for a few seconds a blue, wavering fire (maybe ten times the size of a candle flame) rose from her palm. She snuffed it (after four or five seconds? — I never counted) by closing her hand. Gotta tell you: very cool to see this, particularly for the first time.

She demonstrated several feats, my favorite of which was lighting her tongue on fire. I wondered how she timed how long she let a flame burn on her hand or tongue. Did she count seconds? No, “but you need to remember that when the secret sauce is burned up, the fire will commence to burn something else, i.e., your skin.” I kept thinking what a great picture it would be in the dark: a woman’s face lit by a fire on her out-thrust tongue. Or a man. I’m not investing this with metaphorical implications. Just a wild picture. I told my wife I’d like a picture of myself with my tongue on fire. She said nowadays one could create the same effect on a computer; it would look just the same. I said I thought that might defeat the point. She then, smart woman, said something flattering about my tongue, and before I knew it I’d promised not to set it on fire. I’ll detail the fire eating further when Shelby initiates JB by revealing to him the secret sauce and teaching him to eat fire.

First, I had to go to Tijuana for a day. I’d heard there were fire eaters there, and I was, in particular, interested in finding a 12-year-old boy who breathed fire by night and often did a juggling act in parks during the day. He was called DragonBoy. DragonBoy used diesel fuel to blow his fire. I had learned earlier this important distinction: the people who fill their mouths with a flammable liquid and then spew it out and over a flame to create a dramatic fireball are not fire eaters. They are called fire breathers. I’m sure some people both breathe and eat fire, but fire breathers don’t put burning torches into their mouths. I’m sure those who both eat and breathe fire take special care to wash out their mouths thoroughly after breathing fire and before eating fire! In fact, flames (should) never come near a fire breather’s mouth, but they might if he sprays the liquid too slowly or it lacks the proper mistiness. Fire breathing is considered the easier skill. JB could already do that standing on his head: he wanted to eat it.

I wanted to find DragonBoy. My Spanish is poor, and I don’t know Tijuana very well. So I decided to invite JB to come along. I’d get to talk to him more, and his Spanish was better than mine. Which meant we had about 12 badly mispronounced words between us instead of my 4.

So off we went. We knew we were unlikely to see anyone breathing fire in daylight, but we got to TJ about 3:00 p.m. to check some parks and to try to find DragonBoy juggling. When fire breathers do their business in TJ, they must be quick about it. Sometimes they work the border’s waiting lines, but mostly they set up at an intersection, and when the light is red, they run out, blow fire, try to get tips from drivers, then scurry off of the street when the light turns green. They can’t work a light, or anywhere, very long: the cops chase them away. We checked out a few parks where we’d heard the kid might be. No kid, no juggler, no fire. We walked and walked, often asking people with sign language and a few words. We knew fuego meant fire. I found out later that the correct Spanish word is tragafuego. Literally: to swallow fire.

Most people seemed to know what we were talking about and would say, Yes, yes, on this corner, on that, Oh, yes, the boy who juggles and spits fire. We walked and walked. Turns out JB didn’t know TJ that well either, but we didn’t care; we were on a quest; we were chattering away with each other. Near the end of a run-down street we saw a few guys sitting on the curb shooting drugs. A few yards later, at a corner, a Tijuana police van with three cops screeched to a stop and braced us. They figured out pretty quickly we’d wandered into a wrong neighborhood. When we explained what we were looking for (their English was strong), one laughed, one rolled her eyes, and the third looked as if he wanted to run us in for being dumb. They, too, gave us directions to where we might find DragonBoy.

It was getting dark; we felt our luck was bound to change when we saw two jugglers/acrobats in clownface working an intersection. While the light was red, one stood on the other’s shoulders and both juggled, singly and with each other. They had about 45 seconds to work and another 15 to cop some change. We talked to them. Neither was DragonBoy, but they seemed to know exactly whom we were looking for and where he was. We followed their directions: nada. We asked taxi drivers. After a lengthy example of miscommunication we figured out one taxi driver thought we were looking for an arsonist. He was more than willing to take us to one. Another cabbie thought we were looking for a place where a woman set her nipples on fire. He knew of a place like that. No, gracias. We walked; we wandered; we ate a few meals; waiters would tell us, Sí, sí, you will find them here or there. Everybody had seen fire breathers, and several seemed to know DragonBoy. We walked miles and miles, the only people in TJ searching for what we were searching for.

Let me tell you some other things about JB: he’s a fun walking companion and raconteur. He’s chipper. He’s indefatigable. And regarding his imperviousness to pain, the day before our excursion, he had, while cutting a piece of thick plastic with a power saw at his machinist’s job, shot a three-inch shard into his upper right groin. About the size and shape of “a small knife blade.” He didn’t notice he was impaled until its protruding end caught on the corner of a workbench. He pulled it out and debated whether to stitch it up himself or go to the doctor’s. Once he learned his insurance would cover the visit, he went and contented himself with supervising the physician. On the trolley home from Tijuana, he was happy to show me the nasty little stitched-up wound.

You’ve guessed by now we never found DragonBoy. If we hadn’t been looking for him we would have found him easily. As we were walking up the ramp to the border, still on the Mexican side, I saw a quick, large gust of flame a few hundred yards away in the lines of cars jerking forward. A few seconds later: again. I could barely make out the silhouette of the person blowing the fire. DragonBoy? We never knew. We kept walking across. JB had bought a few Day of the Dead figurines as a birthday gift for his girlfriend. When asked what was in the bag, he said just that and was waved through. We were probably in the minority, crossing late on a Friday night: stone sober, carrying no mood-altering or other pharmacological substances, and utterly chaste. When the customs officer asked me if I was bringing anything back, I said, “Only a headache and a sense of failure: I could not find an eater of fire.” Without a blink, she waved me through.

I was a little disconsolate on the way back to San Diego but heartened by a promise JB made to me: he’d blow himself up tomorrow.

The next day he took me to a large indoor space, a small warehouse-like structure in an area I was asked not to disclose. When we went inside, JB excused himself and said he’d be right back. I assumed he’d gone to the can. He came back into the room in a few minutes. I was looking at some pictures on the wall and turned to see him walking toward me, maybe 15 feet away. He’s changed his shirt, I thought. In midstride: KABOOM! I jumped about a foot in the air and about two feet back. I had to smack myself on top of the head a few times to get my heart back out of my throat and down to where it belonged. Smoke was everywhere, my ears rang, paper from the crackers was floating to the floor. JB grinned. I’d grown rather fond of the lad and thought it was time to pass on a little avuncular advice: “YOU CRAZY MOTHERFUCKER, DON’T EVER DO THAT AGAIN!” I calmed down a bit: “Or don’t do it without some kind of advance warning — maybe ask each audience member to bring a doctor’s note — and not without good insurance and a good lawyer. Somebody will have a heart attack! Somebody will be strapped and shoot you five times in the head!” JB looked at his left sleeve, which was burning at the cuff. He tapped it out as if he were mock-slapping the wrist of a naughty child. “Want to see me skewer my arm through with a meat hook and then hang by it?” A perfectly reasonable question, given the circumstances. I said, “Not today, thanks.” He was just kidding, though. He does skewer himself with different implements, but “Hang by my arm from a meat hook? That would hurt,” he said.

After we made plans for his fire-eating lesson the next day, I went home and called my cardiologist.

Shelby had invited JB and me to her house on a brilliant Sunday afternoon for JB’s initiation into the brother/sisterhood of fire eaters. There we met her husband, Eric Bakovic, also 31. Bakovic’s about six feet tall, lean, fit, and Bolivian-born. Their house, in North Park, is compact, neat, airy. We chatted for a while: an old professor (me), a young professor (Bakovic), a soon-to-be professor (Shelby), and JB, who was there to learn but had a few things of his own to teach us.

Bakovic, who clearly adores his wife, not only loves to watch her eat fire but also loves to watch other people who are seeing her eat fire for the first time. Bakovic does know the secret of the secret sauce. Shelby didn’t tell him for a long time and then let it slip by accident. Bakovic’s response to my inquiry about this was “But I’ve developed amnesia.”

At one point in our getting-to-know-you conversation, JB described his butane/smoke/bubble feat. Shelby said to JB, “It’s not for me, like it is for you, an exercise in the imagination — ‘What if I tried to do this, or that?’ ” The “this or that” is the part of JB’s psyche that pushes him to do things most of us would need mushrooms to imagine or antinausea pills to watch. (On a videotape of JB’s club act, different people yell out, several times, “YOU SICK FUCK!”) I loved the contrast: sweet, learned, gracious Shelby chatting with and about to teach JB — a sweet nutcake and autodidact — to eat the fire. Another contrast was very evident when I transcribed the tape of this conversation: the refinement and good taste of women versus the goofy crudeness of men. Here’s a snatch of conversation (verbatim but for a few stage directions indicating tone). Me, to Shelby: “JB does some really weird things.” Shelby: Giggles, nervously. Me: “He puts an electric drill up his nose.” Shelby: “Gosh,” politely. Me: “He also pounds a spike up his nose.” Bakovic: “Yeah!” Shelby: “Wow.” (Just about any woman reading the above will know the tone of this “Wow.”) Bakovic: “Isn’t that called ‘blockhead’?” (the technical name for this kind of sideshow act). Shelby: “Wow.” Bakovic: “Spike and hammer!” JB: “Rocks and stuff too.” Shelby: “Wow.” Bakovic: “I totally have to see this!” Shelby: “Would anyone like some water or juice?”

JB mentioned his self-skewering feats and, while showing Shelby scars from them, Bakovic suddenly remembered something: as a child he’d occasionally taken a needle and thread and carefully sewed little patterns under the skin of his fingertip. He was surprised to remember this so suddenly, and he’d, of course, never told Shelby. Can JB and what he does bring up from his and others’ unconscious something primordial, atavistic? Do the heebie-jeebies open up the back door to the monkey brain?

We decided to have the initiation/lesson in the garage, because the back patio was too bright. While Shelby was showing JB how she sets up the sauce, the candle, and the plate for the torches, she leaned toward him and whispered in his ear the secret of the sauce. JB, who has more than a layman’s knowledge of incendiaries and flammables, looked a little surprised, and then the “Oh, yeah, why didn’t I think of that?” look came over his face.

She talked him through some of the basics. Rhythm and timing are important — dip torch, light torch (never let it touch wax of candle), tap lit torch on palm, let burn for a few seconds, close hand. How to stand when actually eating fire: one foot forward, head tilted back so the torch head goes almost straight down the throat (with the flame away from it). NEVER inhale: that takes the flame down your throat and sucks in oxygen with it, making it burn even hotter. The technique is simple but hard to do. The basic human instinct about fire is: don’t put it in your mouth! But you must enclose your lips and teeth completely around the burning torch head and the dowel. You don’t want to let the torch burn too long before you eat the fire: the dowel will get too hot. I kept wondering why no one seemed concerned with how hot the fire was. A regular torch fire would burn at about 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. Sure, the secret sauce burns cooler, but it’s still burning at several hundred degrees. When you’ve closed your lips and teeth around the torch head, you exhale “from your diaphragm” and blow a puff of air outward. Fire eaters learn how to do this almost inaudibly. They don’t want to give the impression the flame is blown out. It’s not. That helps a little, but mostly the flame is extinguished by lack of oxygen. Remember, too, upon exhalation, there is less oxygen: your body just used it to feed your blood.

JB is a natural. First of all, he’s fearless. Two: as he said, “I’ve put a lot worse things in my mouth.” He ate fire on the first try, but not flawlessly. His exhalation was too loud, and he couldn’t yet close his whole mouth around the torch. He did, more or less, blow it out. But in a few more tries, he nailed it. Shelby taught him the tongue-on-fire trick. She said to JB: when you tap your tongue with the torch, you kind of skwoosh it on. This took him three times to nail: he could light his tongue easily enough, but he couldn’t withdraw his burning tongue back into his mouth (could you?), so he’d give a kind of Bronx cheer and blow/spray it out. Fourth try he got it. JB was excited: he had some new material for his act, and I could tell he was already beginning to work out extensions, variations, twists, nutty perversions on his new skill.

After he’d eaten one torch, I said I’d heard a little ssssst sound. He said he’d shave closer next time, trim his nose hair, maybe even lose the world’s smallest beard, all of which got singed slightly. I brought up the sauce again. I wanted more information. Long-term effects? Shelby said, “I still have all my taste buds.” JB said, “You couldn’t beat it out of me.” Which I didn’t doubt for a moment. I imagined JB in another century brought up on blasphemy charges before Inquisitors and suggesting to them more efficient ways to torture him, if only for his amusement and to save time and stress on the torturers. Then Shelby added, “It is a carcinogenic substance.” JB, I assume, considered this a plus.

Shelby was a terrific teacher — patient, thorough, firm on the fundamentals, not cheap with praise. JB learned very quickly but was impatient. I’d understood what he’d meant when he told me earlier he could do sleight-of-hand tricks well but “too fast.” They have to be fast, I thought. But too fast can screw up the trick just as easily as too slow. I loved this dichotomy in JB: a recklessness combined with sweetness and sense of wonder. He does exhibit a childlike sense of wonder — but what he wonders makes you wonder.

The lesson over, it was time for JB to show us some of his feats. We had set up chairs in the open garage, our backs to the street. JB doesn’t warm up much: he plugs in the drill, turns it on, and up his nose it goes. As he worked it in — for only six to eight seconds — he wriggled his nose a bit and made a face similar to the face one makes when suddenly overwhelmed by a bad smell. On the tape, Bakovic and I are hooting and laughing, and Shelby says, “Wow.” Again, every woman knows the tone. Then he pounded the spike (he made it himself, stainless steel) into his nose. Then he pulled it out with the claw end of the hammer. What surprised both Bakovic and me about these feats was that the drill and the spike were angled so they went almost horizontally into his face, rather than upwards as we expected. What Bakovic and I saw as a pleasant surprise (the angle of the drill, the spike) and which we felt increased the impressiveness of the act made Shelby uncomfortable. The one word from the professors over and over, usually with exuberance, sometimes a qualifier, and always with an exclamation point was “Cool!” Shelby is not heard on the tape for quite a while — I think she excused herself. Then JB did his condom-sniffing act, and Bakovic and I (remember: we provide higher education for your children!) went nuts, laughing our asses off while JB snorted a condom in one quick inhalation, held on to one end hanging out of his nose, and worked the other end out his mouth, then proceeded to pull it back and forth, in an action similar to someone buffing a shoe. He could blow the condom up while it was in his nasal passages, so a huge bubble grew from his mouth or nose. He blew large condom bubbles out of both nostrils at one point. How he did that I don’t know. Bakovic and I were beside ourselves with laughter and whooping. Shelby said, “Wow.” Either she was there all along or she’d gone and come back; I’m not sure. Then, she did excuse herself, graciously.

Bakovic (remember, he’s a professor of linguistics) asked JB what it felt like, passing the condom through his nose and out his mouth. JB said only one part felt weird — where he could feel it pressing against something that caused discomfort. JB had never studied what was going on up there in his nasal passages, but Bakovic did know: “There’s a hard part — the palate — at the top of your mouth, and you can feel, with your tongue, behind it, it gets more soft and fleshy. That’s actually a valve that closes off the nose passage from the mouth. It’s called the velum. When you drop the velum, then air can go from your lungs to your nose and also out your mouth. It’s how we make different kinds of sounds, by opening and closing the velum, so what you’re doing is opening it a little bit to get a passage. There are some nerves there that aren’t used to being touched by anything but air.” JB said, “Cool.” Bakovic said, “That’s cool, even though I know what’s going on, that’s very cool.” He then suggested JB look at something called a midsagittal section diagram. It’s essentially a picture of a head cut in half (not a real head!) so one can see all the passages and connections. JB clearly liked the idea of a picture of a head cut in half.

Several minutes of the tape consist almost entirely of Bakovic and me howling with laughter. And, a little farther back from the recorder (when he doesn’t have something up his nose), JB is yelping too. The boys were having a ball! Laughter begets laughter; it’s good medicine, I believe, so I listen to this part of the tape if I’m feeling too serious. There we were, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon: the professors — Bakovic and me — and JB (for whom a title must be invented by someone with an imagination better than mine), and we were three happy guys, one of us in love with a woman who eats fire (also happy but, at the moment, absent), another delighted he’s learned a new skill to which he can add his own demented variations, and me feeling grateful, glad to be walking up and down on the planet. “Lucky life. Oh lucky life,” wrote the great American poet Gerald Stern. “Oh lucky lucky life. Lucky life.”

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Joe Bell: nothing new from Mark Wahlberg

Piling on the prejudice

One thing I’ve learned: go looking for fire eaters and you don’t know what you’ll find. After putting out the word that I was looking for fire eaters (I have a few, um, unique friends in San Diego), after Internet searches, after placing an ad in a newspaper, I found two fire eaters in San Diego and got several more leads on fire eaters in San Diego County and Tijuana.

Actually, I found one fire eater in San Diego, and she was willing not only to demonstrate her craft to me but also to teach someone else, to initiate another into the society of fire eaters. Therein lies a good deal of this tale.

Let me tell you something about the initiate first. JunkBoy is his name, and I’ll hereafter refer to him as JB. It doesn’t say “JunkBoy” on his birth certificate. It’s his stage name, his nom de plume, his alter ego. He’s a born-and-bred San Diegan, about five feet ten inches, has medium-length sandy hair, wears one of those tiny beards just below the middle of his lower lip, and looks younger than his 38 years — and this is a man whose body, as you will see, has taken more than the usual wear and tear.

One of the first things JB said when we met was “I strap large amounts of explosives to my body and blow myself up.” Trying to act nonchalant, I scanned the room for the nearest exit. Given what’s going on in the world, this did not strike me as a good act for your average cabaret. I want to make it clear: he hasn’t done this publicly since 9/11. JB may be a little crazy (judge for yourself), but he’s not dumb. A machinist by trade, he’s made himself a steel chest protector. Very importantly, JB has access to professional pyrotechnic materials supplied to him by a man known as PyroBoy (natch). You could never get PyroBoy’s real name from JB, even if you used grisly torture. (Whereas, you could get from me JB’s real name if you worked me over with a rubber hose made of whipped cream.) As you will see, he is almost impervious to pain.

This is what he does: he hot-glues four or five rows of brick firecrackers to a black powder tape called quickmatch, which he then glues to the breastplate. Then he adds several “gerbs” — devices that shoot out sparks. Then some percussion devices (“Not so much an explosion as noisemakers”). Next, he attaches all this to a nine-volt igniter box (“with a safety switch”). He puts a sheet of Mylar over the explosives and puts a shirt on over it all. He says it’s a little bulky, but if he wears a coat it’s hardly noticeable. He plans a route to and from the place of his “performance,” always the kind of club where edgy acts take place, climbs on the stage unannounced, behaves boorishly until he starts getting heckled, and then he hits the switch. The explosion is designed to take place right on his chest, with very little outward or upward thrust. He makes sure he’s several feet from the first row. Sometimes, he says, paper from the crackers, and even a loose cracker or two, reaches the audience, but nobody, including himself, has ever been hurt. Though, he says, “My shirt usually catches fire.” He runs out and disappears a few seconds after the explosion.

I am one of those people, employed by a university English department, who still believe language is not the Betrayer, that, though not perfect, it is still by far the best way we have of communicating with each other. So I asked him what he called what he did. “Gosh, performance art, shock art, hit-and-run art.” I thought to call it Rubber Neck Art: like looking at a car crash — we may not want to, but we must. I remembered the performance artist who covered her body with slices of bologna — a euphemism for her talent? Most performance art I’ve seen over the years struck me as banal and pretentious, and usually with a PC point as subtle as a sharp stick in the eyeball. It always whiffed of narcissism, an excuse to climb onstage, preferably alone. It always seemed to me to lack discipline, a true passion to make something. Why study dance or singing or even writing when you can jump on a stage, act self-indulgently, and call it art?

But there was something very different about JB and his motives. Namely, he doesn’t seem to have any, at least not consciously. After blowing up, he doesn’t hang around waiting for applause. And, as you will see, there is nothing self-flattering about any of the other feats he performs. He is aware of the extreme commercial limitations in what he does. Indeed, he is much more at risk of being fined than of getting paid for his work. “I do it [remember, he is referring to not only exploding but also other feats as yet unspecified] for the reaction; that’s what I kind of get off on.”

He loved horror movies as a child and dressed up as characters to scare the other kids, unconfined by Halloween. He became obsessed with Houdini and read voraciously about him. One thing he never forgot about Houdini: much of his early career was spent hanging around with freaks and other sideshow people. JB knows the movie Freaks almost frame by frame. He taught himself many escape acts. He loved magic and was good at sleight of hand but “always too fast.”

Lest you’re wondering about his childhood: pretty normal. His parents were divorced when he was a young teenager, but he’s close to both of them and a brother, and he visits his grammy regularly. He had a monkey for 27 years, recently deceased, whom he mourns. The monkey was fed LSD by previous owners and therefore was a little jumpy. She (her name was Onion) had a lifelong fear of brooms and gloves. One can only shudder thinking of what those heinous hippies did to bum out the poor monkey in such a way. JB had some bad-boy years and his share of run-ins with booze and drugs, but he’s been clean and sober for some time now and in a stable relationship.

Okay, what else does JB do? When he is not exploding, of what does his act consist? He inhales condoms through his nose and pulls them out his mouth. This was the first feat of his career, and it began on a bet from a former girlfriend: “Twenty bucks says you can’t inhale that condom.” He did it first try. What kind does he use? “Ribbed, for my pleasure,” he says, and, “unlubricated because the spermicide tastes lousy.” He eats king worms and crickets. Sometimes he’ll chew a mouthful of crickets and, feeling a few still alive in one cheek, will then open his mouth and let the living cricket or two crawl over their dead and half-masticated comrades to his lips and onto his chin and freedom. These he later releases into the wild. Ours is not to reason why. But I asked, “What’s up with the worm and bug eating?” JB, nonchalantly, “I’m a big fan of protein; there’s a lot of protein in bugs and worms.” I assumed crickets were pretty crunchy. “Yeah, they’re a little crunchy, and they’ve got a strange, bitter taste. So do king worms — really bitter. Must be a defense mechanism, like ants — when you crush them, they smell funny.” Uh-huh. He’s searching for maggots but can’t find any commercially, and it’s too difficult to gather enough from the festering wounds of roadkill. He’d put this little twist on maggot eating (as if maggot eating wasn’t twisted enough): “Everybody has this thing about maggots looking like rice. I’d bring ’em in a Chinese food carton and just start spooning them up.” I guess he is one of those people, like me, who are clumsy with chopsticks. He talks about eating maggots in the same way other people talk about going out to the front porch to pick up the newspaper.

What else? He puts a four-inch electrical drill up his nose and turns it on, or inserts it while it’s turned on. He pounds a spike into his nose with a hammer and then pulls it out with the claw end. He swallows butane gas, swallows several puffs of cigarette smoke, waits until he feels a burp coming up, dips his hand in dishwashing liquid, makes an O with his thumb and forefinger, burps a bubble of butane gas and smoke into this O, and, while the bubble is still stuck to his hand, lights it: boom! It “makes a little mushroom cloud of smoke, just like an atomic blast.” I asked him if he ever consulted his internist about the long-term effects of swallowing butane gas, and he said, “I figure if I’m burping it right up, it can’t do me any harm.” This guy is crackers. I love this guy.

He does many other things, some of which wouldn’t get by the editors of a family newspaper. JB wanted desperately to learn how to eat fire. He also wanted to learn to sword swallow but was procrastinating: “People can get killed doing that.” But he wanted to learn to eat fire, and I could help him.

In fact, I had the perfect teacher for him, an experienced fire eater with a pedagogical bent. Her name is Karen Shelby; she’s 32 years old, a visiting scholar at UCSD. Her field is political science, with a special interest in women in politics. She’s writing her dissertation on Simone de Beauvoir and on women and the Algerian War. Beauvoir was a French novelist, philosopher, and protofeminist who wrote the groundbreaking book The Second Sex. She was a lover of, among others, the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre. Brilliant, immensely gifted, independent, Beauvoir always reminded me of Lou Andreas-Salomé, a woman about a generation younger and a lover of both Rilke (the poet) and Nietzsche (the philosopher) and a protégé of Freud (the shrink). She told Rilke to eat rocks (he was a whiner) and found Nietzsche breathtakingly neurasthenic and needing a whip. What I love most about her, though, is that when she was old and knew she was dying, she was pissed off. Not afraid, sad, etc. Pissed off. She had too much more to do.

Shelby will be a professor in a few years and is married to a young professor of linguistics at UCSD. She did her undergraduate work at the University of Louisville in Kentucky and learned to eat fire from a woman named Liz Carter, the wife of a University of Louisville dean. Carter asked (it was at an outdoor gathering) if anyone wanted to learn to eat fire — not your usual invitation at a student/faculty picnic. Shelby and a few others stepped forward. The others backed off when the reality of putting a flaming torch in their mouths and closing their lips and teeth around it sunk in. Shelby’s an attractive brunette, very articulate, and one of the most naturally and continuously ebullient people I have ever met. Ten minutes around her could pull the darkest person out of the deepest funk.

I met Shelby and talked to her before she gave me a demonstration. I was struck by her normalcy, particularly in comparison with JB. (Notes to principals: Shelby, By normalcy, I don’t mean bland! JB, Am I right? — the last thing you want is to be thought normal.)

I asked Shelby if she was an eccentric child. “No, I was a smart kid, got good grades…but I did follow my own mind.” She has no ambitions to further her fire-eating career — she does it only a handful of times per year, usually at a party or picnic. Her father and mother (divorced since she, too, was a young teenager, and, respectively, a mortgage banker and a sales manager) are blasé about it, but her husband, Eric Bakovic, loves it. In fact, they met and fell in love over fire eating. They were both at a baby shower while graduate students at Rutgers University when Bakovic first saw her. She was beaming. He approached her and asked what she was smiling so broadly about. Not a bad opening line — it’s simple, plausible, original enough, and made it clear he was attracted first to an element of Shelby’s personality rather than just to her looks. Shelby responded, “I just ate fire.” Even better answer. He was fascinated, impressed, and BAM, just like that, he was a goner. I asked her if he still liked that she ate fire. She said, “Oh, he’s very excited when I’m going to eat fire!”

I got a close-up demonstration of fire eating in the kitchen of my rented condo in Coronado. I was a little nervous about this. The woman next door had, obviously, been elected (by a landslide!) to the office of Village Scold and took her responsibilities seriously. There’s a note from her on the refrigerator of my condo that says “No laughing or dish washing after 10 o’clock.” She’d left a note once saying I opened and closed my door too often. I pulled the shades. “The kitchen floor is tiled and the ceiling’s high,” Shelby said, and, “I like the proximity to water.”

There is one basic spoken but unwritten rule about fire eating: you don’t reveal its secrets unless you pass them along, teaching another to eat fire. You can explain technique, but the real secret to eating fire is not technique — that can be pretty much figured out by close observation. The secret is in the sauce, the flammable liquid that the torches are dipped into and that’s then lit. Shelby calls it, appropriately, “secret sauce” and never revealed to me what it was. I had considered trying to learn to eat fire myself, but after I met JB and learned (1) he’s nuts and (2) he very much wanted to learn, I decided: Better him than me.

First, Shelby showed me her tools, including a jar of the secret sauce. It’s a light blue-green, somewhat viscous, and smells a little like airplane glue. Its most important properties? It burns at a lower temperature than most flammable liquids and is extinguished more quickly than most flammable liquids when deprived of oxygen. She had a few ounces of it in a squat wide-mouthed jar.

She showed me her three torches, which she made herself. She takes a 16- to 18-inch dowel, about the circumference of a fat pencil, and paints it black. Then she wraps lantern wicking three or four times around the top of the dowel and nails it in place with thin, tiny nails. It’s very important to drive the nails deeply into the wicking (but not so deeply they go through the first layer) and into the dowel: you don’t want the nails to get hot when you light the torch. The torch head was about the size of, say, a golf ball. She put a small candle on a plate, laid down another plate on which to put the torches, and that’s all she needed. She dipped a torch into the secret sauce. You want it “squishy” but not dripping excess sauce. She lit it from the candle, held out her right hand palm up, and tapped the torch to it: for a few seconds a blue, wavering fire (maybe ten times the size of a candle flame) rose from her palm. She snuffed it (after four or five seconds? — I never counted) by closing her hand. Gotta tell you: very cool to see this, particularly for the first time.

She demonstrated several feats, my favorite of which was lighting her tongue on fire. I wondered how she timed how long she let a flame burn on her hand or tongue. Did she count seconds? No, “but you need to remember that when the secret sauce is burned up, the fire will commence to burn something else, i.e., your skin.” I kept thinking what a great picture it would be in the dark: a woman’s face lit by a fire on her out-thrust tongue. Or a man. I’m not investing this with metaphorical implications. Just a wild picture. I told my wife I’d like a picture of myself with my tongue on fire. She said nowadays one could create the same effect on a computer; it would look just the same. I said I thought that might defeat the point. She then, smart woman, said something flattering about my tongue, and before I knew it I’d promised not to set it on fire. I’ll detail the fire eating further when Shelby initiates JB by revealing to him the secret sauce and teaching him to eat fire.

First, I had to go to Tijuana for a day. I’d heard there were fire eaters there, and I was, in particular, interested in finding a 12-year-old boy who breathed fire by night and often did a juggling act in parks during the day. He was called DragonBoy. DragonBoy used diesel fuel to blow his fire. I had learned earlier this important distinction: the people who fill their mouths with a flammable liquid and then spew it out and over a flame to create a dramatic fireball are not fire eaters. They are called fire breathers. I’m sure some people both breathe and eat fire, but fire breathers don’t put burning torches into their mouths. I’m sure those who both eat and breathe fire take special care to wash out their mouths thoroughly after breathing fire and before eating fire! In fact, flames (should) never come near a fire breather’s mouth, but they might if he sprays the liquid too slowly or it lacks the proper mistiness. Fire breathing is considered the easier skill. JB could already do that standing on his head: he wanted to eat it.

I wanted to find DragonBoy. My Spanish is poor, and I don’t know Tijuana very well. So I decided to invite JB to come along. I’d get to talk to him more, and his Spanish was better than mine. Which meant we had about 12 badly mispronounced words between us instead of my 4.

So off we went. We knew we were unlikely to see anyone breathing fire in daylight, but we got to TJ about 3:00 p.m. to check some parks and to try to find DragonBoy juggling. When fire breathers do their business in TJ, they must be quick about it. Sometimes they work the border’s waiting lines, but mostly they set up at an intersection, and when the light is red, they run out, blow fire, try to get tips from drivers, then scurry off of the street when the light turns green. They can’t work a light, or anywhere, very long: the cops chase them away. We checked out a few parks where we’d heard the kid might be. No kid, no juggler, no fire. We walked and walked, often asking people with sign language and a few words. We knew fuego meant fire. I found out later that the correct Spanish word is tragafuego. Literally: to swallow fire.

Most people seemed to know what we were talking about and would say, Yes, yes, on this corner, on that, Oh, yes, the boy who juggles and spits fire. We walked and walked. Turns out JB didn’t know TJ that well either, but we didn’t care; we were on a quest; we were chattering away with each other. Near the end of a run-down street we saw a few guys sitting on the curb shooting drugs. A few yards later, at a corner, a Tijuana police van with three cops screeched to a stop and braced us. They figured out pretty quickly we’d wandered into a wrong neighborhood. When we explained what we were looking for (their English was strong), one laughed, one rolled her eyes, and the third looked as if he wanted to run us in for being dumb. They, too, gave us directions to where we might find DragonBoy.

It was getting dark; we felt our luck was bound to change when we saw two jugglers/acrobats in clownface working an intersection. While the light was red, one stood on the other’s shoulders and both juggled, singly and with each other. They had about 45 seconds to work and another 15 to cop some change. We talked to them. Neither was DragonBoy, but they seemed to know exactly whom we were looking for and where he was. We followed their directions: nada. We asked taxi drivers. After a lengthy example of miscommunication we figured out one taxi driver thought we were looking for an arsonist. He was more than willing to take us to one. Another cabbie thought we were looking for a place where a woman set her nipples on fire. He knew of a place like that. No, gracias. We walked; we wandered; we ate a few meals; waiters would tell us, Sí, sí, you will find them here or there. Everybody had seen fire breathers, and several seemed to know DragonBoy. We walked miles and miles, the only people in TJ searching for what we were searching for.

Let me tell you some other things about JB: he’s a fun walking companion and raconteur. He’s chipper. He’s indefatigable. And regarding his imperviousness to pain, the day before our excursion, he had, while cutting a piece of thick plastic with a power saw at his machinist’s job, shot a three-inch shard into his upper right groin. About the size and shape of “a small knife blade.” He didn’t notice he was impaled until its protruding end caught on the corner of a workbench. He pulled it out and debated whether to stitch it up himself or go to the doctor’s. Once he learned his insurance would cover the visit, he went and contented himself with supervising the physician. On the trolley home from Tijuana, he was happy to show me the nasty little stitched-up wound.

You’ve guessed by now we never found DragonBoy. If we hadn’t been looking for him we would have found him easily. As we were walking up the ramp to the border, still on the Mexican side, I saw a quick, large gust of flame a few hundred yards away in the lines of cars jerking forward. A few seconds later: again. I could barely make out the silhouette of the person blowing the fire. DragonBoy? We never knew. We kept walking across. JB had bought a few Day of the Dead figurines as a birthday gift for his girlfriend. When asked what was in the bag, he said just that and was waved through. We were probably in the minority, crossing late on a Friday night: stone sober, carrying no mood-altering or other pharmacological substances, and utterly chaste. When the customs officer asked me if I was bringing anything back, I said, “Only a headache and a sense of failure: I could not find an eater of fire.” Without a blink, she waved me through.

I was a little disconsolate on the way back to San Diego but heartened by a promise JB made to me: he’d blow himself up tomorrow.

The next day he took me to a large indoor space, a small warehouse-like structure in an area I was asked not to disclose. When we went inside, JB excused himself and said he’d be right back. I assumed he’d gone to the can. He came back into the room in a few minutes. I was looking at some pictures on the wall and turned to see him walking toward me, maybe 15 feet away. He’s changed his shirt, I thought. In midstride: KABOOM! I jumped about a foot in the air and about two feet back. I had to smack myself on top of the head a few times to get my heart back out of my throat and down to where it belonged. Smoke was everywhere, my ears rang, paper from the crackers was floating to the floor. JB grinned. I’d grown rather fond of the lad and thought it was time to pass on a little avuncular advice: “YOU CRAZY MOTHERFUCKER, DON’T EVER DO THAT AGAIN!” I calmed down a bit: “Or don’t do it without some kind of advance warning — maybe ask each audience member to bring a doctor’s note — and not without good insurance and a good lawyer. Somebody will have a heart attack! Somebody will be strapped and shoot you five times in the head!” JB looked at his left sleeve, which was burning at the cuff. He tapped it out as if he were mock-slapping the wrist of a naughty child. “Want to see me skewer my arm through with a meat hook and then hang by it?” A perfectly reasonable question, given the circumstances. I said, “Not today, thanks.” He was just kidding, though. He does skewer himself with different implements, but “Hang by my arm from a meat hook? That would hurt,” he said.

After we made plans for his fire-eating lesson the next day, I went home and called my cardiologist.

Shelby had invited JB and me to her house on a brilliant Sunday afternoon for JB’s initiation into the brother/sisterhood of fire eaters. There we met her husband, Eric Bakovic, also 31. Bakovic’s about six feet tall, lean, fit, and Bolivian-born. Their house, in North Park, is compact, neat, airy. We chatted for a while: an old professor (me), a young professor (Bakovic), a soon-to-be professor (Shelby), and JB, who was there to learn but had a few things of his own to teach us.

Bakovic, who clearly adores his wife, not only loves to watch her eat fire but also loves to watch other people who are seeing her eat fire for the first time. Bakovic does know the secret of the secret sauce. Shelby didn’t tell him for a long time and then let it slip by accident. Bakovic’s response to my inquiry about this was “But I’ve developed amnesia.”

At one point in our getting-to-know-you conversation, JB described his butane/smoke/bubble feat. Shelby said to JB, “It’s not for me, like it is for you, an exercise in the imagination — ‘What if I tried to do this, or that?’ ” The “this or that” is the part of JB’s psyche that pushes him to do things most of us would need mushrooms to imagine or antinausea pills to watch. (On a videotape of JB’s club act, different people yell out, several times, “YOU SICK FUCK!”) I loved the contrast: sweet, learned, gracious Shelby chatting with and about to teach JB — a sweet nutcake and autodidact — to eat the fire. Another contrast was very evident when I transcribed the tape of this conversation: the refinement and good taste of women versus the goofy crudeness of men. Here’s a snatch of conversation (verbatim but for a few stage directions indicating tone). Me, to Shelby: “JB does some really weird things.” Shelby: Giggles, nervously. Me: “He puts an electric drill up his nose.” Shelby: “Gosh,” politely. Me: “He also pounds a spike up his nose.” Bakovic: “Yeah!” Shelby: “Wow.” (Just about any woman reading the above will know the tone of this “Wow.”) Bakovic: “Isn’t that called ‘blockhead’?” (the technical name for this kind of sideshow act). Shelby: “Wow.” Bakovic: “Spike and hammer!” JB: “Rocks and stuff too.” Shelby: “Wow.” Bakovic: “I totally have to see this!” Shelby: “Would anyone like some water or juice?”

JB mentioned his self-skewering feats and, while showing Shelby scars from them, Bakovic suddenly remembered something: as a child he’d occasionally taken a needle and thread and carefully sewed little patterns under the skin of his fingertip. He was surprised to remember this so suddenly, and he’d, of course, never told Shelby. Can JB and what he does bring up from his and others’ unconscious something primordial, atavistic? Do the heebie-jeebies open up the back door to the monkey brain?

We decided to have the initiation/lesson in the garage, because the back patio was too bright. While Shelby was showing JB how she sets up the sauce, the candle, and the plate for the torches, she leaned toward him and whispered in his ear the secret of the sauce. JB, who has more than a layman’s knowledge of incendiaries and flammables, looked a little surprised, and then the “Oh, yeah, why didn’t I think of that?” look came over his face.

She talked him through some of the basics. Rhythm and timing are important — dip torch, light torch (never let it touch wax of candle), tap lit torch on palm, let burn for a few seconds, close hand. How to stand when actually eating fire: one foot forward, head tilted back so the torch head goes almost straight down the throat (with the flame away from it). NEVER inhale: that takes the flame down your throat and sucks in oxygen with it, making it burn even hotter. The technique is simple but hard to do. The basic human instinct about fire is: don’t put it in your mouth! But you must enclose your lips and teeth completely around the burning torch head and the dowel. You don’t want to let the torch burn too long before you eat the fire: the dowel will get too hot. I kept wondering why no one seemed concerned with how hot the fire was. A regular torch fire would burn at about 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. Sure, the secret sauce burns cooler, but it’s still burning at several hundred degrees. When you’ve closed your lips and teeth around the torch head, you exhale “from your diaphragm” and blow a puff of air outward. Fire eaters learn how to do this almost inaudibly. They don’t want to give the impression the flame is blown out. It’s not. That helps a little, but mostly the flame is extinguished by lack of oxygen. Remember, too, upon exhalation, there is less oxygen: your body just used it to feed your blood.

JB is a natural. First of all, he’s fearless. Two: as he said, “I’ve put a lot worse things in my mouth.” He ate fire on the first try, but not flawlessly. His exhalation was too loud, and he couldn’t yet close his whole mouth around the torch. He did, more or less, blow it out. But in a few more tries, he nailed it. Shelby taught him the tongue-on-fire trick. She said to JB: when you tap your tongue with the torch, you kind of skwoosh it on. This took him three times to nail: he could light his tongue easily enough, but he couldn’t withdraw his burning tongue back into his mouth (could you?), so he’d give a kind of Bronx cheer and blow/spray it out. Fourth try he got it. JB was excited: he had some new material for his act, and I could tell he was already beginning to work out extensions, variations, twists, nutty perversions on his new skill.

After he’d eaten one torch, I said I’d heard a little ssssst sound. He said he’d shave closer next time, trim his nose hair, maybe even lose the world’s smallest beard, all of which got singed slightly. I brought up the sauce again. I wanted more information. Long-term effects? Shelby said, “I still have all my taste buds.” JB said, “You couldn’t beat it out of me.” Which I didn’t doubt for a moment. I imagined JB in another century brought up on blasphemy charges before Inquisitors and suggesting to them more efficient ways to torture him, if only for his amusement and to save time and stress on the torturers. Then Shelby added, “It is a carcinogenic substance.” JB, I assume, considered this a plus.

Shelby was a terrific teacher — patient, thorough, firm on the fundamentals, not cheap with praise. JB learned very quickly but was impatient. I’d understood what he’d meant when he told me earlier he could do sleight-of-hand tricks well but “too fast.” They have to be fast, I thought. But too fast can screw up the trick just as easily as too slow. I loved this dichotomy in JB: a recklessness combined with sweetness and sense of wonder. He does exhibit a childlike sense of wonder — but what he wonders makes you wonder.

The lesson over, it was time for JB to show us some of his feats. We had set up chairs in the open garage, our backs to the street. JB doesn’t warm up much: he plugs in the drill, turns it on, and up his nose it goes. As he worked it in — for only six to eight seconds — he wriggled his nose a bit and made a face similar to the face one makes when suddenly overwhelmed by a bad smell. On the tape, Bakovic and I are hooting and laughing, and Shelby says, “Wow.” Again, every woman knows the tone. Then he pounded the spike (he made it himself, stainless steel) into his nose. Then he pulled it out with the claw end of the hammer. What surprised both Bakovic and me about these feats was that the drill and the spike were angled so they went almost horizontally into his face, rather than upwards as we expected. What Bakovic and I saw as a pleasant surprise (the angle of the drill, the spike) and which we felt increased the impressiveness of the act made Shelby uncomfortable. The one word from the professors over and over, usually with exuberance, sometimes a qualifier, and always with an exclamation point was “Cool!” Shelby is not heard on the tape for quite a while — I think she excused herself. Then JB did his condom-sniffing act, and Bakovic and I (remember: we provide higher education for your children!) went nuts, laughing our asses off while JB snorted a condom in one quick inhalation, held on to one end hanging out of his nose, and worked the other end out his mouth, then proceeded to pull it back and forth, in an action similar to someone buffing a shoe. He could blow the condom up while it was in his nasal passages, so a huge bubble grew from his mouth or nose. He blew large condom bubbles out of both nostrils at one point. How he did that I don’t know. Bakovic and I were beside ourselves with laughter and whooping. Shelby said, “Wow.” Either she was there all along or she’d gone and come back; I’m not sure. Then, she did excuse herself, graciously.

Bakovic (remember, he’s a professor of linguistics) asked JB what it felt like, passing the condom through his nose and out his mouth. JB said only one part felt weird — where he could feel it pressing against something that caused discomfort. JB had never studied what was going on up there in his nasal passages, but Bakovic did know: “There’s a hard part — the palate — at the top of your mouth, and you can feel, with your tongue, behind it, it gets more soft and fleshy. That’s actually a valve that closes off the nose passage from the mouth. It’s called the velum. When you drop the velum, then air can go from your lungs to your nose and also out your mouth. It’s how we make different kinds of sounds, by opening and closing the velum, so what you’re doing is opening it a little bit to get a passage. There are some nerves there that aren’t used to being touched by anything but air.” JB said, “Cool.” Bakovic said, “That’s cool, even though I know what’s going on, that’s very cool.” He then suggested JB look at something called a midsagittal section diagram. It’s essentially a picture of a head cut in half (not a real head!) so one can see all the passages and connections. JB clearly liked the idea of a picture of a head cut in half.

Several minutes of the tape consist almost entirely of Bakovic and me howling with laughter. And, a little farther back from the recorder (when he doesn’t have something up his nose), JB is yelping too. The boys were having a ball! Laughter begets laughter; it’s good medicine, I believe, so I listen to this part of the tape if I’m feeling too serious. There we were, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon: the professors — Bakovic and me — and JB (for whom a title must be invented by someone with an imagination better than mine), and we were three happy guys, one of us in love with a woman who eats fire (also happy but, at the moment, absent), another delighted he’s learned a new skill to which he can add his own demented variations, and me feeling grateful, glad to be walking up and down on the planet. “Lucky life. Oh lucky life,” wrote the great American poet Gerald Stern. “Oh lucky lucky life. Lucky life.”

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