My recent road trip reminded me of how much my family has traveled together. The first time went to New York City, we were totally infatuated. Me, my brother and sister were in our late teens at the time.
For me, that instant thrill came from having grown up watching years and years of TV and movies, practically half of which set in Manhattan. So while I knew my path would realistically never lead me to live there, it still didn't stop me from belting out Carly Simon's "Let The River Run" over the rail of the Statton Island Ferry. Waves crashing. Statue of Liberty in the distance. A complete Working Girl geek-out. Most people sing New York, New York, I choose to honor my favorite eighties Melanie Griffith movie.
For Kathleen, it meant fantasizing about becoming a fashion designer, or a heroin chic model with some little east village 200 Cigarettes loft and a matchbox-size closet full of black clothes. As a grownup she would find that cool is where you make it, home can still equal style, carbs (or possibly cheese) are the best drug, big closets are a life requirement, and all-black clothes are boring.
For Donny... it changed his life.
So six years later, and several New York trips behind us (we would return every year after), Donny moved to the city, with one singular goal: to become a performer at the Coney Island Sideshows by The Seashore.
He became Donny Vomit, The Human Blockhead as well as the master of ceremonies for the sideshow. (The sideshow is a Coney Island institution, second only to Nathan's Famous Hotdogs, the ancient Wonder Wheel, and the bums sleeping under the boardwalk). In addition to his own acts of danger and stupidity, he also became the "talker" of the show. That means Donny introduces all the acts, like Insectivora (the fire-eating, tattoo covered, dredlocked lady, a very sweet chic, actually) or Roc (this green-haired German dude who swings dumbell weights from his pierced earlobes).
Coney Island Sideshows by The Seashore, Brooklyn, NY
Donny became the glue that bonded all these "colorful" acts together and the link to the crowd which included all sorts – from families to hooligans, from hipsters to the occasional celebrity. He lulls the crowd into a sense of comfort with very throwback stuff like "come one, come all, young and old, you're not going to want to miss this folks..." and then freaks them out later by eating a lightbulb. That is, if Insectivora and Roc haven't already sent them running to the exits.
And even though Donny has gone on to bring his, er... talents, to people across the country, either on one of his tours, or on the occasional TV appearance – Coney is where you can still catch him in all his vomit-inducing glory.
The Donny way of lighting a smoke.
(This was before he grew his handlebar mustache. Or lost all his hair. It's stressful, you know?)
Dad art directed this shot of us descending into the subway.
"Thomas Siblings And The City."
Donny's apartment in Brooklyn. Not as cool as it sounds. It's in Sheepshead Bay. Just sayin.
The iconic Coney Island Wonder Wheel.
"Dad Lunch" is still a dad lunch – even on the boardwalk in Coney.
I can already tell you whatever he's eating in this photo, was on his shirt the rest of the day.
It was Donny's first year at the sideshow that my family made the trip to visit him in his element. Me, my mom, my dad and Kathleen – see his shady Brooklyn apartment, take the train out to Coney, watch him "do his thing" for the crowd. Beam with pride and pat him on the back later behind the curtains.
Enter the mousetrap.
It may have been a rat trap. It was pretty big. And it was the third part of his act. Part one being some sort of knife or chainsaw juggling routine (the details are fuzzy now, it's all about that trap). Part two was the human blockhead – his piece-de-resistance, hammering nails into his nose, and/or sticking a power drill into his nose, that sort of thing. Part three? That was when he stuck his tongue... wait for it... into the trap.
Apparently this is one of his least challenging feats. I guess it's all relative if you're comparing that to say, oh, eating a lightbulb. So he should have had it in the bag. And to the clapping, laughing, gasping and gagging observers (and apparently to everyone else in my family except me) it seemed like he had pulled it off just fine. Tongue out. Trap set. Snap. No sweat.
But I could tell something had gone terribly wrong.
On a side note. People often ask "where did your brother learn to do, uh... that?" And really, he just started picking it up at first. Can you say latchkey kids? But soon he became a studious follower of all things sideshow, vaudevillian, Houdini-esque, and freakshow-centric. He began to hone his craft. It's all real, by the way . He's not a magician. There's no slight of hand. He just does this stuff. Carefully.
Like with the mouse trap.
The first time he started his animal trap stunts I was actually with him. It was some middle-of-the-week day, and we were both at my parents house while they were at work. Can you still be a latchkey kid in your twenties? So I'm there because I'm in college, and when you're in college you can do stuff like laundry at your parents in the middle of the afternoon. I think Donny was actually living with them at the time, and was regularly playing Tomb Raider in the middle of the afternoon. Hence my dad encouraging him to just move to New York and become a freak and do something with his life already!
So a package arrived. It was for Donny. And it was animal traps. For raccoons I think.
He had ordered them a week before, and had been reading up on how to stick his hand into their rusty jaws without breaking his fingers. I thought it was so novel that I was there to watch him learn how to do it.
We both said a brief adieu to Lara Croft (okay, so I was also addicted to Tomb Raider at the time, too – keep in mind this was pre-Angelina Jolie by the way so Ms. Croft was still just a cartoon, granted a big-boobed, cartoon) and practiced mastering the animal traps with pencils and carrot sticks. Donny practiced. I just kept running to the fridge to get more carrot sticks.
Once he got the hand-in-the-trap thing down (or more like once his hand hurt too much to try it anymore) I was the one that said "stick your tongue in it!" He didn't try it with the raccoon trap that day, but it soon became one of his staple schticks. With a mouse trap that is.
I still think maybe it's a rat trap, though.
So back to the sideshow. The mouse-trap-maybe-a-rat-trap is dangling from the middle of Donny's extended tongue. He's egging the crowd on with his give-me-some-applause hand swoops, and everyone is cheering. He pries off the trap. Throws it to the ground. Says some joke like "now that we're speaking in tongues..." (that's not really the joke, but you get the drift) and like clockwork starts segueing into the next act, which involves assisting a scantily clad girl into a coffin-like garish red box painted with octopus tentacles and then inserting 60 blades into it.
So Donny's talking up the crowd, their attention now fixed on how this girl can still be in one piece inside this box, the mouse-slash-rat trap now being last minute's forgotten news. The trap, or should I say the unseen results of the trap trick had not, however, left Donny's mind. But outwardly he is still going through the motions of inviting the audience to come up on the stage (for a small donation of one dollar, five dollars, sometimes the rare ten dollars) to peek inside the box and see just how that beautiful young lady could still be whole.
This is where my family got up to sneak quietly out of the theatre. See, we had already watched the complete show one time through, gotten the back stage tour, met Donny's coworkers complete with multiple face piercings and pet snakes, and were just staying to watch the first half of the routine again (the sideshow continually rotates on busy boardwalk days) before we had to head back to the city for a more respectable but less dangerous, Broadway show that night. On second thought, our tickets may have been for Jesus Christ Superstar, so there was some hammer and nail action going on there, too – but I'm pretty sure it was fake. Unfortunately for Donny, his was not.
So we're trying to discreetly exit, and Donny (who was acting like we were just regular joe's in the crowd and not his family) shouted out "ladies, gentlemen you are NOT going to want to miss this!" To us. My mom and dad were still kind of confused, thinking he wasn't calling out us. We had already said our goodbyes, were halfway out the blackout curtain and about to step into the lobby, but I knew something was up.
I urged my family into the single-file line behind the other onlookers and up onto the stage. I pulled out my dollar bill to look all nonchalant. Donny kept herding people past the open blade box behind him, and as I approached he barely broke out of character as he ushered me past, still "talking" up the girl. "How does she do it folks? Witness her limb-bending abilities as she contorts and twists her fair body around the unforgiving steel blades." Then I hand him my dollar, he looks directly in my eyes, and says all whispery and urgently in between his grandiose delivery, "I busted my teeth out," then back loudly again, "keep moving folks, keep on moving..."
I was aghast. I just walked straight off the stage. Walked right out the curtains into the lobby. I don't even know where the rest of my family was at that moment. I went directly up to some muscled strong-man guy sitting on a stool out front and said "Donny busted his teeth out." He said "aren't you, like, his sister?"
All of a sudden, Donny comes out in the lobby (as Insectivora's sexy fire-breathing act would take up at least the next five minutes of the show). He's playing it up all cool in front of the few members of the sideshow staff who are milling around the lobby (the strong-man had vanished to get Dick, the propietor of the whole get-up).
Then, all cool as a cucumber, Donny yanks our family into a side hallway away from everyone else. And then he's not Donny Vomit anymore, he's our Donny. And he's scared. He's all shaky and you can tell he might, you know, cry any minute. He opens his mouth and shows us the gaping black hole where his two front teeth used to be.
And instantly he's just my little brother again. And I am completely horrified.
Mostly because the first thought that flies into my head was, "Donny always had such nice front teeth." Whereas I always had one of those gaps front and center that are cool when you're Madonna, but incredibly embarrassing if you are some lame eleven year old kid.
Donny was mostly wigged out because – well, you know how everything seems completely exaggerated when you're feeling it with your tongue? I know that sounds dirty, but for instance, you have a cut in your mouth or a piece of food in your teeth and it just feels huge. Well, to Donny it felt like the whole front of his upper choppers was just gone.
But what it really looked like was just two jagged, broken, pathetic little stumps where his two front teeth used to be. Apparently the trap (which mind you, is one of the easiest things he does) was just a little too high on his tongue. So when it snapped... bam! So long pearly whites.
Our dad, who usually has a spazzy melt-down if, oh I don't know, he has to make a left turn at a stop light or if he can't find his reading glasses... was totally calm and told Donny it was going to be fine. My mom, too. It was like Donny was eight years old and had just scraped the skin off his knees skateboarding – and it was just no big deal.
Kathleen and I, on the other hand, were freaked.
Freaked. The F. Out.
Plus, I really didn't want Donny to cry in front of his peers. You know, the other freaks.
Right then, Dick, the sideshow owner swooped in. He completely took charge in the most calm fashion. Shout-out to the grownups I guess. While Kathleen and I, all saucer-eyed, were completely useless. So Dick whipped out this business card (what? freak-show owners have business cards, too) with a number written on the back in blue ball-point pen.
He said, "Donny, take this... this guy'll fix you up."
You know how mobsters have these mob-doctors that stitch up their bullet wounds on the down-low in some sweaty back room on a card table or whatever? Well, apparently there's a sideshow – dentist.
Dad took the train to Queens with Donny the very next day to this dentist. The good doctor capped Donny's teeth with very nice veneers that afternoon. For free. Which, is good, because, um... yeah, human blockheads don't exactly have health insurance, so forget dental.
People always ask if Donny ever gets hurt. I mean, it would seem to come with the territory. And he has gotten some bumps and scrapes along the way, sure. Actually, the worst he ever got injured was sleepwalking straight into his bed of (rusty) nails that were propped up against his bedroom wall. (He does a bed-of-nails routine, too, of course). Scraped up his ribs something awful. But the teeth trumped that one.
Since then Donny's learned that it's the easy stuff you have to watch out for. That's when you're not paying attention and make a mistake. Stands to reason if you're swallowing a sword, let's say, you're going to be concentrating.
So that was our family's first trip to the sideshow. Guess we were bad luck. But... at least it made for one bad-ass story.