Dec. 07, 2008
My pants are on fire. I suppose that makes me a liar, liar. But not about this.
More than 200 guests at the annual Halloween party thrown by the Amazing Johnathan -- including the host and his fellow magicians David Copperfield, Nathan Burton and Jeff McBride -- have poured outside a storage warehouse to watch the fire show they've been hearing about all night.
I, Corey Inferno, am its climax.
I've eaten a lot of things during these adventures -- crow, my words, actual human feces (by accident, if you didn't catch it, while cleaning sewer filters for the Clark County Water Reclamation District; click here to read that column). But never have I consumed anything that consumed me back.
As usual, I was ill-prepared for the task. I learned how to eat fire only this morning, and that's using the loosest possible interpretation of "learned."
"I haven't had anybody (who has) not been able to do it," said Aaron Zilch, who tried for three hours to convince me that flame going down your throat isn't a negative thing.
"It's easy," he said. "I taught an 18-year-old girl once."
The trick to fire-eating is that there is no trick. Saliva boils for a second or two, protecting against burns until the mouth can close and cut off the flame's oxygen.
"Maybe she was 14," Zilch added.
Fire-eating began centuries ago with Hindu and Fakir religious rituals. It transferred to the American sideshow in the 1880s, then to Kiss concerts in the 1970s. Zilch described it as "a rush."
"Even having done it as much as I have," he said, "there's still that adrenaline of the danger of controlling this real primal, powerful element."
If done correctly, there is no pain, just a slight sensation of heat -- like waving your finger through a lighter flame. (The wedge of cotton isn't hot because it's the fuel that's on fire.)
"Careful!" Zilch said. "Head back a little more. Your hair's in the way."
There may be no trick, but there's plenty to worry about -- including head tilt, wind speed and, more importantly, your speed. Eating fire is something that needs to be done very quickly -- like staring at the sun, drilling into a tooth or checking the new balance of your 401k.
"Don't hesitate!" Zilch commanded.
Fear of fire, to a fire-eater anyway, is a safety hazard. The longer one allows a flame to dangle above one's face while one quivers, it turns out, the more of one's face charbroils.
"Just get it in!" Zilch said.
Oh, and did I mention? If I accidentally breathe inward, I could die.
"If it got down to your lungs, it's possible it can collapse your lungs and kill you," Zilch said, snapping his fingers after "kill you" for effect that was not necessary to drive his point home.
A more unavoidable pitfall is the ingestion of about a teaspoon of poison each time a fire-eater -- even a good one -- eats or spits flame. It is not possible to engage in a more off-market use of lamp oil, white gas and/or kerosene.
"That's the part I really worry about," Zilch said.
Zilch, 30, was a musician until 2003. In his hometown of Minneapolis, he played keyboards for an almost-famous metal band called American Head Charge. Frustrated by its lack of success, Zilch moved to Vegas to join another group, Grade 8. (Zilch estimates that at least a third of the fire-eaters he knows are current or former musicians.)
One night, during yet another nowhere band practice, Zilch saw some fire-eating equipment lying around. If he couldn't ignite his music career, he figured, at least he could ignite something.
"I was just like, '(Expletive) it,' " Zilch recalled, flashing back to the traveling circuses he attended as a kid to watch his dad, a ringmaster, and his uncle, who ate fire.
"I'm not going to say I didn't have a few drinks before I tried it, though," he added.
Back at my training session, 150 attempts -- each only slightly less pathetic than the last -- resulted in exactly one extinguishment.
"You sure you don't want to do it again?" Zilch asked.
At this point, half of my left eyebrow consisted of ashes and it felt like Blair's Beyond Death hot sauce had been applied as a lip balm.
"Yes," I replied. "I'm sure."
Fire-eating isn't a full-time job for anybody. So Zilch works with the Swing Shift sideshow, which pays each member $300 to $500 per night to introduce corporate and private events to some of the most unnatural and disgusting feats imaginable. Later tonight, Zilch will inject his girlfriend's urine into his skull.
"There really aren't any side effects," he explained. "Fresh urine is sterile. And since it's from my girlfriend, I'm not concerned about communicable diseases."
I'll stick to the risk of burning to death, thank you.
"We've got a very special guest!" Zilch announces over a bullhorn. My personal Burning Man festival has begun.
Inches from me are a fire extinguisher, wet towels and Zilch on fire watch. In case that isn't enough, the 9-1 portion of 911 is pre-dialed on my cell phone.
However, any and all nerve I built up during training is gone. Fifteen failed dive-bombs ensue as my skewer grows poker-hot and embers shoot from the cotton.
I want my mommy.
The star-studded crowd resorts to catcalls. It demands the big ending it came for. And so I think of one.
What you never want to do to a flaming wedge of cotton soaked with fuel, I learn later, is attempt to stomp it out. Not only will the fire stay lit, it will expand as the excess fuel transfers, ignited, onto your shoe and leg.
"Corey's on fire!" someone in the audience yells.
I take this as a compliment before gazing downward.
Zilch and the others, panic filling their eyes, flick me with wet towels so the flames don't travel upward on their natural path toward my ill-advised polyester sport coat.
The crowd cheers. It got the big ending it came for.
Fear and Loafing runs on the first Sunday of every month in the Living section. Levitan's previous adventures can be found at www.fearandloafing.com.