He lived in a trailer park in North Vegas, where the jets from the nearby Air Force base regularly destroyed the calm of the afternoon. In our printed instructions, we were told to look for a trailer with "a front yard full of robots". I was looking forward to this, since that morning we'd interviewed an "indoor skydiving instructor," which had been a drawn-out and tiring process. But I was discovering that Vegas itself was a drawn-out and tiring process.
After a few turns around the trailer park, we spotted a yard that was full of - something. It sure as hell wasn't robots. Were they toys? Wagons? What were they?
We pulled up. They were robots, after a fashion - the kind you find on Robot Wars, miniature painted vehicles decked out with armour and protruding metal spikes. On the shows, the robots looked shiny and cool. This stuff was cast-off experiments, guts of remote control cars, partly assembled bits and pieces, an intact machine here and there: junk. But definitely cool junk. The best one was an orangutan driving a little wagon.
And it was the home of the sword swallower, who turned to be a lean, rotten-toothed, jovial guy with a love for the camera. We decided to do the interview first and go with the sword swallowing and fire-eating later, so we set up our lights and sound in his tiny mobile home, which smelled like a water-damaged basement with a layer of human grime trowelled over the mildew spots. We had to finish the interview before his fiancée returned.
Like most performers, even ones who'd ended up in a smelly trailer, he had an instinct for the camera, for the correct tone of voice and widening of eyes. Why do you do what you do? I asked. For the kids in the audience, he said. Family-friendly anecdotes spilled from his mouth, and at one point he even smiled for us - a truly startling moment, as I caught a flash of fire-damaged gums and long yellow teeth. Every fire-eater gets these teeth after a while, he says. Circus performers clearly don't have dental plans.
He showed us a series of swords that had all gone down his stomach. The main danger is not cutting your gut but tearing at the lining of esophagus, which can catch on the tip. The most risky of the lot was a scimitar with a slight curve, which he blamed on more than a few esophagal tears.
He took me through his apprenticeship as a sideshow freak in a circus that toured the southern States. His job was to sit in a cage, wearing only a loincloth, and play with snakes. He also got to howl, growl, snarl and wave snakes in viewers' faces. That was pretty fun, he said. Then he glanced at the camera and leaned a little closer. And I'm not a racist, he said, which was a line I'd heard a lot in my American interviews, but you should of seen those niggers jump when I threw snakes at them.
I realized that for this guy, there was more dignity as a sideshow freak in a cage, provided you were white, than as a paying black customer on the other side of the bars. After the interview he showed us footage of sword swallowing from his Renaissance Faire gigs. Oncely! Twicely! Thricely! chanted the crowd, and down went the blade.