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Firsthand Accounts of What's Happening in Baltimore

Sideshow Mom

February 22, 2014
Light Street

The handlebar-mustachioed ringmaster at Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium explains that the human digestive tract actually possesses two gag reflexes. Demonstrating, he plunges a sword through a diagram of the upper esophageal sphincter and—avoiding the heart—down through the lower esophageal sphincter, to the stomach, if all goes well.

At a World Sword Swallower’s Day celebration of the 4,000-year-old Indian art, emcee Tyler Fyre then introduces the show’s star—his wife, Thrill Kill Jill, billed as the first-ever pregnant sword swallower. But first, Fyre does his part: ingesting a 27-inch rapier and bowing forward to allow a female audience member the pleasure of removing the blade. “There was some spit on it,” the woman says later, slightly grossed out.

A former neo-burlesque trouper, currently seven months pregnant, Thrill Kill Jill was roped into the sideshow biz after meeting Fyre (real names: Jill and Tyler Fleet) in Coney Island. In fact, the Harpers Ferry, WV, couple’s two children, Hank Lightning, 2, and Duke Dynamite, 1, both on hand, previously survived their own in utero brushes with mom’s sabers. It’s not the safest line of work for a family, Fyre admits, recalling a glass sword that once broke apart in his gullet and the snake that bit his wife’s face.

Now, in a lacy, deep-slit black dress, the raven-haired, vibrantly tattooed mother—very obviously carrying her boys’ future sibling—slowly lowers a 20-inch dagger into her belly until nothing but the pirate-like handle touches her red-painted lips. “There’s not much room down there,” she says, after carefully removing the cutlass. [At this point,] “I’m a sneeze away from a dime-sized amount of urine in my underpants.”

Wizards of Lego

March 1, 2014
Hilltop Circle, Catonsville

Maneuvering efficiently, a computerized Lego rescue truck, programmed by a handful Sykesville middle school students vying for the Maryland State FIRST Lego Championship, makes deft stops and turns inside a tabletop disaster area. With the scoreboard clock above UMBC’s Retriever Athletic Center ticking down, the kids, who’ve nicknamed themselves the Test Pilots, reprogram on the fly while nervously tugging on their WWII-era fighter caps. Meanwhile, their vehicle pulls a plastic “tree” off a power line, places an evacuation sign, and moves a family out of harm’s way.

“That may be good enough for the top 10,” smiles coach John O’Neil, a dad and engineer at The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. (It was.)

With monikers such as RoboSapiens and Cherry Pi, the 72 qualifying teams here are being judged not only on robotic performance, but also design, programming, research, and innovation. This year’s competition, organized around the theme, “Nature’s Fury,” is eventually won by the iLego squad from Oakland, MD, conferring a trip to a West Coast event. Meanwhile, the Tornadoes from Hollywood, MD, capture awards in robotic performance and innovative solution—conceiving a battery-operated, CO2 cooler for storing food. Dressed as characters from a certain Judy Garland movie of their great-grandparents era, they could’ve won best costume, too.

“We came up with Tornados from the theme, ‘Nature’s Fury,’” explains 11-year-old Margaret Aaron, in pigtails, blue-and-white checked blouse, and white sweater. “Then, I thought, what says ‘tornado’ better than The Wizard of Oz?”

Animal Lovers

March 1, 2014
Pulaski Highway

Eric Vocke, who runs the Baltimore Bully Crew, a volunteer pit bull rescue, welcomes guests past the purple and black balloons, statuette of 1998 Playmate of the Year Karen McDougal, and metal detectors. Ducking inside the packed Gentlemen’s Gold Club, Tom Petty’s “Runnin’ Down a Dream” blares from the sound system as a young, blonde, butterfly-tattooed woman twirls above the main bar. “This is ‘Tits for Pits,’” smiles Vocke, a chef by trade, referring to the 501(c)(3)’s fourth-annual fundraiser. “We’ll raise 25 percent of our annual budget here.”

Most of the $20 cover—there are more couples and women than one might expect—plus a portion of the beverage sales go to the organization’s efforts helping pit bulls, including some from dog-fighting rings. Meanwhile, former MMA fighter Gordon “Shotgun” Shell, who has offered to fight Michael Vick for charity, signs autographs and poses for pictures. There’s also a “Lapdances for 2nd Chances” raffle.

Near the Baltimore Bully Crew T-shirt and hoodie merch table, volunteer April Doherty, a Baltimore County state’s attorney’s animal abuse unit paralegal, admits last year’s event was her first venture to a strip club. “It was, um, interesting,” she says. Husband Kevin, standing nearby, adds, “It’s not really our scene, we’re usually in bed by 9:30.” Just then, an athletic young woman in nothing more than a G-string and heels lands a near-perfect backflip atop the bar, sliding down into a full split.

“I’d give that 4.4,” Kevin laughs over the music and appreciative applause.

“That,” his wife leans in, “was badass.”