By James Maher
Name: Edward “Eak the Geek” Arrocha.
Occupation: Coney Island Circus Performer
Location: East River Promenade, East River Park.
Time: 3:30 on Friday, May 17.
I’m a suburban kid. I was born in downtown Mexico City but I grew up in a neighborhood called Lomas Verdes, which was known to be the most ‘Fresa,’ which would be the equivalent of the word square, suburban neighborhood in Mexico City. My dad’s a lawyer from Mexico and my mom’s a professor from the East Coast. I didn’t want to be a professor or a lawyer but you don’t really aspire to be a circus performer. I actually think I was the kid who had the balls to do what I wanted to do.
It was my lifelong dream to live here. I remember going to Times Square and thinking I wanted to be there. It was perverted and cool and weird. I moved to the East Village in the early 1990s and I’ve lived in the same apartment for 20 years. There used to be dealers in the building where I live. The prostitutes would sometimes be plying their trade in the halls at 4 in the morning. I always had a soft spot for the working girls. I kind of feel that in a lot of ways they’re somebody’s sister or somebody’s mother. I used to kick them out of the building but they always were nice to me. The dealers and the junkies and the working girls, I was always nice to them and they were always nice to me for whatever reason. The ones who were really nasty were the Johns. They had paid for it and would be like, “Mind your own business,” and I would go into my apartment and walk out with a baseball bat and that was it.
My first job here was as a street vendor, selling jewelry. I moved here to make it as an artist. I really was not into being a sideshow performer. I played in bands as a vocalist. I was into weird bands, anywhere from somewhat punk and hardcore to weird art bands. I was more of a screamer than anything else. I also wrote a lot of poetry and did a lot of poetry readings. I still write poetry — it’s kind of what I do. I write everyday. I’ve never really had a straight job. I didn’t want to become the hamster in the wheel going around and around in a circle. That, to me, was perhaps the most terrifying place to end up in.
I lost my street vending job and I needed a job badly, so this woman said they needed a ticket guy in Coney Island. It was incredible. There was so much energy and so much weirdness. There was such an intense vibe. It really was a war zone, although once you got to know people it was not a bad place.
The people I worked with were interesting but the people who really intrigued me were the people who hung out there. You’d have the kite flyers, the beach walkers, the beach combers, you had the people who would sit there and watch the sun all day, you’d have some old Italians who had been there for many years, you had the people from the projects who were really nice and coming to enjoy the beach. You had a wide variety of people that made up New York. No matter that they had all these gangs, it still had this nice and laid back vibe.
There was a big difference when I tattooed my face. A lot of people get really obsessed with the tattoos and then they start talking to me and realize I’m more than just the tattoos. When I tattooed my face I had to go work inside and there was a bed of nails and I said, ‘Oh, let me go do that.’ Little did I know that I would be Eak the Geek. I was the guy who got squeezed by the bed of nails. I was the pain proof man. It was one of the classical sideshow acts.
It was always really hard, hard, gritty work. There was a time when you would do 12, 45-minute shows a day. People would get very tired and beat up from doing the shows. It was not ideal working conditions. You spent a lot of your year with the five people in the backstage, that you’d see everyday, everyday, everyday. You were kind of a dysfunctional family. There was a lot of fighting and arguing.
After 15 years, when it stopped becoming a place for me to write about, that’s when it became time to leave. It had an interesting shelf life and then it became a job. I always liked fishing but I began to fish seriously in 2007 after I left the sideshow. The sideshow took so much of my time and life that I needed something to fill in the void.
What an amazing day to go fishing.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.