The Sword Swallower

Dan Meyer at a Renaissance Festival swallowing two swords at once. (Photo: Kirk Hughes)

Dan Meyer at a Renaissance Festival swallowing two swords at once. (Photo: Kirk Hughes)

Swallowing a sword is one of the most uncomfortable sensations the human body can possibly experience. A 24-inch metal blade is wedging its way down your esophagus, between your lungs and nudging aside your heart.

Your body constantly wants to gag as saliva is trying to trickle down your lungs. The sword could impale your heart, killing you instantly. And because no nerve endings exist beyond your upper throat, you can’t actually feel the blade once it gets down to the bottom of your stomach. And you’ll have “sword throat” afterward from the abrasions and scrapes.

So who would actually choose to make this his or her career? For good reason, there’s only about a dozen professional sword swallowers today.

Dan Meyer, once a scrawny, soft-spoken kid who was endlessly tormented at school, is now a seven-time Guinness World Record holder and president of the Sword Swallowers Association. It took him several years and 13,000 unsuccessful attempts, but now, he can swallow swords underwater; he can swallow 21 swords at once; he can swallow a red-hot sword, heated to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. And he has no plans to quit.

“If you can take everything I love to do and put it into one job, this would be it,” Meyer says. “I’m living the dream.” 

Age: 56
Based in: Michigan City, Indiana. But I’m moving to Florida soon.
Graduated from: I studied music business at Waldorf College, a 2-year college in Iowa.  Then I traveled to India as a missionary, came back, and got a degree in music business from Indiana State University, where I majored in the harp.
Years in the business: 13

Previous jobs: After graduation, I moved to the Bahamas for seven years, where I was the caretaker on an island and wore a loincloth and ate lobsters. Then I moved around to Nashville, Stockholm and London, where I had jobs in copyright licensing in the music business.

None of which are exactly natural precursors to a career in sword swallowing. They’re not as far apart as you might think. I finally moved back to Nashville, which is where I got into [sword swallowing]. Putting my show together is like a musical performance – the intro act, building up to the finale.

Did you dream of doing this as a kid? I grew up with social anxiety disorder, low self-esteem, an inferiority complex and fear of rejection. I was a scared, shy, skinny, wimpy kid who was tormented by bullies. So I vowed that I would one day do things other kids couldn’t. I watched Ripley’s Believe It or Not and read about Guinness World Records and saw real people achieving real feats.

So in college, I learned how to juggle, ride a unicycle, and eat glass and fire. Then one day, after I had moved to Nashville and was running a jugglers’ club, a guy showed up at the club who was a sword swallower. He made it sound so exciting that I decided to learn how to do it, too.

How does one go about learning to swallow swords? For four years, I practiced 10 to 12 times per day, every day. I had 13,000 unsuccessful attempts before I got my first sword down on February 12, 2001. It took me another two years to do it consistently without gagging, and another five years to do it with multiple swords. Eventually, I did it underwater in a tank of sharks and stingrays for Ripley’s and won the Guinness World Record.

Now you swallow swords full-time. I travel to 25 countries per year, performing at top colleges, youth groups, festivals and fairs and scientific medical associations. I don’t practice as much anymore; it’s become second nature, like riding a bike.

The longest sword you ever swallowed: 38.5 inches for Stan Lee’s Superhumans series on TV. It was red-hot – 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit – and I could only keep it down a few seconds before the heat transferred down the blade.

It’s about 20 inches from the bottom of your stomach to your teeth, so most people start out with a 15-inch dagger for the first four years and then graduate to a 22-inch or 24-inch blade.

Getting it down without puncturing a lung seems terrifying. Physically, you need to flip open the epiglottis and place the sword just right so that the blade goes past the pharynx, down the esophagus and between the lungs. Then you need to nudge the heart aside with the blade – the heart literally leans on the sword – so the blade goes through the diaphragm, past the liver, and into the stomach to touch the bottom of the stomach.

One wrong move, and you could puncture any of those organs. (It typically takes a month to overcome each bodily reflex.) If my posture isn’t quite perfect when the sword nudges my heart, it can sometimes cause what feels like an electric spasm in my body, and I sometimes see stars. Other times, if my posture isn’t quite right, the sword sometimes hits and bruises internal organs, which can really throb and hurt like crazy for hours or days. So I have to be careful my posture and attitude are just right every time I perform.

An X-ray of Dan Meyer's chest with a sword.

An X-ray of Dan Meyer’s chest with a sword.

Are some people’s bodies better predisposed for sword swallowing than others? I had some things working against me, actually. My grandpa died from a constricted esophagus – he had to drink hot tea to open his throat. So I thought, there’s no way I can do this. I get the hiccups easily. But I looked at people who did it and thought, if they can do it, so can I. After enough tries, the body finally relaxes and lets it happen; your brain learns through deliberate practice to let it happen. That mental obstacle is even harder than the physical.

Best part of your job: Watching the crowd at one of my shows move from non-belief to belief: The eyes and jaws dropping, the heads spinning. I love teaching the audience that they, too, are capable of doing the impossible in their lives.

Most challenging part of your job: Getting the audience to believe that it’s not just a trick; sometimes they think my sword has a curved blade or something. I’ll have a volunteer push the sword in or pull it out of my throat, and I also use a glowing light saber that shines through my neck. That convinces the skeptics. By the time I’m done, 99.9% of the audience is convinced it’s real.

What’s harder: Putting the sword in or taking it out? Putting it in. Your body is constantly trying to expel it.

Amount of time you can keep it down: About a minute or so.

Rituals to prepare before a show: Before each show, I get down on my knees and say a prayer. I try to remove my pride; the Old Testament says pride comes before a fall. It’s not about me, but rather about inspiring people to do the impossible.

Does your stomach need to be empty? I’ll eat a full meal about three or four hours before performing.The sword goes deeper with a full or half-full stomach; with food, your stomach hangs lower and the esophagus stretches. I try to eat something easy to digest, though. Nothing spicy.

Do bits of food – excuse the mental image here – ever come back up on your sword? No. Your esophagus wipes the blade clean. But I wipe mine down with menthol-flavored rubbing alcohol before and after each show.

You mentioned swallowing swords in a shark tank and swallowing a red-hot sword. Any other insane feats? One time, I swallowed 21 swords at once. I’ve had someone yank the sword out of my throat using a whip. Last year, for Ripley’s Believe It or Not, I pulled a Swarovski crystal-encrusted Mini Cooper out of the Ripley’s showroom to Baltimore’s inner harbor – about 12 feet. Two cables were attached to the car on one end, and to my sword on the other. Not gagging was tough.

Medical risks: Usually within the first several months or years of learning, you get something called “sword throat” from the abrasion and scrapes. Your body develops a tolerance for it. But there have been 29 deaths over 150 years associated with sword swallowing; a woman died at age 25 from just a quarter-inch nick in the throat.

In 2005, I punctured my stomach while swallowing five swords at once, and I couldn’t eat solid foods for almost three weeks. I almost quit sword swallowing, but I had to film a documentary for the Food Network, so I got back in the saddle.

How did your family react when they learned that the shy boy with a degree in music had become a professional sword swallower? My mom was a registered nurse, so she told me to stop. My dad was an X-ray technician, so he knew where the sword goes, and he didn’t like it either. But when they came to my show and saw the sold-out crowd, the standing ovation – they finally got it. They’re proud of me now.

Does it get harder as you get older? How much longer do you think you’ll be swallowing daggers? It gets easier the longer you do it, so it’s fairly easy for me now. The oldest sword swallower is 76; he started at age 12, and his parents were famous sword swallowers. When I found out he’s still doing it, I figured I have another 20 years.

Salary range: Everyone negotiates his or her own rates. But since it’s so rare and dangerous – we’re risking our lives several times per show, and medical bills can range from $50,000 to $75,000 per injury – most of us in the Sword Swallowers Association won’t take less than a few thousand dollars per show. Some of us even more.

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
It’s extremely dangerous. There are fewer than 12 professional sword swallowers today, and 29 people have died from it. Don’t try it.

You can learn more about Dan Meyer on his website, as well as on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

Meet other No Joe Schmos who have done the seemingly impossible: the magician who lives in the Waldorf Astoria and the alligator wrestler.

The Latte Artist

Jessica Bertin

Jessica Bertin, the administrator of Joe Ed classes, subsists on just one or two cups of coffee a day – a shot of espresso here, a sip of cappuccino there, to test quality control.

“Skim milk. The bane of our existence.”

Jessica Bertin sits in the corner of the Joe Coffee store she manages on New York City’s Upper East Side, eyeing the Sunday morning crowd as the sun streams in. Every large latte with skim order makes the baristas cringe — the thinness of nonfat milk makes it nearly impossible to create the store’s crisp signature Rosetta design.

Joe Coffee, a family-owned business that opened in 2003, has several branches across New York City and Philadelphia. Bertin trains baristas and runs Joe’s public education program, which includes a smattering of about a dozen classes — ones focused on espresso and manual brewing ($60 for two hours) to lectures on direct trade versus fair trade. Then there are the full-day barista workshops ($225 for seven hours) and 16-hour one-week courses, which never fail to sell out. But one of Bertin’s most impressive areas of expertise is  latte art — which, for the record, is much harder than it looks.

Age: 31
Graduated from: Wellesley College; majored in international relations
Based in: New York, N.Y.
Years in the business: I’ve been working with Joe for 6 years.
Previous jobs: I was planning on being a lawyer or a judge. Then, after graduation, I moved to New York City and started working at Starbucks for health benefits. It dawned on me that you don’t have to wear a suit every day to have a meaningful, fulfilling job. That was a bit of an adjustment coming from Hillary Clinton’s alma mater. So I became serious about coffee and service. I also managed a coffee shop in Tribeca before starting at Joe. 

Who is the average person signing up for a two-hour latte art class? It’s a range of people, from those looking to own their own coffee shops to home baristas to people who want something fun to do on a Saturday. The ages range from college students to people in their 70s.

Okay, so a cool Brooklyn hipster walks into your class, ready to up his latte game. What’s the first step? Well, latte art has a prerequisite of milk steaming, where you learn how to properly aerate and texture the milk and prepare it for art. So given that, you’d walk in and start with an opening activity, like judging different examples of latte art. Then would come a lecture on the physics and science of how latte art works – the different properties of coffee and milk that allow this creation. Finally comes the hands-on portion. We break up into small groups of three students to one instructor and students practice pouring designs. There’s a pop quiz at the end.

How do you judge the best latte art? The difference between light and dark colors; the definition and how crisp the edges of a design are.

What special equipment is required? A pitcher with a pointed spout, which gives you a thin stream, allowing for ripples. The way the pitcher is shaped – and the way you manage the angle of it – controls how it pours.

The key is: Whole milk is easier to work with. The foam is a little more flexible; nonfat milk foam is stiffer and less malleable. Starting with very cold milk in a cold pitcher also helps give the milk more time to aerate properly. And you need a whirlpool happening in the pitcher; that vortex motion evenly distributes the air, giving you a smooth, tight foam.

What most people are doing wrong: Not relaxing. The smallest change in handling the pitcher affects the dynamics inside it, so just chill out and be Zen when you’re pouring.

Above, Sean Chin, a barista at Joe Coffee, aims for the very lowest point of the cup.

Your training: A mix of courses and research I did myself, like reading, watching YouTube videos and taking workshops. I underwent training for this job, but we didn’t have the understanding of the science behind it that I now have.

Now I’m ready for a science lesson. The special thing about brewing espresso is that it involves pressure, which extracts oils and gives it the sheen – that thick surface you see on top. It starts with viscosity. Once the espresso is brewed, it separates into two densities and textures. At the bottom is the liquidy part, and on top is the crema – the fatty, gassy substance.

Something similar happens with the milk: We add air to create microfoam. As the milk heats up, the proteins start to break down and expose a hydrophobic tip surrounded by water. It needs to bond with something to stabilize, so it starts to bond with air, forming a bubble matrix – the microfoam.

So now we have these two parallel substances, and we combine the two so that the more liquidy parts underneath blend together and the thicker parts on top fold into each other – they don’t blend because they’re so thick. It’s like pouring two really thick paints into each other; they just butt up against each other.

The most common designs you’ll see atop a latte: The Rosetta and the heart are the most traditional. The heart is more often poured in cappuccinos, since that milk is thicker and fluffier, and hearts are easier to make with thick milk. The Rosetta goes in lattes, since the texture of that milk is going to be thinner. Those two basic motions can be combined to make other designs. 

Latte heart

Instagram your hearts out.

Your favorite intricate design: A heart-topped Rosetta or a tulip. Dragons and swans are cool, but we don’t serve them because of efficiency. There’s not a big margin of error – it either looks like a swan or it looks like a mess, and I’m not going to make a customer wait around to fix his swan. When we’re busy, everything looks pretty – and when we’re really slow, everything looks super pretty. I wish that weren’t true, but it is. (Laughs.)

Do you consider yourself a coffee snob? I’ll still drink diner coffee in Jersey with my mom, but if I go somewhere with a reputation like [Joe’s], I expect something decent. I’m disappointed if I order a cappuccino and it has no art; my assumption is the barista isn’t trying very hard.

But the art, by nature, is rather ephemeral. I see it as the icing on the cake. If you’re at a gourmet restaurant, you expect your plate to be beautiful. On one hand, it is the least valuable; it doesn’t change the flavor of the coffee. But it’s the finish – it’s our way of honoring and celebrating the coffee. That’s the purpose of latte art: a signal that this coffee is something special.

The best part of your job: The ability to help other people enjoy coffee, whether it’s teaching someone how to make his coffee more beautiful or how to make it taste better. Coffee is a daily activity – and if you’re going to do something every day, you might as well make it amazing.

I also love the Thursday Night Throwdowns, which are sort of barista parties in the coffee community around the world. Baristas get together and drink beer – you donate $5 at the door, usually for a good cause – and then pair off for latte art competitions. One volunteer is pulling shots, and two steam the milk and pour designs – you can even win some money. Lots of people come to watch.

The most challenging part of your job: Creating lesson plans that balance student involvement and time management. That’s the fulfilling challenging part. The least enjoyable challenging part is answering emails and filling out spreadsheets.

Do your classes sell out? Yes, and I’m always surprised at that. I post a four-month schedule, and two months in, we’re sold out. I often need to request to add another cupping class or something during the month because so many people are emailing me.

We have one level of classes for the public and also offer private lessons with a one-on-one coach, which are more tailored to what you want to do. It’s $100 per hour for up to four people to attend; we’ll teach you whatever we know. At this very moment, there’s a private milk lesson going on.

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
Find a coffee shop you want to work for, and work for them. Several other places besides Joe have training spaces, like Counter Culture Coffee. There’s also the Barista Guild of America and the Specialty Coffee Association of America.

You can sign up for Joe Ed classes here. All photos courtesy of Jewel Martin.

For more No Joe Schmos who explore the science behind what you’re eating and drinking, meet the master beer brewer and the food chemist.

The Pizza Box Connoisseur

Photo: Michael Berman

“People are surprised I’m not 600 pounds,” laughs Scott Wiener, who runs a pizza company. Photo: Michael Berman

To the average American, a pizza box is a disposable, oily compilation of cardboard, taking up room in the fridge until the last slice is gone. But to Scott Wiener, a pizza box is a work of art. That’s why he holds the Guinness World Record for largest collection of pizza boxes.

Wiener eats, lives, and breathes pizza. During the day, he runs a pizza tour company, taking groups of tourists to 40 different pizzerias around New York City on a yellow school bus. But the job takes a lot of research, he says. “It’s not just waking up, eating pizza, and getting a paycheck.” 

Nearly six years, 1,500 tours and over 25,000 tour guests later, Wiener is planning a traveling art show featuring pizza boxes around the world, from Brooklyn to Austin, Tex., to the rest of the world. Below, he reveals the country that uses the world’s most intelligent pizza box (not America), how to order pizza the right way, and where his love for dough, red sauce, and cheese first began.

Age: 32
Based in: Brooklyn, N.Y.
Graduated from: Syracuse University; majored in television, radio and film and minored in music
Years in the business: About 6
Previous jobs: Sound and production guy on reality TV shows and indie films; worked at recording studio; caretaker of a historic ferryboat; events coordinator for Hoboken, N.J.

None of which really involves pizza, unless you count the favorite food in Hoboken. I quit my job working for Hoboken and gave myself 6 months to do whatever I wanted. I had always really been into pizza; I took a bunch of friends on a bus as a massive birthday celebration for myself and rode around and ate pizza all day. It was the most fun ever, and I made it into a business in 2008. Then I added walking tours. It’s more effective than a book or a blog; looking at photos of pizza just makes you hungry. I wanted to eat.

Describe in a few sentences what you do every day. Almost every day, I run 3-to-4-hour public and private tours of significant pizzerias around New York City. Beyond that, it’s a lot of research and bookkeeping work.

Define “significant.” Ones with really great food and interesting backstories, including Lombardi’s, John’s of Bleecker Street, Joe’s Pizza, and Patsy’s. Almost every pizzeria in New York.

I read that you have collected 650 pizza boxes from 45 countries around the world. I hold the Guinness World Record for largest collection of pizza boxes. I accumulated a lot of them when I was writing my book about pizza boxes, and a lot from my friends who traveled.

Where do you keep them all? In a closet in my Brooklyn apartment, flattened down. They don’t take up much room.

Aren’t you worried about mice? They’re mostly unused. I haven’t seen a single vermin yet.

One of Weiner’s favorite pizza boxes, from a pizzeria in Amsterdam, features artwork of Homer and Bart Simpson.

One of Wiener’s favorite pizza boxes, from a pizzeria in Amsterdam, features artwork of Homer and Bart Simpson.

What makes a high-quality pizza box? In terms of the artwork on the box, it must have catchy, on-brand imagery and send the point directly – the name of the pizzeria and location. (I love the Ed Hardy artwork on the box from Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco.) Then there’s the design of the physical box. The best ones get rid of steam but trap heat – which most pizza boxes in the U.S. don’t do. The only places in New York using anything different are Rossopomodoro, the pizzeria located inside Eataly, and Don Antonio near the Theater District. It’s lined with a metallic polyester coating that helps conduct heat for a better delivered pizza.

Why don’t more pizzerias use that? Since the late ’70s, America has used a corrugated box with a front flap that folds over the two side flaps and lock into place. That lock holds it together; it’s a box made for sturdiness, not steam release. And we’ve gotten so used to those boxes that we’re slow to change from the traditional, authentic product. The primo box costs just under $1 when normal pizza boxes are about $0.35.

The most well crafted pizza box you’ve ever seen: Structurally, the VENTiT box from India, which is reverse engineered from corrugated cardboard pizza boxes in the America – boxes that are made to hold books and cell phones, not food. (Solvents like oil makes the cardboard deteriorate, and the food changes a bit.) The VENTiT box has holes to let steam escape through the middle layer and then the outer layer, without touching the pizza. India is a new pizza market, so that box is working there.

Why are pizza boxes square if a pizza is round? A circular box would be much more complicated to fold, and wouldn’t stack straight or be as sturdy. Square boxes are far superior – there’s more room for steam and for those little dipping sauces inside.

Do New York-style pizza and Chicago deep-dish pizza require different boxes? Totally. Chicago uses an inverted box, in which the top locks in the bottom – the side walls collapse when you open the box and it flattens out. It’s only used there.

Best part of your job: I get to meet people every day who want to talk about pizza. It’s really fun because everyone speaks the language of pizza. It’s not hard to get people to come on a pizza tour – but when they show up, they’re always skeptical of what more they can learn about pizza.

Most challenging part of your job: There’s not a great written or reported history of pizza. Nobody is really studying this stuff.

If you could eat one type of pizza for the rest of your life, it would be: Margherita pizza. To me, that’s home.

A Domino's pizza box from Japan.

A Domino’s pizza box from Japan, part of Wiener’s collection.

Something people would be surprised to learn about pizzerias: All coal oven pizzerias clean their ovens around 4 p.m., so don’t go around that time. You’ll have to wait an extra 30 minutes.

Best pizza pro tip: Ask for your pizza to be delivered uncut. It will be a lot less oily in the box; it’s easier and cleaner to cut it yourself.

Your required reading: Pizza: A Slice of Heaven by Ed Levine and Ripe: The Search for the Perfect Tomato by Arthur Allen. I also wrote a book called Viva La Pizza! The Art of the Pizza Box.

What would you do if you won the lottery? I run a nonprofit called Slice Out Hunger, which raises money for the homeless through pizza fundraisers. Last year, we raised $20,000, which fed meals to 100,000 people. I’d put a lot more resources to that if I won the lottery.

Do you smell like pizza 24/7? I probably do. Maybe that’s why people hang out with me. 

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
Learn everything you can about the subject matter you’re interested in. Become obsessed. If you’re not willing to become obsessed, don’t take a career in it. I still study every single day.

You can learn more about Scott’s pizza tours on his website.

NEXT: The Anti-Deep-Dish Pizza Chef in Chicago

The Greeting Card Writer

Some companies that Louden works with send her copies of her published product. "I’m like a kid at Christmas," she says.

Some companies that Miller-Louden works with send her copies of her published product. “I’m like a kid at Christmas,” she says.

Greeting cards have a funny way of making the impersonal feel personal. Someone, somewhere, writes verses for a card without you in mind. Then, by chance, you select that card from a shelf of others — presumably one of thousands just like it — and those words become your own.

For 28 years, Sandra Miller-Louden has been the voice of those looking for words of humor, wryness, or sympathy. She has trained her brain to pick up on sound bytes in everyday life for fodder, just like a journalist or TV producer might do during an interview. There’s no room to mince words.

Now, in addition to writing verses for companies like American Greetings and Hallmark, Miller-Louden teaches greeting card writing courses, speaks at conferences, and has published a book on the subject. And despite the rise of birthday wishes in the form of e-cards and Facebook posts, there’s still a hungry, if niche, market for greeting card writers. After all, you can’t prop up an e-card atop your fireplace.

Age: 63
Graduated from: Heidelberg University in Ohio; double majored in Spanish and English
Based in: The small town of Salisbury in Somerset County, Pa.
Years in the business: 28

Previous jobs: After graduating, I worked as a secretary during the day and played music at nights in my dad’s polka band. Then I got married, moved to Pittsburgh, had kids and wanted to stay at home. But after my second kid, I was going up the walls – I needed to do something creative. So I was flipping through a catalog called Current, which sold boxed greeting cards – and a light bulb went on in my head, like in the cartoons.

But you didn’t have any prior experience. I wrote out a bunch of greeting card ideas on 3″ x 5” index cards and submitted them to Current, unsolicited. I got a rejection letter in return that said “very close, feel free to try again,” so I submitted a few every week.

Your first idea that sold: A Halloween card. The front had a woman standing dressed as a maid with a feather duster and a badge that read “CGD.” Inside, it read, “Certified Ghost Duster.” I got $15 for that – $5 per word. I made a total of $115 in that first year.

In a sentence or two, how do you spend your days? Right now, it’s mostly teaching. My greeting card work comes by assignment at this point; I usually have about two weeks to assign verses to photos. I work with about four or five companies, but it used to be a lot more – before they went out of business because of the Internet.

Inside:  "...I'm either fast, cheap or easy!"

Inside: “…I’m either fast, cheap or easy!”

How have you seen the industry change over the past several years, as more people are sending e-cards or simply wishing a happy birthday on a friend’s Facebook wall? That gives me pause. But midsize and large greeting card companies still exist – they just have to fight harder. During an interview in 2001, I was asked whether I thought e-cards would take over traditional paper cards. I said they can coexist peacefully, and I still believe that. E-cards are still largely really corny and animated, and you can’t save them forever.

Do you also design the cards? No; a misconception is that greeting card writers must be able to draw. But it is important for the writers to think visually – it’s helpful to envision the art that might accompany your words.

Where do you do your best thinking? Over the years, I’ve learned how to think. English has all kinds of expressions that are perfect for humor cards – clichés like “bent out of shape,” “cutting corners” and “hit the nail on the head.” I put a twist on them and add an occasion, which can be as nebulous as “just because” or female friendship. You’ll never see a man at the greeting card rack except the day before Mother’s Day or Christmas.

I also always listen to children – my own and other people’s. One morning, my daughter was taking her Flintstones vitamin and I was taking my vitamin. She said, “I feel bad for you; your vitamins don’t look like anyone.” I made that into a birthday card. The outside said, “It’s no fun getting older: Our hair thins and our waistlines thicken.” The inside said, “And our vitamins don’t look like Fred Flintstone anymore.” I got $75  for that.

You’ve written cards for: American Greetings, Hallmark and Gibson, plus a bunch of smaller places.

All humor? That’s where I started. I’ve also done sympathy, rhyming verses, and alternative types, like cocktail napkin phrases.

Inside: "I like to look at places I'm never gonna visit."

Inside: “I like to look at places I’m never gonna visit.”

Have you sold any R-rated cards? A few. Like one that read, “Do you know that too much sex can make you so weak you can’t even open something like this greeting card? … Obviously not something that concerns you. Happy birthday.”

Average rate for freelancers: Between $50 and $125 per verse.

Do you get credit, besides the satisfaction of seeing your work on shelves? We sometimes get credit on the backs of cards, but mostly, my words are anonymous. Artists and photographers, however, always get credit on the backs of cards.

That doesn’t seem fair. Sometimes it makes me peeved. But while people may pick up a card for the artwork, they buy it because of the words.

Best part of your job: My words become the sender’s words. When I realized that, it gave me goosebumps – the sender is truly adopting my words.

Most challenging part of your job: You can get burned out with the funny stuff. Also, I’ve found a bit of snobbery toward me among other writers.

Do you give family and friends your own birthday cards? Yes, I try to. 

Dream job in college: I wanted to be an actress. My father said I’d starve, so I went into English – just about one step up. Now, my dream job is being a bartender. I’m a darn good listener; I just need to learn how to make drinks.

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>

  1. Think broadly, visually and literally.
  2. Don’t be hackneyed. If you send a pitch for an Easter Card with a bunny hopping that reads “Hoppy Easter,” the editor will be like, “Really?
  3. Don’t succumb to writers’ block. I don’t believe in it. When you’re really serious about writing, you can’t get the ideas out there fast enough. Some days you’re great, and some days you’re horrible.

Top photo by Logan A. Louden; rest courtesy of Sandra Miller-Louden. You can visit Miller-Louden’s website here.

Meet another No Joe Schmo who doesn’t mince words: The Saturday Night Live cue cards writer

The Confetti Master of Times Square on New Year’s Eve

"I’ve never had a gig that I’ve done this many years in a row," says Treb Heining (far right, in red). Here, he celebrates the beginning of 2011 with the crowd.

“I’ve never had a gig that I’ve done this many years in a row,” says Treb Heining (far right, in red), who has also orchestrated the balloons at the Academy Awards and many Super Bowls and political conventions.

After the champagne has been chugged and the 6-ton ball has been cleared, millions of tiny flecks of colored paper coat the pavement of Times Square in New York City.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

For the past 22 years, precisely 20 seconds before the clock strikes midnight on Jan. 1, Treb Heining stands perched over the railing outside the Minskoff Theater, ready for go time. He holds a radio close to his lips. “Go confetti,” he declares coolly, just loud enough for the 70 someodd people at eight different buildings towering over the center of Times Square to hear him over the din of the whooping crowds below. Then, for almost 60 seconds straight, Heining and the rest of his confetti dispersal battalion heave 3,000 pounds of confetti out of large brown boxes and into the air. It’s officially New Year’s in Times Square.

Age: 59
Graduated from: I was a music major at Golden West College in Huntington Beach, Calif. I practiced the trumpet eight hours a day. It was only a two-year college, but I got sidetracked and never went further.
Based in: Newport, Calif.
Years in the business: I’ve been coordinating the confetti on New Year’s Eve in Times Square for 22 years straight.

Previous jobs: In college, I worked at Disneyland tying and selling balloons. I could tie 1,000 an hour by myself. Then, after college, I hooked up with a guy named Wally Amos, of Famous Amos Cookies, and worked for his cookie store on Sunset Boulevard as a cashier. Later, at his warehouse, made 3,000 pounds of handmade cookies a day, and they were to die for.

While working for Wally, I met a guy named Dave Klein, the man who had just invented Jelly Belly jellybeans. He encouraged me to start my own balloon art business, and lent me some money to do so. Now, I do the balloons for the Academy Awards, Super Bowl, and presidential conventions for both Republicans and Democrats. In the first few years of my balloon business, we were grossing millions annually. I hold Guinness world records for balloon art, too.

Which led to confetti how, exactly? I had worked with Peter Kohlmann, a vice president of the Times Square Business Improvement District, for previous events in New York. So when the committee was looking to transform New Year’s Eve in Times Square to something more than just a huge gaggle of drunk and unruly people, Peter called me in. The goal was to add effects to make the event more family-friendly, so I suggested starting with confetti. So we did it, starting in 1991, and it was a huge success; I learned how from a gentleman at Disneyland. That was back in the day when they lowered the ball by hand, on a flagpole. So my main business is still balloons, but this my consistent New Year’s Eve gig.

In Times Square, a hub of all the latest LED screens, the New Year's confetti process is very rudimentary by comparison.

In Times Square, a hub of all the latest LED screens, the New Year’s Eve confetti process is very rudimentary by comparison.

Pounds of confetti used: 3,000. There’s some additional for special Spider-Man effects this year; sponsorship for the event is always a struggle. Just before 11 p.m. this year, as the movie trailer plays, white streamers will descend from all sides, like a spiderweb.

Confetti made from: Biodegradable paper. I’d like to get to the point where it’s 100% recyclable.

Do you use cannons to shower the crowd in confetti? We did – and still do – everything by hand. We stand on setbacks on the upper floors of eight different buildings in the center of Times Square and disperse the confetti. I prefer “disperse” to “throw.” It’s very safe, with railings. Although you do have “confetti arm” afterward; the dispersal is a physically violent act.

Do you throw – I’m sorry, disperse – the confetti precisely at midnight? I give the signal, “go confetti” on my radio, at 20 seconds before midnight. Our first year, Peter Kohlmann said he wanted it to start the confetti early so that live feeds would capture the huge display right at midnight. Just getting the confetti out over the rails takes about a minute. The crowd noise at 11 p.m. is incredible, and then, when the confetti hits, it’s goosebumps time. It just takes over the senses. Within seconds, it becomes a literal blizzard.

Below, the annual confetti “airworthiness” test in 2012. 

Meaning it reaches all corners of New York. If you go anywhere in Manhattan the next day, you’ll find confetti. Before the confetti comes down, though, it goes up and up. It stays in the air for about 30 minutes or longer, probably because of the vortex in Times Square, the air currents, and all the heat coming from the crowd. One year, I told the press that the confetti went upward because I soaked it in liquid helium first. I’m not invited to press things anymore.

Crew size: The first year, we had about 50 or 60 people help us out. Then, last year, we hit a peak with 150. So this year, we reduced it to about 75 people.

How do you prepare in the days leading up to that crucial moment, 20 seconds before midnight? We meet the trucks loaded with confetti in Times Square on Dec. 29 when they arrive at 9 a.m. and immediately bring the boxes to the eight different buildings that confetti will be dispersed from. We’re done by noon and always have lunch at the deli in the Edison Hotel. Then on the Dec. 30, I pass out everyone’s credentials, and sometimes colored ponchos, so the police can easily identify us on the day of.

On Dec. 31, we get everybody together in one room and go over procedures and safety. I tell people, “This is bigger than any one of us in this room. But the reason it’s a tradition and the reason it’s spectacular is because of each and every one of you.” I also tell people that they’re the confetti police. If other people wander onto the setbacks and put something down on a ledge, we need to remove it, to protect our gig. And of course we’re not allowed to drink on the job.

At the Times Square Visitor’s Center, you can write out a wish on a piece of confetti. On Dec. 31, each piece is collected and mixed in with the rest to be dispersed over the crowd.

At the Times Square Visitor’s Center, you can write out a wish on a piece of confetti. On Dec. 31, each piece is collected and mixed in with the rest to be dispersed over the crowds.

Why not use confetti launchers, which would take less physical effort? My right-hand guy, who has done this with me all 22 years, makes confetti launchers and cannons. We know about all the technology; there’s just nothing that can match our volume with the same effect. We use 2” x 2” squares of paper confetti, a specialized kind for the event, which would clog machines.

Best part of your job: The most special year was 2000, when we did a countdown for each New Year’s around the world. We started at 6 a.m. on Dec. 31 and ended at 6 a.m. on Jan. 1.

Most challenging part of your job: In the event business, you’re only as good as your last event. So if the confetti doesn’t fall on Tuesday night, I won’t be here next year. [Laughs.] Maybe they’d give me one more shot.

Your plans for inclement weather: In the 22 years we’ve been doing this, we’ve never had snow. Knock on wood. Flurries and drizzle, maybe – but the confetti still happens. One year, the confetti was sticking to signs like decoupage; the next day, as it dried and unstuck, there were miniature confetti launches everywhere.

Not drinking before you disperse the confetti sounds responsible. But you must at least celebrate afterward. We all go to O’Lunney’s Irish pub, where the food and Guinness flows.

Do you get flak from environmentalists? I can’t imagine the cleanup crews the morning after are all too pleased, either. At a certain point, the guys down below ask us to stop because they want to start cleaning up the streets. Usually, by 3 a.m., they have it almost all cleaned. It’s amazing.

Have your expenses increased much over the years? People think we make a fortune on this, but we don’t. When we started, having $1 million in liability insurance was considered adequate; now, it’s $5 million, and will probably be $10 million soon. Having an elevator operator to get to the setbacks can cost $1,000, and having a room for the crew to wait in costs $900.

Even so, others in the events business must want in on the New Year’s Eve action. Several times over the years, people have tried to wrestle this away from us, because it’s such a high-profile event. The Times Square Alliance now has to bid it out, out of fairness,  even though we were the ones who started it. After us, I’m not sure the confetti effect will continue the way we do it – by hand, that is.

Dream job as a kid: I wanted to play in a band. But I was never good enough to get where I wanted to go. In music, you need a certain amount of talent to make it.

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>

  1. Practice like it’s a performance. Even if you’re a cashier working at McDonald’s, don’t think, “Oh, this doesn’t matter.” Be the best at every job you do; then, when an opportunity comes along that you really want, those same patterns will follow through.
  2. Don’t be afraid to do things for free in the event business. You need to pay your dues, show up on time and get to know people.
  3. Working at Disney taught me to dedicate yourself to professionalism. Have respect for what you’re doing. Professionalism is a dying art.

For other No Joe Schmos who are really into balloons, meet the Hot Air Balloon Pilot.

Photos courtesy of Treb Heining

The Running Concierge

When Heuisler tells fellow runners about his job, they typically respond with, "Are they hiring more?"

When Heuisler tells fellow runners about his job, they typically respond with, “Are they hiring more?”

Once a month – and more often during prime running months, like March, September, October and November – Chris Heuisler runs marathons across North America. For work.

Heuisler was hired as Westin Hotels’ first running concierge in August, beating out more than 1,000 applicants for the job. During marathons from Denver to Savannah to Montreal, he sits at a desk in the Westin lobby about 10 feet from the regular concierge desk, catering to the needs of some 50 to 75 guests who are there specifically to run. He sees those guests again on the trail – where he’s handing out extra earbuds, Band-Aids and sunglasses – and at the finish line, where he’s the recipient of plenty of sweaty hugs.

Hotels hiring specialty concierges to enhance the guest experience is a fairly new concept. In New Orleans, the Ritz-Carlton offers the services of a “recovery concierge” for guests after a rough night; at select Rosewood Hotels, a fragrance butler will bring various perfumes and colognes to your hotel room on a silver platter at any hour. But to Westin’s knowledge, no other hotels have a resident running concierge.

Age: 34
Graduated from: Penn State University, majored in public relations
Based in: Just outside of Boston
Previous jobs: I held some odd jobs in California, like bartending, figuring out what I wanted to do with my life. The one consistent theme in my life was running – it was my rock. So I worked as a personal trainer at Equinox for six years, in New York and then Boston, where I think is the mecca for running.

Years in the business: I’ve held this job since mid-August, but I’ve been running for 13 years.

How did you hear about the job? My wife saw it posted by a friend on her Facebook news feed. There were only five days left to apply, and I figured some celebrity would get the job – but then I made it to the top 10.

What was your toughest interview question? A senior VP at the company asked me how I would respond to a guest having a negative hotel experience. Up until then, I was just thinking about the running part of my job – not the concierge part. 

In a few sentences, what do you do all day? I travel to Westin hotels where races are taking place and answer runners’ questions about logistics, the start and finish lines, checkout and traveling. I’m also on the course during the race with a backpack, providing anything to the runners they may need.

And the rest of the time, when there’s not a race? I research. I reach out to running groups to learn more about runners and provide that insight to Westin. I feel like I’m in grad school for running – and am getting paid to do that research.

Heuisler capture a marriage proposal at the finish line during a recent half marathon in Los Angeles: 

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What’s in your backpack you keep on the course? Gloves, a First Aid kit, safety pins (for runners’ bibs), hair bands, earbuds, socks, cough drops, sunglasses, hats, gum, an inhaler, Tums, tissues, lots of gels and bottles of water. I’m at the start line and finish line, as well as throughout the course.

Pre-race routine: I always run the course the day after arriving in a new city, before the race. I trust the concierge who has eaten at the restaurant, versus the one who just looks at the food.

Best part of your job: The finish line experience. I’m one of the first at the finish line, so I get big, sweaty hugs and high fives. When guests I’ve only met once pass the finish line, their reactions to seeing me are equivalent to seeing a really good friend.

Most challenging part of your job: When I go away on the weekends, I really miss my two kids. But on the flip side, I get to work from home when I’m not traveling.

Heuisler said his best marathon time, 2:56, was his least favorite race: "I was so focused on the time goal, I lost the fun of running."

Heuisler said his best marathon time, 2:56, was his least favorite race: “I was so focused on the time goal, I lost the fun of running.”

What would people be surprised to learn about your job? When you see someone who runs the marathon in 5 ½ hours, he’s clearly running for something different. Every runner has a story; I never expected to cry this much when I took the job. There hasn’t been a single race where I don’t put on my sunglasses and take my tissues out.

Favorite running apps: I’m not a big fan of them in general. I think they detract from the experience. We’re so connected already, and running is our chance to detach. I really just use MapMyRun.com.

How many marathons have you run? 25. My older brother and I try to run one in every state; we’re trying to do one per year at this point. I’m running in Boston next year, which I think will go down as one of the most memorable marathons ever.

Dream job as a kid: A baseball player. But I specifically remember in fifth grade, when I changed schools, I gained cred when I beat the fastest kid in school at the 100-meter sprint. I didn’t run as much in high school – my asthma was bad – but then in college, I took it up for leisure. I ran my first marathon in my senior year of college, and that’s when I decided to get more serious.

Plus, I’m one of five kids, and my siblings are significantly better athletes, but I’m probably the best runner. So I had to find a way to stand out somehow.

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>

1. You have to know your audience – mine is runners, first and foremost. So if I weren’t a runner myself, I wouldn’t be qualified.

2. Be open to challenges. Many people get involved in team sports in school, but that goes away. Joining a community that embraces sports – like a kickball team – is an important part of being a professional, and it’s good way to network and relieve stress.

3. It’s important to always be reading a book that involves something you’re passionate about.

You can follow Chris on Twitter at @ChrisHeuisler and @Run_Westin. All photos courtesy of Westin Hotels.

NEXT UP: Meet the Quidditch Olympian

The Sign Language Interpreter

Lydia Callis signingLast October, Lydia Callis – who has been signing her entire life – found herself tongue-tied. As she stood beside Mayor Michael Bloomberg, her face – and hands – were broadcast onto millions of TV sets, breaking the news about utter destruction that was sweeping  Manhattan in the form of Hurricane Sandy. She racked her brain for a visual equivalent of the loose crane trembling at the Freedom Tower.

Callis, 30, grew up interpreting for her mother and three deaf siblings, and signing was her first language. After coming to terms with signing as her destiny, she founded an interpreting program, LC Interpreting Services, and now works as a freelance interpreter. But the hurricane made her realize she has an even greater purpose: to improve life for the deaf community in New York, where she says conditions leave much to be desired.

Age: 30
Graduated from: Phoenix College, majored in deaf studies; RIT’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf, Bachelors degree in interpreting. Rochester has the highest per capita number of deaf people in the United States.
Based in: New York, New York
Previous jobs: I was recruited to RIT after graduating from Phoenix College, so I moved there, where I earned my Bachelor’s degree and worked as a staff interpreter for six years.

Years in the business: I’ve been signing since I was a baby – sign language was my first language. I come from three generations of deaf family members; my parents, two sisters and brother, and two nieces are deaf.

What brought you to Manhattan? I worked, mentored, and moved up the ranks at RIT, so my checklist was done after six years. I needed new challenges, so I moved to New York and was very confident that, with my skill level and experience, I would find work.

And you did. Yes, I’m a freelance interpreter – that’s what most interpreters do. Staff positions aren’t really available in big cities like New York.

You’re arguably most recognized for your work with Mayor Bloomberg during Hurricane Sandy last October. He only has interpreters for immediate emergencies. He was kind enough to let me stand so close to him when the camera people wanted me out of the way; I told them that interpreters must stand close by or else the camera cuts you out.

What challenges did those conditions – a city of about 8 million people under extreme duress – pose for you? I didn’t get briefings as to what was going on, so I quickly had to think about different types of signs I could use to portray things Bloomberg was saying — and there aren’t signs for everything.

The emotional aspect was also tough. After the hurricane hit, I was by Bloomberg’s side for almost 48 hours; I barely slept. Then I had to tell people about homes lost and lives lost. I have a tough skin, but it’s not the toughest in the world.

Did you always know this was your calling? You might say it’s my destiny, given my background, but I was originally going to school for interior design. After being away from my family for almost two years and realizing I forgot some signs – if you don’t use it, you lose it – I changed my major. I hold communicating with my family very close to my heart.

Best part of your job: Interpreting people who are really making a difference in society as a whole for the deaf community.

Most challenging part of your job: Sometimes you’re in situations where you’re telling someone they’re dying or have a disease or they’re being hired. That’s part of the job. But then there are great times – you’re interpreting for people getting married or having a baby.

You’ve always wanted to interpret for: Someone winning the lottery.

What are you working on now? I’d like to be more involved with educating and advocating. I was my mom’s interpreter 20 years ago, and I watched her go through a lot – I don’t want to see my nieces go through the same oppression and face the same inequalities. I started a cultural sensitivity program where I’m reaching out to big companies in New York City about making communication easier with deaf employees.  For example, offices should have video phones and provide interpreters and captioning for videos.

How are new signs formalized or matriculated into the mainstream? New York Times  article chronicled that well. [The article discusses crowdsourcing projects at various universities that help to standardize signs for commonly used terms in fields like STEM.]

Lydia Callis signingDo signs differ depending on dialect – say, between New York and Texas? Yes; sign language is not universal. It depends on your area and accents. In Texas, for example, signing is more slow-paced than in New York City. A government official in the south would probably have a different way of speaking, and I would mimic that. How people talk and act – the rate and pace of their speech – comes through one’s signs, body language and facial expression.

What would people be surprised to learn about your job? When hearing people meet deaf people, it’s often “deer in the headlights” syndrome. They don’t know what to do. There are so many different ways to communicate if you can’t sign – you can type on your cell phone and show them or write something out with pen and paper.

People also don’t realize sign language isn’t just signing. It’s also gestures, facial expressions and body language. So during Hurricane Sandy, I was really just doing my job. There are deaf immigrants here who first language is not sign language, and there were people hard of hearing who only read lips. So I had to tailor my interpreting based on the audience.

Favorite apps: Skype, which is how I communicate with my family – and Pandora, because it lets me listen to music everywhere.

Your required reading: Meditation and journaling. Sometimes in my job, I want to break out in tears – but I can’t. So I write about it. Also, I like meditation because I live in New York City.

What’s at the top of your bucket list? I’d like to become legally certified to interpret in a court. A lot of deaf people are being undermined in the court system, and there are only a handful of certified legal interpreters.

If you could star as a translator in any TV show, it would be: Switched at Birth.

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>

  1. Take a sign language class and see how well you pick it up. Then, go out and socialize with deaf people and see whether you enjoy the culture.
  2. Observe a sign language interpreter and see what it’s like.
  3. If you’re still set on this career path after steps one and two, sign up for an ITP (interpreter training program).

You can follow Lydia on her blog, SignLanguageNYC.com, on Facebook and on Twitter.

Photos: Courtesy of Lydia Callis