Amy Rickords stands near the southbound light-rail station at 16th and California holding two five-and-a-half-inch nails in her hand. "Wanna see a trick?" she asks passersby. Most pedestrians either ignore her or mutter "No" and continue on their way. But for those who stop, Amy will push the nails into her nasal cavities until just the heads stick out.
It is the blockhead trick, a favorite of circus sideshows everywhere. The nail is inserted into the nose and is pushed straight in above the soft palate until it touches the back of the throat. Push the nail in too far, and you risk puncturing the back of your throat and coughing up blood for a few days. It helps to file the nail heads down a bit, to keep any barbs of metal from cutting up the tissue inside your head. "Mostly women will say things like 'Don't hurt yourself! Don't do it! Here's a buck, stop!'" Amy says. "But it really doesn't hurt."
The 23-year-old learned the trick from her friend, Skip Njord, last summer. She suffers fewer bloody noses than he does, but Skip uses a hammer to drive his nails home. "I can get three in one nostril on a good day," he brags. "I think the record is a guy putting thirteen or fourteen framing nails in one nostril."
Amy has known Skip for years, hanging out together on the Pearl Street Mall whenever Skip was back home in Boulder after one of his many jaunts around the country. "I'd get him to buy liquor for me and my little friends," Amy remembers. "Sometimes he'd even drink with us. Just a bunch of kids hanging out on Pearl Street."
Skip has been a traveling kid for thirteen years -- ever since he was sixteen years old and living in Boulder with his dad. He has trekked up and down the West Coast, from Seattle to Baja, sometimes with a group of people, sometimes just by himself. He's squatted in abandoned buildings, camped out on the beach and slept in cars. Sometimes he'll hitchhike or sneak on to a freight train. "It's kinda cool, because a lot of the kids I've met on the road over the years -- I'll always bump into these people, 'cause they're just passing through on their way somewhere else," he says.
But Skip wasn't running away from home. His father just never kept him on a tight leash. "I'd be like, 'Hey, Dad, I'm gonna take off to Wyoming for the weekend -- I'll see you Monday,'" he says. "And he was like, 'Okay have fun. Stay out of trouble.'"
Six years ago, Skip was living in the toolshed of a commune in Santa Rosa, California, when he met the Circus Discordia, a group of traveling street performers who were passing through and flopping in the yard at night. "We'd be running around, and there'd be guys in the backyard juggling bowling pins and doing all sorts of weird shit. One dude would be in the corner breathing fire and stuff. Just from talking with them and getting drunk with them and stuff, they were like, 'Hey man, here's how you hammer a nail in your face.'"
He didn't think much about the experience until years later, when he landed in Portland, broke. Suddenly it dawned on him that he might have a money-making skill -- and he found the perfect environment to try out his blockhead trick: a Saturday street market. There were clowns, guitarists, hippie girls painting faces -- and Skip pounding nails. Soon he was making $100 a day hanging out on the waterfront. "I wasn't, you know, panhandling; I was performing a show," Skip says. "I'm entertaining people for spare change. And it fucking worked."
By the summer of 2000, he'd made his way back to Boulder, back to the mall. Amy had an excellent hookup for acid -- often making $500 off a 3cc vial of liquid -- and asked Skip to help her unload the stuff quickly after she bought too much from her dealer. "We made a buttload of money. We were like, 'Man, we make a good team selling drugs,'" Skip says. And from then on, the two were a unit, Skip and Amy, rarely apart.
But things took a turn for the worse later that summer, when Amy gave a kid his first hit of acid and drove him up to the mountains. The kid's trip went bad, and he freaked out. Claiming Amy was trying to kill him, he stood in the middle of he freeway, stopping cars, trying to get away from her. "If I hadn't been so high myself, I would have left him there," Amy says. "Someone would have found him and took him to the hospital."
Instead, the cops found them. "The first thing he said was, 'Help me! I'm having a bad acid trip, and she gave it to me!'" Amy remembers. "There wasn't a whole lot I could do." She spent the night in jail and was sentenced to two years' probation for the incident.
Despite the setback, Skip and Amy continued their lucrative acid business until their dealer left, and last summer, they made the move to Denver. Skip had picked up a little heroin habit while on the road, and he needed to be closer to his supply, since there's not much smack in the Boulder drug scene. Naturally, they traded in Pearl Street for the 16th Street Mall, hustling money from office workers and tourists.
But Skip's blockhead trick didn't do as well for him down here. They often had to sleep outside in the empty lot behind Coors Field, where they had some blankets stashed. Figuring two would be more lucrative than one, Amy asked Skip to show her how to do the trick. "At first I couldn't do it," Amy says. "I couldn't get the nail in the right spot. Then one day it just slipped in there, and I was able to find it every time."
Her talent developed quickly, and soon she was pulling in more cash than Skip. "I guess people like it better when a girl does it," she says.
Sometimes they'd work at opposite ends of the mall, but mostly Skip would watch as Amy did her performance by the Pavilions. "We were making easily thirty bucks an hour -- all day and all night," Amy says.
But they spent their money as fast as they made it, and Amy picked up Skip's taste for heroin. "We used to take all that money and stick it in our arms," Skip says.
By the fall, the two of them were fixtures on the mall, and their initially rocky relationship with the police -- they ticketed Skip for aggressive panhandling after one of his performances -- started to warm up. Outside Walgreen's one night, Amy asked people if they wanted to see her do a trick. Someone misunderstood the word "trick," and a cop rolled up and told her he'd gotten a report that she was prostituting. Amy pulled out her nails, and that's when the cop recognized her, saying, "Oh, you're the nail girl. Go ahead, everything's cool."
Things weren't so cool with her probation officer. She'd already violated her probation and had it extended a year. She was given a choice: rehab or jail. So last October, Amy went to the Arapahoe House detox facility. The first week was a blur of splitting headaches, diarrhea, cold sweats and vomiting. By day three, she was finally able to eat something. Her aunt visited her and slipped her some OxyContin to help ease the withdrawal. Once her system was flushed, she moved to the residential facility, where her days were filled with therapy, group sessions and filling out lots and lots of worksheets.
Amy got out of Arapahoe House after nineteen days and spent her first night out at her mother's house in Broomfield. The next day she met up with Skip, and they immediately went out and got high. "I was strung out just as bad," Amy says. "It took like two days to get right back where I was before I stopped."
By then, the cold weather had cleared out much of the pedestrian traffic on the mall, and Skip's tips had gotten much smaller. The blockhead was no longer a booming business, and Skip had had enough of life on the road and on the streets; he wanted to settle down, have a wife and a family.
While Amy was in detox, he'd reconnected with Shannon O'Neill, whom he's known for eleven years (he met her on the streets when she was fourteen), and she took him in to the Section 8 apartment she shares with her three-year-old daughter, Colleen.
The two made plans to get married this summer. Shannon insisted the dope had to go -- "Can't be shooting heroin and take care of a baby," she says -- so in February, Skip enrolled in a methadone program.
"It's cheaper than heroin," he says. "It keeps my mood a lot more stable than heroin. It's cleaner than heroin. It just doesn't get you high."
Skip still occasionally goes out with his pail and hammer to perform the nail trick, but he doesn't stay out all day doing it. He doesn't make as much money, but he also doesn't need as much money -- just enough to get some extra food and milk for his family.
Shannon hugs Skip, then giggles, "I'm marrying the best freak show in town."
Amy is still out on the mall doing the blockhead trick, only she's doing it by herself. "That was my best friend, and I really miss him," she says. "But I'm really happy for him. He's getting what he always wanted. He always told me how he wanted a wife and kids and the whole family deal. He's finally off dope, so I'm really happy for him. But at the same time, I'm out here by myself."
And the money is leaner than it was last summer. "You'll accumulate a large crowd of people, and they're all watching and it's really cool, and they all clap at the end like they really liked it. And then you'll start to ask them if they can spare any change, and they all leave. Not one dime. They don't even look at you."
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Amy hasn't been in contact with her probation officer since she left Arapahoe House, and while she hasn't gotten any letters from the officer, she's sure she's in trouble. She is trying to get clean and get off the street. She signed up for the city's new Starting Transitions and Recovery program, which will provide her with free methadone and free housing. She hopes it will iron out her probation problems, but STAR keeps moving back her start date.
"Sometimes I really enjoy myself. I'll think, I'm so happy that I can be outside all day and I don't have to sit at a desk or a cubicle or make anybody's hamburger, and I think what a great job this is. I don't even have to pay taxes...
"And then on other days, it'll be like, God, everybody is treating me like I'm here to be spit upon, and sometimes it's just awful, and I think I should just go home and kill myself rather than be out here putting nails in my face for spare change."