One Less Cowboy

Last week, my friend Geoffrey was hired as “atmosphere” in a Western movie shooting in the high desert of southern California. I can’t tell you which production it is because Geoffrey (not his real name) signed a confidentiality agreement. Suffice it to say, though, that there’s a lot of buzz on the Internet about this particular movie.

Geoffrey is a character extraordinaire. He’s over 70 years old and has a great handlebar mustache that gives him more than a dash of character. You can’t invent that kind of character, and for that reason, the production company really wanted Geoffrey for that part.

“Don’t shave that mustache,” the casting agent said.

“I won’t.”

“Because we need that mustache.”

“All right, then.”

Geoffrey arrived on the set on Monday at 6 am, right on time. They were shooting in a set that looked like a town in the Old West, complete with a saloon, a sheriff’s office, and church. As with any shoot, there was a lot of sitting and waiting, but in this case, Geoffrey was sitting and waiting in the heat and the dust. It was supposed to be glamorous, but this, he began to realize, wasn’t glamorous in the least. He worked for 6 in the morning until 10 at night. There were dustclouds kicking up all the time. There was nothing to breathe but dust. There was no air conditioning and he was sweating profusely.

By the second day, Geoffrey was getting sick of it. He had to get up at 4 am and he was getting paid only 19 bucks an hour. In fact, they had tried to cheat him out of that rate at the beginning, promising 19, but then, when he showed up on set, trying to halve the rate to $8.50.

“I’m SAG,” Geoffrey said. “I don’t work for $8.50.”

“Well, that’s what we’re offering.”

“After I’ve driven all this way?”

“Yep. Sorry.”

Geoffrey stood up.

“Okay, then I’m walking,” he said.

The production assistant stood up in alarm.

“You can’t walk,” he said.

“You just watch me.”

And with that, he got up and started walking away.

“Hey, we have a contract!”

“Are you watching?” Geoffrey said as he continued walking.

The production assistant suddenly switched tactics, and Geoffrey ended up getting the wage he had been promised. However, the dispute didn’t bode well for the production as a whole.

On Tuesday, they were filming a shootout between two groups of cowboys in the middle of the street. Once the shooting started, the 80 extras and atmosphere were supposed to run for cover. They told Geoffrey to run to the bank and hide behind a watering trough.

Geoffrey was hot and tired, though. He didn’t have a lot of patience. After a couple of takes, Geoffrey ran over to the Sheriff’s Office and looked inside. What he saw brought a broad smile to his face. There was a jail cell. And inside the cell was something that spoke to his very soul: a bed.

Geoffrey looked over at the other extras, who were walking back towards their original starting positions. That was where he was supposed to go. Then he looked over at the bed. Then he looked over at the original starting position. Then at the bed.

It was not a difficult choice. He walked into the jail cell, laid down, and went to sleep. They didn’t miss him. There weren’t any production assistants saying, “Does that look like 79 guys to you? I think we’re missing someone….” No, it was just one fewer cowboy to worry about.

I Came from Somewhere

My grandmother Paula Cruz was from another time and place. Born in 1908 in Leon, Mexico, she emigrated to the States in 1915 with her family to flee a bloody battle that was brewing in the area, and which eventually wiped out most of the population, thanks to the Mexican Revolution. At age 12, she was living in sleepy Azusa, California, according to the 1920 Census.

Through the years, my grandmother had to fight many things—poverty, a violent husband, the pervasive racism of the times, her own low self-esteem. Among the most revealing fight, though, was the one she waged against the Department of Motor Vehicles.

My grandmother Paula (R) with her sister Helen in 1929, when she was still single.

My grandmother Paula (R) with her sister Helen in 1929, when she was still single.

You see, Nana (we pronounced it Naw-naw) could only barely read and write. Her father had died when she was in third grade, so she and her other 12 siblings were quickly pulled out of school and put to work picking fruit in the fields. Another strike against her was her dyslexia, which in those days went by another name: stupidity.

Paula and Jesus wedding photo 1a smaller

As an adult, Nana got a job working at the Wilson meat-packing plant in Vernon. I visited her once when I was four. It was an ugly old factory on a nondescript industrial street south of downtown. If you’ve never driven down those streets, you don’t know how ugly an industrial section can be, because it’s still that way. Last year, I got stuck in a freeway traffic jam, exited below downtown, and had to drive through that hell.

Paula is second from the right.

Paula is second from the right.

Paula Martin with coworkers at the meat packing plant

As a 4-year-old, I remember visiting her at Wilson. I remember being lifted up onto the receiving dock and walking in. Inside the factory, it was dank and reeked of freshly cut meat. In a room with only high windows, I saw a row of workers, my grandmother among them, rolling sausages with her bare hands. She seemed happy to see me, and gave my tiny face a kiss, then went back to the sausages. It was the job she did for 40 years.

My grandmother and I were very different. Take the war.  In 1957, Nana’s third husband died and her war against the DMV began. Suddenly, she had nobody to drive her places and had to obtain her own driver’s license. The written tests were difficult for her from the start. She had to sound out the words phonetically, like a first grader. As the years went by, the tests became increasingly difficult. I don’t blame the DMV. It’s good to have drivers who can read and understand what they’re doing. But it was hell for my grandmother.

Paula and her third husband Leonard.

Paula and her third husband Leonard.

My mother would drill my grandmother on practice tests. She enlisted the help of relatives, asking them to save their written driver’s tests so she could coach my grandmother from them. Nana would sit at the dining-room table and try to read the questions, sounding out each word. Every so often, my mother would help her or correct her. Once the question was read aloud, my mother would reason out the answer with Nana.

We were always worried that she wouldn’t pass, that she would lose her driver’s license and be homebound. My mother would drive her to the test and sit nearby, waiting for her. It wasn’t a quick visit. Nana took a long, long time with those tests, sounding out each question and then trying to “think it good,” as she put it. Miraculously, she always passed. To be sure, she earned those passing grades.

Interestingly, Nana took great joy in her cars. In the 1960s, she started buying Camaros, which were a big deal in those days. There was a yellow one, followed a few years later by a green one, followed a few years later by a red one. Nana would drive around town in that hopped-up car and feel young again. We all called her the “hot-rod Nana.”  Later, my mother bought a Camaro, too. It was kind of the family car.

In her eighties, it was in one of those Camaros that Nana got into a serious car accident. She was turning left against oncoming traffic and was hit broadside. It was clearly her fault. I was called to her bedside, because, my mother said, she might not make it this time. She had some broken ribs and internal damage.

She was lucky though.  She healed up.  We all debated whether we should take away her keys. Her eyes and her reaction time were getting worse. But we were also worried about taking away her independence. We worried that without her independence, she might just wither away and die.

“You have to be more careful when you drive,” my mother told her.

“I will.”

“You’re getting older.”

“I know.”

“Do you promise?”

“Yes, of course.”

So we never took away her keys, and neither did the DMV. She drove until two years before the end, increasingly cautious.

My Nana was a throwback to a harsher, more complex time. It was never simple. Without the ability to read or write fluently, much was denied to her. The DMV was a house of horrors. Ingredients lists on canned foods were of no use to her. Electronics were impenetrable and users’ manuals were no help at all. Many movies were puzzles ready to be misinterpreted.

Once, I tried to tell her how she was mispronouncing a particular word.

“It’s spoon,” I said. “Say it. Spoon.”

“Spoom.”

“No, spoon.”

“Spoom.”

“No, there’s an n at the end. Like in Nancy. Spoon-nah.”

“Spoom.”

At my first performance at the Magic Castle, Nana sat in the front row. It was a highbrow show, and my grandmother, who never finished the third grade, misinterpreted one of my jokes. In the middle of the show, I saw her urgently shaking her head and shushing me, thinking that the joke was a humiliation for me in some way, or a vulgarity that she thought I might go to hell for, or something, I don’t really know. It wasn’t.

In many ways, I was like the DMV to her, estranged because of my education and difference. She grew up in poverty and violence. I grew up in middle-class comfort. By the sixth grade, I had already had twice the education that she ever had, and the estrangement worsened. By high school, I was the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, and reading my published articles would have been an ordeal, so she didn’t. By my twenties, I was publishing articles in Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar, and Mademoiselle, and we lived in different worlds. I flew in to New York City twice a year to receive assignments from my editors, and was living in a whole different world. Later, I was appearing alone on stages at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center, and on television, as well.

When Nana died at age 90 and three months, I was sad, of course. But in some ways, it was also like an ancestor dying in 1722. At the same time, though, it was like my own mother dying. She had babysat me as a child, rocked me in her arms, stroked my face, kissed my forehead. My most vivid memory of her is of my lips touching her wrinkled cheek. I can smell her makeup even now. I can feel those wrinkles on my lips.  At family dinners, she would sometimes stand in front of the stove and make corn tortillas by hand. She would wink at me and smile. With her very presence, she reminded me that I wasn’t just a television kid with no past, but that I came from somewhere.

Paula 11a

Paula (R), making tortillas, with her daughter Sally.

Paula (R), making tortillas, with her daughter Sally.

Paula holding the author's hand.

Paula holding the author’s hand.

Happy, Happy, Happy, Happy

In high school, Lily was a cute, bubbly girl. I knew her from the born-again Christian youth group to which we both belonged, called Young Life. Kids in Young Life were their own clique of “good kids.” They met monthly in kids’ homes, sang songs together, went on campouts together, and generally tried to channel the energy and humor of youth into something that didn’t involve substance abuse, depression, and lawbreaking, but instead, involved God and Jesus.

http://www.younglife.org/About/Pages/History.aspx

We grew up in Orange County, California. There was a lot of wholesome whooping it up. There was a lot of guitar playing and sing-alongs. There were a lot of Praise the Lords.

“Happy! Happy! Happy! Happy! Happy is the people whose God is the Lo-or-o-ord!” went one of our favorite songs. We would clap together while singing it. It was a bright and perky song, and it was great fun to sing.

Lily was the cutest of the bunch, I always thought. A few times, I got the look. You know the one, the one that says, Maybe I like you. But nothing ever happened between us because, in my mind, she wasn’t good enough for me. Through the years, it turned out that nobody was ever good enough for me. But hey, that’s a whole other story.

After high school, my born-againism faded. There was so much that born-againism prohibited me from experiencing. For one thing, sex. For another, poets like Dylan and Plath and, on the music side, Beck.  For still another, thinking for myself. For still still another, doubt.

Happy, happy, happy, happy, now that’s an interesting subject. Within ten years of leaving born-againism, I was much happier. To be specific, I was happier using my own logic to decide whether something was wrong or not, like abortion, or watching violent movies, or whether all indigenous people should be converted to Christianity. I was happier sleeping in on Sunday mornings. I was happier reading pagan literature in bed.

Decades passed. You can live several lives in that amount of time, and I certainly did. I was first a journalist, then a New Yorker, then an uncle, then a famous magician, then “a guy who never married.” I had so many different identities. I was political. I was an exercise fiend. I was a guy who had been with his girlfriend for 14 years and had never married her. I was a world traveler who published accounts of his journeys in the New York Daily News: http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/travel/palau-splendid-view-pacific-paradise-article-1.290314

Then Facebook comes along. This weird free network puts you in touch with people you haven’t thought of in years. And one day, we all “friend” Lily. I was so happy to see her smiling face, which still lit up any room she was in. I started having chats with her, and discovered that she still lived in the area. One day, I called her.

“We should get together for coffee,” I said. “Catch up.”

“Sure,” she said.

And then she popped the question.

“How are you with the Lord?”

Ugh God, she wasn’t still into that, was she?

“I’m not,” I said.

“Oh, I’m sorry, what happened?”

“Jeez, it’s a long story. I’ll tell you when we get together, if you like.”

I wasn’t interested in being converted, that was for sure. But if all she wanted to do was hear the story, I could do that.

In the end, we never got together. In June, I read on Facebook that Lily was dead. I was stunned. She was far too young. I scrolled through her Facebook page, but nobody was being specific about what had transpired. She died around March 1, but her friends didn’t seem to have been invited to the funeral, if there even was one. A memorial had been promised, but that had fizzled out, too.

There were so many mysteries. To me, it seemed to reek of bad family. I mean, what kind of family wouldn’t invite friends to a funeral? There are so many ways for families to be dysfunctional.

Last night, I went to Lily’s wake. It was held five months after she passed, at a sports bar in Newport Beach.

http://www.clubplanet.com/Venues/124022/Costa-Mesa/Skosh-Monahans

It seemed like a weird place to celebrate someone’s life, more like an Irish wake, with the dark lighting and all the alcohol flowing. The young waitresses wore tight black shorts and skimpy black tops and had lots of weird tattoos and sneered. For the wake, there were lots of middle-aged women, all chatting, laughing, and raising a glass to Lily.

“How did you know Lily?” one of them asked me.

“I knew her in high school,” I said.

“Did you know her as an adult?”

“I hadn’t seen her since high school, but in the last year, we were planning on getting together. It never happened, though.”

“That’s sad.”

I listened hard, trying to figure out how Lily died. It was weird. I wondered if she had died of something that some consider shameful, like AIDS. For example, one of my friends has rectal cancer but finds it embarrassing to talk about, so he just leaves it at “cancer.” But you have to die of something, and nobody was talking about what the cause was in Lily’s case. Finally, I leaned over and asked a woman named April in hushed tones.

“So how did she die? Cancer?”

April locked onto my eyes. She pursed her lips and shook her head no. She became very quiet. I leaned in even closer. I waited expectantly, but she didn’t answer, she just started telling the story.

On a convention trip, April had roomed with Lily. Watching her day in and day out for several days, she quickly realized.

Realized what?

April recounted the conversation she had with Lily that brought it all to a head.

“Lily, you’re going to kill yourself if you keep drinking and doing pills the way you are. I’ve seen this so many times,” April said.

Turns out that April has worked for years as a substance-abuse counselor at a local hospital.

“You’ve got to promise me,” April said, “that you’re going to stop tonight.”

“Okay, okay, I know it’s bad for me, I promise I’ll stop,” Lily said. At this point, Lily was in tears.

April called Lily the next morning.

“Hllo?” Lily said.

And April lost it, because she could hear the pills in Lily’s voice. This wasn’t just a patient, this was her best friend.

“You promised me!” April said.

“I know,” Lily said, “but I had insomnia last night, I had restless legs.”

And that’s how it was every time Lily made a promise to April.

Throughout the evening, I heard other stories from other people.

From a blonde with a determined mouth: “Lily loved my husband. He was her knight in shining armor. We would go on those conventions, and we would go down to the Jacuzzi and she would drink, and it would get to the point where she couldn’t drag herself out of the Jacuzzi. And my husband would always pull her out and help her back to her room. And she was always so thankful, it was, like, ‘Henry, you’re my knight in shining armor.’”

From a woman with long grey hair who was sitting at what seemed to be the alcoholics’ table: “Yeah, I met her here, at this bar, when I moved down the street seven years ago. She met us here every Tuesday for seven years.”

From a brunette: “Oh man, she could do great Blow Jobs—you know, the kind of shot drink where you can’t use your hands? She was the best at Blow Jobs.”

Happy, happy, happy, happy.

You can see a video of anonymous stupid girls doing Blow Jobs at 7:50 here:

April told me about another conversation she had with Lily just a few months before she died. April and her grown daughter were at a party that Lily was at. April’s daughter, who had known Lily since she was ten, was bartending, and her daughter came up to her.

“Mom, I think Lily is dying,” the daughter said. “She looks so bad, with her eyes sunken in and everything and her skin translucent.”

So they walked up to Lily and April’s daughter says: “Lily, you look terrible. What’s wrong with you? I think you’re dying.”

Lily immediately burst into tears.

“I know something’s wrong with me,” Lily said, “but I don’t have the money to see a doctor.”

It was a strange thing to say, because she was working for AAA at the time.  I can’t believe that a full-time employee at AAA doesn’t have medical insurance.

“I work for a doctor,” the daughter said, “and I know I can get him to see you for free.”

But Lily turned down all offers.

“I don’t want to do that,” she said, “I just don’t want to do that.”

Remembering back to high school, I recalled that Lily had had scoliosis and had to have a rod surgically implanted in her back. Perhaps the painkillers were originally prescribed to treat that. Perhaps she still had lots of pain.  Perhaps the alcohol was another form of medication.

Suddenly in April, people were notified that Lily had been admitted to the hospital. April came to see her, and when she entered the room, she saw a woman who was a shell of her former self lying in the bed. Lily’s hands and feet were in restraints so that she couldn’t leave the bed and look for alcohol. Worst of all, Lily had incredibly sad eyes. Almost immediately, though, April was approached by a friend named Samantha and told to leave. April was escorted out with the help of several nurses while Lily kicked against her restraints, perhaps to object wordlessly to ejecting her best friend from the room.

“Samantha is sitting right over there,” April said, pointing at a steely blonde sitting at the alcoholics’ table. “When I leave, I’m going to give her a piece of my mind. She had no right to turn away all these people who loved Lily. They stole our goodbyes from us.”

The hospital visit was on a Tuesday. By Saturday, Lily was dead. Her friends never did give a name to Lily’s cause of death, but it was clear by the description. It was cirrhosis. It was liver failure. Or, as one family member kept telling people, “liver cancer.” In essence, it was like a cancer, relentlessly eating away at Lily.

I told April about my phone conversation with her about “the Lord,” and April was shocked.

“I never ever ever heard her talk about ‘the Lord,’” April said. “You mean she was a born-again Christian?”

“Yeah, we all were.”

“And she implied to you that she was still one?”

“Yeah, basically.”

“My God, that’s so hypocritical what she said to you. It makes me mad.”

Everything had been turned around, and I told them about it.

“You know, when I came here tonight, I thought I was going to a memorial for a woman who might have died a virgin,” I said. “I mean, I heard she’d never married and never had children, so maybe she just followed that born-again stuff to its logical extreme.  And she even told one of her high school friends that she was a virgin.”

But April just shook her head solemnly, an ironic twinkle in her eye.

“No, trust me, she wasn’t a virgin.”

It was in that moment that I realized what had bothered me about that song Happy all these years. It was the enforced happiness. It was the denial of any other feelings except happiness, with an emphasis on denial.

When she left, April passed by the alcoholics’ table and had a brief conversation with Samantha, who looked like a hard woman with no illusions and no pity. Since I knew the confrontation was coming, I’d had time to reposition myself so I could hear it.

“We were all wondering why none of Lily’s friends were allowed to see her in her last days in the hospital,” April said calmly.

“Well, it was Lily’s wishes,” Sam said sadly.

“Well you know, all of her friends think it was you.”

“What?”

“They think it was you who blocked all of us from seeing her.”

“Well, I don’t give a shit.”

Sam began to get visibly hot under the collar.

“And you know, I think it was you, too.”

“Well,” Sam said, her voice rising, “I. Don’t. Give. A shit.”

That’s when April walked away. At that point, Sam turned back to her alcoholic friends, clearly pissed. She took a few sips from her red wine, trying to calm down. Finally, she emptied the glass in a single gulp.

“What?” one of the friends said. “What’s wrong?”

“You see that woman April?” Sam said, pointing at her as she walked out the exit.

“Yeah.”

“Well, they told me she was a troublemaker.”

“That woman over there?”

“Yeah, what a bitch.”

Strangely enough, I believe Sam. It would be just like Lily to block her friends. She didn’t want her friends to see her die from an excess of Blow Jobs. It would have been humiliating. She wanted to just disappear. And that’s kind of what she did.

A Rose for Doug Slater

Ten years ago, I learned how to twist a napkin rose. I thought it was a pretty neat trick. You take a cocktail napkin and twist it into something that looks like a rose. To boot, I bought some napkins that were specially printed, three-quarters green and one-quarter red, to make it easier.
I told my magician friend Doug Slater about it, and he smiled. He had been there before me. He took out a couple napkins and showed me the real work on it.

Doug didn’t cheat by using a preprinted napkin; instead, he used two napkins, one red and one green. Unlike me, he knew all the little touches and twists. He cared about every little part of the process.

As Doug showed me his work on the napkin rose, I realized that when he put his mind to it, he could master a subject not just thoroughly and completely, like the engineer that he was, but with a measure of love. In fact, he and his friend Elroy videotaped an instructional videotape on the subject that, for technical reasons, never made it to market.
IMG_6627 smaller bigger
Doug, I never mastered the napkin rose as you did. But now that you’re gone, I offer this napkin rose to you. It’s not as good as you could have made, but it’s the best I could muster with my limited skills. Rest in peace, my friend.

The Train That Is Coming and Will Plough Through You

Now, years later, I remember my seventh summer as an unblemished stretch of pure happiness. I believe this not to be some kind of wishful idealization by a foggy-headed adult, but an accurate memory. The reason is that I remember saying that very thing to myself at the time.

I wish this summer would never end.

David Groves around 1962 age 7 smaller

That summer had everything. Unbelievably blue Los Angeles skies. A backyard with a tree. A wiffle ball, a bat, and two best friends, Scott and Gary, to play wiffle ball with every single day.

A sidewalk to run fast down, because running fast made me happy. I remember saying that very thing to myself at the time.

I will always love running.

I was a pitcher on my Little League baseball team, the Beavers. I felt like a king whenever I stood on that pitcher’s mound and commanded the game. I was the cleanup batter, too, and I hit the ball out of the park once, which was a big deal at age 7. Afterwards, we all ate our fill of pepperoni and sausage pizza at Shakey’s and horsed around. The pizza chef liked us and told us his name was Peter Rabbit Cottontail Sunshine Snowball. We all laughed. My teammates and I were all the best of friends.

I will always love cartoons, I would also say to myself.

In time, the subject of movies came up, but I didn’t even want to try them out. I wanted to hang onto that totem of childhood, cartoons. I shunned other adult totems, too, such as coffee, smoking, adult foods such as green olives, and adult words such as accommodation and Plantagenet.

Of course, change is the train that is coming and will one day plough through you. Eventually, a hair sprouted on my chest. Another boy spotted it at the local pool and razzed me for it. I was appalled. It was a distressing development that threatened to end my summers of bliss. I plucked it out. Another soon appeared, and I pulled out that one, too. But you can’t fight forever against the encroachment of that particular forest, so eventually, I gave up fighting altogether on that front.

David Groves age 8

But there were so many other fronts. When I was 11, my parents wanted to tell me about the birds and the bees. They found it awkward to talk about in the first place, but I made it even tougher on them. One day, my mother walked tentatively into my bedroom with a book called For Boys Only, saying that it would tell me everything I needed to know, if I wanted to.

“I don’t want it,” I said, turning away.

My mother as a housewife in the 1960s, when she was working on her BA

My mother as a housewife in the 1960s.

“You’re starting to go through adolescence,” she said, “and you’re going to need to know about this.”

“I don’t care.”

“I’ll just leave it in your bookshelf,” she said, and walked out of the room.

Over the next couple years, that book was an abomination in my otherwise lovely room. It was offered to me out of love, but on principle, I never touched it. It seemed as if my mother had said something horrible to me.

I’m going to kick you out of paradise.

Paul Simon writes about this transition in his song, “Once Upon a Time There Was an Ocean”:

Once upon a time there was an ocean.
But now it’s a mountain range.
Something unstoppable set into motion.
Nothing is different, but everything’s changed.

I hesitate to call what happened to me adolescence, or even that uglier word, puberty. In fact, it was an immense tragedy and the world should mark the year with wailing and sackcloth and memorials for the dead. Everything that followed it was more complicated. Suddenly, I stank when I sweated. Girls could wrap me around their little fingers just by wearing a short skirt. I had to choose my own future, which was terribly complicated.
And when I tried out for the high school freshman baseball team, I didn’t even make the cut. All my dreams came crashing down like a Lego skyscraper. Somewhere along the way, I had lost my grace.

What was so wonderful about my childhood isn’t hard to pin down. I had an overprotective mother whose heart was as big as a Barbra Streisand song. Years later, she told me her attitude towards motherhood.

Sally Groves with her new baby

I wished I could just put you inside a big bubble and protect you from the big, bad world.

I was happy to live in that bubble, but it was bound to burst. I came home from kindergarten one day with amazing news.

Did you know, they invented this great thing! I told my mother excitedly. It’s called candy!

019 (2)

My mother had never given me candy, wanting to protect me from cavities and misbehavior.

My father played a big part in my happy childhood, too. I remember him standing a couple steps up from the rest of us, resting his elbows on the railing and watching the family he loved. The phrase that best described him was without guile. To this day, I measure every person I meet against him. Most don’t measure up.

Combo David and Donald shot closer

Perhaps my allegiance to childhood arose in part because I’m constitutionally resistant to change. It is an unfortunate character trait. I tend to hang onto things like a bulldog, including places of residence, business cards, to-do lists, anger, old books, and outdated life goals. I sometimes hold onto them until they’re rotted and unrecognizable, and yet still I hang onto them. I remember with great fondness what they once were.

Like clothes. I recently discovered five pairs of Levis that I wore in my twenties. I pulled them out of storage and held them up to examine. They were beautiful, faded and blue. When I gained a few pounds, I put them away and swore I’d fit into them again. I’d work out like crazy. I’d diet. I’d do what it took. I would not throw those Levis out. Years later, I continue to work out daily on my bike, pushing myself mightily up huge hills for an hour or more, rivulets of sweat coursing down my brow and down my nose, never laying back and coasting, but pushing my thighs and glutes to 110%, because, I tell myself, 110% is where it’s at, baby, 110% is a locked door that you throw yourself against and nobody ever thinks about busting through because, goddammit, it’s locked, but hey, I bust through that door, I bust through like a warrior because I’m The 110% Man, because 110% is my solution for everything, dude, it’s the solution that most people never have the courage to try but which is my badge of superiority, and when I was seven, my mother told me I was better than everyone else, well, maybe not told me, more like imparted it to me and I’ve felt it in my bones ever since.

After exercise 7 17 10 a

Perhaps what I’m giving 110% to is getting back, as they say, to where I once belonged. But I don’t belong there anymore. They don’t want me.

There is a simpler explanation for why I clung so tightly to childhood. Maybe it wasn’t a psychological construct at all. Maybe it was indeed a great time in my life. My parents loved me. My father was a coach on my baseball team. Nobody was abusing me. I had been born with a happy disposition. I was well. I was living in the richest country in the world. It was the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Years later, though, I stand on a railway overpass, my elbows on the railing, gazing down on those train tracks. It’s a hot summer day with skies so blue that it hurts just looking up. How I wish I could run.

A Tiny Voice Screaming

We had just had a fabulous vacation through England and Ireland.

Standing in front of "The Needle" on O'Connell Street in Dublin.  People wonder what the monument means.  To me, obviously, it's a celebration of the Irish junkie.

Standing in front of “The Needle” on O’Connell Street in Dublin. People wonder what the monument means. To me, obviously, it’s a celebration of the Irish junkie.

IMG_5891b smaller

Trinity Church in Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire, England

Trinity Church in Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire, England

IMG_5654b smallerIMG_6046b smaller

But two weeks is as much fun as anyone in my income range is allowed, so were heading back home. We were in an airport kind of mood, that is, that particular brand of autopilot where you tell yourself that there’s nothing to see here, nothing important to do, you just have to go through the motions, stand in the required lines, show the required documents, take off your shoes when told, and finally, only when you’re tired beyond imagining, get back to your own bed, where you will crash for 12 hours or more.

Claire at the airport.

Claire in an airport kind of mood

We boarded an Aer Lingus plane in Dublin that took us to London’s Heathrow, debarked that plane, then took a bus from Terminal 1 to Terminal 3.

It was on that bus that I reached for my fanny pack. It was gone.

Inside the fanny pack were some important things. My new cell phone. My wallet. And inside the wallet, my driver’s license, my credit card, and about $400 in cash, both English and American.

That was the beginning of a panic that was not a panic, because I don’t believe in panic, I believe in remaining calm because it’s much more useful, panic being a version of fear and insecurity and other useless emotions, because you really should remain calm and ask, What emotion will get me what I want? What action will get me what I want? But beneath it all, there was this tiny voice screaming.

Aughhhh!

DSC01297b smaller

First, we jumped off the bus and I backtracked. I looked at the seats we had been waiting at. Not there. I checked twice and thrice and even six times. Still not there.

I stood up and cast my mind back. I quickly narrowed it down to only three possibilities:

1) I had left it on the bus that had taken us to Terminal 3, or

2) I had left it on the plane, or

3) I had dropped it while walking down the debarkation gangway.

I glanced at my watch. We still had two hours before our flight, but at Heathrow, that was precious little time, since everything is so far away from everything else. So I parked Claire and my mother and went off in search of the Aer Lingus desk. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to get somewhere in Heathrow without following the rest of the herd to Baggage Claim, but trust me, it’s extremely difficult. You ask questions of airport workers. You get vague answers. You scramble. You go down elevators and hit dead-ends.

Ten minutes later, I found myself looking through a huge window one floor down at the Aer Lingus desk, but there seemed to be no way to get down there.

“You have to go through security first,” an employee told me.

Okay, ugh, so I stood in line to go through security, which of course is the slowest thing in the world when your fanny pack is lying on the ground somewhere. I took a deep breath. I glanced at my watch and cringed. I took off all my metal objects and dumped them into the tubs. I walked through the metal detector, trying not to evince panic, because that’s what suspicious people evince, and who wants to be unnecessarily frisked and questioned when you’re looking for your fanny pack on deadline? I gathered up all my metal objects and put them on again. Then I lit out for the Aer Lingus desk.

The woman at Aer Lingus made a quick call to Lost & Found.

“It’s not there,” she said. “It might not have gone through the system yet. But right now, your problem is that you have very little time to get on your flight. When you get to L.A., you’re going to have to email Aer Lingus Lost & Found.”

“Can’t I just spend the night here?” I asked.

“You’d have to buy a whole new ticket. You need to start thinking about your connection.”

So I made the decision that I didn’t want to make. I would leave my fanny pack behind.

It was such a long, long flight back home, 13 hours in the air. I tried to divert myself with movies and reading, but I kept thinking about my wallet, which was somewhere out there, I didn’t know exactly where. Maybe I had left it in the airplane seat. Before leaving, I had glanced at the seat and seen nothing, and Claire had asked, as well (“Did you leave anything?”), but perhaps I had left it beneath the seat. Or maybe it had come undone walking down the gangway. Or maybe it had come undone in the first bus. I replayed moments over and over again while watching a bad Kevin Costner movie on the seatback in front of me.

I wondered, as well, about the person who would find it. I’ve discovered that there are strangers who surprise you with their integrity, but I’ve also been surprised by those who consider petty larceny to be their God-given right. I once had a roommate who found a wallet and considered himself a saint because he took the cash and dropped the wallet into a mailbox. He was so proud of himself, like maybe that alone would get him into the pearly gates. You never know what kind of punk schlub dufus you’ll get.

I worried about the bureaucratic forest that lay before me, as well. I hated depending on email. I was determined to use their phone lines instead, but worried about breaking through the Kafkaesque levels of voicemail hell.

Suddenly, my mother was talking to me on the plane.

“When you were a child, I was doing laundry in a laundromat,” she said. “Later that day, while I was cooking dinner, this policeman appears at my door with a wallet. ‘Is this yours?’ he asks. ‘Oh yes, it is,’ I say. I didn’t even realize I’d lost it. And he says, ‘I’m sorry, but the money’s gone.’ I had about $25 in it. So I took it and looked into my secret compartment. I breathed a sigh of relief and said, ‘Well, at least they didn’t take that bill, because I was saving it up,’ and pulled out my emergency $100 bill, which was folded into a little little small piece. And the look on his face, I have to tell you, was, like, ‘Oh God, I missed it.’ And that’s how I knew that that cop was the one who took the rest of the cash.”

When we finally got back to our home in Los Angeles, we had been up for over 24 hours, but it was still only early evening, so I got onto the phone and started calling overseas. I spent a couple hours that evening, and then another couple hours the next morning, just calling and filling out forms online.

All the while, I was wondering how the dice would roll. One of the things that I’ve realized in my life is that humans are not basically good, but they’re not basically bad, either. They have the capacity for both. There are some humans who have done bad things, such as Adolph Hitler (who was a person, after all, not just an epithet), Ty Cobb, Shannon Doherty (whose heart leaps, I’m sure, being mentioned in the same context as Hitler), Charles Manson, Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon, OJ Simpson, Susan Smith, Tonya Harding, Timothy McVeigh, Donald Sterling, et al.

Conversely, there are some humans who have done wondrous things, such as Mother Teresa (who was a person, after all, not just an icon), Oskar Schindler, Miep Gies (who helped hide Anne Frank), Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Cesar Chavez, Franklin Roosevelt, Betty Ford, Bill W., Andrei Sakharov, Lech Walesa, et al.

I was searching for a good person. Someone who would pick up the wallet and have not a question in their mind.

Oh, this goes to the Lost & Found, they would say to themselves.

Not:

Yes! My lucky day!

I envisioned travelers, each eager to reach their destination. I thought the probability was high that they would do the right thing. After all, when you’re traveling, your mind is focused on getting your ordeal over, not gaming the system. But when it came to employees, I was a little more apprehensive. Once an employee gets used to a job, his or her real self comes out.

So it was that I was on the line with a woman who worked in Aer Lingus Lost & Found. She was idly instructing me how to call back when she stopped, as if she had spotted something on a computer screen.

“What color was the wallet?” she asked.

“Brown,” I said.

“Black,” Claire said.

“My girlfriend says it was black.”

“And how much was in it?”

“About $300 in American dollars and $100 in British pounds and euros.”

“And what brand was the phone?”

“LG. It’s a new phone.”

It turned out the bag and its contents had been found and returned. That, however, wasn’t the end of it, not by a long shot.

“You’re going to have to send somebody down here to pick it up,” she said. “Do you have a friend in London?”

I couldn’t really think of anybody who would fit that description.

“Well, then I recommend that you hire a courier to come down here to pick it up,” she said. “They can then put it in a Fed Ex box and mail it to you.”

She gave me some sort of identification number for the items and told me to hang up and organize the retrieval.

Things were looking up, to be sure, but couriers sounded expensive. I turned to the computer and inquired about sending a package weighing .99 pounds from London to Los Angeles. It turned out to cost $139. In fact, taking the courier/Fed Ex route might easily eat up all the cash I had in that wallet.

Kind of defeated the purpose.

So I turned to another strategy: friends. To be frank, I really had no friends in London at all. We had spent three days there, but more as tourists than anything else. The only possibility was a fabulous magician I had seen at the Magic Circle. We had spent a couple hours watching his charming and amazing tricks, and I had shown him some wonderful ones, too, and at the end, he had given me his business card. I had meant to call him, but only to tell him how much I enjoyed his magic.

Now, I realized, I was in a position to manipulate him into helping me as if he were a friend.

That didn’t feel good.

Instead of doing that, I decided to make it a financial transaction. I would ask for the name of a young magician who could pick up the bag from Heathrow in return for a fee of 50 pounds. Surely Chris wouldn’t have the time or incentive to do that kind of job, but perhaps a trusted 22-year-old buddy might.

So I called him. In fact, he was happy to talk magic with me, and we stayed on the phone for a full half-hour. We talked about many things. His day job, which was a secure job with a city council. The transition he hoped to make to full-time magician. The great magician Michael Vincent, whom he had known since he was a teenager. Vincent’s recent descent into deafness, and the effect that might have on his career. A half-hour later, I felt like the victim was sufficiently softened up to refer me to a young magician.

“Listen,” I said, “I was going to call you, anyway, but I have a favor to ask. I need a young magician who could do a gig for me. It doesn’t pay enough for you, but here’s the gig.”

And then I explained my predicament with the wallet.

“As you can see, I need someone to pick up my wallet from Heathrow and put it in the mail for me,” I said.

Chris laughed. He was way ahead of me.

“Okay, I’ll do it,” he said.

That was Saturday morning, and strangely enough, he said that his daughter was flying into London on Sunday evening. But there are four airports that serve London, and the odds that she was coming in at Heathrow were less than even.

“Honey!” he called over to his wife. “What airport is Shana flying into?”

Turned out it was, indeed, Heathrow. That moment seemed delivered by an angel, although once you start thinking of everything in terms of angels and devils, the devils seem to vastly outnumber the heavenly beings, which seems to diminish every good thing that has ever happened to you, and you certainly don’t want that.

I emailed Chris instructions on all the details of the pickup. Then all I had to do was wait for 28 hours. It was strange to depend on someone so many miles away, and not only that, but to sit back and do nothing. After all, I’ve always felt that it’s only diligence and focus that is rewarded. But in this case, there was no alternative.

By 3 pm the next day, I was sitting at a Father’s Day party in Brea, Claire sitting beside me. I was talking to my cousin Maria about Israel, which is ridiculous because we’re not Jewish and know nothing about it, but still, we were talking about the latest trouble in that troubled land. That’s when I checked my email with the message that I had been waiting for.

“Just to let you know, mission accomplished,” Chris wrote. “All went like clockwork and everything seems to be there as described….Going to bed now.”

I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

But the marathon wasn’t over yet, and it certainly had gone into marathon territory, and if anybody is left reading at this point, you’re running a marathon, as well, and wondering whether the finish line is anywhere nearby, I’m sure. The thing is, though, we still had to get the items safely into my hands in Los Angeles.

The next day, I left a message for Chris, but didn’t hear back, either by phone or email. That was strange. Something suspicious within me started to wonder whether I was going to have trouble getting it back from him, whether he had lured me into choosing him just so he could screw me over, and for a short moment, I was absolutely convinced that he was a conniving con man.  It’s a small, suspicious part of me, clearly, because that suspicion was based on absolutely nothing at all.

The next day, I talked with Chris. We went through the items one by one, and yes, everything was there.

“Okay,” I said, “just throw away the fanny pack. It’s old and will just add weight to everything.”

“All right,” Chris said. “I’ll put everything else in a bubble pack and send it.”

“Great,” I said. “Use the pounds in the wallet to pay for the postage.”

After I hung up, I wondered what it would all cost. I wondered whether I should have told him to throw away the wallet, too, to cut down on the weight. And other people had second thoughts, too.

“Did he send it registered mail?” my friend Rich asked.

“No.”

“Oh man! I told you to send it registered mail. It’ll take a million years to get here, if it ever arrives!”

I inwardly bemoaned Rich’s cynicism with regard to government services. I wondered if he would’ve voted for The Great Satan, Margaret Thatcher. Still, the proof would be whether the damn thing arrived or not, and nobody could tell me for sure whether it would. Once again, my zen challenge would be my patience.

So I waited. Breathed deeply. Tried not to think about it. There’s no use in feeling disappointment twice, after all. On top of that, I tried to drive perfectly, since I didn’t have a driver’s license on me. I started carrying my passport wherever I went. I activated my old phone. I went on with my life.

Finally, six days later, an Asian postal carrier arrived at the door.

“Do you know what amazing story lies behind this package?” I said, smiling widely as I took the package.

“No.”

IMG_6479b smaller

So I gave him a quick rundown, then let him go. It didn’t do the saga justice. Maybe an HBO series or a Netflix contract like “House of Cards.”

I smiled. It was so unlikely. The wallet had made its way from London to Los Angeles, passing through so many hands along the way, making so many precarious stops where it could have been snatched up and kept, never to be seen again.

And ever since then, I’ve been thinking about what it all means about human nature. After all, there are some wonderful people in this world, people like my girlfriend Claire, who will do a favor to anybody if asked, and Chris Wood, who went out of his way to help a Yank, and that Aer Lingus lady, who gave me such good advice, and then, going back all the way to the beginning, whoever it was that found it in the first place, that faceless person who was honest enough to turn in a wallet in a fanny pack and log it into the system, not keeping even a dollar for herself. Thinking about it that way, it was a little miracle, a chain of good people I had happened upon, unblemished by even one bad person.

Oh, I thought, if only I could spend the rest of my days walking only among people like that.

An Outburst of Pure Irish Passion

There’s a guy in Ireland who bought my book, Be a Street Magician, a few years ago. He gladly paid the extra postage and ordered a couple other tricks, as well, the bill exceeding $100. He was trying to get the nerve to go out on the street and perform magic, which is a kind of dragon that some of us have to slay. But Jack wanted to read up on dragon slaying before he went out to fell the beast.

“After reading your book, I strapped on a set of balls and just did it,” Jack told me.

He didn’t just do it, he’s won awards for it.  It’s gratifying to know that you inspire people to be bold.

Later, when I looked at his YouTube video, I was mightily impressed.

This guy has talent, I thought.

This year, I finally traveled to Ireland, and when I met Jack Wise, I put a face on a reader. He was a muscular fellow with the kind of face women love, but with one Achilles heel: He loves magic. I would’ve hated him if not for that one fatal flaw.

Brian Daly (L) and Jack Wise (R)

Brian Daly (L) and Jack Wise (R) in Murray’s before the lecture.

We were sitting in Murray’s, a traditional Irish pub, having dinner and a pint, and one by one, the Irish magicians wandered in.

Brian Daly, a working pro who is an officer in the Society of Irish Magicians, and who is terribly witty in front of an audience.

Gary Michaels, who had just come from working the streets, where he shocks people for a living.

Gary had the look of someone who doesn’t need to prove himself.

IMG_5868b smaller

Gary being Yiked.

Steve Thompson, who is a brilliant inventor of magic tricks, such as Glance.

In fact, Steve invented something astonishing just while we were sitting around chatting.  Steve’s mates were joking about not wanting to hug him when they saw him, and I took the joke a step further.

“I don’t want to hug, but could we just cuddle?” I asked.

It was an excellent joke and everyone laughed heartily, but truth be told, it remained a wall between us for the next hour. It’s a guy thing.

Later, we all crossed over to Cassidy’s Hotel, the lovely Irish establishment where I would be lecturing to the society at 8 pm, and had another pint. They all wanted to see some magic, but nobody wanted to ask. So I just stood up and launched into a trick called Torn and Restored Transposition, a trick that was invented by a wacky Ohio magician named David Williamson. The trick kicks magicians’ asses, not just because the individual sleights are tough, but also because the sleights have a rhythm that is extremely difficult to master.

IMG_6249b smaller

IMG_6256b smaller

Ah, rhythm. When it comes to rhythm, I’ve always had an ear for it, whether it be musical or magical. I love the Irish rhythm of Luke Kelly and Van Morrison and the Chieftains and U2. I was always astonished that someone like Van the Man, who has such a horrific voice, could entrance me with such incredible rhythm, melody, and musicality. The Irish, it seems, are in touch with everything that makes you tap your toe, because sometimes, that’s all the downtrodden have, is some weird beat that the privileged could never imagine because, well, they have everything.

In the case of my magic trick, the rhythm was BAM SWISH RIP BEAT SWISH TURN APPLAUSE SWISH CLENCH OPEN SWISH BAM. It’s a tough one to tap your toe to, I must confess.

After I performed the trick, there was a kind of silence.  Of course, silences mean different things to different audiences. In time, it became clear that this fine Irish silence didn’t mean Meh, but instead, Wow. Later, Jack tried to explain the silence to us, talking about how Irish audiences differ from American audiences. He discovered the difference while performing at busking festivals in Canada, which he does every year.

“You invite an Irishman up onstage and you say hello, and he says hello wit his head down, like, ‘Uh….’” Jack said. “But you invite an American or a Canadian up and say hello, and he’s like, ‘Hey, how ya doin’?’ And we Irish tink, like ‘What?!’ We can’t understand tat reaction. It’s da result of 800 years of oppression.”

Everybody was laughing about that one, but when the laughing was over, the truth of it remained at the bottom of the glass.

While Claire, my mother, and I were in Ireland, we picked up a boatload of phrases. You tell people that you went into town to see the Irish dancing, and an American would say, Great. But the Irishman takes it one important step further.

Grand, he says.

But it’s not just grand, it’s grawnd, in such a friendly, open accent that makes you feel like a million euro!

Language can unlock a people. For example, whenever they say a word that contains a th, they pronounce it as if the h were a traitor to the Irish cause for freedom, that the h has to be kicked out of the country to connect themselves back to the ancient Celts, which gives rise to such strange sentences as:

Ta ting is, I can’t tank you enough, Teodore, for being so totful wit me tirteen kids.

I had prepared for this trip. Before getting on the plane, I bought a 400-page history of Ireland called The Story of Ireland, the reading of which consumed my evenings and weekends before the trip. One of the tings I learned: By all rights, there should be two-tirds as many people living in Ireland as there are living in England, given the size of the land mass. Strangely, though, Ireland has only 5% as many. The reason, put quite bluntly, is a centuries-long policy of murder and expulsion.

There, I’ve said it.

During the seven years of the potato famine alone (1845 – 1852), approximately 1 million souls died of starvation, which, by the way, is a horrific way to die. Another million emigrated, many of them to America. One may assume that the Irish were responsible for their own famine deaths, but they weren’t. Since the English had centuries earlier made it illegal for the Irish to own land in their own country, or serve in their own legislative bodies, or even benefit from laws outlawing murder, theft, and fraud, there evolved a kind of well-enforced poverty.

IMG_6445b smaller

I’m not saying that Americans were any better. We were toying with our own minorities at the time, which included the Africans, the Mexicans, the Chinese, the Jews, the Catholics, the Italians, and yes, the Irish. It was what you did in those days. You slapped people around. You shot them. You killed them.  You stomped on their grave.

So when the potato blight arrived (the microscopic fungus that invaded the Emerald Isle and destroyed potato crops wholesale), the poverty-stricken Irish were already on the verge of starving. The Phytophthora infestans simply pushed them over the edge. On top of that, the British government refused to offer adequate help, and crime and other unrest skyrocketed. Carts filled with wheat and oats were looted on their way to market. The Irish countryside descended into chaos. Families huddled in their squalid homes, hungry and desperate, many of them dying there. Starvation ravaged immune systems and a typhus epidemic raged. Villages became ghost towns and every town seemed to have its own mass grave.

The Times of London complained that the Irish were exaggerating, declaring that “it is the old thing, the old malady breaking out. It is the national character, the national thoughtlessness, the national indolence.”

It’s no wonder, then, that the Irish are known for their drinking and brawling. My own Mexican grandfather, who was a mariachi singer in La Ciudad de Los Angeles in the 1930s and ‘40s, could never catch a break from the gavachos who ran the system, and consequently turned to drinking and fighting. His children grew up in domestic chaos, and as a result, I feel the effects of that desperation even now, two generations later.

Mariachi promo pic 1

Drinking and fighting. While traveling through Ireland, I took photos of both. The first was outside a pub in Drogheda, a half-hour’s drive north of Dublin, where we caught a staggering, drunken man trying to light a fag.

IMG_5567b smaller

The second was in the Dublin Airport, where we were waiting for our flight to Heathrow. There, we saw a man who was trying to blend into the vinyl airport furniture, but who had obviously been in a recent fight.

IMG_6468b smaller

I can sympathize with fighters. They refuse to lay down.

God invented whiskey, the saying goes, so that the Irish wouldn’t rule the world.

Finally, at 8 pm, I stood in front of the Society of Irish Magicians and started my lecture. In the room was lots of expensive wood and chandeliers, and the audience was of a healthy size. I was enjoying it, imparting my deep, dark secrets to a group of fellow deceivers, and I could feel them enjoying it, too.

IMG_5781b smaller

Then I launched into my climactic piece of magic, The Silence of the Lemons, which involves me raising my voice and haranguing the audience like a Southern preacher.  In their view, I was coming alive, and I could feel them come alive, too. One fine magician named Gary couldn’t stop laughing when I started tearing his 5-euro note, and that expostulation of laughter gave me such joy that I can’t describe. Afterwards, Silence is the trick they couldn’t stop talking about.

IMG_5823b smaller cropped

On the left in this photo is Gary, who couldn’t stop laughing when I tore his 5-euro note.

“You can tell that you’ve performed that trick thousands of times,” Jack said. “It’s like you could just turn it on for that trick.”

But I think they were drawn to the trick for other reasons, too. It’s essentially an outburst of pure passion, and the Irish love passion.  It’s what they live for.  The music of Luke Kelly is such an outburst. So is the poetry of James Stephens. So is the drinking of James Joyce, which is the stuff of legend. Many an evening in Dublin, so they say, Joyce ended the night in a passionate embrace of the pub floor.

I may not be terribly religious, but Joyce, now there’s a god to worship. Sacred be his nouns and hallowed be his verbs. Drinking and freedom are intertwined in his pages like vines crawling up the brick walls of Trinity College Dublin. Joyce drank with his countrymen and woke up with the same hangovers. His heart broke when he heard about the deaths at the GPO in 1916 and he mended it in the best way he could. Sometimes, his heart could not be mended. And when Joyce wrote, he remembered it all, he was honest about it all, and it all bled out of that fabulous pen like green Celtic blood.

IMG_6231b smaller

“It was cold autumn weather, but in spite of the cold they wandered up and down the roads of the Park for nearly three hours. They agreed to break off their intercourse; every bond, he said, is a bond to sorrow.” (from “A Painful Case,” in Dubliners)

True enough, Messr. Joyce, sorrow is everywhere, it’s general, it’s the human condition.  Still, the only sorrow that I feel from my bond with the Society of Irish Magicians was the sorrow of leaving. They were all such a joy, even the old white-haired mage who challenged one of my sleights for being overcomplex, God bless him, even the skinny 11-year-old who looked so forlorn and friendless that his mother brought him to a magic meeting to connect with some kind of something, God bless him, and especially the tall young master magician named Andy who earnestly promised to get me onto cruise ships, God bless him especially, God bless every single minute of his life, that I cannot adequately put it all into words.

IMG_5813b smaller cropped

IMG_5877b smaller

IMG_5867b smaller

Therefore, I will end not with a cuddle, nor with a thrown punch, nor with an embrace of the pub floor, but with a fine Irish toast.

May you never lie, steal, cheat or drink.
But if you must lie, lie in each other’s arms.
If you must steal, steal kisses.
If you must cheat, cheat death.
And if you must drink, drink with us, your brothers in magic.

IMG_5869 smaller

In the Magicians’ Library

I was in the library of the Magic Circle, looking at the first magic book published in the English language, which is titled Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584).  I was also looking at another early magic book, Hocus Pocus Junior (1634).  It’s hard to describe the feeling, just looking at those first editions. The librarians keep them behind a locked glass case. When they bring them out, they treat them gingerly, as if they were sacred texts.  In the strictest sense, they are.

IMG_6187b smaller

IMG_6188b smaller

What I’m getting at is the feeling I had looking at this artifact.

Okay, try it this way. That same feeling can be seen in a photograph I had taken of my mother a couple days before. We had been visiting the Roman ruins in Bath, which date from the time before 410 AD when the Romans ruled the Celts.  My mother was marveling at the antiquity of those ruins. You could see my mother’s soul in the picture.

I’m touching brick that the ancient Romans touched,  she was thinking.

IMG_6033b smaller cropped

You could see her imagination cast back, trying to visualize it, what it must have been like to live back then, to walk in a toga in the baths.

Or try it this way. That same feeling can be seen in photographs I had taken of both my mother and my girlfriend Claire nine days earlier. We had been visiting a 12th-century castle in Carlingford, Ireland, an old Viking town. The castle was commissioned in 1186, and then named after King John in 1210, when he visited it. King John was portrayed as rather an imbecile in the movie The Lion in Winter (with Peter O’Toole, Katherine Hepburn, and Anthony Hopkins). In the history books, we are told that his father, King Henry II, sent him to Ireland to make peace with the various clan leaders, but he repeatedly antagonized them, pulling the long beards that were the Irish custom in those days.

You could see my mother’s and Claire’s imaginations try to cast back and visualize what it was like.

I’m touching stone that the ancient Celts touched.

IMG_5658b texturized smaller

IMG_5670b texturized smaller

My mother (see two photos, above) was astounded at the antiquity of King John’s Castle, circa 1186 AD, in Carlingford, Ireland, as was my girlfriend Claire (below).

IMG_5674b texturized smaller

In the same way, while standing in the library of the Magic Circle, I was trying to cast back to 1584, when Reginald Scot first wrote this book. There were people performing magic and passing themselves off as real. You can gain an advantage if other people believe you have spiritual powers. People will fear you. They will do what you say. Unfortunately, they will sometimes accuse you of cavorting with the devil and try to burn you at the stake.  In fact, that’s why Discoverie was originally written. He saw the proliferation of witchcraft trials, primarily in rural courts, and thought it a travesty. Thus, he studied magical methods, many of them from Latin sources, and set them down in print.  Only a decade or more later, Shakespeare used Discoverie as a source for the witches in Macbeth. His work helped illuminate the ignorant Puritans, although it didn’t stop the buffoons in Salem Village to go on a rampage more than a century later, in 1692.

Look more closely at this page and you will see a trick that I have used in my shows, Knife Through Arm.  In fact, I used it yesterday.  It got big laughs.

IMG_6187b smaller detail

IMG_6475b smaller

Reginald Scot’s historic trick in action.

To be honest, just walking around in the Magic Circle was a complete and total treat.  It’s not a prominent landmark, as is its counterpart in Los Angeles, the Magic Castle. Instead, it’s set down a lonely, ancient street near Euston Station, more like an alley that nobody ever drives down, and has a nondescript door. Step inside, however, and worlds will open up to you—if you have permission to enter, that is.

IMG_6195b smaller

I gained entry through my acquaintance with Matthew Field, a prominent figure in modern magic. For years, Field has reviewed instructional videos for Genii, the most prominent magazine for magicians. Unbeknownst to me, however, he has edited some of the most influential books in the magic field.  These are just a smattering of selections from his resume:

The Uncanny Scot, by Ron Wilson, a book from the 1960s that contained numerous cutting-edge magical methods from a Scottish magician who wore a kilt when he performed. See Ron Wilson’s performance video here.

Williamson’s Wonders, by David Williamson, a late 1980s book that contained many brilliant methods from an up-and-coming mage.  Gambling books by such luminaries as Darwin Ortiz, Gary Kurtz, and Martin Nash. See Williamson’s performance video here.

The Secrets of Brother John Hamman, the life’s work of the wheelchair-bound clergyman who loved magic.

Books by Phil Goldstein, Martin Gardner, JK Hartman, Paul Cummins, Jon Racherbaumer, Eugene Berger, Dai Vernon, Michael Vincent, Patrick Page, Paul Curry, and so many others, all edited by Matthew. This may not mean much to non-magicians, but to a magician, it’s like discovering that someone was a kind of magical Zelig—that is, was present at dozens of historical moments.

“Yes, I do have some stories to tell,” he admitted with humility.

Matt seems to have the personality of a critic—that is, he has strict standards for the execution of magic. There is no excuse in his mind for inferior methods. Matt sees all of a magician’s assets, but also, all of his shortcomings. Because of that, I was sad that I didn’t bring my best magic with me, so that I could show him all the magical advances I’d been making recently.  I was thinking in particular of a gambling routine that I’ve added to my repertoire that blows lots of boats out of the water, a plot that most of the magic world has given up on because it’s too difficult. But I’ve been waking up every morning for months now, placing a closeup pad in front of me, and while television plays in the background, perfecting it. That’s a really great way of improving your magic, just practicing all the time.

Matt’s high standards also led him to introduce me to Chris Wood. For two hours, Chris dazzled me with magic of the highest quality, as you can see here. The kind of magician whom I most admire is the sort whose way with people is as advanced as his sleights. If he can’t make eye contact, can’t show his audience the twinkle in his eye, can’t let the audience know that he likes them, then all the best sleights in the world can’t help him.

That’s why I liked Chris Wood. So I countered with a few tricks of my own, and Chris was delighted with those, too. Eventually, Chris handed me his business card.

I’m going to call him, I thought.  This guy is top notch.

I was also delighted to meet a 95-year-old legend in the Circle, Henry Lewis, who still performs shows every Monday morning at the Circle.

“If you play your cards right,” he told me, “I’ll invite you to my funeral.”

IMG_6193b smaller

The Magic Circle is an amazing place, I must say. Just like the Magic Castle, you have to prove yourself a proficient student of magic just to be admitted, and the English standard for excellence is high indeed. The Circle was founded in 1905 by a circle of famous magicians, and for the first few years, they met in a pub in Soho. Later, they moved into their current location, which is down a kind of nondescript alley near Euston Station.  Step inside and you’ll discover four stories of rooms filled with magic and magicians.

“I thought the cabbie was taking us down an alley to mug us,” my mother later told me. “Then we saw the sign on the door: Magic Circle.”

It was a very small sign.  Very understated and very English.

The Circle’s members include all the best English magicians, including Charles, Prince of Wales, who performed the Cups & Balls for his audition. It is packed with photos, memorabilia, fabulous old books, and the best magicians in the British Isles.

At the Magic Circle

At the Magic Circle

I would have loved to spend more time at the Circle, but they closed at 10 pm. So we straggled down the street, accompanied by three lady magicians, including the famed Fay Presto. She tried to coax us to an after-hours magic session, but my flu was threatening to return, so we begged off.  But I was still high from the experience.  You could tell it from the look on my face.

I can’t believe I was considered a peer with these excellent conjurors.  What a fine tradition!

 

A few days later, while walking through Heathrow Airport on my way back home, I suddenly grabbed my waist.  My fanny pack was gone. In it were my wallet, $400 in cash, my debit card, my driver’s license, 50 pounds sterling, and my cell phone. I panicked for a couple hours, then finally realized I would have to return home immediately or miss my flight and have to buy a whole new airplane ticket.

Claire at the airport.

Claire at the airport.

Back home in L.A., I worked the phone for three hours until I located the fanny pack–in the Aer Lingus Lost & Found.  Yes, somebody had turned it in, cash and all, so there are good people in the world.

“But we can’t just send it back to you,” the Aer Lingus rep said. “You need to send someone down here to pick it up and put it in the mail back to you.”

But I didn’t really have good friends who lived in London. Matthew lives in Hastings in the south.  So I called Chris Wood, the only person I knew in London proper, talking to him for a full half-hour about his fabulous magic. I was blown away by it, and was interested in all the little details of his performance, especially his patience with pacing, which is all too uncommon in magic.  Honestly.  I wasn’t just buttering him up.

Then I gingerly broached the subject of Heathrow.

“I promise I was going to call you anyway,” I said, “but I’m looking for somebody to go down to Heathrow and pick up my fanny pack….”

He laughed wholeheartedly.

“I’ll do it,” he said easily.

Turned out that his daughter was arriving at Heathrow on a flight the next evening, so he wouldn’t even have to make two trips.  It was so synchronous that I felt it was meant to be.  I worried that it was too perfect, and held my breath for the next 25 years.  Nevertheless, everything went like clockwork, and as we speak, the wallet is on its way back to me, thanks to Chris. He’s a prince (although not of Wales).

Through my association with the brotherhood magicians, it turns out I had friends in London, after all. Who would have known?

At Sevens and Nines in Someone Else’s Country Not Your Own

I woke up sick. I had been sick for nearly two weeks now, and had actually lost ten pounds. I hadn’t been able to eat or drink water and had gotten quite thirsty and quite weak. It was a huge inconvenience, since we were on our big hurrah traveling through Ireland and England, and as everyone knows, big hurrahs cost money.

It’s hard to get well when you’re at sevens and nines in somebody else’s room not your own, and someone else’s country not your own and you don’t know what their name is for Kaopectate.

But I didn’t want to ruin my traveling companions’ trip, so I insisted that my mother and girlfriend go off on their own and visit Windsor Castle. By noon, they were taking off for the London underground, determined to have an adventure. I would be seeking an acupuncture appointment and then meet them at the Magic Circle at 5 pm.

“I’ll take the key,” I said.

We were staying in a friend’s vacated flat, so there was only one key, and no one to let them in if our wires got crossed.

Our flat in London

Our flat in London

“If you run into problems, you can always call my Meteor phone,” I said.

I immediately got onto the mobile phone and made an appointment with an acupuncturist near Buckingham Palace. Before I left, however, I realized something aggravating: I had bought the Meteor phone in Ireland, and so to call the phone from a pay phone in England required a special international prefix that I hadn’t told Claire about. In addition, my regular cell phone suddenly died.  I should have recharged it the night before.

Suddenly, we weren’t connected by phone.

Still, we had a fallback plan. We would meet at the Magic Circle at 5 pm.  I brightened.  Everything would work out.

At 2:30, I had my acupuncture, and by 5:15, I was walking into the nondescript doors of the Magic Circle. I was a tad worried that I was running a little late. I was met by a huge black man wearing a snappy suit.

“No, they haven’t arrived yet,” he said.

 

At the Magic Circle

At the Magic Circle

Well, no need to worry, because I was always convinced that worry itself created its own constellation of problems. I would explore the Magic Circle and enjoy myself. My host, Matthew Field, who is a prominent member of the magic community, showed me around. We finally settled into a small group of magicians showing each other their best stuff.

I had expectations for the Magic Circle. I was hoping to see my favorite magicians. I wanted to see the fabulous Michael Vincent, a wonderfully dignified performer whose sleights routinely fool magicians. I wanted to see Mel Mellers, a fabulous stage performer whose humor is brilliantly naughty. I wanted to see Paul Daniels, who has for decades been the most famous English magician on television, even if he’s hardly known in the States. I wanted to see Derren Brown, the brash icon smasher who’s the newest English television star.  I wanted to see James Brown, a brilliant award winner.

My smile fell a bit when I realized that none of them were there.

My table had four magicians gathered around it. It didn’t look promising. This is how some local Southern California magic clubs looked, no-name hobbyist magicians with no real-world show experience trying out insignificant tricks on each other. I wondered whether I was going to waste another precious couple hours in London.

But immediately, my impression changed. In front of me, unexpectedly, was a real performer. His name was Chris Wood, and he performed with experience, elan, and charm. He performed as if he had performed his chosen tricks thousands of times. He performed for us many of the tricks that he has posted on YouTube, including here, here, here, and here. In these videos, you can see his skill shining through like a brilliant light.

I was riveted while Chris performed his magic, but every couple minutes, I would glance at the door. The girls were an hour late and counting. I wondered how they had lost their way.

Claire, after all, isn’t the best navigator in the world. When parking in a lot, for example, she always has to count the number of spaces she has parked from the store, whereas I can always make my way back by instinct. When printing out directions, she always has to print them out in words, whereas I can simply print out a visual map and follow it on the fly. On top of all that, this was London, one of the most congested and confusing cities in the world.

But my inner voice argued against panicking.

There’s never any use in worrying, he said. You just work yourself into a state, and after all, what can you do about it except see what happens? Just enjoy yourself.

I showed Chris and the group some of my own tricks, some of them original. There’s an amazing card trick that I learned 20 years ago and has been a mainstay of my act ever since.   Many magicians know it by the name Transpo.  When I first saw it, it seemed so incredibly magical but at the same time so incredibly difficult that I had to learn it. So I went out onto the street and performed it, over a period of three years, approximately 25,000 times. Soon, the sleights and moves had become stamped into my autonomic nervous system, so that now, I don’t even have to think to perform it, my body just performs it without thought or worry.

While at the Circle, I discovered that my host Matthew had edited the book that first brought that trick to the magic community.

“You wrote that book?” I asked, dumbfounded.

“Edited,” he said.

“Still….”

When I heard that, I knew I had to perform it for him. So I stood up and went through my paces. I knew he liked it by his smile.

“Excellent,” he said.

“Wonderful,” said Chris. “I’ve read about that trick, but I’ve never seen it performed.”

“I’m the type of guy,” I said, “who learns a trick and then immediately tries to change it. I’m creative in that way. But this trick is so perfect that it’s impossible to change it.”

“Yes,” Matthew said, “it is tight.”

I turned my head towards the front door. The girls still hadn’t arrived. I wondered what would happen if I got to closing time and hadn’t heard from them.

Don’t worry about it.

I looked around the room and saw lots of magicians at the tables, perhaps 120 or more. There was a cute cocktail waitress in a short dress who was serving them, but true to form, they were too nerdy about their magic to notice. They just wanted to talk tricks. There was one young magician who was sitting at my elbow who I immediately dismissed. He had a good physique and wore a shirt that showed it off. He had a cool haircut. He was handsome. He seemed like an arrogant young bastard who thought his tricks were the best in the world, but who was in fact deceiving only himself.

Still, the magician I wanted to perform for was Chris. I took out my cards and performed a spelling trick that was in the same category of tricks he was doing. I considered it in my third or fourth tier of my material, because I’ve always thought spelling tricks are inferior. They require attention and focus.  In addition, they may fail if the spectator can’t spell or tries to mess with you. Still, I launched into it, because the English have more patience than Americans.  But the magician who liked it the most was the arrogant young magician sitting at my elbow.

“Wow, that is incredible,” he said.  “I stopped doing my own spelling trick because it wasn’t as good as Chris’s, but this is really great, too.”

I was surprised. Arrogant magicians don’t watch other magicians’ tricks, don’t listen much, and certainly don’t compliment other magicians.   Turned out that I had misunderestimated this young bastard.  Humility of this sort is a mighty good sign in a magician his age.  Following my instinct, I offered him something.

“You can look that trick up,” I said, and then told him the trick’s provenance, which was through Michael Close’s instructional DVDs.

“Would you teach it to me?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said.

IMG_6279b smaller

It took about ten minutes to pass it on. I tried to give him all the work on it—the key sleights, what’s hardest about it, where it can fail. There’s a moment, for example, when you have to make a calculation.  If the audience members see you calculating, however, it’s all over. You have to be completely casual.

“Everything rests on that moment,” I told the young magician.

“Thanks so much,” he said.

And then, suddenly, the girls were standing behind me smiling.

When the Circle closed at 10 pm, we walked back to Euston Tube Station in the dusk, followed by a middle-aged blonde woman and her minions.

“After the Circle closes, we all go to a café and continue talking late into the night,” she was saying in a particularly bold voice.

But I couldn’t. I wasn’t completely well. Not only that, but the girls had a limit to the amount of magic they could stomach.

“Thanks,” I said, knowing I wouldn’t join them.

It was a night of surprises. That woman was Fay Presto, who won Closeup Magician of the Year at the Circle in 2012. Oh, and another surprise. She started out her life as a man.  Obviously, this is a woman who is thoroughly acquainted with deception.

Sitting in Bewley’s, Reading James Joyce Aloud

In college, I was particularly drawn to an author I’d never heard of before, a fellow named James Joyce. He wrote of complex thoughts and feelings but in a simple way. His sentences flowed like swiftly moving water. No author I have ever encountered had smoother prose. Not only that, but his prose never had a false step in it. Over time, he became a god.

During my recent trip to Ireland, I discovered that Joyce is revered over in Ireland, not just in American college English departments. We discovered statues, carvings, photographs, paintings.

IMG_6208b smaller

In Dublin, a couple magicians invited me to have lunch with them at Bewley’s Oriental Café, which is on the famed promenade called Grafton Street. I stepped inside and breathed in the glamour and the history. Over a fabulous scone and tea, we sessioned, as magicians like to put it, trading secret moves and conspiring, as we are wont to do. Everything we do is a conspiracy against the laity, ourselves being a kind of clergy.

Our magic session at Bewley's in Dublin

Our magic session at Bewley’s in Dublin

In the middle of my afternoon there, I discovered that Bewley’s is mentioned in Joyce. It’s in his short story, “A Little Cloud.”

Little Chandler had come home late for tea and, moreover, he had forgotten to bring Annie home the parcel of coffee from Bewley’s.

Suddenly, the place was imbued with a golden literary glow. I discovered that there’s a James Joyce balcony and a small painting of Joyce on the wall. I read the story in Dubliners, and discovered that it’s about the frustrating tension between our burning passions and the banality and drudgery that we call responsibility. That’s a tension I have lived, baby, baby.

IMG_6335b smaller

There were so many different moods and impressions that he wished to express in verse. He felt them within him. He tried to weigh his soul to see if it was a poet’s soul. Melancholy was the dominant note of his temperament, he thought, but it was melancholy tempered by recurrences of faith and resignation and simple joy. If he could give expression to it in a book of poems perhaps men would listen. He would never be popular: he saw that. He could not sway the crowd but he might appeal to a little circle of kindred minds.

I thought that when I published What Happens to Us.

IMG_6233b smaller

A street scene on O’Connell Street, the main drag in Dublin

Standing in front of "The Needle" on O'Connell Street in Dublin.  People wonder what the monument means.  To me, obviously, it's a celebration of the Irish junkie.

Standing in front of “The Needle” on O’Connell Street in Dublin. People wonder what the monument means. To me, obviously, it’s a celebration of the Irish junkie.

Later, Claire and I were walking down O’Connell Street, which was named after Irish patriot Daniel O’Connell. Look at a country’s patriots and you will discover the country’s soul. Born in 1775, Daniel O’Connell was a fiery orator who campaigned for the right of political representation in Parliament for the Irish people, which is of course what motivated the American colonists during the Boston Tea Party. In the 1840s, in his sixties, O’Connell campaigned for Irish independence and was jailed for it. His health suffered in prison, and when he was released, he made a pilgrimage to Rome. He died en route. Per his wishes, his heart was buried in Rome, and the rest of his body, in Dublin.

I was sick while traveling, as well. Some days, I simply couldn’t find the strength to walk around. In some photographs, you can see it in my eyes. It was like I forgot to wear mascara.

IMG_5868b smaller

You can see that I’m sick in this photograph

On one of my healthier days, we posed for a photo beneath O’Connell’s statue, then walked down the street and played around at Joyce’s statue. In one photograph, I’m aping Joyce’s dandyish pose. In another, I’m comically begging Joyce for the ability to write as well as he did.

In front of the O'Connell statue

In front of the O’Connell statue

IMG_6227b smaller cropped

Joyce is one author to whom I truly aspire. When I first encountered his prose, I was astounded that he could express such complex concepts in such a simple and direct way. In college, I was a literary democrat, averse to such stylistic royalists as Henry James, T.S. Eliot, and Thomas Disch. On top of that, Joyce wasn’t afraid of his heart. The people in his stories were regular people with regular concerns. A crying baby. A colleague who has surpassed the protagonist. Envy and disappointment.

When I begged a bronze Joyce on O’Connell Street for writing ability, then, I wasn’t being facetious, I was being sincere. One’s ability to write is renewed every single day in every gesture you make towards life, and the price you pay is humility, curiosity, and honesty. And if you don’t pay enough, that ability is revoked. At various times in their lives, many great authors have been denied that ability because they wouldn’t pay the price—Salinger, Hemingway, LeCarre, Delillo, and so many others.

But Joyce was an Irishman, as well, and in college, I couldn’t have understood what that meant. I now have an inkling of it. It meant being part of a race of people who were occupied and oppressed in their own country. It meant Irish people not being able to own property in their own country. It meant the occupiers taking land and belongings from them and giving them to colonists.

IMG_6445b smaller

One 12th-century occupier “writes scathingly of the barbarity and uncouthness of the Irish: their refusal to mine or till the soil correctly or to trade as they ought to trade, their cunning and violent ways, their lack of honesty.”

An earlier source claims that even “the most powerful go barefoot and without breeches, and ride horse without saddles.”

A 14th-century source says that the English occupiers’ “regular clergy dogmatically assert that it is no more a sin to kill an Irishman than a dog or any brute….They have striven with all their might and with every treacherous artifice in their power, to wipe our nation out entirely….” (All of these passages were taken from The Story of Ireland, by Neil Hegarty(Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, New York).

Joyce, then, was part of the movement that was attempting to rescue Irish identity after centuries of being trampled in the dirt. Joyce’s ordinary people with extraordinary passions were an attempt at claiming an Irish literature. It was a literature that encompassed their great lights.

Charles Stewart Parnell, whom English Prime Minister William Gladstone described as the most remarkable person he had ever met. I walked down Dublin’s Parnell Street to take our laundry to the cleaners.

Sean McDermott, who was one of the leaders of the Easter Rising of 1916, which led to the Irish Free State in 1922. He was executed for his part in the Rising.  Today, there’s a Sean McDermott Street in Dublin.

Oliver Bond, a wealthy Irish revolutionary who was a leader in the violent demonstrations of the 1790s, and died under mysterious circumstances in prison in 1798.  Today, there’s an Oliver Bond Street in Dublin.

All of these men are luminaries in the blossoming flower that in 1922 became the Republic of Ireland.

As we all know, oppression has a way of enhancing a people’s literature, music, and other expression. Look at American blacks, South Africans, and yes, Irish writers from Joyce to Dylan Thomas to William Butler Yeats to James Stephens and others.

IMG_6263b smaller

My mother listening to James Joyce at Bewley’s

A bronze statue in Bewley's Oriental Cafe

A bronze statue in Bewley’s Oriental Cafe

A beauty mimiicking a bronze statue in Bewley's Oriental Cafe

A beauty mimiicking a bronze statue in Bewley’s Oriental Cafe

So, when I was sitting in Bewley’s, I read James Joyce aloud.

I did not know whether I would ever speak to her or not or, if I spoke to her, how I could tell her of my confused adoration. But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires.

It was lovely to read Irish authors in Irish places.  When I was taking a dawn walk in the beautiful wet bogs and heath of County Louth, I read Yeats aloud.

IMG_5617b smallerIMG_5729b smaller

An Irish farmhouse at dawn

An Irish farmhouse at dawn

I will arise and go now, for always night and day

I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;

While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,

I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

And whenever I saw a photo of an Irish author, I had my picture taken. I aspire, I aspire. Responsibility beats me back, but then I advance again. Back and forth, to and fro, discouraged and imbued, isn’t it always the way?

IMG_6231b smaller

Mimicking James Joyce, which I’ve done all my life