Old Buddies Who Met at the Old Stick

I published this four years ago, when I was performing tableside magic every Friday evening at the neighborhood restaurant Stick ‘n’ Stein.

For a couple years, I’ve been visiting with a couple of fascinating old men at Stick ‘n’ Stein, my Friday-evening restaurant magic gig.  Their names are Jack and George, aged 90 and 85, respectively.  They eat at the Stick at 6 pm nearly every Friday evening, and I sit down at their table and might do a magic trick or two, but mostly, just chat with them.

In the late 1930s, Jack was a professional basketball player.  Those were the days when you could excel at pro B-ball without topping six feet.  In 1941, though, he joined the Air Force to save the world from Hitler and The Rising Sun.  He flew reconnaissance flights over Japan.

When the war ended, Jack joined the aerospace industry.  That’s what brought him to El Segundo, which is lousy with aerospace outfits.

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In the 1950s, Jack used to eat at Rob’s, the restaurant that originally occupied the building that Stick ‘n’ Stein now sits in.  When it changed hands and became the Jolly Roger, he ate there, too.

By 1993, the building was vacant.  There was a successful restauranteur named George Stevens who wanted to use the property to expand.  For 20 years, George had run a successful bar on Grand Avenue in downtown El Segundo called Stick ‘n’ Stein, but he knew he could make it a bigger success if he had more square footage, a bigger parking lot, and a frontage on Pacific Coast Highway.  So he moved in.

Jack and George started eating at the new place.  Jack had retired five years earlier, but he still wanted to do things.  He had been elected to the planning commission a few years before, so he wasn’t letting the grass grow.

In recent years, Jack and George have made the Stick a regular habit.  They park their new grey Mustang in front of the restaurant–right in front in the owner’s traditional spot, not even in a legal parking space–and walk in like they own the place.

Five years ago, Jack and George used to come in with Jack’s girlfriend Jean, who was his secretary at Hughes Aircraft years ago.  But for the past year or more, Jean has been confined to a nursing home due to Alzheimer’s.  Lately, Jack and George have been coming to the Stick alone.

When I sit down to talk with the guys, we talk about a wide range of subjects.  Lately, I’ve been reading a biography of General Douglas MacArthur, so I thought I’d be smart and brought the 1,000-page book with me to the Stick.  I told them a little about MacArthur in Tokyo, and how he brought democracy and women’s suffrage to the island-nation.  George smiled.

Jack said: “In 1945, George was based in Tokyo.  In fact, George’s office used to sit right behind MacArthur’s.  He used to salute the general every day.”

George chimed in: “At night, I used to see him pacing back and forth in his office, thinking.”

Wow.  I had read in the biography that MacArthur was a pacer, but George had actually seen it firsthand, day after day.  Holding a mere 1,000-page book in my hand, I felt terribly inadequate.

Jack’s health has been failing lately, although he doesn’t show it.  Apparently, he has prostate cancer.  Last Friday evening, he told me he wouldn’t be coming in to the Stick next week.

“I’ll be having surgery,” he said.

“Is it serious?”

“Well, any surgery is serious.”

Jack explained a little about the surgery, about how he has an artery that’s 90% clogged so they’re going in through the carotid to clean it out, but I zoned out while he was talking.  I wondered if this was the last time I’d be talking with him.  I wondered if that’s what he was saying.  I doubted whether Jack’s relatives would know that I wanted to go to a funeral, if that’s what it came to.

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Finally, I shook his hand.

“Good luck,” I told him.

Jack has now passed on.  I was not invited to the funeral.  George is the last one standing.

 

Something in Her Face Was Incredibly Alive

The other evening, we watched a movie that was pretty blah.  There were many things wrong with it, but the most obvious thing was the emotional texture of the film.  I always find the emotional texture of Ronald Bass films terribly false.  It made me think of a woman we met a couple years ago.

Claire and I were on our usual 35-minute walk together.  Toward the end of it, Claire said hi to a woman who was picking up the newspaper in her driveway.  Claire is sometimes too friendly, and truth be told, so am I.

“Hello,” the woman said back.

It was a sixtysomething woman who was picking up her Sunday newspaper from the driveway.  There was something in her face that was incredibly alive, and I wasn’t sure what.

“How are you?” Claire said.

That was the wrong thing to ask.

“I don’t know, not very good, I guess,” she said.  “My husband just died.”

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We stopped.  Given her tone, it seemed disrespectful not to stop.  The woman started talking, and I don’t know how, but we became planted there while she poured out the details about her husband.  She blamed it on some horrible consumer product that had turned his brain into Swiss cheese, just ate away at it so that he was a walking zombie.  What made that woman’s face seem so alive, I guess, was that she was staring directly into the face of Death.

“It just doesn’t seem real,” she said.  “We’ve lived in this house for 40 years, and now, suddenly, he’s gone, and he didn’t have to be gone….”

We stood there listening to her rail against the pesticide companies, talk about her outrage, her pain, and her grief, all in a tone of voice that could not be ignored.  Believe it or not, this conversation with a stranger stretched on for a half-hour or more.  On the one hand, it seemed like a little miracle, like we had boiled everything down to the essentials: three souls connecting, listening, consoling.  On the other hand, however, she was a stranger.  Our time was precious.  And we had a movie to go to.  Finally, I spoke up.

“You know, Claire, that movie starts really soon,” I said.

“Oh, I’m sorry!” the woman said.  “I don’t want to hold you back.  Thank you so much for listening.”

Perhaps her relatives wouldn’t listen.  Perhaps she was a bit crazy.  Or perhaps her cup spilleth over so much that even her family couldn’t give her what she needed.  At any rate, we went to the movie, which was also a Ronald Bass movie and wasn’t very good.  They say that he doesn’t write the scripts himself, but hires a committee of young writers, and then brings all their ideas together and chooses from the “best” of them.  But it was Hollywood emotions, not real emotions, and that day, we had seen the real thing.

And that night, when I laid my head down to sleep, all I could think of was that woman’s face, and how alive it had been.  And I haven’t forgotten it in the several years since.

Doing the UK

This year, we travel to Ireland and England.  It’ll be a great time.  I will be lecturing to the Irish Society of Magicians in Dublin, and we’re also going to spend a couple days in County Louth, doing Carlingford and Warrenpoint and environs.

Then we ferry over to England, where we’ll probably hit Bath for a couple days.  Then we have a day to do something somewhere, we’re not sure what.  Then it’s on to London, where we’re staying at a B & B in Walthamstow.  Five days there, visiting the Magic Circle, the Tower, the British Museum, et al.  Then it’s the train and ferry back to Dublin, then fly out.

Any suggestions for our trip?

A Liar and a Thief

Last month, I went out to perform magic on the street.  Between shows, I noticed a guy standing on a crate about 30 feet to my right.

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“We’re having a trivia contest here and we’re giving away cash!” he said.  “Free cash if you can answer these trivia questions.”

That’s the kind of pitch that will gather you a crowd.  People lingered, wondering what the catch was, and then he would launch into the questions in a loud bark.

“What is money made out of?”

“Paper!” somebody would yell out.

“No!” he would answer.

“Plastic!” another person would yell out.

“No!”

“Fibers!”

“No!”

Audience members would fumble their way through all the possible responses, and then, after a couple minutes, somebody would yell out, “Cotton!”

And the guy would smile and hand out a $5 bill.  That attracted even more people.  The guy was giving out money! 

“What color is the sky?” the guy continued.

“Blue!” somebody would yell out.

“No!”

“White!”

“No!”

“Black!”

“No!”

After a few minutes, somebody would yell, “Clear!”

And the guy would give out another $5 bill.  The guy was giving out money!

After a few questions, the crowd had grown quite large.  At that point, the guy would change his tactics a bit.  He would address someone in the audience directly.

“Sir, are you a good person?”

“Yes.”

“If you can prove to me that you’re a good person, then I’ll give you a $20 bill.  Stand on that crate opposite me and answer my questions.  If you’re proven to not be a good person, I’ll still give you $5.  Is that fair?”

“Okay.”

And then the spectator would step onto the crate.

“Okay, first question: Have you ever told a lie in your entire life?”

There would usually be a pause, and then the spectator would answer, “Yes.”

“Okay, second question: Have you ever stolen anything in your entire life?”

“There would be another pause, and then the spectator would answer, “Yes.”

“Okay, so you’re a liar, right?  And you’re a thief, right?  Do you feel that you deserve this $20 bill?”

“Yes.”

“But you’ve already confessed that you’re a liar and a thief.”

That’s when the guy would launch into his sales pitch, which turned out to be pure evangelism.

“But even though you’re not a good person,” the guy would continue, “Jesus was sent down from heaven to take away your sin….”

It was vicious.  First, he lured spectators with the promise of cash prizes.  Then he asked a representative spectator some personal questions.  Then he would twist their answers to imply that the spectator was an awful person.  (After all, just because somebody has lied a few times in his life doesn’t make him “a liar,” and the same applies to the thief appellation.)  Then he would sell his gospel as if he were selling soap–spiritual soap.

Sometimes, he would point to his golden retriever, which was a darling dog that lingered behind him.

“Isn’t he lovely?  Doesn’t he look happy?  He is, in fact.  Unfortunately, we brought him to the vet a few weeks ago, and it turns out he has a terminal illness.  Vet said he has only six months to live.  So he’s walking around happy as can be, but unfortunately, a death sentence is just around the corner for him.  And so it is with all of you.  You may be walking around happy as can be, but a death sentence is just around the corner for you.  Will you be ready?  Have you asked Jesus into your life?”

I was performing out there for a couple of hours, and the longer I listened to the pitch, the more it depressed me.  In fact, I became quite depressed, which certainly isn’t my way.  Each time he told the dog story, he would pronounce a different death sentence on the dog: sometimes it was six months, sometimes two months, sometimes nine months.

So, Mr. Soap Salesman, why do you think you deserve my trust when you’re a liar?

After listening to him for a couple hours, I cut short my magic performances.  I couldn’t take listening to his spiel any longer.  And on the drive home, I felt the weight of humanity weighing on me, disgusted at the lies and truth twisting that people would engage in just to prove that they were right and everyone else was wrong.  The only way I could dig myself out of the funk was to think of something lovely.

When I get home, I thought, I can put Lulu on my chest and pet her face.

And when I got home, there her furry white face was gazing at me behind the glass balcony door, gazing longingly in at me, hoping that I would bring her in and put her on my chest and pet her face.  And that’s just what I did.  It wasn’t a reasoned philological argument.  It wasn’t a spiritual accusation.  It wasn’t intellectual at all.  It was just petting Lulu’s face, which is one of the most wondrous things in the world.

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The Whole Damn Thing

The other evening at the Magic Castle, I performed for a lovely young couple from Perth, Australia.They had flown into Los Angeles for their honeymoon and were dressed to the nines to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience at the magical capital of the world.

They were both beaming.  She was a pretty and chatty blonde.  She seemed like the kind of woman who isn’t quite beautiful, but through highlights and makeup, has turned into a fair approximation of it.  Most importantly, though, I could see some intelligence peeking out from behind the mask.  He was on the short side with red cheeks and a good physique.  Peeking out from behind his mask, I caught a bit of an inferiority complex, but he was charming, nonetheless.  I did a couple tricks for them, including a romantic piece of magic that gave them a souvenir.

“This,” I told them, holding up their signed playing card with which I had accomplished the impossible, “will remind you of this moment, 50 years from now, and you’ll say to each other, ‘Honey, remember this? It’s from that time on our honeymoon when we went to that Magic Castle place.’”

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It was so sweet.

“But how did you do it?” the woman asked.

“A magician never tells,” I said. 

“But I just don’t understand.  It was two cards, and now it’s one….”

But then, all in a moment, it all came crashing down.

“Just stop talking,” the man said.

“What?” she said.

“Just stop talking. You make yourself sound like an idiot.”

It was an extraordinary moment in which I saw everything converging at once: love, marriage, honeymoon, and divorce, the whole damn thing, all in a single moment.

Like, Crash

We hit Vegas in February and they found Cudjo’s decomposed body eleven months later in the desert. Sometimes, sitting in the Mini Cooper, I cry. Sometimes I gasp for air.

When we arrived, it took us a week to find the bridges. They connect one casino to another on the second floor so the tourists don’t even have to walk down to the first floor to cross the street. Something about maximizing profits, I don’t know. The bridges are this no man’s land on the Strip because it’s just sheeple walking across in a flowing stream that never stops, all day, never stops, and no security guards ever.

So I buckled down and got to work tossing the molly, right there on the ground, Cudjo keeping lookout, and a shrill whistle meant the rent-a-cops were coming. I had known Cudjo since we were in first grade together and he forged my mother’s signature on a note saying I had been bad. In junior high, we had devised a system for cheating off each other’s tests. Cudjo had always been something of a magician, and by 18, was dreaming about a career as a big-time Vegas showman. I told him I’d buy the rhinestones. Problem was, now all the magic acts are four-walled, meaning the casinos don’t put up the money anymore, they just rent out the space. You have to hire the crew, bring in the illusions, advertise, market, place the butts in the seats, and that takes some serious green. But that dream still burned like a flashpot in Cudjo’s heart.

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After high school, he was the one who taught me the molly, which he’d learned from an older guy on the pier. The ring finger is the key, that and acting like you’re stupid to get people to bet. Wear horn rims, he said. Act blind. It was Cudjo who knew we could take the molly on the road, make a career of it.

Our first hour on the bridge, we pulled down $1800. Second day, two different bridges, we sunk down to $375, but then $5400 the next day. We were on our way. There are risks, of course, like when you pry hard-earned cash from their cold, dead fingers. One guy threatened us with a Planter’s pop top lid, another with his bodybuilder brother-in-law. But we could handle the heat. Our policy was, Run fast.

A month had passed and we were living large, renting a 3-bedroom place and fighting over who gets to store their new purchases in the extra room, although I always let him win because magic props take up space and I was pulling for his four-wall.

“Hey,” Cudjo said one morning, his hair like a bird’s nest if the bird had been a total slacker, “did you know my old man lives here?”

“Your old man?” I said. “I didn’t know you even had an old man.”

“Yeah. And I’m thinking maybe I shouldn’t have told him I hated him when I was six. Like maybe I should apologize? Because it was my mother who told me to say it after the divorce. I’ll never forget his face. Like, crash.”

Cudjo hadn’t seen the guy in 14 years, but one day, he blows into the apartment with so much excitement you could’ve bottled it and sold it as an energy drink that some 11-year-old boy drinks seven of and dies of a heart attack, that’s how jumped up he was.

“He wants me to move in with him,” he said. “Dude, we can start all over again.”

So I’m left alone in this big cavern of an apartment, his magic tricks still taking up space in the third bedroom, the Head Twister and the Zig Zag Girl, but at least Cudjo was happy. Turned out they both liked the angry music of Imogen Heap, both couldn’t stand nature, and both liked cranking it up to over 100 on freeways when the cops weren’t looking, although trust me, dude, they’re never not looking.

“It’s like discovering your twin,” Cudjo said. “He was like me before I was even me.”

One night four months in, Cudjo and I are in the Mini Cooper and he pulls out a paper bag from his pocket.

“You’ll never guess what I found in my father’s shoe.”

It’s this motherhonkin’ bag of brown. Cudjo said that tar was going for $170 a gram now and that this was a pound or more, and that this was the thing that could get him started four-walling. His eyes were singing and dancing like Footloose Redux.

“He’ll never miss it, dude,” Cudjo said. “His whole closet is filled with shoes like this.”

[This story is fiction.]

Yikes! It’s Carnevale!

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Americans call it Mardi Gras, but Italians have a more elegant name for it: Carnevale.  This week, the fabulous restaurant il Fornaio imported me from Los Angeles to Carmel to perform magic from table to table.  It resulted in six full hours of gasps and laughter.

There was 8-year-old Emma and her 8-year-old friend Emma—“The Emma twins!” I exclaimed—who couldn’t get enough of the multiplying sponge balls.

There was the table of eight art students who came for pizza after art class.  When I magically made a half-dollar appear beneath a man’s watch, he said, “Either he’s really good or I’m drinking too much!”

There was the family of six that I approached whose father said, “Okay, one trick.”  I blew them away with that, and 10-year-old Rachel said, “One more!”  So I did one more.

“One more!” Rachel demanded again.

“You’re the boss, aren’t you?” I said.

“Yes, I am,” she said, a look of certitude on her face.

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Linda, the manager who orchestrated the whole event, was dressed in a fabulous silver and green robe that she expropriated from a Shakespeare Santa Cruz production of Macbeth and seemed very Carnevalesque.  I suppose the Shakespearean connection explains the lines she muttered continually throughout the evening with an evil cackle: “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood/Clean from my hand?  Mwahahahahaha!”

But the highlight of the evening was a middle-aged couple from Sacramento that seemed so happy with each other that they seemed like newlyweds (see photo above).  I was surprised to discover that they had been married for–get this–23 years.

“It helps to marry someone who’s smiling and pleasant all the time,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.

There wasn’t anything else I could do.  I performed the Anniversary Trick, which is a trick that celebrates love.  At the end, they posed for the photograph, which inducted them into the Yikes-the-Magician-Freaked-Me-Out Brigade, not to mention the This-Is-True-Love-and-Don’t-You-Forget-It Club.

150,000 Times

We were sitting around at the Magic Castle on January 2, at the 51st anniversary party.  From out of the blue, Siggie asked if any of us had any cigars.  She’s always been kind of a firebrand.

“My father died of smoking in 1989,” I shot back with a bite in my voice.

My father sitting in his favorite chair, smoking

My father sitting in his favorite chair, smoking

Everybody at the table was silent for a long moment.  Finally, Adam chimed in cheerfully.

“How do you know he died of smoking?”

I shot him a look.  He was wearing a red suit and a shit-eating grin on his face.

“Because he was a pack-a-day smoker,” I said.  “He went into the hospital with one of the most advanced cases of undiagnosed COPD and emphysema the doctor had ever seen.  He died of a series of strokes and heart attacks.”

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Smoking at age 21 in Korea.

“Yeah,” Adam said, “but how do you know it was the smoking?  Lots of people these days are dying of lung cancer who never smoked in their lives.”

“My father didn’t die of cancer.  It was COPD and emphysema.”

Clearly, Adam wasn’t understanding my tone, which was filled with venom and warning, or perhaps he was perversely choosing to ignore it, maybe to get under my skin.

“I know that,” Adam said, “but how did you know it was smoking that caused it?”

“Adam,” I said, “the Surgeon General issued a report as far back as 1964 showing a strong correlation between smoking and lung disease.  This is well established.”

“That was a long time ago,” Adam said.  “Our research has come a long way since then.  There are all sorts of reports these days finding different kinds of things.”

“What kinds of things?”

My father approximately age 58

My father approximately age 58, looking quite a bit older and sicker.

Adam floundered for a while trying to answer that one, and I let him flounder.  He was proving himself wrong, although by that time, there was nobody else there to witness it.  Adam has a similar contrarian view on climate change, government regulations, the national debt, and other Fox News lies.

“You can’t tell me what kinds of things,” I finally said.  “But I can tell you that the tobacco companies are evil.  Reagan’s Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop, said that smoking was as addictive as heroin.  And I can tell you that on his deathbed, my Dad said that he had tried to quit 150,000 times.  Those were his exact words, ’150,000 times.’  And after he died, we went through his stuff and found all sorts of literature about smokers’ rights.  And you know who published it?  Organizations that were funded by Philip Morris and all the other tobacco companies.”

I never did convince him, but he convinced me of something: that he appropriately summed up the dictionary definition of ignorant.

To read my other posts about my father’s death from smoking, click here and here.

Some Mex Dude

My mother is of Mexican heritage and my father was of English heritage, making me of mixed parentage.  That used to signify lower status in this country.  Everybody now realizes that, if just by taking a casual glimpse at the past two presidential election cycles.  Still, it amazes me anew every time I realize how things used to be.

I was reading through an old magic magazine today (Genii, the Conjurors’ Magazine, Dec. 1969, p. 173) and was reminded of it once again.  The article concerned a piece of magic that can be seen here, as performed by my mentor, the fabulous Jeff McBride:

The article discussed who invented this wonderful and lovely piece of magic.

“Anyway, in this book it says that Dr. Elliott originated [the trick].  Elmer Ransom told me once that a Mexican fellow walked into one of the magic shops one day and [he stunned everybody by doing the trick].  Dr. Elliott saw it and evolved [the move] and a lot of other little moves with it, but he certainly didn’t invent the original idea.”

The author is interested in Dr. Elliott, and he’s interested in the provenance of the magic, but he’s certainly not interested in pursuing the name of the “Mexican fellow.”  There’s no conjecture about his identity, provenance, or what other magical methods he may have developed.  This isn’t overt racism, but instead, embedded racism–the kind that passes unremarked in the assumptions that people make about the world.  From another magician, I’ve learned that the Mexican fellow’s name was Cantinflas, the fabulous Mexican clown and movie star whose given name was Mario Moreno.

[http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rFw87NbZLro]

The author of this musing was Dai Vernon, who was known among magicians as the greatest magician of the 20th century, an estimation that includes Houdini, even though most non-magicians don’t even know his name.  He was not known as a racist, but instead, a man who was obsessed with magic above all else.

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But that’s just the way it was in Vernon’s day.  To be fair, his day started in the 1920s, so it’s certainly not fair to say that racism raged full bore in 1969.  It is fair to say that racist attitudes were the norm among many people who were still alive in the late 1960s, such as Vernon.  If a white guy did something great, you knew his name.  If a brown guy did it, it was just “some Mex dude.”

One of my mentors was a fabulous magician named Robert Rodriguez, who died a couple years ago.  Although I can “pass,” it was impossible for Robert to pass.  He once confessed to me that when he started doing magic in Los Angeles in the late 1940s, Mexicans couldn’t perform at white people’s parties in a suit.  Instead, it was only proper for them to perform if they were dressed in ethnic costume, such as a mariachi costume and sombrero.  Dignifying them with suit and tie gave them an equal status that they simply were not allowed.

I am so glad that times have changed.  Sombreros hurt my forehead.

How Deep the Rabbit Hole Goes

Last weekend at the Magic Castle, I was performing my closeup magic show at the tables.  At midnight, I was thinking about leaving when a group of Japanese walked up to the table.

Closeup Wonderground merge 2 smaller“You do show for us?” the younger man asked.  I later discovered his name was Masa.

“Of course.”

And so I launched into my main show, which lasts about 20 minutes.  I had to pronounce my words more slowly because of the language barrier.  Sometimes, I would deliver a joke, look up, and be greeted with uncomprehending silence.  Such are the wages of national identity.

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Still, there were heartwarming moments of commonality in my show.

“Morpheus asked, ‘Do you want the blue pill or the red pill?  When you make the choice, you will discover how deep the rabbit hole goes.’”

I was referring, of course, to the moment in the movie The Matrix when Morpheus offers Neo a choice between a blue pill, which will allow him to return to his life, or the red pill, which will allow him to see the whole truth about his reality.  But one man took a different meaning.

“Blue pill?” he asked  “Like Viagra?”

Pharmaceuticals are apparently an international language.

And so is magic.  Whenever I finished a trick, Masa would gaze at me in wonder and express his astonishment.

“I have not seen this type magic,” Masa said.  “Is best I have seen.  Is very attractive.”

When the show was over, though, it was my turn to be astonished.  Masa turned out to be Masanori Takumi, a thirtysomething composer/musician from Tokyo who was in town for the Grammys, which were to be held the following evening.

“I show you my medal,” Masa said, and pulled out a bronze medal with “Grammy nominee” embossed on it.

Turned out the other men in the group were his agent, his producer, and three other business associates.  Apparently, Masa writes a lot of music for anime and video games, and is quite famous in Japan.  After the show, I was so impressed that I gave him a guided tour around the Castle.  I didn’t get home till 2:30 am.

The next evening, Masa didn’t snatch the big prize.  He was entered in the category of “Best Reggae Album” (a song he wrote was included on an album by Sly & Robbie and the Jam Masters called Reggae Connection), and seriously, how can you win against Bob Marley’s son Ziggy, who won for a live album.  It’s like competing against Zeus’s son in the category of Best Roman God.  Not only that, but Japanese reggae is, to be frank, a long shot, like kiwi salsa.  But still, I let him know via email how impressed I was.

“Just being a nominee means that you’re officially one of the five best this year,” I wrote.

“And you were the best I seen,” he wrote back.