Krazypants About Masks

We just had a confrontation with a neighbor in our condo complex. He told my partner Claire that I wasn’t a real man. He said he’d beat me up.

It’s a weird time. A couple weeks ago, we had an incident in the laundry room. Gerard’s wife Marta was in the laundry room, and Claire walked in. She should not have walked in, because it’s close quarters. However, she was wearing a mask and Marta was not. An hour later, when the load in the dryer was done, I went to collect it and found Marta collecting her own laundry, again without a mask. I waited politely outside until she was done, and when she was gone, I entered, wearing my mask.

Afterwards, I thought about it. It wasn’t right to go maskless into the laundry room, we decided. When a person doesn’t wear a mask, she spews globules from her lungs into the air, and according to the CDC, it can hang there for up to three hours. And if we enter, we can inhale it and be infected.

So we wrote an email to Gerard. We asked them politely to wear masks in the laundry room. We mentioned my 90-year-old mother, who has several comorbidities. Claire even went back over the email to make sure it was 100% polite.

We heard nothing back. Two days later, I was down at my garage when I saw Marta walking towards the laundry room again. And once again, she was maskless.

“Really?!” I said from a distance of about 70 feet.

Marta turned.

“What?!” she said.

“Mask,” I said.

“Whatever,” she said, and continued into the laundry room.

Later, Gerard blew his top. He said that my verbal request insulted his wife. He refused to wear a mask. Said I was paranoid. Said I wasn’t a real man. Said that he was forbidding me speaking to either his wife or his two children. Said he was going to beat me up.

This guy is the president of our Homeowners Association.

When Claire came home and told me about the threat of physical violence, I called the police. When someone threatens violence, you have to let them know that there will be consequences. So an officer showed up in a mask and took our report.

I’m waiting to see what happens. This shit is krazypants.

What I Know About the Uberpartisan New York Post

I’ve read of the recent sad journalism at the New York Post accusing Joe Biden of corruption.  Several Post reporters refused to put their name on the article because they doubted the sources’ authenticity.  Finally, they found someone to author it, a young woman who has published no previous articles with the Post, but had worked for the Sean Hannity Show for four years.

The “proof” in the article was a laptop that was supposedly left at a Delaware computer-repair shop, and then handed over by the owner to Rudy Giuliani.  Remember that American intelligence has revealed that Giuliani has recently met twice with Andriy Derkach, whom Trump’s own Treasury Department has sanctioned for acting as a Russian agent and interfering in the 2020 election. 

Also curious is that a computer-store owner would contact a Republican operative and hand over someone else’s property.  If you owned a computer store, would you look through the contents of a customer’s computer? Would you contact a partisan hack whom American intelligence has accused of consorting with Russian spies? If so, I’m not going to bring my computer to your store, because you have absolutely no sense of boundaries.

This story in the Post has led other right-wing media to claim that the laptop’s hard drive contained 25,000 images of Hunter Biden “torturing and raping children under age 10 in China….”  Politifact has solidly refuted this claim, but the rumors have spread across right-wing media like a plague.

Looking at the outlines of this story, American intelligence officials have been alarmed, and 50 of them have signed a letter claiming that the story “has all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation.”  It just reeks of right-wing fantasy, of which there are so many these days.

So why would the New York Post publish crap like this?

Well, I have more perspective on this question than many others.  In 1999, I had an encounter with the Post that told me everything I need to know about them.

Twenty-one years ago, I had just published my first book, Be a Street Magician: A How-To Guide (Aha! Press, 1998).  I was excited to promote the hell out of it, and I did.  I spent nine months on the road promoting the book, lecturing to magic clubs, appearing at bookstores, being interviewed on television and radio, and the like.  It was a blast.

That summer, I rented a flat in New York for a full month, and immediately spotted a great opportunity to promote the book: the New York print media.  After all, New York City has arguably the best street performing in the world.  There’s Washington Square Park, the Theatre District, South Street Seaport, and the like, all venues filled with talented young people pulling in massive audiences.  The density of the New York population results in lots of cash dropped into those buskers’ hats.

The pitch would be simple.  The author of Be a Street Magician was making a monthlong stay in the best street-performing city in the world!  He would comment on all the great busking talent that residents could see in the city for free. 

I pitched the Times and the Daily News, but they both turned me down.  But when I pitched the Post, I got a nibble.

“I think my boss is up for the story,” an editor told me over the phone.  “But to do this kind of story, we’d have to tie it to a celebrity, somebody you could get a quote from about street performing.  Could you do that?”

“Sure,” I said.

I was thinking of a couple of celebrities whom I had bumped into in 1983.  I had been visiting New York and staying with my friend Jon, sleeping on a mattress on his kitchen floor.  One Saturday, we were strolling along Broadway when we came across two buskers playing a street festival.  One was a portly juggler, and the other was a short, quiet magician.  They called themselves Penn & Teller.

Sixteen years later, Penn & Teller had become television stars, with famous appearances on “David Letterman,” “Hollywood Squares,” and many other shows, although they hadn’t yet clinched their regular gig in Vegas at the Rio Hotel & Casino.  So I called around and located Penn & Teller’s manager.  I told him what I wanted, and he said he’d try to get back to me with a quote.  Within 24 hours, he had.  He gave me the most fabulous quote about busking that I could imagine.  It went something like this.

“If you can perform in the middle of the street, with crowds who are on their way to somewhere else, in 100-degree heat or pouring rain, and stop those people, make them watch you, make them fascinated even in spite of crying kids, smart-aleck teenagers, and dozens of other unforeseen obstacles, then you might have what it takes to perform on the street.”

I was happy.  I had my quote.  I had my article.

I called my editor, dictated the quote to him, and waited for the call from a reporter.

Instead, a day later, I got a call from the editor.

“I’m really sorry,” he said.  “My editor said no.”

“Why?”

“I’m sorry, but this newspaper is really dead-set against liberals.  And Penn Gillette is a major Democratic party guy.  My editor said he wouldn’t ever publish anything that mentioned the guy.”

I hung up the phone and scratched my head.  It was weird to be asked for a quote from a celebrity, any celebrity, and then rejected because they didn’t like who the quote was from.  Even more curiously, I’ve since discovered that Penn isn’t a raging liberal, after all, but instead, a libertarian, or in his own words, “an anarcho-capitalist.”  And most curiously of all, I didn’t understand why my article about busking would be rejected because of the politics of someone commenting in my article.  Busking has nothing to do with liberal or conservative politics.  It’s just talented people doing magic in a park or street corner.  (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, May 24, 2003)    

The article never happened.  But in the intervening years, I’ve begun to question everything that the New York Post publishes.  They seem rabid and uberpartisan.  I don’t trust a thing they publish.

The Responsibility to Smile

When your mother has a stroke before age 70, you want to protect her.  I tried to help out at the time, but she didn’t fully trust me.  Going through a rough childhood, she’s always had trust issues.  But when she reached 88, she had to let me in.  She needed help.  And when I looked closely at her relationships, I realized that one of her longtime friends was actually a small-time con artist. 

Mom met Frederick when she was 60 years old and Frederick was 35.  He touted himself as a real-estate agent, but was actually more of a handyman.  A few years after they met, Frederick sold her a condo that the owner wanted to get rid of quickly, and within a year, she had fixed it up and turned it around for a $100,000 profit.  She made out okay.

For years, Mom thought of Frederick as a kind of patron saint.  He would fix things in her rental condos for the lowest price.  He would make small repairs on her home.  He would ask her counsel about his love life.  They would talk for hours on the phone and at his home.  Talking, however, was always the price you had to pay with Frederick.  He was a nonstop talker, and the words that poured out of his mouth were always a word salad making little sense.  Talking to Frederick, you might be on the hook for an hour or more.  The hope was that if you waited long enough, you might come away from the conversation with some nugget of information that was concrete and clear, like how to repair a bathtub or whether it was time to buy or sell.

When Mom got into her eighties, however, I began monitoring her money more closely.  I began to suspect that Frederick might be taking advantage of her.  Everything became clear when we paid Frederick $3,000 to renovate our bathroom.  We had been planning to do the renovation for a long time, but it didn’t become urgent until a high school friend started planning a visit that would involve a couple days’ stay at our house.  We joked that Jeff’s visit to California was costing us $3,000, and it was kind of true, although not literally.

So we gave Frederick a firm deadline of February 17 to renovate the bathroom.  That gave Frederick nearly two months to finish, and he assured us that the bathroom would be ready in time for the visit.  But as the deadline approached, Frederick procrastinated more and more.  He would work for a while and then he would talk ceaselessly, making very little sense, but still, smiling amiably, saddling us with the responsibility to smile, as well.  Then there were excuses.  He needed to go to Home Depot to buy this, to buy that.  Before we knew it, the deadline was nearly upon us. 

A week before Jeff’s trip, he called us and let us know that he had decided to stay at Beth’s house on the beach in Laguna, and I was relieved.  When I hung up, though, I decided not to tell Frederick.  I just wanted to see what he would do.  I wanted to see if he would honor the deadline.

As the deadline approached, Frederick made himself scarce.  When he showed up, he made not comment on it at all.  He blew right through the deadline.

Then something happened that clinched it for me: Frederick tried to sell us the Brooklyn Bridge, and actually did—in a manner of speaking. 

In addition to the renovation, Claire wanted a new bathtub installed.

“It’ll cost extra,” he told her.

“That’s fine,” Claire said.  “I’ll pay for it.”

And so Frederick and Claire went to Home Depot to pick out a new tub.  It was an interesting trip, because my mother had tipped us off that Frederick had a crush on Claire.  He also seemed rather competitive with me, she said.  It didn’t threaten me, though.  I couldn’t imagine Frederick and Claire coming to any sort of détente.

At Home Depot, Claire chose a lovely Maui style bathtub, paid for it herself, and was excited about having it installed.  Frederick was to transport the bathtub in his own truck and install it the next day.  Once it was installed, however, Claire looked at it more closely.  She spotted a scratch in it that looked familiar.  She looked more closely. 

“I know that scratch,” she thought. 

It was exactly the same scratch that had been in the old bathtub.  Frederick had removed the old bathtub, painted it, and then reinstalled it into our bathroom.

Claire was infuriated, but she didn’t tell us about it.  Her reasons were curious.  First of all, she’s the type of woman who avoids confrontation.  She didn’t want to have the inevitable showdown with Frederick.  She didn’t want to accuse him of anything.  Furthermore, she didn’t want to wait for him to remove the bathtub again and have to wait days, possibly weeks, for him to install a new one.  She found it easier to just take the insult.

Two years down the road, Claire told me what happened.

“Wait, you’re saying that…he sold us back our own bathtub?”

“Yes,” she said.

“And you know this because…”

“Because of the scratch.”

“It was in the same exact same spot as the old bathtub.”

“Right.”

“Why didn’t you tell me about it?”

“Because I just wanted to be done with it.”

Word eventually got back to my mother, who had originally recommended Frederick.  When she had heard Claire’s story, she asked about it again, astonished.  Finally, she asked Frederick about it.

“Yes, of course, I installed a used bathtub,” Frederick said.  “She paid for a used bathtub.”

“But she shopped for it with you at Home Depot,” Mom said.

“No she didn’t.”

“She has the check that she used to pay for it.  She showed it to me.”

“I don’t think so,” Frederick said.  “I don’t remember.”

What Frederick was doing qualifies as gaslighting.  It left Mom confused and irritated.  Mom turned to Claire for more proof, and Claire went back and excavated her old notes.  She had kept detailed notes on the bathtub, proving that yes, she did pay for a new bathtub, not a used one, and that no, he hadn’t promised a used bathtub.  We wouldn’t have paid for that, anyway.

My mother had argued with us several times that Frederick wasn’t a con artist.

“I’m taking advantage of him,” she said.  “I get lots of free stuff from him.”

Over a period of months, however, we caught him in other lies and cheats, large and small.  Eventually, it became clear that Frederick had been taking advantage of Mom in ways small and large for several years, and that if she continued using him in the future, that he would take advantage of her any chance he got.  After this bathtub cheat, however, Mom seemed to shrink from him thoroughly.  I’ll have to keep a watch on it, though.  These con artists have a way of coming back to their old marks.  They especially like those who have reached the age of 90, and can’t fend for themselves.

Choosing Love

People sometimes ask what my religious affiliation is. I tell them to mind their own damned business. Well, mentally I tell them that. In the moment, I tell them some version of this explanation: I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.

Today, I realized that there’s a better and simpler explanation to how I feel about this. I believe in love.

There are lots of songs about this, some sentimental, some laughable, some great, but I don’t mean love in a sentimental way. I mean to use the term love in a descriptive way. I believe that loving is the best and surest path to everything. Fill your life with people whom you love. Show love to as many people as you can. Act with love towards strangers. Use love as a reason to act morally. Use love as a reason to act ethically. Follow the path of love to reach forgiveness. Extend love to achieve social justice. Extend love to the world’s have-nots. Let love shine through in your smile. Let love fill your voice. Let love fill your actions. Let love fill your heart. Greet the world with love.

And here’s the important part. Where religion diverges from the philosophy of love, I diverge from religion. I choose love over ritual, love over self-righteousness, love over Bible verses, love over doctrinal differences, love over sectarianism, love over legalism. Love defeats religion any day.

The Business of COVID Suffering

I know there are people who are suffering.  I’m not, but I know they’re out there.  Who knows, I may know them, but they aren’t confessing their situation to me.  I know a few restaurant servers, but they’re not talking.  I know a bunch of entertainers, but they don’t go into detail about their inability to pay bills.  I suppose it’s humiliating.

But my friend Robert talks to those people all the time.  He works for a multibillion-dollar mortgage company in Southern California.  He talks to these kind of people every day on the phone.  He has quickly gotten a sense of what they’re going through.

For example, a single mother called in the other day and confessed that she had lost her job.

“I filed for unemployment insurance, but it hasn’t kicked in,” she said.  “I can’t pay my mortgage.  And even when unemployment kicks in, it doesn’t provide anywhere near the amount of money I’m going to need to keep my payments up.  And if I have to make a choice between paying my mortgage and feeding my kids, I think that the mortgage is going to take a back seat.  Look, I’m dreadfully afraid of losing my house and my livelihood and everything I have, and I don’t know what to do.”

Robert was wearing his headset and listening.  After she was done, he explained what he could offer, which is something called forbearance.  It’s a 3-month pause during which mortgage holders aren’t held accountable to pay their mortgage.  They won’t suffer late charges, fees, or be reported as delinquent to credit agencies.

“She just started crying,” Robert said.  “She was so grateful that the world wasn’t going to cave in on her at this very moment.  The problem is, even after three months of forbearance, she still has three months of back payments she has to make.  Forbearance doesn’t mean your payment is forgiven, it just means you don’t have to pay them right now.”

Robert spends eight hours a day answering phone calls in the Forbearance Department.  He reports for work at 8 am, entering through the automatic doors, as do the other 15 members of his team.  Then he sits at a sanitized desk in a sanitized cubicle.  He sits at a prudent distance from other team members.  When he walks around, either to the restroom or for lunch, he wears a mask and keeps his distance from other employees.  He dons a phone headset and starts fielding calls.  All day, every day, the phone is ringing off the hook.

The calls generally fall into three categories, Robert says.

First, there’s the mortgage holder who genuinely needs help.  When you offer forbearance to them, they’re quite thankful, because they will be given a respite for three months from catastrophe.  Sometimes they cry.

Secondly, there’s the mortgage holder who is angry and screams at him.

And thirdly, there’s the mortgage holder who’s heard about forbearance, but doesn’t really need it.  They’re calling in to see if they’re eligible for free money.

“Today, I got screamed at,” Robert said. 

It was a woman who was in financial trouble, as so many are, and was demanding help.  Interestingly, different people react in different ways to crisis, and this particular woman led with a right hook.

“You’re the third person I’ve talked to today,” she said.  “So you listen here and you listen good.  Your company needs to not punish people who have been paying their mortgage on time and now can’t because of this crisis.  Your company needs to say, ‘Hey, you’ve been such a good loan holder that we’re going to forgive your mortgage for four months.’”

Unfortunately, Robert didn’t have any leeway on his response.

“We only have forbearance,” Robert said.

“Screw that!” she responded.  “Listen, we pay our bills on time, and we have for years.  Now suddenly, the moment we need something, all you have is forbearance.”

“Well, I’m sorry, ma’am, that’s all I can offer you.”

“Well, I need to talk to your manager!”

The manager, of course, had no way of forgiving four months’ worth of mortgage payments.  Company policy simply doesn’t allow for that.  They’re a company that buys and sells loans, as well as maintaining them.  However, they’re in the getting-money business, not the giving-away-money business, and won’t forgive payments unless they’re forced to by the government.

“These people think that maybe they can get a free ride for three months,” Robert said.  “I tell them that it isn’t a good thing if you don’t need it.  You get reported as CURRENT, but you’re also reported as FORBEARANCE.  If you’ve lost your job and can’t pay for a couple of months, forbearance is going to make a big difference to you.  But if you can pay, it’s not a good deal.”

To people in the third category, people who haven’t lost their income sources, aren’t desperate, and don’t need forbearance, Robert is honest.

And so Robert sits at his cubicle every day, from 8 am – 5 pm, fielding phone calls from Americans in distress.  In a very real way, Robert has a front-row seat on the financial distress that’s been created by this pandemic.  And even though I am comfortable in my home during this time—honing my cooking skills, taking long bicycle rides, and practicing new magic tricks—Robert gave me a glimpse into the agony that so many people are going through, something that I won’t soon forget.

The rest of the story: After I wrote this, something else happened.  Two of the fifteen people who work at the company came down with COVID-19.  The office was immediately abandoned and the employees sent home for a period of time.  Robert quarantined for 14 days to see if he was sick, and thankfully, he wasn’t.  The company cleaned the office and asked the employees to return to the job.  Robert said that he wanted to work from home.  That wasn’t an option, the company said.  Robert insisted. So that was the end of that job.

The Many Meanings of Counterfeit

A few days ago, the owner of Cup Foods in Minneapolis called police on George Floyd.  He claimed that Floyd had paid for cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill.  Police responded, put him in handcuffs, and then Officer Derek Chauvin sat on his neck until he died.

That sequence of events seems strange to me, especially since I’ve had some experience with matters such as these.

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About 10 years ago, I was passed a counterfeit $50 bill in Southern California. I was working at a party in a gated community in the west San Fernando Valley.  There were fancy homes with lots of square footage. There was a jazz band playing in the front yard.  There was an inflatable bounce with kids jumping inside.  There were hired princesses with fabulous smiles and tiaras.  There were food carts.  And I was the strolling magician.

At the end of my shift, the moderately drunk host gave me a bunch of cash and I drove away happy.  The next day, however, a gas station cashier informed me that the fifty I’d been given was counterfeit.  He didn’t call the police.  He just didn’t take the bill.

Once I discovered that the bill was a fake, I reported it to the Sheriff’s Department.  They were terribly dismissive of the matter.  They seemed to imply that I was making the report as revenge of some sort, which was strange, because they knew nothing of the situation beyond what I told them.  They regarded it as a trivial matter.  They also said that it wasn’t their jurisdiction, and referred me to the Secret Service, of all things.

So I called the Secret Service Office in downtown Los Angeles.  Someone took the details.  They said, however, that there was nothing that they could do.

“We don’t pursue anything under $2,500,” the woman said.

And that’s how I lost $50 to a drunk guy who passed me a counterfeit.  Nobody cuffed him.  Nobody killed him.  He was a white guy in a gated community.

So when I hear about an officer handcuffing somebody and even killing them for a $20 counterfeit bill, you can imagine my puzzlement.

The COVID Set

Last Sunday, I performed magic for a live audience in a backyard.  It was my first live magic show of the COVID-19 era (not counting shows in which I was performing for an audience in my computer).  Truth be told, creating and executing that show was a journey with many bumps, forks, and side roads, but one that I’m sure I’ll take many more times in the next few months.

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The occasion was the 90th birthday of my mother, Sally.  She owns a two-story house in suburbia in which she lives with her Shih Tzu dog Phoebe.  Since the beginning of March, she has been isolating in that house.  We’ve all been quite strict about her isolation, because she is at very high risk of death if she contracts COVID.  She has diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and she can sleep through the night only with the aid of oxygen.

“If I get this thing,” she has said, “I die.”

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As Mom’s birthday approached, we struggled with ways to make her birthday special.  We had originally planned to travel somewhere—Europe, for example, or maybe just New York City.  Claire and I have been visiting her on a regular basis, but have not gone inside the house at all.  It seemed quite a shame that she would be isolated, unable to kiss or hug anyone, unable to be comforted, on such a momentous, albeit bittersweet occasion.  Ninety, of course, brings with it an expectation of passage.

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Gradually, an itinerary for the day formed in my head.  I decided we would bring her a meal at noon from her favorite restaurant.  We would Zoom with her relatives from 1 – 3 pm.  And then her new neighbors would come over and visit in the backyard in an appropriately distanced way.

The neighbor family consists of a couple, Codi and Jeff, plus their three children, aged 2, 3, and 10.  Codi has been doing all of Mom’s grocery shopping for no extra charge (Mom just pays for the groceries), and we have all been astounded at their generosity.  Her help has saved me an hour in driving time, and probably another hour or two on top of that, every week.  Their help has also helped my mother feel less alone, and reminded her that people care for her.  Given that Codi and Jeff’s family are such angels, I offered to do a magic show for them at 3 pm.

But I had to think long and hard about the show.  The first challenge was my performing space.  I couldn’t perform inside of the house, of course.  And in the backyard, the main section of the yard has no shade.  Since it promised to be a hot, sunny day, that was out of the question.  The only option, unfortunately, was on the side of the house, beneath a large pomegranate tree that hadn’t been trimmed lately.  But it was quite a poor option.  My audience couldn’t be in front of me.  I would have to face the house and some garbage cans, and the audience would have to take shelter beneath a patio overhang to the far right of my stage area.  My mother, of course, would have to sit at a safe distance from there.  The only option was a space far to the left.

The performing situation, then, was the famed Dancefloor of Death that we magicians dread.  That’s a situation that magicians often face in hotel ballrooms, in which the magician is instructed to perform on the dancefloor, with half the audience seated to his right, the other half seated to his left, and the DJ directly facing him.  It’s a horrible performing situation.  First of all, your angles are terrible.  Not only that, but you’re always turning right or left to talk to people, and in the process, ignoring the other half of the room.  If you’ve ever tried to perform in that situation, you know that it’s a recipe for a bad audience response.

I also realized that I would have to perform a no-touch show.  No onstage volunteers.  No handling of props.  No borrowing items from the audience.  That meant that all pick-a-card tricks were out.  My Tossed-Out Deck was also verboten.  As I thought about that, however, I realized that I could perform some card tricks; there were workarounds.  For example, if a trick required that a card be signed, I could actually ask the spectator to name a card, and then ask him or her for their name and for a number between 1 and 100.  That makes the card nearly as unique as a signed card.  Under those conditions, I placed Card to Pocket on my set list.

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There were many other tricks that I could not do.  No sponge balls, for sure.  Bill in Lemon was impossible, because I would have to borrow a $20 bill.  (I could have performed a Signed Card to Lemon, using the signature strategy mentioned above, or a Chosen Card to Lemon, but chose not to work out the new moves.)

Also, almost no mentalism was possible.  One of my methods involves asking for thoughts to be written down and secured in envelopes, and that was out.  I perform TOXIC with a spectator’s phone, and that was out.  No book tests could be performed, because the spectators would have to handle my books.  Technicolor Prediction was out because the spectators couldn’t handle my envelopes.  My coin bend would have to be modified because I couldn’t borrow someone’s quarter and they couldn’t sign it.  My Double Cross was out because I couldn’t touch a spectator’s hand.  My Kurotsuke wasn’t possible, either, because nobody could grab any object of mine.  I also couldn’t perform Psychokinetic Time unless I used my own watch, and that makes the effect much weaker.  The only mentalism trick that seemed to require no touch was the Invisible Deck.

Fortunately, over the past 15 years, I’ve developed a silent opening segment (to music) that warms up the audience and lets them get to know me.  It seemed tailor made for this situation.  It includes the following tricks:

  • Torch to Rose
  • Glass Production
  • Linking Rings
  • 50-foot streamer production from a rolled-up map
  • Extended Salt Pour
  • Billiard Balls
  • Fingertip flowers
  • Spring Flowers from a Cone of Construction Paper
  • BEKOS
  • Tom Frank’s Yes We Have No Bananas!

This silent segment generally takes about 15 minutes, so that was taken care of.  As I thought about these tricks, I was also thinking about my summer walkaround gig at the 5-star Terranea Resort, which may or may not happen.  I realized that there are a number of tricks of the silent or manipulative sort that I should quickly work up, if my summer walkaround gig is to be successful.  This includes no-touch classic tricks such as:

  • The Shell Game
  • A coin matrix
  • The Endless Chain
  • A walkaround Billiard Ball routine
  • A thimble routine
  • Three Fly
  • Dice Matrix
  • Coin Flurry

Some of these require a table, of course, and I don’t own one of those walkaround tables; I’ve always preferred to work in the hands or on the customer’s table.  I guess I’ll be buying one of those.

Back to my 90th birthday set, the silent magic segment was easy.  When I moved into the talking part of my show, however, I ran smack into limitations.  I could perform my rope routine, but I couldn’t invite up any spectators to hold or test the rope.  I could vanish silks, but I couldn’t invite up spectators to hold the silks.  I couldn’t perform my Impossible Rope Escape, because nobody could get close enough to me to tie me up.  I usually toss a fake egg into the audience to choose a volunteer, but that was out, too.

The rest of my set list, then, looked like this:

  • My version of The Coloring Book (which is custom made and doesn’t look anything like the original trick)
  • Flash $100 Bill Production (using flash paper)
  • Daryl’s Rope Routine
  • D’Lite routine
  • 51 Cards to Pocket
  • Die Box

Mentalism:

  • Invisible Deck
  • Dice divination

Fortunately, it was enough material to make a full show.  It looked like it would take about 45 minutes to perform, which is a perfectly respectable length of time.

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I got a good sleep the night before the show.  I was eager to pull off this show.  After all, I had really performed for people for weeks.  When I arrived at the house, however, I realized that my performing spot—underneath an old pomegranate tree—was difficult.  The branches hadn’t been trimmed in a couple weeks, and I would have to use gardening shears to give myself some headroom.  Even after doing that, however, I realized that anything involving fire was too dangerous because the branches were still too low.  Therefore, Torch to Rose and my Flash $100 Bill Production were both out.

Still, the rest of the show was quite doable, so I set up, and by 3:15, Codi and Jeff’s family had arrived.  They were mostly dressed in masks, but I wasn’t.  After all, how can you perform for people if they can’t see your face?  You can’t project, you can’t emote, and the audience doesn’t connect.  I didn’t remark upon my lack of a mask, but simply kept my distance.  I was never closer to them than 20 feet.

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I also worried about the 2- and 3-year-olds.  I envisioned them staggering towards me, as kids that age do, and endangering my health.  I imagined the show being disrupted.  I imagined me running from them in comic terror.

Despite my fears, the show generally went to plan.  I wouldn’t call it my best show.  I wouldn’t even call it an average show.  It was rather subpar because I was performing on The Dancefloor of Death.  On the other hand, I think the audience understood my limitations and cut me some slack.  I also suspect they were laughing and gasping underneath those masks, even though I couldn’t see them.  The 2- and 3-year-olds knew to keep their distance, too.

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And the angles certainly did mar the show.  Often, I had to make a choice between exposing a trick to Codi and Jeff’s family, or exposing it to my mother; I always chose my mother.  Billiard balls, after all, are quite angular.  The music was great, and my Audio Ape remote system worked flawlessly.  Mistakes crept into the show, and it always had to do with the performing situation.  I stepped on and destroyed my pair of performing sunglasses, which I wear only for the first trick.  I also dropped a couple of tricks from my set list on the fly, just because they didn’t feel right.  But certain tricks felt like naturals for this situation, including Invisible Deck, which is a perfect no-touch set piece.  BEKOS was perfect, as well.

After I had finished, though, it got weird.  Usually after a show, I mingle through the audience to let my new fans get to know me, passing out my business card and allowing them to float their own ideas about hiring me for their own events.  They all want a piece of me.  They ask me how I got into magic, how long I’ve been doing it, and then showering me with compliments about my virtuosity and their astonishing experience.  However, after this show, I was afraid to mingle with the audience, and they were afraid to mingle with me.  They drifted off in their masks.  It’s a sign of the times.

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This COVID tragedy has damaged magic badly, to be sure, but it hasn’t killed it.  There are still people who want to be amazed, to feel the wonder lift their hearts.  And one day, this flu shall pass.

The War on Baby Boomers

It’s an old story, so I won’t bore you with the whole spiel.  The media called them the ’60s Generation, but demographers and advertisers called them the Baby Boomers, because when GIs returned from WWII, it caused a boom in births and a bump in the population.

All during my youth, they were a big deal.  Everybody looked to them to see what the future would look like.  Under their reign, racial barriers came down.  Whites started treating minorities like real people.  Whites started marrying blacks.  Kids started growing their hair long.  They didn’t see the use in raising their pinky while drinking tea or maintaining the perfect lawn.  They wanted to express themselves, find meaning, and gaze at their own navel.

David Groves with Afro ca 1979

The generation before them didn’t have a name.  But then Tom Brokaw came along and named them after the fact: The Greatest Generation.  And they were great, because they had real, life-or-death challenges that later generations didn’t really have.  They fought for everything they got.  They cleaned up the corruption that was rife within society throughout the 1930s and ’40s.

But now, those generations are under attack.  A virus has targeted them.  The media talks about the virus targeting the elderly, but let’s not forget that these people were a very big deal in their day.  They won World War II.  They brought us the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Aretha.  They took us to the moon.

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Now, a small slice of American culture is saying that the mass death they are experiencing is just fine.

“Many people who are dying, both here and around the world, were on their last legs, anyway….” Bill O’Reilly said in an appearance on Fox News.  “A simple man tells the truth.”

Simple, yes, although not in the way that he means it.  Truth, no.

What O’Reilly is implying, of course, is that we shouldn’t mourn these generations because they would’ve died soon, anyway.  Well, O’Reilly is going to die soon, anyway, too.  But when that happens, I won’t go around disrespecting his life, because every life deserves dignity and respect.  Some people have no class.

Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick put his foot in it, too, when he said:

“There are things more important than living,” and that those generations of Americans might be “willing to take a chance” on dying for the good of the economy.

Vicious, yes.  Pro life, most certainly no.

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

My own mother was a member of that Greatest Generation.  She remembers Pearl Harbor, blackout curtains and air-raid sirens.  She was a mother when Nikita Khruschev banged his shoe on the podium.  She worked hard for her Masters Degree, raised two good kids, and received her reward by retiring in a house on the hill.

My mother doesn’t deserve to be sacrificed body and soul so that a serial sexual harasser like Bill O’Reilly can try to goose his stock portfolio, or Dan Patrick can try to service the Texas oil companies by forcing people back into their cars.  They built this country before us.  It’s theirs.  Show a little respect, why doncha.

True Tales of Horror from the Grocery Store

I wouldn’t want to be a grocery checker right now.  They’re the infantry, the poor sods that the generals send in first to get mowed down by gunfire.  I hole up at home watching Netflix and eating too much cheese.

However, I do know a Vons checker.  His name is Miguel, and he has some tales to tell from the front lines.

20200408_055238Miguel remembers quite clearly the day the COVID panic hit.  It was Friday the 13th of March.

“All of the sudden, a flood of people came in and we were overwhelmed,” Miguel said.  “We were running all of the checkstands, plus all of the new self-checkout stands.  We started running out of things, but whenever we brought out a new palette, people were just grabbing things off it before it could even get to the right aisle.  It was unlike anything I had ever seen before.  We usually close at 1 am, but that night, we decided to close at 10.  We just ran out of supplies.

“On Saturdays, we usually opened at 5 am, but it soon became obvious that that wasn’t enough time to get all the products restocked, so we waited until 7.  When we opened the door, it was even crazier than the day before.  People were in a state of buy buy buy.  It turned out being a record sales day.”

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That was over a month ago, of course, which seems like a lifetime ago.  In general, people have been calm and polite to each other, says Miguel, even more now than before the pandemic.  However, there have been exceptions.

“My manager tried to enforce the limits on toilet paper on this one customer, and he threatened to beat him up,” Miguel said.  “On another occasion, he received a death threat.  Those people haven’t been back to the store.”

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Every morning at 5 am, there’s a line waiting outside the store, because that’s when the store is fully stocked.  Generally, it’s about 10 people deep, usually maintaining a 6-foot distance from each other.  By 7, they begin their 2-hour window for seniors, pregnant women, and the disabled.

One day, a guy appeared in that line who obviously didn’t fit into the required categories, and the manager questioned him about it.

“Well listen, my kids gotta eat, too!” the man said in a belligerent manner.

The manager let him in.  They’re grocery clerks, after all, not paramilitary forces.

A few days ago, I talked with Miguel again.  He hadn’t seen his girlfriend in five weeks.  He was working long hours.  The anxiety was getting to him.  Fortunately, the crowds have slowed down considerably.  In addition, corporate is treating them extremely well.  However, there are still incidents.

One day, a female clerk was standing at the front door making sure that people were wearing masks, and a man objected.

“This is not a prison!” he yelled.  “We have rights!”

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Another customer who was stopped for not wearing a mask yelled: “I fought in Vietnam!  I can do whatever I want!”

Did I mention that most customers have been extremely kind and polite?

Every time I go to the grocery store, I take all the precautions.  I put on my face mask.  I seal it up on the edges with medical tape.  I put a playing card in the pocket to physically block the virus.  I don’t even take a shopping cart; I just hold my bags.  I rush through the store, picking up products quickly one after another, trying not to pass through anybody else’s exhaust, so to speak, avoiding close contact.  But Miguel has to work in that environment eight hours a day, five days a week.

I mentioned to him that to many, food workers are heroes.

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But Miguel would have none of it.  He launched into a monologue about heroes, that nobody at Vons is patting themselves on the back for being a hero, that when you see it in the newspapers, it’s all just hype from the unions, that the employees have all the gloves they want, all the masks they want, extra hand sanitizer, and blah blah blah.  Finally, I just interrupted him.

“Look, that’s what heroes say,” I said.  “Somebody rescues a little kid from a burning house, and they say that say they’re not a hero, that they just did what anybody else would have done.  Some soldier saves 15 buddies who are pinned down by enemy fire, and guess what, he says he’s not a hero, too, that his 5 other buddies who died are the heroes.  Dude, that’s what all heroes say!  Accept it!  You are a kind of hero!”

That shut him up.

[Miguel is a food clerk at a Vons in the north San Fernando Valley.]