The Chaperone with Stars in Her Eyes

Last night, I was hired to perform magic at a high school prom, held at a local country club.  There were 1,000 or more, and they were Orange County kids, mostly white and Asian, middle class, nice.  The morning after, I’m thinking back on them, so many of whom seemed sweet to me.

The girls so proud of their fabulous dresses.

The teenage boy with gorgeous curly surfer hair, standing in line outside with his gorgeous girlfriend in the striking red dress, holding hands.  And you know every girl wants him and every boy wants her and they both know it.

The uncool kids dancing to the quaint jazz band rather than to the superloud house music.

The nerd, slouched and bespectacled, walking around stag, trying not to look lost and unsure what to do or who to ask to dance.

The kids there with same-sex partners, no harassment.

The other kids going stag, or in groups with other kids who didn’t have dates, trying to have a good time.

The brash girl with blue hair, coming off, like, “I’m not going to go through life getting lost in the crowd!”

The girl Alexis who had 35-year-old eyes, like she knew everything already, and she probably did.

The table of Asian kids freaking out en masse at every trick and amazement I performed, screaming “Whoaaaaaaa!” and begging me not to leave, just one more trick.

At one point, I leaned over to an adult chaperone my age, and whispered, “Are these kids like we were?” And she said, with a grin, “They’re better.”

Being Himself, in More Ways Than One

Bill Perron is a born entertainer.  He made his living as a carpet cleaner for many years, and hated it.  He hated swinging that big, heavy machine around.  It took its toll on his poor, aching back.  Not only that, but he didn’t find any glory or satisfaction in his job.  But one day, Bill was hired to clean the carpets at the Icehouse Comedy Club in Pasadena.  In that club, Bill experienced a life-changing moment.

Bill stepped up onto the stage, just to see how it felt.  In the semidark theatre, he faced all the empty seats.  He took a deep breath.  He imagined what it would be like to entertain a roomful of people.  He imagined all the people applauding at the entertaining things he said, laughing and enjoying themselves because of every word that proceedeth from his lips.

What a wonderful thing it would be to be a performer! he thought.

Suddenly, an orange light suffused the stage.  Bill swears it wasn’t one of the stage lights, but instead, an otherworldly orange light that shone down upon him.  And suddenly, in that moment, he realized that performing was his destiny.  As soon as he could, he went out and learned some magic tricks, and soon, he was working full-time as a magician.

I met Bill in 1990, when I was first getting into magic.  At that time, Bill had been a performer for five years already.  In fact, Bill taught me some of my first tricks.  He threw some shows my way.  He introduced me to some booking agents.  But the most extraordinary thing about Bill was that funny things were always happening to him.  And to tell the truth, I know exactly why.  It’s because he makes unusual decisions.  He’s a wacky, offbeat guy in so many ways.

Case in point: A few years ago, Bill was taking an improvisational comedy class.  His teacher assigned him the homework of creating a unique comedic character, and Bill went to town coming up with new ones.  The best of the bunch was Carlos Caliente, who was a spoof of a sexy, indeed, arrogantly sexy Spanish guy who is, in Carlos’ own words, “hot hot hot!”

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Bill developed some comedy routines for Carlos, and through the years has gone out on many gigs performing as Carlos.  He even created some modest advertising to promote Carlos.  He placed Carlos’ face onto a magazine cover and put that onto the Internet.  Over the years, Carlos has become one of his favorite characters, as you can see in this clip with his lovely assistant, Joycelyn.

A couple weeks ago, Bill’s commercial agent sent him a casting notice.  A production company wanted lookalikes of latino celebrities for a commercial aimed at the latino television market.  At first, it seemed like he had nothing to offer them.  Bill doesn’t look like Enrique Iglesias or Lou Diamond Phillips, and certainly not Sofia Vergara.  But then an idea popped into his mind.   As a kind of spoof, why not propose that he’s a lookalike for…Carlos Caliente? 

Bill immediately started to laugh.  In fact, he thought idea was so hilarious that in the end, that’s exactly what he did.

I look very much like Carlos Caliente, a famous latino celebrity.

He didn’t expect to hear anything more about it.

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A week later, though, Bill received a callback.  Bill was driving, so Joycelyn took the call.  Yes, they had seen a photograph of Carlos Caliente on the Internet, and yes, Bill did look remarkably like Carlos.  And so they had a request: Would Bill come in and shoot a commercial posing as a lookalike to Carlos Caliente?

Yes, he’ll be there, she said.

At this point, I would have laughed for about 90 minutes and then figured that I’d had my fun.  I would have called off the joke and told the production company the truth.  But that’s what makes Bill different from me.  Bill felt obligated.  Joycelyn had said yes, so he had to go along with it.  Bill showed up at the commercial ready to make some money.

In the studio, the director had a photograph of Carlos pinned to a bulletin board.  In fact, it was the same magazine cover that Bill had mocked up several years ago and placed on the Internet.

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“You look very much like Carlos Caliente,” the director said.

“Yes, I do,” Bill said.

“I mean, very much like him.”

“Yes, I’m fortunate in that.”

“We’re going to dress you up in a 3-piece suit.”

“If you want, I have a suit that looks exactly like Carlos’ suit in that photo.”

“No, we just want to do a lookalike thing.  We don’t want you to look too much like him.  In fact, you already look too much like him.”

“All right.”

It was for a latino department store, so they shot him doing things around the store–shopping, buying things, helping people.  In all, Bill spent seven hours shooting that commercial.

Bill assumes that the commercial is now playing on latino television, although he can’t be sure because he doesn’t watch Univision.  But he wonders what it looks like.  And I wonder what latinos think when they see this guy in a 3-piece suit noodling around a latino department store like he’s Somebody.

Who’s that guy supposed to be, anyway?

He’s just being himself, people, in more ways than one.

Mother Is a Reflection of Light Through a Crystal Goblet

My mother is in the hospital with pneumonia, so I had just come from her house in Diamond Bar, where I had retrieved some items that she needed during her stay in medical prison.  I was sitting in the left turn lane on Grand Avenue, thinking about how we care about others.

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Sometimes caring is genuine and sometimes it’s faked, but when it’s your mother, the genuineness of it goes deeper and broader than anything, deep like the deep roots of an ancient tree in Lord of the Rings, and broad like the stretch of our identity, which is like the muddy Mississippi River of a Jimmie Rodgers song, and which I’ve seen from the shore of the French Quarter and I could hardly even see the other shore.  Mother stretches into everything.  How you shake someone’s hand.  What goes through your head when you get angry.  The things that play below your thoughts like malware in a computer.  The unexpressed things that make people say you’re a good person.  How you react when you read a newspaper story about someone killing somebody else.  In all of those things, there are pieces of Mother, like the reflections of light through crystal.

Sally Groves with her new baby

I’ve been calling my mother on the phone more than she professes she wants (“You have a life to live!” she says), but I think that’s because she doesn’t want to be a bother and I sincerely want to be a bother.  I don’t want to be laying comfortable and warm on my sofa, feeling just great, while she’s laying in a hospital bed in an ugly green gown that’s open in the back, her lungs hurting all the time.  That’s why I call so much.  That’s why I visit the hospital every day.  That’s why I drive to her house and brings things to her.  And that’s why I was sitting in my car at the intersection of Grand Avenue and Diamond Bar Boulevard that day, bringing her a bagful of her belongings that she needed.

That’s when I saw him.  He was a medium-sized mutt, dappled white and black, and only about a year old.  He was running into the street and cars were stopping for him.  It was alarming to watch.  He was a bit frantic in his actions, as if he were lost and searching for his owner, rushing to a spot in the street, then stopping unexpectedly and swiveling his head around, then just as unexpectedly running in a different direction across lanes of traffic.  Everyone who saw him feared for him.

When the light turned green, I made a left turn onto Diamond Bar Boulevard, and it just so happened that at that moment, the dog was safely on the sidewalk to my right.  Still, I knew he might run into traffic at any time, so I pulled over and rolled down my window.

“Here doggie!” I said.

He looked up at me curiously.  In a split-second decision, I parked the car then and there, in the red in front of a bus stop, and jumped out of the car.

“Here baby!” I said, trying to approach him.

He cautiously approached me and sniffed my hand, but I was cautious about him, too.  You never know when a dog is going to bite you, after all.  I squatted down and was about to snatch him when suddenly, he bolted and ran into traffic, as if saying, I don’t have time for this, I’ve got to find my owner! 

I stood up and watched, dreading what would happen.  Diamond Bar and Grand is a very busy intersection, after all, and he kept running into lanes where drivers weren’t expecting him.  Worrying that I had locked myself out of my running car, I got back into my car and watched.  Then, just as suddenly, the dog veered back to our side of the boulevard, and a shiny black pickup truck behind me opened his door.  The dog went up to check the man out, and the driver got a bit of a hold on his harness.  Behind us, a bus and many cars were waiting to see what happened.  Seeing that the guy was having trouble getting the dog into his truck, I jumped out of my car and grabbed the dog from behind.  I lifted him into the cab, despite the fact that the dog was peeing on my hand, and bam!  We had him!

“Go pull into that parking lot,” I said to the truck driver.

Once we were safely there, I climbed into the cab with the other driver.  He was a sixtysomething auto mechanic who had just moved here from New Jersey, he said, and he was as giddy as I was to have averted a disaster.  But now we faced a different problem.

“What do we do now?” he said.

“Well, there are shelters,” I said, “but they usually keep them for a couple weeks and then kill them.”

I was thinking about other dogs.  My first dog, a dachshund named Gretchen, whom we loved for a couple years until he became paralyzed, as many dachshunds do (with a genetic disease now called IVDD), and my parents put him to sleep, as the euphemism goes.  My second dog, a Samoyed named Czar, who kept me company throughout my teenage years, and whom my mother gave away during my freshman year in college because I wasn’t there to take care of him.

Then, unfortunately, I was thinking about another dog I had found under a car in our driveway and I had fallen in love with.  He was big and brown.  He was scared and lost.  I brought him into our garage that night, and then in the morning, brought him to the shelter.  His owner would be looking for him.  He would be frantic.  But when I called later, I discovered that the owner never picked him up.  I wish I’d had the time to take him.  I can only presume the consequences.  I think about that dog often, in fact, with great regret.

My second dog, Czar

My second dog, Czar

My grandmother's Pomeranian (L) and our family dachshund Gretchen.

My grandmother’s Pomeranian (L) and our family dachshund Gretchen.

My bunny Quesadilla and our cat Zorro.

My bunny Quesadilla and our cat Zorro.

Our bunny Lulufifi.

Our bunny Lulufifi.

“Let’s not bring him to a shelter,” the Jersey guy said.

I was also thinking of other pets.  Our cat Zorro, who lays around all day sleeping, just waiting for mealtime.  My old bunny Quesadilla, who lived an astounding 14 years, perhaps because we took such good care of him.  My old bunny Count Chocula, whom so many children had petted and loved.  There are so many animal companions in our lives, and I dread to think how helpless they all are.

So I was holding this mutt, rubbing his face and back, trying to make him feel more relaxed.  He had his front legs on the passenger seat, looking me in the face as if to say, Is this my new owner? and was warming up to me.  To look at him, he seemed like a cartoon dog, like the kind of mutt that Little Orphan Annie might have had, and he had an open, friendly spirit.  He was wearing a black harness, implying that he wasn’t a stray, but not a tag, so there was no phone number we could call.

“Hey listen, I have an idea.  When I first saw the dog, he was coming from over there,” I said, pointing up Grand Avenue.  “We should just drive up there and see if anybody is looking for a lost dog.  There’s a condo complex up there and not much else.”

“Well, that sounds as good as anything.”

So we started driving towards Grand Avenue.  We were two strangers thrown together by circumstance, trying to do the right thing.  In some ways, I felt like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, or the Skipper and Gilligan, whichever seems more lost.  We pulled onto Grand Avenue and then made a U turn back to the condo complex.  I kept petting the dog, rubbing his face, holding his beautiful gaze.

“It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay,” I kept saying.

He was a darling.  He believed me, even if I didn’t know if I did.

Immediately, we saw a thirtysomething guy walking down the street and talking on his cell phone.

“Let’s ask this guy,” I said.

“Okay, but what are the odds that he’s the guy?  I mean, are we going to ask everybody we see?  It seems impossible.”

I rolled down the window as we pulled up to the guy.  I interrupted his phone call.

“Are you looking for a lost dog?” I asked.

The guy looked at me as if a lightning bolt had just hit him.

“Yes!” he cried.

I held the dog up so that he could see, and the man suddenly had the purest look of unmitigated joy in his face.  I mean, there were tears in his eyes and the emotion had filled him up.  The dog was excited, as well.  The man came up close, grabbing at the dog’s head, holding it, petting it.  For a moment, I thought he might kiss me.  It was that lovely of a moment.

And when I was driving home, I thought of my mother.  I thought of love like a muscle that you flex and exercise, and which gets stronger or weaker, depending.  I thought of love as a decision.  And I thought of what vast and mysterious ways in which I love my mother.  And a half-hour later, I walked up to room 581, brought her her bagful of things, and didn’t mention anything about any of this.

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[Sorry, but I have no pictures of this incident.]

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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Trinity Church in Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire, England

Trinity Church in Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire, England

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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!

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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.”

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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

The Queen’s Nude Pool Party

The queen. Across the pond, her name occupies immense psychic space.  While in Ireland, for example, I made a joke to a cab driver.

“Yeah, we had dinner with the queen the other night,” I said. “I’ll tell you, she was drunk as a skunk.”

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If I’d told him my brother was skunk-drunk, that wouldn’t have gotten the merest rise out of him. But Queen Elizabeth II soused on her ass? That cracked him up.

When I visited the Magic Circle last Monday, I talked with the grand old man of magic, Henry Lewis, who has been a member of the Circle for decades.  His big claim to fame is having performed regularly for the royals.  Ask him and he’ll bring out his iPad and show you where he claims it on his Web page.

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At the Magic Circle with 95-year-old master magician Henry Lewis.

“If you play your cards right,” Henry likes to say with a wry grin, “I’ll invite you to my funeral.”

Personally, I’m not a big fan of the queen. A few years ago, I made my views known to a visiting British author at a party.

“She hasn’t earned her position,” I said. “She wasn’t elected, she wasn’t promoted, she didn’t work her way up through the ranks. She doesn’t do anything in particular. She’s like an appendix, really. It’d be better if you just cut her out.”

The British author started to sputter, as the English sometimes do, muttering some indecipherable defense, or more appropriately, defence. She never did fully articulate that defence. That hostess never invited me to another party.

On our trip to England, though, the queen and the royals hung in the air like a heavy Saxon mist. Harry and William were on the front page of the Times promoting a charity. My mother and Claire spent a few hours at Windsor Castle, where the royals reside. I visited Buckingham Palace on my way to an acupuncture appointment, and in the ever-present souvenir shops, saw Union Jack paperweights, double-decker bus keychains, books about royal genealogy, and all manner of royal detritus.

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We didn’t see the queen, though. Maybe we should have called first. Mayhaps she would have invited us over to take a dip in the pool.

“Bring your swimsuit,” she might have said over the phone. “We’re all taking a dip au naturelle.  No need for sunscreen, though. This is England, after all, not fucking St. Tropez, ha ha ha!”

Maybe the conversation wouldn’t have gone exactly in that way.

On Tuesday, we hopped on a train in London at 9:10 am and headed north for Wales, where we were to catch a ferry across the Irish Sea, landing in Dublin at 5:25 pm. It promised to be a nice, relaxing trip on a fairly empty train.

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But there was a man sitting across the aisle from us. He had dark hair and was plugged into a lot of technology. A conversation ensued, and then, as often happens, I was performing a magic trick for him. I must confess that I’m a little promiscuous with magic in that way, performing magic for strangers at the drop of a bowler hat. Then I was teaching him a magic trick, because, as he said, “I work with kids and I need tricks sometimes.”

So I taught him a killer trick that’s fairly simple. Cross-cut force with a bet as a revelation.  After teaching that, I became Bill’s lifelong friend.

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Bill and I began chatting about all sorts of things, starting with history. Oliver Cromwell’s ill treatment of the Irish. Whether the Chinese were better off after communism came in in 1949.  What kind of man Mao Zedong was. Why rich countries are often flanked by poor countries that provide cheap labor.

“I’m reading lots of histories, making my way around the world,” I said. “One history leads to another which leads to another. It helps me put together a picture of the world.”

Somewhere into the third hour together, Bill mentioned casually—not gratuitously, but apropos to the conversation—that he had had dinner with the queen the night before.

“William and Harry were there,” he said, “and Andrew, as well. It was as part of a charity that I run called Coderdojo.”

In that moment, something changed. One of two options applied. Either he had been in the company of the queen the night before and we were actually in the presence of someone extraordinary, or he was a fraud or delusional or both, and everything he had been saying previously was now suspect.  Our world hung in the balance for a while.  It recalled for me the day I met a named Peter (last name withheld) of Orion Entertainment, who gave me his card and promised to get my magic show on television.  He never did return my calls, but pretty quickly, I discovered online accounts of how he had defrauded numerous people, writing huge bad checks and promising people things he couldn’t deliver.  Turned out that Orion Entertainment was not a legal company, just something printed on a business card.  He had lots of fraud convictions, including larceny charges in New York state, wrote $60,000 in bad checks to a winery, $30,000 in bad checks to a woman he “hired,” who promptly quit her job in Northern California to move to L.A. before she discovered the scam, and numerous other scams and frauds.  Needless to say, I was skeptical.

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My gut told me Bill was for real, and soon, I had the opportunity to check it out on the Internet. Happily, my gut feeling was right.  He’s the author of a book with, of all people, Desmond Tutu.  He’s lectured at the London School of Economics and at TED.  He’s got quite an impressive resume.

Amazingly, Claire, my mother, and I were one degree of separation removed from the Queen of England.

In fact, we were sharing a train with Bill Liao, an investor who made over a billion pounds in tech, then cashed out and now spends all his time running various charities designed to save the world.

Amazingly, Bill wasn’t traveling first class, perhaps because he was charging it to one of his charities.

“I like to sit in this car because the next car is first class, and you can get free Internet access if you sit right next to it,” he said.

Strangely, he was one of those guys you hear about in movies but hardly ever see, a superrich guy who likes to rub elbows with “real people.” In my experience, most rich people find that too much of a bother.  They might run into a bore. They might discover that there’s some money to be made off you.  They might zero in for the kill when your bodyguard is seeing a man about a horse.  In my experience, there are always several layers of protection between the superrich and the outside world, and those protectors are vicious when they need to be.

“Power changes you,” he said at one point. “They’ve done studies on it.”

Bill lives on a farm in Cork, Ireland, with his wife and three children. Throughout the eight hours that we spent together, we talked about everything. While we passed through quaint Wales towns, he would point out the castle on the side of the mountain or the windpower generators in the bay or the longest place name in Europe (Llanfairpwllgwyngyll), which is written across the train station–alllll the way across it.  At one point, he commented on my personality.

“Yes, you seem to have a personality with all the hard edges cut off,” he said.

I’m still wondering whether that was a compliment.

I guess I was waiting for something. I performed a couple of my best magic tricks for him, and he said he was mightily impressed. So I waited.  The conversation would have gone something like this.

You know, the queen has simply got to see your magic. You’re fabulous. Why don’t you stay with our family for a few days, and then I can arrange a dinner where you can dazzle the queen and the royals with a show.  I would think that Kate would find you physically attractive, as well, and would like to take a skinny-dip with you.

I could do that, I would say.

It wouldn’t be an inconvenience, would it?

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Unfortunately, that conversation never took place. But the next best thing happened. We talked about the future of humanity, about how to teach the next generation of children in a better way, about whether children need authority figures more or freedom more, about whether the world was getting less violent. I had a fascinating conversation, one degree removed from the Queen of England, for eight hours.