In the Labyrinth of Selves

[This is chapter 5 in an ongoing work of fiction.  To see chapter 4, click here: https://whathappenstous.wordpress.com/2017/06/28/55-las-vegas-days/%5D

There was a Russian oil executive’s son.  Then there was a South African who had something to do with diamond mines.  Then there was a New York investment banker.  It didn’t really matter what they did.  What was important was that they were all loaded.

Evan played the part.  Over weeks, he began to understand the fields that Anthony Hopkins ploughs.  And David Haselhof.  And Donald Trump, too.  Evan had two selves, and he had to keep track of where they were at all times.  It was like they were tethered to each other by elastic.  Sometimes the selves were one person, but at other times, his real self stepped outside and watched the other one play the part.  Sometimes Evan watched it lie.  But the nub of lying was that he had to lie from truth.  Otherwise, suspicion would fester like a sore, and was liable to be fatal.  There’s a beautiful state park in Washington called Deception Pass, a beautiful bridge that stretches over a lovely forest and beach, and whenever he had to deceive, Evan said to himself: I’m driving over Deception Pass again.

IMG_1354.jpg

“Where’d you go to school?” the investment banker asked.

“Dropped out of Princeton.”

“I mean before that.”

“Oh.  Prep school in New Hampshire.”

“Which one?”

“Exeter.”

“Oh, my kid goes there.  Kid from my first marriage, before I discovered I wasn’t a breeder.  Did you like it?”

Evan stepped outside of himself and watched his other self panic.  He had done the research, but he didn’t want to get into too much detail.

“Hated it.  Hated the teachers, hated the kids.  It would be great if I never ever thought about it again.  Ever.”

That shut him up.  Only gradually did his two selves veer together again.  Hate was great misdirection.

The investment banker loved male strippers, which made the dirty work easy.  Sometimes he disappeared into a bedroom with one.  Over eight straight evenings, John took $2.4 million from the guy, and without protestation.  Evan decided not spend his share.  He was saving for a down payment on a house, but was unclear how he would do that in cash.

Φ

The young Russian was easy, too, but then he turned around too soon during a deck switch.  Evan looked at him.  Their eyes met, and then Evan looked away.  He began to sweat.  Russian eyes were scary because Evan didn’t know where they were coming from.  They seemed frighteningly unsentimental.  He looked over at John, whose eyes were eyes averted but who was still looking.  Evan thought about what he knew about Russia, that they were an alcoholic society, that they had been ruled for years by gangsters masquerading as communists, and now, gangsters masquerading as democrats, that they had been undergoing a brain drain for years and that natural selection had probably taken its toll.  They were such a corrupt society that they had to deal with loser American millionaires like Mr. Orange Hair.

Drunk 1a

A long minute passed.  Eventually, it became clear that the Russian was drunk.  He had seen something, but he didn’t see, the brain being a funny thing.

I’m thinking too much about my mistakes, Evan thought.

Almost everything is going right.

Over Deception Pass, almost isn’t good enough.

At home, Evan kept his cash in his shoes, and when he ran out of shoes, he bought more shoes.  After a while, he stuffed cash into socks in his drawer.  He bought somebody’s surfboard and had it hollowed out, stuffed that full of cash.  Then he found a metal panel behind the refrigerator, opened up the wall, and hid a big bag in there.  It was a challenge that he hadn’t expected, where to store his cash.  Evan wasn’t going to fall into the trap of spending it all.  He had self-control.  He knew that about himself.  After five weeks, he had bought a new car, but it was a two-year-old bargain, an Acura, nothing fancy.  On game nights, he would roll up to the house in some red racecar that John had arranged for.  As soon as he could after a long game, he would take Kara out and blow a few hundred on a great evening—dinner, dancing, a penthouse room somewhere, sweating on top of her, hands gripping her wrists, iced Champagne in bed after, club sandwiches and Truffle French fries for two, the works.

Φ

One night, John built a game around a Midwestern bakery millionaire’s son.  He was impeccably handsome, like Ryan Reynolds but without the kind eyes.  Evan stared at him for a while from a distance, deconstructed his look, and finally concluded that he wasn’t really gorgeous, after all, that it was mostly just a construct built on expensive tailoring and careful dermatology, like Ivanka.  The guy called over Kara and asked for a Quaalude or two, which John had conveniently stocked up on, and Evan realized it was going to be an easy evening.  There were two other guys at the table who liked to dream big but didn’t have the deep pockets to back them up, classic losers.

Around midnight, during a break in the action, Evan walked up to Baptiste in the other room.

“Rum and Coke, hold the rum,” Evan said.

“Hey listen, she turned me down,” Baptiste said, fixing the drink.

“Who?”

“The bitch.”

“What, Kara?”

“S’what it is.”

“I’m sorry about that, bro.”

“But I got a fix for it.”

“What’s that?”

Baptiste opened his palm, and there were two pills in it.

“What is it?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know,” Baptiste said with a grin.

“What is it?”

“Let’s just say I bought it from one of Bill Cosby’s friends.”

David and Angela drunk 1a

Evan’s first self was red-faced and fuming, but his presentation self remained quiet and mildly amused.  Baptiste was cool, too, smiling the widest disgusting smile that had ever been disgustingly smiled.  Evan turned and looked out the window at nothing.  It was nothing, his public self was saying, she was just a silly bitch.

Φ

When the morning dawned, the bakery heir’s cell phone woke him up and he staggered back to the game.  Soon, the table was swimming in a cloud of smoke and their sweaty clothes stank of tobacco.  Kara pushed Sex on the Beaches hard on bakery asshole and he dug himself further and further into the hole.  To amuse himself, Evan rolled a half-dollar on the backs of his fingers.  It seemed like a smart-ass thing to do, something he might have learned from the bad boys at Exeter.

 

At 9:30 am, the two losers were in the other room with a couple strippers while the bakery boy was passed out on the sofa from too many hookers and Stolichnaya.  Evan looked at the kid’s face.  It was like seeing track marks on him, a face full of affluence and pampering, pink cheeks and perfect hair.  He didn’t feel sorry for him at all.  The kid had never had a day’s struggle in his life, that much was clear.  Growing up, Evan had had to save up for magic, tricks that cost $15 and $20 and each purchase felt like you were sacrificing something for it, a pound of flesh or something, but this guy could have bought Magic City, Inc., with his weekly allowance.  He was pissing it away.  Evan had no sympathy for bladder problems like that.  He didn’t know if it was affluenza or self-destruction or just a urinary infection, but Evan wove these moments into a narrative, like what he was doing was kind of like, not exactly like, but in a way like class warfare, like Karl Marx or FDR or Bernie Sanders.  He was doing a good deed.

Body art 1c

“I wann’ sleep for coupla hours.”

“What about coming back tomorrow night?”  John asked.

“Naw, sleep for coupla hours.”

“You guys up for that?”

The other two guys had been eyeing the scion’s cash all night and morning.

“If he can take it, I can take it.”

“I’m with him.”

“Fuckin’ A.”

While bakery scion slept, Evan closed his eyes in one of the bedrooms.  It was a gorgeous high bed with a beautiful bedspread.  It yawned before him.  Four hours later, he woke up to discover that he worked his way under the sheets fully clothed and still wearing shoes.  The sheets were fabulous.

“I never had a son,” he heard John say.

Evan looked up and spotted John in the doorway eyeing him, he didn’t know for how long he had been doing it.  Then he rubbed his eyes and looked at him more closely.

“Why didn’t you?”

“Hate kids.  They steal your life away.  There are a few I’d like to have killed, Jesus.  But even so, it’s nice to have somebody grown who knows what the score is.  Somebody who’s blood.  Somebody who isn’t a fucking round roast.  And somebody who can muck cards, if the occasion arises.  Where’d you learn to do that?”

“From books and other guys.”

“Not from your father.”

“No.”

“I’d like to meet those other guys.”

“It took me ten years or more.”

“No denying you got a talent.  You don’t take after your Mom, that’s for sure.  She was devoid of talent, even in the kitchen.  Hell, she could burn water.”

“She’s never been a good cook.”

“Listen, we’re going to do see how deep we can bury this guy, all right?  Wake up and suit up.”

Evan sat up on the edge of the bed and rubbed his eyes again.  Taking after people was a naval to gaze into.  It was like having a twin, like looking into a mirror and seeing something familiar, or even something that you hated.  It was like Kara and Kendra wrestling with each other.  Evan had John’s knowing grin, but he didn’t know whether that was venality or physiology.  A knowing grin seemed to be an iceberg, with seven-eighths under the water.

Maybe I hold back like that, Evan thought, splashing water onto his face and looking into the mirror.  Or maybe holding back is a reason to go to hell, too.

Φ

When they all knocked off at 3 pm, Evan sidled up to Kara.

“Don’t drink anything that Baptiste gives you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Just promise me.”

“I promise.  But why?”

“Have you taken any drinks from him last night or today?”

“Just hemlock,” she said with a grin.

“I’m serious.”

“All righty, then.”

“Have you?”

“Just water.  Only water.”

“Come crash at my place.”

“What, you want us to babysit your cash?”

“Something like that.”

Evan started walking away, and then it dawned on Kara.

“What, you mean Baptiste….”

Their eyes met.  She got it.

Φ

Three weeks later, Evan showed up for a game with a Brazilian soccer star’s brother.  He walked in the front door, saw that the front room was empty, and then walked into the other room to get a Diet Coke at the bar.  He stopped.  Stared at a prop dummy hanging from the ceiling.  One of Baptiste’s practical jokes.  It was hanging from a strong reinforced trestle that held up a heavy curtain.  From the neck.  Wearing jeans and a sweatshirt.

Evan called John’s cell phone.  He discovered that he was out of breath when he talked.

“Where are you?” Evan finally managed to utter.

“Hardware store.  Why?”

“Listen, you better get to the house fast.  There’s a body hanging behind the bar.”

“You’re at the house?”

“Yeah.”

There was a long pause.

“What the fuck are you doing at the house?”  John finally said.

“We got a game tonight.”

“I texted everybody.  The game’s off.”

“My phone’s been off.”

“I told you never to turn your fucking phone off.”

“No you didn’t.”

“Don’t contradict me.  Get the fuck out of there.  Now.”

John hung up on him.  Evan looked down and stared at the phone.  One self wanted to follow orders, but his other self wanted one last look.  The tension between the two made his heart beat like he was a scared bird or something.

He said to get the fuck out of there.

Nobody will know.

This isn’t going to end well.

Everything will be fine.

It took him a minute or two, but Evan floated over to the bar again.  Looked at the body closely.  It was a strange feeling.  He wasn’t used to seeing bodies dangling next to him.  It was an intense feeling, like his other self, the innocent self that believed everything would be all right, were hanging up there.  Then he looked more closely.  Somehow, something wasn’t right.  He moved behind the body.  Suddenly, he noticed.  The hands were handcuffed behind him.  He drifted back in front to look at the face, which was tilted upwards so far that he couldn’t be sure.  But he knew.

Φ

The newspaper reported that Baptiste’s body had been found in his studio apartment in Henderson.  Death certificate said the same thing.  Inquest revealed that Baptiste had been depressed for years and was taking medication for it, that a pharmacopeia of illicit drugs had been discovered in his apartment, and that he had been selling them to junior high schoolers.  As if.

The games went on, though, no big deal.  Money kept flowing like a dirty river.  Kara kept serving drinks and drugs.  The new bartender had the unlikely name of Boaz von Diebenkorn, a smiley Austrian chap with bad teeth.  After introductions, Evan wandered away, but John caught up with him.

“Tough about Baptiste.”

“Yeah.”

Evan looked at John, straight at him, even though he was afraid to, and there was something in his eyes that Evan had seen before but hadn’t correctly identified.  He hadn’t realized how malignant it was.  The first time he had seen it, it was roguish and charming, like Bogie, the lone wolf with a heart of gold, but now, it was like the pretty mask had been torn off and it was a wolf underneath and Evan tried his best to act like a good boy, I won’t tell, I won’t rat, don’t kill me, tethered by a thread above Deception Pass.

“Do I need to ask the question?”  John said in a low voice.

“No.”

“Okay, listen to me closely.”

“All right.”

John raised his finger sternly in front of Evan’s eyes.  It was as good as waving a hunting knife.

“You.  Don’t.  Steal.  From.  A mark.  The bakery guy was passed out and it was an easy roll, just a few thousand, but that wasn’t Baptiste’s juice, baby, it was mine.”

[This is chapter 5 in an ongoing work of fiction.  Chapter 6 is here: ]

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His Father’s Secret Journal

In 1990, when I was first becoming obsessed with the curious art of magic, I asked an agent her opinion about who was the best kids’ magician in Los Angeles.  She said, hands down, that Andrew Frost was.  So, since I was an ambitious sonuvabitch, I set about to insinuate myself into Frost’s good graces.

David Groves with Afro ca 1979At a party in the San Fernando Valley, I met Frost and Jackie, his girlfriend of more than a decade.  Smalltalk was small and insignificant until I mentioned that I’d just spent the previous ten years as a full-time journalist for such national magazines as Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar, Mademoiselle, McCall’s, Psychology Today, and many others.

“Wow,” he said.

“Whoa,” Jackie said.

“See, I’m dyslexic,” Andrew said, “so being able to master words like that is, like, wow.”

It was an instant entree into his world.  It was the beginning of something that sometimes resembled mentorship, sometimes resembled friendship, sometimes resembled dysfunction, and sometimes resembled a clown car soapbox derby.

Frost was not a polished character.  In fact, he was immersed in a depth of chaos that I had never experienced before.  He lived in the back unit of a house in Glendora.  His living area was a mess, detritus scattered across the floors, many of it bits and pieces of magic tricks.  It was like the room of a child whose mother had never made him clean it.  If you looked, you might easily find a stray ace of hearts or even half a rubbed-banded deck, a dirty sleeping bag smushed into the corner, empty liters of Coke, the white caps tossed somewhere unknown, and a stack of bootleg VHS pornos that had fallen from a shelf and never been picked up.  Plus, he never seemed to catch up on his dishes.

Our bunny Lulufifi.

Outside his window, his rabbits and doves lived in a chicken-wire cage perched above the overgrown lawn to keep them away from predators.  His house was nestled next to the San Bernardino foothills, and so mountain lions and other predators would sometimes cruise down in the dead of night.  Once, a predator scared the animals so badly that a rabbit died of fright.  Another time, he tried to breed rabbits and succeeded too well, and there were too many bunnies to fit in the cage.  So he just let them run free, bunnies of various colors hopping everywhere.

“We don’t need ’em all,” he said.  “Most of ’em’ll end up mountain lion food.”

What I remember about him most now was his voice, which was deep and slurred.  It had something to do with his dyslexia, because he slurred his words even when I knew he wasn’t drinking.  Every so often, a client would complain to a booking agent that the magician had showed up drunk, although they weren’t complaining about his behavior or any alcoholic aroma, only about his slurred speech.  They didn’t much complain about his shows, either, because they were always entertaining.

“Wuzza somethin’ I said?” he would sometimes suddenly say.

Every so often in the middle of a conversation, he would drop that particular bomb.  It took me days to unpack it.  It was a phrase that implied that you were attacking him in some way, and your natural response was to back-pedal: Did I offend?  What did I say?  I didn’t mean to offend.  In fact, it wasn’t about anything that you said, he was just determined to make you back-pedal, and for no other reason than to maintain his dominance.

Jim Skaggs and David Groves ca 1995 blurred 2a

One Monday after a weekend of kids’ shows, I was sitting with Andrew in his squalor talking tricks.  Across the room, he was making a bootleg copy for me of an instructional magic videotape when suddenly, he jumped out of his chair.

“Oh my God,” he said.

“What?” I asked.

He didn’t answer, just ran out of the room and out to the garage.  He walked up to one of the dove-vanishing boxes that he used during his kids’ magic shows.  When he performed the effect, he would lift up the lid and suddenly, as if by magic, the bird inside had transformed into a rabbit.  In fact, the bird had been safely transported to a secret compartment, which was narrow and dark.  After the show, when the audience was safely out of sight, the magician would remove the bird from the secret compartment, but Andrew had forgotten.  Andrew opened up the compartment, and sure enough, there was the dove.  Thankfully, the bird was still alive.

Formal promo shot

I followed Andrew around like a poodle for one reason: He had the secrets.  He had studied the secrets since he was 10, and now, at 27, possessed a bona fide repertoire. In magic, the secrets are golden, and can cost you thousands of dollars.  I had no money, having spent the previous ten years writing for the top magazines in the country.  That dove box alone cost $500, but even just simple instructional videos were expensive, as well, running $40 per.  Books started at $40 and ran up to $300 for the most highly prized ones.

The bowling ball production costs $1,000.

This coin trick costs $1,000, too.

I once paid $90 for a book that explained a trick that I desperately wanted, but when I sat down with it, I discovered that the writing was hopeless and I have never performed it the way it’s explained in the book, so that was $90 down the drain.  Here’s how I perform that trick today:

But more than the money, having perspective on those secrets is even more valuable.  So I followed Andrew around and considered every word that proceedeth from his mouth to be a pearl.  The pearl necklace that he eventually gave me consisted of both secrets and a philosophical approach to the secrets.

Here are some of the tricks that Andrew taught me, performed not by him, but by other people who had the secrets.

I was thrilled.  The magic was starting to happen in my hands.  At the same time, though, there was Andrew’s chaos to contend with.  To me, the road to success was orderly.  You learned things by applying yourself.  You succeeded by putting things together in a logical manner.  You memorized.  You studied.  You had Aha! moments in the shower and on the 405 freeway.

But to Andrew, order, logic, and studying were for chumps.  As much as possible, he thought, you should try to get away with things.  Don’t rehearse, just perform things on the fly and deal with the mistakes in the moment, the moment was everything.  Don’t read instructions, just do it.  Don’t memorize a script, because that would make your patter sound wooden and unspontaneous.  Don’t write your own jokes, just steal them from others.  Let your life fall apart and get your rocks off on the mess that lies around you.

I wondered if he was right.  After all, Einstein never combed his hair.  Jack Kerouac and the beatniks lived in squalor.  So many legendary musicians–Charlie Parker, Bill Evans, Ginger Baker, James Taylor, Kurt Cobain–created great music out of heroin addiction.  Andrew was a dyslexic, and I wondered if that, too, might be a source of genius.

At first, I tried to see how much disorder I could stand.  I adopted Andrew’s priorities.  Magic was on the highest shelf and cleaning didn’t even have a shelf.  The inside of my car became a mess, and unless I had a date, I didn’t care.  I started considering all the time we spend cleaning and arranging things as wasted time.  Doing the dishes, picking up your clothes, making the bed, putting away the iron, sponging off the kitchen table, everything.  I started to see my chaos as a whole new world.  I felt that, in some ways, it opened up new intellectual vistas to me.

But at the same time, I had doubts.  A voice deep within me told me that Andrew’s chaos was simply the result of family dysfunction.

I remember the day he confessed to me that he was cheating on Jackie, his girlfriend of 10 years, who was a lovely rebel who idolized him.  He was now secretly sleeping with his landlady Jennifer, the woman who lived in the main house.  Both Jackie and Jen worked as clowns, and were friends.  On Mondays, after a weekend of kids’ shows, they would all pal around together in Andrew’s place, laughing and having fun.  This continued even after Andrew started sleeping with Jen.

It became even more complicated one day when I came over and witnessed a strange scene.  As usual, Andrew was sitting in the center of the dining room, the center of the vortex, while Jackie and Jennifer chatted amiably, talking about their weekend’s shows.  Jackie, of course, was clueless about the infidelity, and Jen was playing dumb, hoping she would catch the big fish in the end.  And all the while, the big fish, Andrew, was talking on the phone with another woman that he had secretly slept with a couple nights earlier.  Everybody was screwing over everybody else, but Andrew was doing the most screwing of all.

One day, Andrew himself offered up a psychological self-diagnosis that rang a bell of recognition.

“You know, so many of the tricks that I choose to do involve tearing or cutting things,” he said.  “I tear up a newspaper and restore it.  I tear up a playing card and restore it.  I cut up a rope and restore it.  I just love destroying things!”

Here’s a video of one of those torn-and-restored tricks, performed by someone else.

And another.

But that diagnosis only told me what, not why.  That all-important why wasn’t explained until Andrew started talking about his father.  It was a sad story.  The man used to earn six figures as a computer programmer, but had lost his job due to drug use.  Every so often, I had seen Andrew’s father.  This sad white-haired man would drive over when he was low on money, shuffle up the driveway, ask for money, and Andrew could never say no.

“This is a loan, all right?” Andrew said, handing over five C notes.

“Oh yeah, I’ll pay you next Friday.”

“Next Friday.”

“Definitely.”

Next Friday would come and go, and the next time Andrew saw him, his father was broke and would need more money.  And Andrew would give it to him, over and over again.  His girlfriend Jackie told me that the old man was into him to the tune of 10k.

“He drove up with bald tires on his car,” Andrew said in his defense.  “What could I do?  I don’t want him to have a blowout on the freeway because of me.”

Eventually, Andrew realized what everyone else knew, that repayment of the money wasn’t coming at all, so he started asking for repayment in kind.  Since his father had worked in the tech field, he repaid him in computers.  To Andrew, it was almost as good as money.

One day, I came over to Andrew’s house and found him huddled over one of those computers with intense interest.

“You gotta see this,” Andrew said, a solemn tone to his voice.

A bronze statue in Bewley's Oriental Cafe

In one of the computers, Andrew had discovered a personal journal that his father had kept.  It recounted his exploits with prostitutes in the San Fernando Valley in suburban Los Angeles.  He had documented in great detail how he had picked up prostitutes, what acts they had performed on him, and how much it had cost.  There were dozens of girls.  It was like reading the unexpurgated diary of an addict.  And suddenly, he realized: That was where all his money had been going.

One encounter particularly riveted us.  It involved a 15-year-old prostitute he had picked up on a Sunday morning.  At this point, Andrew’s father had to be in his sixties.  She had taken him to her parents’ house.  While they were away at church, they had engaged in various sexual acts described in copious detail, all the time worrying whether her parents were going to come home.  Then he paid her and fled the scene.

Andrew was devastated, to say the least.  He was disappointed in his father’s reprehensible behavior.  He was disappointed in so many things.  And as we talked it out, Andrew’s emotions hanging in the air like ozone, everything suddenly fell into place.  It was absolutely clear.  I knew exactly from whence Andrew’s dysfunction had derived.

Very soon, my accomplishments grew in the art of magic.  I started following another magician around like a poodle, and this one was the bona fide world champion who had high standards for his life.  My stage repertoire grew, as did my abilities to manipulate a crowd.  I started wrapping street audiences on the Third Street Promenade around my little finger, holding out my hat and collecting dollar bills.  I started performing at corporate parties for adults, not just children.  I began reading minds.  I wrote a magic book about the street–Be a Street Magician!: A How-To Guide–and published it.  I began traveling around the world lecturing on the subject of magic, first to the Midwest (Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma), then to the South (the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas), then to the East Coast (D.C., New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut), and then overseas (Hong Kong, Sydney, Melbourne, Dublin).

 

Be a Street Magician cover 3 smaller

My knowledge grew, as well, until I possessed a closeup repertoire that stretched to several hours and a stage repertoire nearing two hours.

And as my abilities grew, Andrew mysteriously began to make himself scarce, almost in an inverse proportion.  He would rarely return calls.  He would make an appointment to get together and then not show.  It was like he wanted to keep me in the subordinate position that I no longer occupied.  The more I chased him, the more he fled from me.

Once, we were booked at an event together, and afterwards, we talked.  By that time, he was no longer working full-time as a magician, but had landed a regular job as a tech advisor for some widget company, doing magic only on the weekends.  By that time, he had been with Jennifer for nearly 10 years and they owned a house together, although not a wedding ring. He was a kind stepfather, too, although the kids weren’t turning out too well.

“Show me some magic,” I said, trying to conjure up old times.

Instead, he pulled out his cell phone and showed me a photograph.  It was of a young female employee of his.  The woman was nude, her tongue out and an erotic expression on her face.  Then he showed me pictures of another young woman, also cheesecaking it up for the camera.  He no longer had any magic to show, only this.

[All names in this article have been changed.]

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!”

Carlos Caliente 1a

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.

[http://guestofaguest.com/los-angeles/galleries/2012/november/hollywood-weekly-magazine-and-celebrity-suites-la-host-ama-reception/764205]

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.

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.

A Liar and a Thief

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

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

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

“What is money made out of?”

“Paper!” somebody would yell out.

“No!” he would answer.

“Plastic!” another person would yell out.

“No!”

“Fibers!”

“No!”

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

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

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

“Blue!” somebody would yell out.

“No!”

“White!”

“No!”

“Black!”

“No!”

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

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

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

“Sir, are you a good person?”

“Yes.”

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

“Okay.”

And then the spectator would step onto the crate.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I Feel Them Still

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In writing this novel, I sometimes drew from and embellished on astonishing real-life events.  The above passage was spun off the story of a man named Walter Irving Scott, a Rhode Island magician who stunned the magic world in 1930 with his offbeat methods that fooled even the greats of magic.  He taught many of his most secret moves to a street magician named Gazzo, but in 1994, Gazzo had a stroke and lost all the moves that he had learned with his left hand.  Since Scott died in 1995, those moves were lost forever.

In addition, I’ve mixed in some details from the life of Dai Vernon, generally considered to be the best technical magician of the 20th century.  In fact, the magic world has many fascinating stories that the wider world has not been exposed to, and which will make for excellent reading in my future work.

In my early years as a writer, most of what I wrote was pure fiction, perhaps because I had lived so little of life.  I didn’t have a terribly eventful early life like Mary Karr or Ernest Hemingway.  In addition, I was a bit ashamed of my mundane suburban upbringing.  I didn’t feel that what I had experienced was literary enough.

Today, however, what I write is a somewhat equal combination of fiction, real life, and historical anecdotes.  By now, many extraordinary things have happened to me and I’m not ashamed to talk about them.  Now, I realize that my one childhood encounter with my Uncle John, who was a gambling cheat, is worth writing about.  Now, I’m discovering parts of my childhood that people want to read about.  Childhood memories are a bit like lost fingers, I guess.  I feel them still.

They Lied to Us Just Last Week

For the past couple months, government officials have been appearing on the airwaves proclaiming that the NSA collects only metadata.  Oh, they’re saints!  They’re saviours!  They’re only protecting you!

Dianne Feinstein, Peter King, Michael Hayden, Lindsay Graham, John McCain, and many others have been telling us what a liar Edward Snowden is.  The government collects only metadata, they say.  And that’s not really data at all!  It’s just like the information on the outside of an envelope!  Chill out, dudes!

Now, it turns out that they collect everything, with no oversight, no FISA approval required. Outrageous.

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jul/31/nsa-top-secret-program-online-data

And on top of that, they’re passing that information on to the Drug Enforcement Agency and other local law enforcement, for them to act upon.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-switch/wp/2013/08/05/the-nsa-is-giving-your-phone-records-to-the-dea-and-the-dea-is-covering-it-up/

It’s blatantly unconstitutional, so when they bring the cases to court, they cover it up by cooking up a whole other scenario about how the information came to light.  In other words, they lie and cook up another story.

And other law-enforcement agencies are clamoring to get to that data.  If they get their way, the information from our tapped phones will be used to combat all crimes:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/04/us/other-agencies-clamor-for-data-nsa-compiles.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&

Six years ago, I began writing a novel that is a demonstration of the worst that could happen under promiscuous surveillane.  It’s Edward Snowden’s worst nightmare.  Read  What Happens to Us at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU.  Download for only $3.99 on your Kindle or Nook.

An Onion within an Onion within an Onion

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jul/28/kim-philby-david-astor-observer

It was interesting to read this article today about Kim Philby.  I’m currently reading The Secret Life of Kim Philby, the biography of him that his Russian wife Rufina wrote.  In Rufina’s eyes, he was a celebrity who was forgiven by the British establishment for being a Soviet spy secreted into the British intelligence apparatus.  In this account, Philby was “pathetic.”

I know why I’m obsessed with spies.  Just as in the performance of magic, the layers of lies and truth are labyrinthine, like an onion within an onion within an onion, a kind of inception of the onion family.  They are endlessly fascinating to peel back.  Sometimes you cry at what you find.  Likewise with this story, which changes color and hue as it twists this way and that in the wind.

Deception, As Described by an Expert

I work professionally as a magician, which means I am a professional deceiver.  I know how to throw the 3-card monte.  I know how to run the shell game.  I know the right moment and method for switching things.  It’s a way of thinking, more than anything else, and I’ve honed it for 23 years.

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That’s one of the things I wanted to insert into my new novel, What Happens to Us.  It’s a thriller, and deception is shot through it.  Since my days as an English major at UCLA, I’ve realized that deception, secrets, and lies deepen a novel immensely.  But not all people know how to deceive as well as magicians and con men (between which, btw, there is a thin line).

When Cat, my protagonist, realizes she doesn’t have a place to sleep for the night, she decides to pick up a guy at a bar.  But she doesn’t choose just any guy.  She chooses an alcoholic whom she knows will be passed out by the time the expectations come due.  That’s a woman who knows how to deceive.

I know lots of magicians who are deceptive not just professionally, but also in their personal lives.  One made a living for several years as a con man (the monte, the shell game, the endless chain) in Orange County, California, while pretending to everyone around him that he was simply doing magician gigs.  When he finally fell deathly ill with an obscure and incurable illness in his thirties, he realized that his life had become toxic, and he came clean.  When he did, the illness mysteriously went away.

However, he still steals other people’s tricks and sell them as his own.  He still bends the rules in so any ways that it’s not funny.  To some of us, deception is simply tattooed onto our souls.

Cat’s love interest is a working magician, as well.  Dante explains to Cat how they’re going to use magic principles to stay away from their pursuer.  It all boils down to Runterschrauben, the German concept of blending into the background.  However, Runterschrauben has some negative side effects, as well, which leads them down a path they never wanted to go down.

(Download the novel, What Happens to Us, http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU, which is a case study of what can happen when one NSA employee lacks oversight.  Only $3.99 on your Kindle.  If you don’t have a Kindle, download the Kindle for PC software for free: http://www.amazon.com/gp/kindle/pc/download