Five Meanings of I Love You

[This is Chapter 3 of an ongoing work of fiction.  Chapter 2 is here.]

1. I want to be closer to you

Evan had learned something about his mother that had robbed him of his smile, Kara couldn’t figure out exactly what, she wished to God she knew, it killed her that she didn’t know.

“What is it?  You can trust me.”

“I know I can, but…”

“That’s what I’m here for.”

“…but I need to sit on this one for a bit.”

“That’s what love is all about.”

“I know.”

“Then why don’t you tell me?”

“It’s just that—”

“Is it something about me?”

“No, it’s just that some things take time to process.”

The look on his face broke her heart.

It was like the ancient Rapa Nui written language.  They have ancient writings, but nobody knows what it means because the Spanish conquistadores killed all of the Rapa Nui scholars by 1888.  Today, we look at the writings, but they’re absolutely impenetrable.  That was sometimes how Evan seemed to her.

There were so many things that Kara wanted to do with Evan.  Go on a train trip with him.  The idea of bumpy train sex made her wet.  Life was all about rhythm, she knew, figure out how his rhythms counterpointed with her rhythms and make a song, and whether that song was a good song or a tired-ass clunker.  Rhythms explained everything.  Once, she had stood onstage with her lead guitarist playing a solo behind her, and just from the rhythm, she realized that his girlfriend had just broken up with him.  She turned around and looked into his eyes incredulously.

Really, her eyes said.

Yes, he nodded.

It was all there in the rhythm: details and concepts, math and emotion, pink and zigzaggy and booyah, everything.

The next morning, Kara wrote up a list of other things she wanted to do with Evan, too.  She so liked lists.

  • Hike in Red Rock Canyon till we’re knackered.
  • Sing him my best songs. In the living room.
  • Not talk about coke ever.

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2.      If I can’t love, I can at least pretend to love

After a set in the casino, someone with a loving face came right up to Kara and killed her with kindness.

Oh my goodness gracious, your voice is such a blessing.  You songs open up my heart, I can’t tell you how much.  We’re from Indiana.

But, Kara thought as she showed her lovely smile, she still lived in a crummy apartment and drove a crummy car.  Sometimes she heard somebody on television, some real person in an interview, who said to a girl, I will transform everything, and he did.  The guy who married Mariah Carey.  The guy who married Celine Dion.  The guy who wrote songs for Ke$ha.

I want to meet one of those guys, she thought.  I could pretend to love him, too.

Sometimes Kara wracked her brain for something that would change things—a new song, a new band, new chops, a new writing partner.  But the thought that tortured her was—What if I need a new heart?

3.      I have the right to take what I want

It was 8 at night and Kara was on her way to surprise Evan at his apartment, but for some reason, she veered into a Catholic church.  Inside, it was so empty and shadowy that it made her think of an ancient Italian cathedral she’d read about once that had a splinter from the True Cross.  She couldn’t imagine being that close to Christ.  She walked up the aisle and the tile echoed off her heels, the proof of her own aloneness.  Kara had never felt close to Him, only far away, so far away that He’d always been nothing more than a vague concept.  Written on a piece of paper.  Stored in a vault.  Bolted to the bottom of the sea.  On Jupiter.

The sound of her own heels hurt her so much that she started to cry.

There was a young priest there.  He patted Kara on the back and said, There, there.  They ended up at Ichabod’s for a late dinner, and then at her place at 1:30 am.  They nestled together on the sofa and he was saying, I’ll tell you everything, and then he did, not like Evan, who wouldn’t talk.  The priest was young and handsome like Jesus, but humble and kind like no handsome man ever is.  When he took off his clothes, Kara saw he had a scar on his side.

Is that where the centurions stabbed you? Kara joked.

He became solemn and spoke softly.

You know, there’s a lance in St. Peter’s Basilica that they claim is the lance that the soldiers used to stab Jesus.

Really.  You know, I didn’t sign up for a sermon.

What I mean is, there’s another one in Paris.  And other ones in Vienna and Krakow and Istanbul.  So don’t worry about feeling far from God. 

Ah.

Kara pushed her head into his chest.  There was so much consolation in his attitude towards despair, as if despair were simply proof that we can be happy.  She made love to his despair more than anything else.  Afterwards, their conversation settled upon their pasts.  He talked about trying to please his Mexican father, who was so obsessed with not going to hell that his son wondered what horrible thing he had done.  His father had indeed done a horrible thing.  One day, he discovered what that sin was: him.  That’s what made him join the priesthood.

It was my way of committing suicide, he said.

Kara talked about what was consuming her, the old love that was ruining everything.

Harris left me.

Oh no.  Tell me what happened.

November.

What, you mean…last November?

Yes.  I always think about him when I’m making love to Evan.  Sometimes I start crying when he’s making love to me and I have to make an excuse, like I say, ‘Oh, I’m only crying because it’s so awfully beautiful.’ 

You do what you have to do.

Exactly.

I mean, I do what I have to do.

Of course, I paid her back…

Who?

My sister.  She stole Harris.  She dug a grave in my heart.

I’m sorry. 

My boyfriend Evan is a complete mystery to me.  I wish to God there were an Evan-to-Kara dictionary.

I’m sorry.

It’s so beautiful that you apologize.  I wish everybody would apologize to me.  All the time.

I’m a great apologizer.  Give me a sin and I’ll apologize for it.  I’ll apologize for Saddam Hussein’s sins.  I’ll apologize for the weather. 

We’re a great pair.  We fit into each other like puzzle pieces. 

Hey, you want to do some more blow?

IMG_2026 smaller.jpg4.      Don’t blame me, I’m a mess

Five days later, Kara made a list.

  • Organize papers
  • Do delicates
  • Never go back to church ever

Kara loved making lists.  She did it because her life was a shambles.  She made lists and she sang for the same reason: so that she could live with the chaos.  Singing elevated the mess into art.  She’d heard that in ancient Greek, chaos comes from the word sing, which made complete sense to her.

5.      I must control everything

Kara was out shopping with her friend BabyLynn, who was a costume designer for performers on the Strip.  They were eating frozen yogurt in the mall and talking about late paychecks.  One thing they had in common was they both worked in entertainment, and both their employers commonly delayed payment.  Another thing was sobriety.

So how are you doing with your twelve steps? BabyLynn asked.

Kara had forgotten that BabyLynn was her AA sponsor, they had so much fun together.

I don’t know.

That doesn’t sound good.

I mean, look, the Big Book says to be “searchingly honest.”  Why can’t we just be honest?  Isn’t that a bit obsessive, I mean, like, trying too hard, to be “searchingly honest”?

You are too much, Kara, that’s why I love you.  What brought that up?

Oh, I guess I’m having a little trouble with control issues.

Like what?

You really want to know?

Yes.

I’ll be searchingly honest, then, all right?

Okay.

Okay, here it is.  I want Evan to talk to me.  It kills me that he holds back secrets from me.

You think he’s cheating on you?

Could be.  All men are dogs.

What are you going to do about it?

And then Kara began to cry and people at other tables started peering over their shoulders.

I just…I just….

What?

I hate myself for loving him so much.

[Chapter 4 is here: https://whathappenstous.wordpress.com/2017/06/28/55-las-vegas-days/]

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).

 

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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.]

A Rose for Doug Slater

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

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

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

An Outburst of Pure Irish Passion

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

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

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

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

This guy has talent, I thought.

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

Brian Daly (L) and Jack Wise (R)

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

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

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

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

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

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Gary being Yiked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grand, he says.

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

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

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

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

There, I’ve said it.

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

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

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

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

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

Mariachi promo pic 1Drinking and fighting. While traveling through Ireland, I took photos of both. The first was outside a pub in Drogheda, a half-hour’s drive north of Dublin, where we caught a staggering, drunken man trying to light a fag.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

A Vulture Circling for Meaning

In our first morning in Dublin, I was looking for an authentically Gaelic experience, something filled with mystery, ambiguity, and the type of contradictions that implode upon contact. I was envisioning the inner meaning of the Celtic cross or a Luke Kelly song belted out with elan from the lungs of an overearnest busker on O’Connell Street.

The previous evening, upon arriving at the flat, I had been looking out at the Irish Sea from our balcony in Blackrock. That was a mysterious moment. The mystery was how it was possible to make such a knockout sky.

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The next morning in the flat, while researching Dublin churches on the Internet, my mouth was filled with the bitter aftertaste of the Guinness I had drunken the night before. That Guinness had been a communion of sorts. So was the view of the Irish Sea. Church, the Catholic sort with statues, golden icons, and stained glass, would be my third.

It wasn’t just mystery, but history, as well, that I yearned for.

History as in the Viking ships that had begun arriving by 795 AD to plunder the rich monasteries and Gaelic races who lived here, pale-faced men who wore long beards and animal skins. At one point, 65 Viking ships sailed up the River Liffey, which today forms Dublin’s spine. It must have been a stunning sight.

History as in the Maretimo Mansion that was owned by the wealthy wool merchant Valentine Lawless, Second Baron Cloncury. My mother, my girlfriend, and I were staying on those very grounds. In 1798, Lawless participated in the 1798 Irish rebellion, which sought freedom from the English crown, but resulted in many Irish deaths. Still, it forced the Brits’ hand, and in 1800, Ireland was turned from merely a possession to an actual part of Great Britain, with at least token representation in Parliament.

Baron Cloncury’s Maretimo House sat on Blackrock Beach and had a fabulous view. By 1970, however, it had fallen into disrepair and was torn down and rebuilt as the Maretimo House flats, which I was currently occupying.

But today, my pursuit of the mysterious was focused on Guardian Angels Catholic Church, which started at 9 am with Gaelic services, and then at “half ten,” as the Irish lad on the street phrased 10:30 in his charming lilt, we walked down the street and entered the centuries-old sanctuary. There was iconography on the walls and the priest was telling an edifying story.

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“I was helping out at a rural church,” he said, “and I overheard a congregant confess doubts about his relationship with the true Christ because he had never had any feeling of closeness with Christ or God or anybody.”

My mouth was still filled with the Guinness aftertaste, and I strained to listen through the priest’s thick Irish brogue echoing in the high-ceilinged church.

“…And later,” he continued, “I gave communion, and as I came to the doubting man, a kind of Thomas, really, he had his arms crossed in front of his chest, which in Britain means that the man would like a prayer said for him. And so I raised my hand and said, ‘Lord God almighty, I pray that you might show this man the true width and depth and breadth of God’s Face, and that he might know all of what it is to know You, my Lord.’

“A day later, as I was walking about the town, I saw that selfsame man walking down the street, and he was crying as he was walking. And it made me sad because of the depth of his despair. But the man with whom I was walking said, ‘No, father, he isn’t crying from despair, he’s crying because he has suddenly felt close to God.’

“And so I found the man, and sure enough, he told me, ‘I’ve been crying on and off over these past 24 hours, because for the past 40 years, I’ve never felt close to God, but suddenly, after confessing my despair, I’ve been crying from joy because I suddenly feel him in my heart after all these years.”

I’m not religious, but as I sat there in my pew in the back of the church, what came to me were impressions, feelings, and thoughts, nothing so neatly pieced together into neat story form like the pastor’s tale. In the pews at the left, a 3-year-old child was yelling intermittently, the echo going up to the spired ceiling. Nearer, I saw a 4-foot-tall statue of the Virgin Mother, several rows of electric candles in front of her.

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To our left, I spied a wooden sculpture named “The First Fall,” a carving of a Roman soldier flogging Christ as he carried the Cross towards Gethsemane, and I thought, I’ve felt that whip. In front of me were the backs of congregants, many of them silver-haired, many wearing casual thick cloth coats with hoods, and it was a reminder that in Ireland, bad weather is always expected. In my mouth, the Guinness was still lingering unpleasantly.

I suppose I was looking for a narrative. I was a vulture circling for a story, watching a priest who was also circling, but he, for souls.

At the end of the service, everyone stood up and filed out the huge front doors. I left the church somewhat disappointed, I must admit, because I had had a magical experience that was not a real magical experience. It was like a man watching a television show of his own life as it was happening, all self-consciousness. Outside, we were greeted by some rare Dublin sun. The congregants were milling around, chatting.

And that’s when I saw the three young boys dressed in rugby clothes, aged 5, 6, and 7. I immediately brightened. I approached them and talked about the big game of the night before, in which Leinster, the Dublin team, had triumphed over Glasgow to claim the Celtic League trophy.

“Are you rugby fans?” I asked.

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“Sure we are,” he said. “Their uncle plays for the Manchester team,” he said.

I looked at the children with fondness.

“Would the children like to see a magic trick?” I said instinctively, because it’s always my first play.

“Yes, of course,” he said.

And so I pulled a coin out of a child’s ear. And then I pulled one out of each of the others’ ears, too. And then I performed a sophisticated routine that even decked the father. But I didn’t want to push it too far, because magic and religion are an uneasy mix, so I pulled myself away and we began walking home past 16th-century walls and hoodlum graffiti. And as we did, I mused that I had, after all, had my magical experience. It was the children’s smiles as they watched the magic. There’s nothing more magical than a child’s smile. And when I think back on that moment, I don’t remember the bitter taste in my mouth or the cynicism in my heart. That moment is pure, clear, and holy.

Old Buddies Who Met at the Old Stick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll be having surgery,” he said.

“Is it serious?”

“Well, any surgery is serious.”

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

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Finally, I shook his hand.

“Good luck,” I told him.

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

 

The Whole Damn Thing

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

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

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

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It was so sweet.

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

“A magician never tells,” I said. 

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

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

“Just stop talking,” the man said.

“What?” she said.

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

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

Like, Crash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[This story is fiction.]