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.]

I Feel Them Still

Image

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.

Neurology Is the Country We All Inhabit

In 1989, I was reading through Psychology Today when I noticed a short article that intrigued me.  It was about a neurological phenomenon that alcoholics are quite familiar with but researchers knew little about.  When someone wakes up after a night of heavy drinking, of course, they often can’t remember what happened the night before.  That’s the definition of the term blackout.  But when they get drunk again, mysteriously, many can suddenly recall everything that happened.  The article was discussing recent research into this phenomenon.

Alcohol 1a smallerSuddenly, a light turned on in my brain.  Might I be able to use that phenomenon in fiction?  What if a life-or-death clue were buried deep within that blackout?  And what if the character was a recovering alcoholic, and getting drunk again was the last thing she wanted to do?

The concept seemed earth-shattering to me, and I carried it around in my head for 18 years before I began writing it.  Six years after first putting pen to paper, I’ve finally published the novel as What Happens to Us, available as an ebook http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU.

In recent years, popular books about neurology have become a bestselling category.  Oliver Sacks, V.S. Ramachandran, David Eagleman, and others have brought cutting-edge neurological science to the ordinary reader.  We now know about encephalitis lethargica (the malady in Sacks’ Awakenings, later made into a movie starring Robin Williams), synesthesia (depicted in the books of Vladimir Nabokov, Frank Herbert, Aimee Bender, and many others), autism spectrum (the malady spotlighted in the HBO film Temple Grandin, starring Claire Danes), and so many other neurological abnormalities.

Neurology is the country we all inhabit.  In writing my own book, I discovered that my leading man, Dante, is a magician who had learned some sleight-of-hand moves as a teenager from a magical genius who never passed down his sleights to anyone else.  After the master died, Dante carried around irreplaceable treasures in his fingers.  When he unexpectedly lost three of his fingers, though, he discovered to his delight that the treasures were not lost, since he could still feel and describe those rare sleights to other magicians.  That neurological cache becomes as real to Dante as a table or a car.

Perhaps these phenomena are fascinating to us because they tell us so much about ourselves.  Phantom pain in lost fingers is analogous to what happens when we lose a loved one: They are never completely gone.  We may not all have full-blown synesthesia, as do Billy Joel, David Hockney, and Itzhak Perlman, but we can all relate to the blending of the senses.  We may not all have Asperger’s Syndrome, but we can all identify with the sense of being unable to read nonverbal cues in a foreign or disorienting culture.

Musicophilia

Music suffuses What Happens to Us, so I read Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia (Vintage, 2007, http://www.amazon.com/Musicophilia-ebook/dp/B000W939JI/ref=sr_1_1_bnp_1_kin?ie=UTF8&qid=1375674745&sr=8-1&keywords=musicophilia), which focuses on neurological abnormalities in music.  The book opens with a case study of a surgeon, Dr. Tony Cicoria, who was struck by lightning.  Soon, he became obsessed with piano music—first listening to it, then playing it, then furiously composing it from the notes he heard in his head.  By now, the obsession has lasted for nearly 20 years.

Sacks offers anecdotes of people blessed with absolute pitch, the ability to immediately detect the pitch of any note, offering the example of Sir Frederick Ouseley, who at age five was able to remark that his father blew his nose in the key of G, that a particular thunder was in the key of C, and that the wind was blowing in the key of D.

Sacks examines fascinating neurological afflictions.  One young professional violinist, for example, found that his fingers began disobeying his mind, making performance impossible.  One brilliant engineer had an aneurysm that destroyed his ability to feel emotion, and it was only when he sang that his range of feeling returned.   One elderly patient developed an increasing dementia that seemed to cause her to sing, to the point that towards the end, she was singing virtually nonstop every day.

The most fascinating phenomenon for me actually happened to Sacks personally.  In 1974, Sacks dreamed of a slow, dirge-like song that continued playing in his mind even after waking.  All day, he couldn’t get the song out of his head.  He tried many things to stop it, but to no avail.

Finally, Sacks called a friend and recounted his problem. He even hummed the tune a bit over the phone.  Then his friend said something rather strange.

Neurology face 1a

“Have you abandoned some of your young patients?” he asked.  “Or destroyed some of your literary children?”

Sacks was shocked.  He had in fact done both.  The day before, he had resigned his position in the children’s unit of a hospital where he worked, as well as burning a book of essays that he had just written.

“Your mind is playing Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, his songs of mourning for the death of children.”

The moment Sacks’ friend identified the problem, it cleared right up, and it hasn’t recurred in the 30 years since.

I’m so fascinated with neurology that I make a large portion of my living from it.  As I’ve mentioned before in these pages, I’m a professional magician, a sleight-of-hand artist.  One of the more neurologically fascinating feats of magic that I perform is the classic of magic, Paper Balls Over the Head, my performance of which can be seen on YouTube:

This is one of the few feats whose secret I can freely explain.  Here, I take advantage of peripheral blindness to give the illusion of making the paper ball disappear.  In addition, I take advantage of an alternating current of attention and inattention in the onstage volunteer, an AC current that is all too common—and not widely noticed—in our daily lives.

In What Happens to Us, my leading man is a magician, which gives me the opportunity to talk about some of these issues from an informed character’s point of view.

“Magic is the lie that’s presented to you,” my leading man says.  “Just like any lie.  The lie that advertisers tell you.  The lie that you tell yourself about your own limitations.  The lie that your mother told you about why she had you.   But it’s your job to see through the lie.”

A lie is certainly an excellent metaphor for the holes in our perception that are taken advantage of by magicians.  But the truth is also an excellent metaphor, as well, for there is nothing more true, disarming, and inspiring than the way in which our brains work.