A Tiny Voice Screaming

We had just had a fabulous vacation through England and Ireland.

Standing in front of "The Needle" on O'Connell Street in Dublin.  People wonder what the monument means.  To me, obviously, it's a celebration of the Irish junkie.

Standing in front of “The Needle” on O’Connell Street in Dublin. People wonder what the monument means. To me, obviously, it’s a celebration of the Irish junkie.

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Trinity Church in Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire, England

Trinity Church in Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire, England

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But two weeks is as much fun as anyone in my income range is allowed, so were heading back home. We were in an airport kind of mood, that is, that particular brand of autopilot where you tell yourself that there’s nothing to see here, nothing important to do, you just have to go through the motions, stand in the required lines, show the required documents, take off your shoes when told, and finally, only when you’re tired beyond imagining, get back to your own bed, where you will crash for 12 hours or more.

Claire at the airport.

Claire in an airport kind of mood

We boarded an Aer Lingus plane in Dublin that took us to London’s Heathrow, debarked that plane, then took a bus from Terminal 1 to Terminal 3.

It was on that bus that I reached for my fanny pack. It was gone.

Inside the fanny pack were some important things. My new cell phone. My wallet. And inside the wallet, my driver’s license, my credit card, and about $400 in cash, both English and American.

That was the beginning of a panic that was not a panic, because I don’t believe in panic, I believe in remaining calm because it’s much more useful, panic being a version of fear and insecurity and other useless emotions, because you really should remain calm and ask, What emotion will get me what I want? What action will get me what I want? But beneath it all, there was this tiny voice screaming.

Aughhhh!

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First, we jumped off the bus and I backtracked. I looked at the seats we had been waiting at. Not there. I checked twice and thrice and even six times. Still not there.

I stood up and cast my mind back. I quickly narrowed it down to only three possibilities:

1) I had left it on the bus that had taken us to Terminal 3, or

2) I had left it on the plane, or

3) I had dropped it while walking down the debarkation gangway.

I glanced at my watch. We still had two hours before our flight, but at Heathrow, that was precious little time, since everything is so far away from everything else. So I parked Claire and my mother and went off in search of the Aer Lingus desk. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to get somewhere in Heathrow without following the rest of the herd to Baggage Claim, but trust me, it’s extremely difficult. You ask questions of airport workers. You get vague answers. You scramble. You go down elevators and hit dead-ends.

Ten minutes later, I found myself looking through a huge window one floor down at the Aer Lingus desk, but there seemed to be no way to get down there.

“You have to go through security first,” an employee told me.

Okay, ugh, so I stood in line to go through security, which of course is the slowest thing in the world when your fanny pack is lying on the ground somewhere. I took a deep breath. I glanced at my watch and cringed. I took off all my metal objects and dumped them into the tubs. I walked through the metal detector, trying not to evince panic, because that’s what suspicious people evince, and who wants to be unnecessarily frisked and questioned when you’re looking for your fanny pack on deadline? I gathered up all my metal objects and put them on again. Then I lit out for the Aer Lingus desk.

The woman at Aer Lingus made a quick call to Lost & Found.

“It’s not there,” she said. “It might not have gone through the system yet. But right now, your problem is that you have very little time to get on your flight. When you get to L.A., you’re going to have to email Aer Lingus Lost & Found.”

“Can’t I just spend the night here?” I asked.

“You’d have to buy a whole new ticket. You need to start thinking about your connection.”

So I made the decision that I didn’t want to make. I would leave my fanny pack behind.

It was such a long, long flight back home, 13 hours in the air. I tried to divert myself with movies and reading, but I kept thinking about my wallet, which was somewhere out there, I didn’t know exactly where. Maybe I had left it in the airplane seat. Before leaving, I had glanced at the seat and seen nothing, and Claire had asked, as well (“Did you leave anything?”), but perhaps I had left it beneath the seat. Or maybe it had come undone walking down the gangway. Or maybe it had come undone in the first bus. I replayed moments over and over again while watching a bad Kevin Costner movie on the seatback in front of me.

I wondered, as well, about the person who would find it. I’ve discovered that there are strangers who surprise you with their integrity, but I’ve also been surprised by those who consider petty larceny to be their God-given right. I once had a roommate who found a wallet and considered himself a saint because he took the cash and dropped the wallet into a mailbox. He was so proud of himself, like maybe that alone would get him into the pearly gates. You never know what kind of punk schlub dufus you’ll get.

I worried about the bureaucratic forest that lay before me, as well. I hated depending on email. I was determined to use their phone lines instead, but worried about breaking through the Kafkaesque levels of voicemail hell.

Suddenly, my mother was talking to me on the plane.

“When you were a child, I was doing laundry in a laundromat,” she said. “Later that day, while I was cooking dinner, this policeman appears at my door with a wallet. ‘Is this yours?’ he asks. ‘Oh yes, it is,’ I say. I didn’t even realize I’d lost it. And he says, ‘I’m sorry, but the money’s gone.’ I had about $25 in it. So I took it and looked into my secret compartment. I breathed a sigh of relief and said, ‘Well, at least they didn’t take that bill, because I was saving it up,’ and pulled out my emergency $100 bill, which was folded into a little little small piece. And the look on his face, I have to tell you, was, like, ‘Oh God, I missed it.’ And that’s how I knew that that cop was the one who took the rest of the cash.”

When we finally got back to our home in Los Angeles, we had been up for over 24 hours, but it was still only early evening, so I got onto the phone and started calling overseas. I spent a couple hours that evening, and then another couple hours the next morning, just calling and filling out forms online.

All the while, I was wondering how the dice would roll. One of the things that I’ve realized in my life is that humans are not basically good, but they’re not basically bad, either. They have the capacity for both. There are some humans who have done bad things, such as Adolph Hitler (who was a person, after all, not just an epithet), Ty Cobb, Shannon Doherty (whose heart leaps, I’m sure, being mentioned in the same context as Hitler), Charles Manson, Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon, OJ Simpson, Susan Smith, Tonya Harding, Timothy McVeigh, Donald Sterling, et al.

Conversely, there are some humans who have done wondrous things, such as Mother Teresa (who was a person, after all, not just an icon), Oskar Schindler, Miep Gies (who helped hide Anne Frank), Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Cesar Chavez, Franklin Roosevelt, Betty Ford, Bill W., Andrei Sakharov, Lech Walesa, et al.

I was searching for a good person. Someone who would pick up the wallet and have not a question in their mind.

Oh, this goes to the Lost & Found, they would say to themselves.

Not:

Yes! My lucky day!

I envisioned travelers, each eager to reach their destination. I thought the probability was high that they would do the right thing. After all, when you’re traveling, your mind is focused on getting your ordeal over, not gaming the system. But when it came to employees, I was a little more apprehensive. Once an employee gets used to a job, his or her real self comes out.

So it was that I was on the line with a woman who worked in Aer Lingus Lost & Found. She was idly instructing me how to call back when she stopped, as if she had spotted something on a computer screen.

“What color was the wallet?” she asked.

“Brown,” I said.

“Black,” Claire said.

“My girlfriend says it was black.”

“And how much was in it?”

“About $300 in American dollars and $100 in British pounds and euros.”

“And what brand was the phone?”

“LG. It’s a new phone.”

It turned out the bag and its contents had been found and returned. That, however, wasn’t the end of it, not by a long shot.

“You’re going to have to send somebody down here to pick it up,” she said. “Do you have a friend in London?”

I couldn’t really think of anybody who would fit that description.

“Well, then I recommend that you hire a courier to come down here to pick it up,” she said. “They can then put it in a Fed Ex box and mail it to you.”

She gave me some sort of identification number for the items and told me to hang up and organize the retrieval.

Things were looking up, to be sure, but couriers sounded expensive. I turned to the computer and inquired about sending a package weighing .99 pounds from London to Los Angeles. It turned out to cost $139. In fact, taking the courier/Fed Ex route might easily eat up all the cash I had in that wallet.

Kind of defeated the purpose.

So I turned to another strategy: friends. To be frank, I really had no friends in London at all. We had spent three days there, but more as tourists than anything else. The only possibility was a fabulous magician I had seen at the Magic Circle. We had spent a couple hours watching his charming and amazing tricks, and I had shown him some wonderful ones, too, and at the end, he had given me his business card. I had meant to call him, but only to tell him how much I enjoyed his magic.

Now, I realized, I was in a position to manipulate him into helping me as if he were a friend.

That didn’t feel good.

Instead of doing that, I decided to make it a financial transaction. I would ask for the name of a young magician who could pick up the bag from Heathrow in return for a fee of 50 pounds. Surely Chris wouldn’t have the time or incentive to do that kind of job, but perhaps a trusted 22-year-old buddy might.

So I called him. In fact, he was happy to talk magic with me, and we stayed on the phone for a full half-hour. We talked about many things. His day job, which was a secure job with a city council. The transition he hoped to make to full-time magician. The great magician Michael Vincent, whom he had known since he was a teenager. Vincent’s recent descent into deafness, and the effect that might have on his career. A half-hour later, I felt like the victim was sufficiently softened up to refer me to a young magician.

“Listen,” I said, “I was going to call you, anyway, but I have a favor to ask. I need a young magician who could do a gig for me. It doesn’t pay enough for you, but here’s the gig.”

And then I explained my predicament with the wallet.

“As you can see, I need someone to pick up my wallet from Heathrow and put it in the mail for me,” I said.

Chris laughed. He was way ahead of me.

“Okay, I’ll do it,” he said.

That was Saturday morning, and strangely enough, he said that his daughter was flying into London on Sunday evening. But there are four airports that serve London, and the odds that she was coming in at Heathrow were less than even.

“Honey!” he called over to his wife. “What airport is Shana flying into?”

Turned out it was, indeed, Heathrow. That moment seemed delivered by an angel, although once you start thinking of everything in terms of angels and devils, the devils seem to vastly outnumber the heavenly beings, which seems to diminish every good thing that has ever happened to you, and you certainly don’t want that.

I emailed Chris instructions on all the details of the pickup. Then all I had to do was wait for 28 hours. It was strange to depend on someone so many miles away, and not only that, but to sit back and do nothing. After all, I’ve always felt that it’s only diligence and focus that is rewarded. But in this case, there was no alternative.

By 3 pm the next day, I was sitting at a Father’s Day party in Brea, Claire sitting beside me. I was talking to my cousin Maria about Israel, which is ridiculous because we’re not Jewish and know nothing about it, but still, we were talking about the latest trouble in that troubled land. That’s when I checked my email with the message that I had been waiting for.

“Just to let you know, mission accomplished,” Chris wrote. “All went like clockwork and everything seems to be there as described….Going to bed now.”

I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

But the marathon wasn’t over yet, and it certainly had gone into marathon territory, and if anybody is left reading at this point, you’re running a marathon, as well, and wondering whether the finish line is anywhere nearby, I’m sure. The thing is, though, we still had to get the items safely into my hands in Los Angeles.

The next day, I left a message for Chris, but didn’t hear back, either by phone or email. That was strange. Something suspicious within me started to wonder whether I was going to have trouble getting it back from him, whether he had lured me into choosing him just so he could screw me over, and for a short moment, I was absolutely convinced that he was a conniving con man.  It’s a small, suspicious part of me, clearly, because that suspicion was based on absolutely nothing at all.

The next day, I talked with Chris. We went through the items one by one, and yes, everything was there.

“Okay,” I said, “just throw away the fanny pack. It’s old and will just add weight to everything.”

“All right,” Chris said. “I’ll put everything else in a bubble pack and send it.”

“Great,” I said. “Use the pounds in the wallet to pay for the postage.”

After I hung up, I wondered what it would all cost. I wondered whether I should have told him to throw away the wallet, too, to cut down on the weight. And other people had second thoughts, too.

“Did he send it registered mail?” my friend Rich asked.

“No.”

“Oh man! I told you to send it registered mail. It’ll take a million years to get here, if it ever arrives!”

I inwardly bemoaned Rich’s cynicism with regard to government services. I wondered if he would’ve voted for The Great Satan, Margaret Thatcher. Still, the proof would be whether the damn thing arrived or not, and nobody could tell me for sure whether it would. Once again, my zen challenge would be my patience.

So I waited. Breathed deeply. Tried not to think about it. There’s no use in feeling disappointment twice, after all. On top of that, I tried to drive perfectly, since I didn’t have a driver’s license on me. I started carrying my passport wherever I went. I activated my old phone. I went on with my life.

Finally, six days later, an Asian postal carrier arrived at the door.

“Do you know what amazing story lies behind this package?” I said, smiling widely as I took the package.

“No.”

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So I gave him a quick rundown, then let him go. It didn’t do the saga justice. Maybe an HBO series or a Netflix contract like “House of Cards.”

I smiled. It was so unlikely. The wallet had made its way from London to Los Angeles, passing through so many hands along the way, making so many precarious stops where it could have been snatched up and kept, never to be seen again.

And ever since then, I’ve been thinking about what it all means about human nature. After all, there are some wonderful people in this world, people like my girlfriend Claire, who will do a favor to anybody if asked, and Chris Wood, who went out of his way to help a Yank, and that Aer Lingus lady, who gave me such good advice, and then, going back all the way to the beginning, whoever it was that found it in the first place, that faceless person who was honest enough to turn in a wallet in a fanny pack and log it into the system, not keeping even a dollar for herself. Thinking about it that way, it was a little miracle, a chain of good people I had happened upon, unblemished by even one bad person.

Oh, I thought, if only I could spend the rest of my days walking only among people like that.

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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Sitting in Bewley’s, Reading James Joyce Aloud

In college, I was particularly drawn to an author I’d never heard of before, a fellow named James Joyce. He wrote of complex thoughts and feelings but in a simple way. His sentences flowed like swiftly moving water. No author I have ever encountered had smoother prose. Not only that, but his prose never had a false step in it. Over time, he became a god.

During my recent trip to Ireland, I discovered that Joyce is revered over in Ireland, not just in American college English departments. We discovered statues, carvings, photographs, paintings.

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In Dublin, a couple magicians invited me to have lunch with them at Bewley’s Oriental Café, which is on the famed promenade called Grafton Street. I stepped inside and breathed in the glamour and the history. Over a fabulous scone and tea, we sessioned, as magicians like to put it, trading secret moves and conspiring, as we are wont to do. Everything we do is a conspiracy against the laity, ourselves being a kind of clergy.

Our magic session at Bewley's in Dublin

Our magic session at Bewley’s in Dublin

In the middle of my afternoon there, I discovered that Bewley’s is mentioned in Joyce. It’s in his short story, “A Little Cloud.”

Little Chandler had come home late for tea and, moreover, he had forgotten to bring Annie home the parcel of coffee from Bewley’s.

Suddenly, the place was imbued with a golden literary glow. I discovered that there’s a James Joyce balcony and a small painting of Joyce on the wall. I read the story in Dubliners, and discovered that it’s about the frustrating tension between our burning passions and the banality and drudgery that we call responsibility. That’s a tension I have lived, baby, baby.

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There were so many different moods and impressions that he wished to express in verse. He felt them within him. He tried to weigh his soul to see if it was a poet’s soul. Melancholy was the dominant note of his temperament, he thought, but it was melancholy tempered by recurrences of faith and resignation and simple joy. If he could give expression to it in a book of poems perhaps men would listen. He would never be popular: he saw that. He could not sway the crowd but he might appeal to a little circle of kindred minds.

I thought that when I published What Happens to Us.

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A street scene on O’Connell Street, the main drag in Dublin

Standing in front of "The Needle" on O'Connell Street in Dublin.  People wonder what the monument means.  To me, obviously, it's a celebration of the Irish junkie.

Standing in front of “The Needle” on O’Connell Street in Dublin. People wonder what the monument means. To me, obviously, it’s a celebration of the Irish junkie.

Later, Claire and I were walking down O’Connell Street, which was named after Irish patriot Daniel O’Connell. Look at a country’s patriots and you will discover the country’s soul. Born in 1775, Daniel O’Connell was a fiery orator who campaigned for the right of political representation in Parliament for the Irish people, which is of course what motivated the American colonists during the Boston Tea Party. In the 1840s, in his sixties, O’Connell campaigned for Irish independence and was jailed for it. His health suffered in prison, and when he was released, he made a pilgrimage to Rome. He died en route. Per his wishes, his heart was buried in Rome, and the rest of his body, in Dublin.

I was sick while traveling, as well. Some days, I simply couldn’t find the strength to walk around. In some photographs, you can see it in my eyes. It was like I forgot to wear mascara.

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You can see that I’m sick in this photograph

On one of my healthier days, we posed for a photo beneath O’Connell’s statue, then walked down the street and played around at Joyce’s statue. In one photograph, I’m aping Joyce’s dandyish pose. In another, I’m comically begging Joyce for the ability to write as well as he did.

In front of the O'Connell statue

In front of the O’Connell statue

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Joyce is one author to whom I truly aspire. When I first encountered his prose, I was astounded that he could express such complex concepts in such a simple and direct way. In college, I was a literary democrat, averse to such stylistic royalists as Henry James, T.S. Eliot, and Thomas Disch. On top of that, Joyce wasn’t afraid of his heart. The people in his stories were regular people with regular concerns. A crying baby. A colleague who has surpassed the protagonist. Envy and disappointment.

When I begged a bronze Joyce on O’Connell Street for writing ability, then, I wasn’t being facetious, I was being sincere. One’s ability to write is renewed every single day in every gesture you make towards life, and the price you pay is humility, curiosity, and honesty. And if you don’t pay enough, that ability is revoked. At various times in their lives, many great authors have been denied that ability because they wouldn’t pay the price—Salinger, Hemingway, LeCarre, Delillo, and so many others.

But Joyce was an Irishman, as well, and in college, I couldn’t have understood what that meant. I now have an inkling of it. It meant being part of a race of people who were occupied and oppressed in their own country. It meant Irish people not being able to own property in their own country. It meant the occupiers taking land and belongings from them and giving them to colonists.

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One 12th-century occupier “writes scathingly of the barbarity and uncouthness of the Irish: their refusal to mine or till the soil correctly or to trade as they ought to trade, their cunning and violent ways, their lack of honesty.”

An earlier source claims that even “the most powerful go barefoot and without breeches, and ride horse without saddles.”

A 14th-century source says that the English occupiers’ “regular clergy dogmatically assert that it is no more a sin to kill an Irishman than a dog or any brute….They have striven with all their might and with every treacherous artifice in their power, to wipe our nation out entirely….” (All of these passages were taken from The Story of Ireland, by Neil Hegarty(Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, New York).

Joyce, then, was part of the movement that was attempting to rescue Irish identity after centuries of being trampled in the dirt. Joyce’s ordinary people with extraordinary passions were an attempt at claiming an Irish literature. It was a literature that encompassed their great lights.

Charles Stewart Parnell, whom English Prime Minister William Gladstone described as the most remarkable person he had ever met. I walked down Dublin’s Parnell Street to take our laundry to the cleaners.

Sean McDermott, who was one of the leaders of the Easter Rising of 1916, which led to the Irish Free State in 1922. He was executed for his part in the Rising.  Today, there’s a Sean McDermott Street in Dublin.

Oliver Bond, a wealthy Irish revolutionary who was a leader in the violent demonstrations of the 1790s, and died under mysterious circumstances in prison in 1798.  Today, there’s an Oliver Bond Street in Dublin.

All of these men are luminaries in the blossoming flower that in 1922 became the Republic of Ireland.

As we all know, oppression has a way of enhancing a people’s literature, music, and other expression. Look at American blacks, South Africans, and yes, Irish writers from Joyce to Dylan Thomas to William Butler Yeats to James Stephens and others.

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My mother listening to James Joyce at Bewley’s

A bronze statue in Bewley's Oriental Cafe

A bronze statue in Bewley’s Oriental Cafe

A beauty mimiicking a bronze statue in Bewley's Oriental Cafe

A beauty mimiicking a bronze statue in Bewley’s Oriental Cafe

So, when I was sitting in Bewley’s, I read James Joyce aloud.

I did not know whether I would ever speak to her or not or, if I spoke to her, how I could tell her of my confused adoration. But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires.

It was lovely to read Irish authors in Irish places.  When I was taking a dawn walk in the beautiful wet bogs and heath of County Louth, I read Yeats aloud.

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An Irish farmhouse at dawn

An Irish farmhouse at dawn

I will arise and go now, for always night and day

I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;

While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,

I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

And whenever I saw a photo of an Irish author, I had my picture taken. I aspire, I aspire. Responsibility beats me back, but then I advance again. Back and forth, to and fro, discouraged and imbued, isn’t it always the way?

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

The Queen’s Nude Pool Party

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m still wondering whether that was a compliment.

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

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

I could do that, I would say.

It wouldn’t be an inconvenience, would it?

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

A Pint of Good Intentions

During this trip, we left a lot of things behind. You’re always having to keep track of so many things.

In a pub in the 13th-century weavers’ town of Bradford on Avon, we sat down at the Dandylion Pub and ate a lovely cottage pie dinner, which is a meat pie with mashed potatoes on top, “mash,” as they call it. Leaving the restaurant, Claire left behind her rust-colored scarf. We sauntered back to our room through narrow and winding cobblestone streets, then discovered our mistake. Turning around, it was our pleasure to take the 10-minute walk back in the falling dusk. When we arrived again, the 16-year-old girl who was working the tables gladly handed it back to us.

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Trinity Church in Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire, England

Trinity Church in Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire, England

 

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Loovely, as the British say.

At the Shipwright Inn in Dublin, which was barely a hotel, not even a motel, more like a working-class pub with rooms and no front desk, I was starting to get seriously sick. So I ducked into its pub at midnight for some lemon wedges and honey, to mix with some hot water in order to stave off my oncoming sickness. Waiting in the pub, it was so terribly attractive to see a 60-year-old woman, probably newly divorced from her dock worker husband, strut her stuff to old Bee Gee disco songs, and the fact that she was drunk and stupid was just a bonus. The next morning upon leaving, my mother neglected to collect her three-legged cane. Four days later, we called from England and they held it in Lost and Found.

Grand, as the Irish say.

We stumbled, as well. Upon arriving in London, we made our way during a crushing rush hour through the London Underground with baggage. Each of us was pulling a suitcase and a carry-on, plus a couple bags, a major camera, and other bits. Given my mother’s arthritic hips, she tended to lag behind. At several points, we encountered stairs, which were an immense effort. I had to do all the lifting. I would carry two suitcases at a time up the stairs, my mother would guard them at the top and Claire at the bottom, and then I would return back down to haul another couple suitcases, and so on.

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At one point, I looked back at my mother, who was attempting to swing her heavy suitcase around, and standing right next to her was a rasta man, his face as black as midnight, his dreadlocks hanging out of his knitted Jamaican snood, looking tough in his black leather jacket. If Mom had seen him, she would have been frightened. She’s not used to rasta men. I was trying to gauge whether he was a threat. My mother continued to struggle with the bag. Gradually, rasta man began to move towards her. I watched closely. I saw him lean towards her. I was ready. I was waiting. Finally, he lent a hand. He helped her disentangle her bag’s wheels and straighten it out. She thanked him and continued on her way.  Helpful rasta dude.

In all, four London strangers within the space of an hour offered to help my mother with her bags.

Another day, two waiters and a cab driver within the span of eight hours ran outside after us with articles we had left behind.

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When things like that happen, you ponder people’s intentions.

It brings to mind Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector of England starting in 1653. He was more a dictator than anything else. The English considered the Irish savages, and that was justification for all manner of rudeness. John Milton, for example, decried the country’s “absurd and savage customs” who had been made “devils by popery.” In 1649, Cromwell led the English army against the strategic Irish town of Drogheda, bringing it to its knees within a week.

Cromwell sent a note to the Drogheda commander, Sir Henry Aston, ordering immediate surrender. Aston refused. In response, Cromwell brought his artillery to bear on Drogheda’s medieval fortifications. The next day, the English poured into the town and 2,500 Irish were killed, including men, women, and children. A thousand civilians had taken refuge in St. Peter’s Church, and Cromwell ordered it set afire, burning alive all who were inside.  He beat Sir Aston to death with his own wooden leg.

Those English were not so accommodating. Perhaps they would not have run outside with Claire’s scarf.

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My mother in Antica Toscana restaurant in Drogheda, Ireland

Over 350 years later, we visited Drogheda. I drove our rental car through the frighteningly narrow streets. We parked in front of the medieval gate while a hen party (their term for bachelorette party) was passing by. We found a fabulous hole-in-the-wall Italian restaurant named Antica Toscana and I had a fabulous dish of ravioli while the first glimmerings of sickness began to descend upon me. It took me three days to learn how to pronounce the town’s name correctly. Drogheda. DRAW-ha-da, not Dro-HEY-da.

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I wonder sometimes whether the state of humanity is getting better. There’s a new Stephen Pinker book that documents how the tragedy of war has lessened immeasurably over the last half of the 20th century, and one wants to concur. More people are getting educated. Racism is no longer acceptable. Diversity and tolerance are now considered positive traits. Calling somebody stupid or fat or retarded is socially wrong. It seems like progress.

Then yesterday, we arrived back in Dublin not having booked a hotel. I left Claire and my mother at a bus stop on Parnell Street and went out in search of a vacancy. While I was gone, they were confronted with a disheveled homeless man who loomed higher than six feet. He was mumbling and holding out his hand, which contained an array of coins.

“…All I need is 60 pence, and then I can….”

“No, I don’t have it,” Claire said.

“…But if you just gave me 60 pence….”

And that’s when my mother butted in, and she’s never been a wilting pansy.

“She said no!” Mom said.

The man took two steps back. For a moment, a storm gathered on his face. Then he started yelling at them.

“You fucking English!” he said.

Claire and my mother were stunned. The man continued his verbal abuse, but that’s when another Irish man intervened. He, too, was over six feet tall, and he stepped in between the man and the girls. He eased the homeless man back until the homeless man had wandered away.

One might be discouraged by such an incident. Then again, one might think about the second man, as well as the several Irish people who immediately stepped up to apologize.

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“I’m so sorry,” one woman said. “We’re not all like that.”

I choose to see the pint not just as half full, but nearly up to the brim, ready for drinking. It is Ireland, after all.

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.

In Search of Real Magic (part 2 of Magic Island)

This is part 2 of the article, “Magic Island,” originally published in the New York Daily News.  Part 1 was published here.

If you want to see Vanuatu, you must first fly into Port Vila on the island of Efate.  It is a bustling town of 36,000, but nothing like a real city.  There is a two-lane main street along the shoreline and a few quaint restaurants and shops.  The streets are populated with black-skinned ni-Vanuatu, Australian tourists, and the expatriate merchant class.

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I immediately set out in search of eyewitnesses to the feats of man blong magik, or magic men.  I asked around everywhere.

At the Botanical Gardens, I talked with Paco Mete.  He is the host of an outdoor museum that gives historical and cultural information about Vanuatu.  Paco is an eloquent young Melanesian man with an airtight mind, and when asked, told of two examples of real magic that he has witnessed firsthand.

“Once,” said Paco, “right here at the gardens, I see man blong magik cut a coconut in two, and then, suddenly, clap the two halves back together, healing it.”

I smiled and nodded, but still, this fell into the realm of trickery, since the magician Michael Ammar regularly performs the same feat with a lemon–as a trick.

The second, however, was more intriguing: During that same ceremony, Paco saw a conch shell grab onto a leaf as if it were a hand.

The incident sounded vaguely hallucinogenic, like the willow tree whose branches try to kill Harry Potter in Azkaban, and so my mind immediately went to kava, the local drink.  However, I had to be careful with such suspicions, because virtually every feat of magic can be discounted by labeling it a kava dream, and that would render all magic false before even examining it.

Paco recounted more chilling feats, as well.  Sometimes, Paco said, magicians have been known to sneak into people’s homes in the middle of the night and perform secret surgery.  The victims wake up the next morning and walk around as if nothing is wrong.  A couple days later, however, they drop dead.  If an autopsy is performed, the doctor finds that his guts are filled with nothing but leaves.

Another feat requires the magic man to boil a black cat live.  He then places one of the cat’s bones in his mouth.  Then he can walk around invisibly, like Harry Potter donning his invisibility cloak.

Everywhere I went, people encouraged me to drink kava (piper methysticum)People see strange things when drinking kava, although it’s not a hallucinogen; in fact, it’s legal to purchase even in the virulently anti-drug atmosphere of the United States.

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The kava plant

When I checked with my acupuncturist back home, I discovered that technically, kava is a euphoric and a soporific, which means that it “makes people feel mildly euphoric and then sleepy,” according to Laraine Crampton, L.Ac., one of the authors of Chinese Medical Herbology and Pharmacology (AOM Press 2003, $90), with a private practice in Santa Monica, California.

Kava begins as a local leaf that young virgins prepare by chewing it into a mush.  They spit it out, water is added, and it is filtered through coconut fibers into a final product.  Kava bars abound on the islands.  After drinking kava from a half-coconut shell, you can see and even talk with the dead spirits, according to local lore.  First, your mouth becomes numb.  If you turn away from other people and stare into the distance, the spirits appear to you.  Within minutes, all of the questions that bother you will be answered, they say.

“As with any euphoric, it may open you up beyond your normal boundaries,” Crampton said to my surprise.  “If, by the term magic, you mean being in touch with other realms, then I wouldn’t rule out magic.”

In my search around Port Vila, I stumbled on Don MacQuoid, who runs The Waterfront Bar & Grill.  He’s actually quite a knowledgeable magician, having grown up in Southern California and studied in the ‘70s under the legendary magician Jules Lenier, who passed away several years ago.  MacQuoid claims to own nearly every magic instructional video and DVD in existence, and performs lots of great tricks for a visiting American.

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Macquoid is a real find.  He was an early investor in Apple and cashed out with a fortune.  He bought a yacht and cruised the world with his wife for a couple years.  He landed here six years ago, buying the Waterfront after fifteen years of sailing around the world with his lovely wife Donna.  From time to time, he invites prominent magicians to perform at the Waterfront.

After one particularly strong performance, the ni-Vanuatu employees were convinced of the magician’s genuine powers.  That night, a young boy fell sick in their village, and the next day, the employees refused to go to work, blaming the magician’s black magic.

“I had to bring in a village klever,” MacQuoid says.  “I paid her $60, and her job was to walk around the restaurant and discover the source of the curse on the young boy.  Finally, she found three black stones in a planter that she said were to blame.  She replaced them with three white stones, and suddenly, everything was right with the world again.”

Sometimes, Macquoid has put the ni-Vanuatu’s own beliefs to good use.  One of his ni-Vanuatu employees, for example, injured his arm.  It healed, but the employee didn’t heal psychologically, refusing to use the arm for everyday tasks.

One day, Macquoid decided to take matters into his own hands.  He ordered the employee to sit down and close his eyes, and then loaded some fake blood into his arm under a layer of rubber cement.  He took out Harry Anderson’s trick, “Knife Through Arm,” and began “cutting into” the employee’s arm.

“Open your eyes,” Macquoid said.

When the employee did, he was stunned, his eyes wide with alarm.  Macquoid rocked the blade back and forth, the blood running down his forearm.

“Those are the evil spirits,” Macquoid said.  “They’re leaving your body.”

Belief is a powerful thing.  Today, the employee’s arm is as good as new.

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From books, I happened upon other magical stories.  The Lonely Planet Vanuatu guidebook says that magic is especially strong around volcanos, for example, and that there are nine active volcanos in Vanuatu, two underwater.  Magic is believed to be strongest on Ambrym and Epi, remote islands that the travel agents warn me not to visit.  There are barely even accommodations on that island, they say.

One of Vanuatu's volcanos

One of Vanuatu’s volcanos

If you meet a magician, the book says, he may not even shake your hand, since magicians feel themselves superior.  (In my experience, the same thing is true in the States.  Or maybe it’s something in my approach….)

One intriguing eyewitness account comes from Isles of Illusion, a book by an anonymous author who’s identified only as Asterisk.  He was a colonial Englishman who was stationed on the islands in the late 19th century, and wrote back to his brother in England about his experiences in letters that were never meant to be published, but which one of his descendants deemed fascinating enough to put into print in 1913.

Asterisk didn’t believe in the ni-Vanuatu’s magic, so when a native told him that he was being pursued by a demon, Asterisk was skeptical.  But then one night, he saw the native being dragged through the jungle by no one, by an invisible person.  It may be historical, but it is an eyewitness account, nonetheless.

[To read part 3, click here.]

These People Have Not Seen Such a Thing Before

In 2004, I traveled to the South Pacific to the island chain of Vanuatu to write a travel article for the New York Daily News.  People are curious once again about the connection that I found between indigenous people and magic.  For them, I reprint this article.

In Vanuatu, a string of islands in the South Pacific, the natives all live a secret life.

At Le Meridien resort, a fit young Melanesian man in a grass skirt and headdress opens the door of your taxi with a warm smile, but he is not what he seems.  Neither is the husky Melanesian bartender at Breakas, where you swim up to the bar and order a Margarita while gazing at a stunning beach.  Nor the slender Melanesian driver who takes you three hours over dirt roads to the active volcano of Mount Yasur; here, nobody is what they seem.

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The people of Vanuatu, men and women with dark faces and old ways, are called ni-Vanuatu, meaning literally, “people of Vanuatu.”  Today, nearly all ni-Vanuatu believe in a world in which magic, real magic, is a literal fact of life.

In Vanuatu, they will tell you, there are magic men who can fly, transfigure into animals, and walk around invisibly.   Dead spirits reside in banyan trees, which can be seen beside every highway, and which are illegal to cut down without the clearance of a magic man.  And if you don’t watch out, practitioners of black magic will cast a curse on you.

I was inexorably drawn to this magical land, since I make my living as a magician, performing magic in nightclubs, at sales meetings, and at various other corporate events.  But I worried: How would the ni-Vanuatu react to my magic?

I had heard of the American soldier who was stationed on Vanuatu during WWII, and to whom they had later named a religion: the John Frum cult, named after the sergeant’s own name, “John from America.”  And I had also heard of the Christian missionaries who had been eaten by the ni-Vanuatu in the 1800s, when cannibalism was simply an expression of displeasure.

I wondered if, after seeing me pull a coin from a child’s ear, the villagers would throw me in a pot or start a David Frum religion.

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When you fly into Vanuatu, it is Port Vila on the island of Efate that you see first.  It is a bustling town of 36,000, the streets populated mostly with black-skinned ni-Vanuatu and Australian tourists.

I ran into several eyewitnesses to real magic in Port Vila, and even more believers—nearly everyone here believes—but the most riveting was Paco Mete, our guide at the Botanical Gardens.

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“Once,” said Paco, “I see magic man cut a coconut in two, and then, suddenly, clap the two halves back together, healing it.  Then, I see a conch shell grab onto a leaf as if it was a hand.”

Before leaving the Botanical Gardens, I read a display that told the secret of how some magicians walk around invisibly.  First, they boil a black cat live.  Then they place one of the cat’s bones in their mouth.  Finally, the display declares with confidence, they can walk around invisibly.

Everywhere I went in Vanuatu, people encouraged me to drink kava, a local leaf that is distilled into a hallucinogenic beverage.  After drinking kava, you can see and even talk with the dead spirits, they told me.

Port Vila, however, was the capital town.  I was eager to see what lay in store for me on one of the more remote islands.  Tanna, I had heard, was brimming with magic and mystery.  There are 28,000 people on Tanna, most of whom are villagers who live in thatched huts in the jungle, without benefit of electricity or indoor plumbing, without a Western education, without television, radio, or mass media of any sort.  Many Tannans believe with all their hearts, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that magic happens every day, all the time.

So when the opportunity arose to visit Tanna, I leapt at the chance.

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A flight to Tanna is a flight away from all modern security concerns.  We boarded a 10-seater plane, without any kind of X-ray screening, and one of us sat next to the pilot.  Once we landed, the Tanna International Airport was no larger than a steakhouse.

Whitegrass Bungalows is a charming property with 12 bungalows perched directly on the oceanfront, each with an incredible panoramic view of reefs, ocean, and endless sky.  Each hour, it seems, reveals a different visual masterpiece.

That evening, a group of us sat down in the Whitegrass restaurant with Chief Tom Numake of the Evergreen Village, a Melanesian man with a black face and an authoritative, dignified presence.

“A magic man can turn into a dog, squirrel, flying fox,” Chief Tom said plainly.  “If he doesn’t like another man, he can wait till the man go fishing, then turn into a shark and eat the man.  A magic man can turn into a cat and climb in a window, and if you touch this cat, you will die.

“And devils are real.  When you come across a devil, your ears become long like a cow’s ears, your hair becomes colder, and you start shaking.

“I know these magic men, and they can fly from island to island—bam—in two seconds.  And you can going flying with him.  You hold on his pants and close your eyes.  You hear singing and then you start flying.  You fly straight—straight through buildings and mountains and whatever stands in your way.

“But if you open your eyes, you get stuck inside the mountain or the building or  whatever.  If I had known before that you wanted to fly, I would have arranged for you to fly.”

There was not a trace of humor in his voice.  Then he described what magic men use to communicate instead of telephones.

“They use marigolds,” Chief Tom said.  “They talk into a flower on Tanna and somebody on the other island can hear them.  In fact, we can use these marigolds to talk to people in the United States.  Have you ever seen someone in the United States with a flower behind their ear?  Well, that’s the talking flower.”

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The next day, we toured Yuiniar, a kastom village, meaning a village that follows “custom,” the old ways.  There, for an admission price, they give you a fascinating glimpse into indigenous life.  A ni-Vanuatu guide with a bare chest showed us around and described what life is like in this primitive village in the jungle, from hunting and gathering, food preparation, social life, and the like.

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After the 40-minute tour, in a large clearing in front of a huge banyan tree, where the dead spirits reside, over 300 villagers in grass skirts and painted faces performed a tribal dance.  They were asking the gods to bless their yam harvest.

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Finally, when the dance was over, our driver, Belden, asked the chief whether I could perform a show for the villagers, and he consented.  The entire tribe gathered around me.  If there was a moment to be afraid, this might have been it.  These are people, after all, who dance to please the gods.

I performed the sponge balls, and after each magical moment, there was an audible “Ohhhh!” as 300 people expressed their astonishment at the same time.  A few superstitious elderly Iwners laid back with a conflicted, suspicious look on their faces, like maybe I’m the real thing, like maybe I’m going to put a curse on them, like maybe I’m a devil who’s come to make their ears long like cow’s ears.

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But in the end, to my relief, I didn’t get thrown in a pot.  I also performed a rope trick, the disappearing scarves, and Ashes on the Palm, and they loved it all.  As we were driving away from Yuiniar, over bumpy dirt roads, heading back to our bungalows, Belden finally spoke.

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“These people have not seen such a thing before,” said Belden from behind his steering wheel.  His eyes betrayed some deep emotion, perhaps awe or, maybe, gratefulness.  “You have shown them a very great thing.”

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Back in Port Vila, I took a cruise with Peter Whitelaw, owner of Sailaway Cruises.  Peter is an Australian who sailed into Port Vila in 1980.  A cyclone suddenly hit and his boat was destroyed.  He’s remained in Vanuatu ever since.

Whenever anyone dies at a young age or gets sick unexpectedly, Peter says, the ni-Vanuatu assume that someone cast a curse on that person.

But then he made a stunning confession: He, too, had seen real magic firsthand.  Peter is clearly a Western mind, an Aussie with a B.S. in electrical engineering.  A couple years ago, one of his ni-Vanuatu boatmates told him that he was being dogged by a curse that had been placed on him.  Peter was skeptical, of course.

But then one day, the mate was eating in the galley when his plate split into pieces in front of them all for no reason.  The shards and food all fell to the floor.

“This happens all the time,” said the ni-Vanuatu man with a besieged look on his face.

When I perform magic in the States, standing onstage with my magic wand, most people consider what I do “just tricks.”  But there is a whole world out there, hundreds of millions of indigenous peoples, who believe that the world is more than just numbers and facts and the concrete.  They believe that the world is, like the stunning volcano on Tanna, surprisingly malleable and unexpectedly wondrous, that the world is, in a word, magic.

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And who am I to disagree?