[It may go without saying, but you probably want to read Part I first.]
UPDATE: I told a version of the following at the Moth. Here’s a video of it:
I never thought to consult anyone for practical advice on preparing for my debut as a magician, not even my experienced friend Phillip. When I had tried out all the bits for my family, everything seemed to go reasonably well. What more did I need to know? After a mental run-through of the act, I felt I was ready. When that Saturday rolled around, I put all my gear into a large cardboard box and my mom dropped me off in the family van.1 The address was a modern highrise apartment building about a block from where I went to school.
I entered the building’s vestibule, pushing the box with my feet, and found the name on the directory bank in the entryway. Considering the corresponding button a moment, suddenly every element of my being was infused with a hot liquid of fear. What the fuck was I thinking? I wasn’t ready for this! Standing up in front of a bunch of kids I didn’t know? Forget it. Maybe I should just abandon the whole plan and walk home? It wasn’t that far. Or maybe I could sit in the courtyard2 until my mom was scheduled to pick me up? But then I considered the possible repercussions. This woman had my phone number. She knew where I lived and went to school. Finally I sucked it up, reached out and pushed the button. A voice came over the intercom and told me I should go to such and such a floor and such and such a number. Startled by the sharp rasp of the interior door buzzer, I pulled it open and began my inexorable slog into an uncertain future.
Terror heightened my senses. In particular, each leg of the journey had a new smell, from the lobby (floor wax) to the elevator (cable grease) to the dim hallway outside the apartment (the musty ghost of a dinner I would never want to eat). I found the number, set down the box, and rang. The muffled sound of gleeful kids came from inside, and a moment later the door opened and a pretty, smiling blond mom welcomed me in. “Thanks so much for coming! I’m so glad you could do this. Everyone is so excited!” Her upbeat vibe eased me a bit. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad? The kids sounded happy and I thought again about the $12 that awaited me in less than an hour.
She led me down a narrow hallway and past a small living room. “They’re just having cake.” As I rounded a corner, I saw about 10 six-year-olds crowded at a table. “The magician’s here!” A couple of the kids seemed enthused, but there was general distracted air that gave me pause. This could prove a tough crowd.
“I thought in here would be good for your show,” she said, gesturing to a small, narrow space between the dining area and the kitchen. Not exactly the ideal performance space, but I made a mental note to consider that in the future. No biggie. “We’ll just take them out to the living room. Let us know when you’re ready.” Another mom helped her herd the kids from the table.
Once they were gone I set the box down and quickly realized the second lapse in my planning: I had no magic table. Uh oh. Second lesson learned. After panicking a moment, I went out to the living room and asked the blond mom if she had a small table I could use. “Oh,” she murmured, beginning to realize the level of professionalism that a $12 magician got her. “Hmm, let’s see.” She looked around. “Give me a second.” I retreated to the performance area and began to unpack.
A moment later she brought me a small steamer-type trunk which she set on one end. It wobbled a bit, but considering the size of the space, I had no other options. As they say, inexperienced kid magicians can’t be choosers. I finished my preparations and told her I was ready.
I waited in the kitchen while the dining room table was pushed aside and the audience was seated on the floor. Then I strode out and greeted the assembled, launching into the act with the multiplying balls bit, doing my best to stand back far enough that the kids wouldn’t see the half-shells that made the illusion possible (spoiler!). Aside from fidgeting and intermittent chatter from the crowd (“Your foot is touching me!”), it seemed to be going rather well. So I moved on through the magic rings and a display of mentalism. All things considered, I was holding my own.
But the next lesson I was to learn was there’s always that one kid. He puts the lie to what everyone wants to believe about childish wonder. Rather than suspend his disbelief and just fucking enjoy himself, he wants to be the smartest guy in the room, loudly guessing the secret behind every trick. And once that little asshole infects the crowd, it’s Katie bar the door. I struggled through the next couple of gags and took comfort in knowing my show-stopper was at hand. This was the trick that gave me the chutzpah to venture into professional magic in the first place, not just for its zazzle, but for the little twist I added.
I held aloft a silver bowl and showed it was empty, even handing it to the Loud-mouthed Little Shit for inspection. I placed the bowl on the table, passed my hand over it, and – ska-pahyow! – a flash of flame erupted, eliciting a satisfying gasp from the kids. I quickly covered the bowl with its lid, waved my wand, and with a hearty “Ala-ka-whatsit,” I revealed a real live gerbil inside the bowl. Suck on that, you little fuckers! As I had hoped, the combination of fire and a cute animal won the crowd over to me. To applause initiated by the moms, I put the gerbil in small cage and set it aside. Now it was time to bring it all home.
My final trick was the most involved in terms of effort. I held up a quarter and passed it around through the audience for inspection. Normal quarter, right? I then gave a magic marker to the birthday boy and asked him to make a distinctive mark on the coin. Taking the coin back, I pulled out a handkerchief and draped it over the hand holding the coin, and — oh, shit. One second. Uh, I forgot I need one more thing here. “Ma’am, could I borrow a drinking glass? Yes, I forgot I to bring that. Oh, thank you so much.” I set the glass on the wobbly table, reached inside my coat and produced what looked like plastic ashtrays that were bound with rubber bands. I set the bundle on the table and put the glass on top of it. Holding the handkerchief out to the birthday boy for one last check, I asked, “Do you feel the coin? Is it still in there? Yes?” So I draped the handkerchief completely over the glass and dropped the coin with an evidentiary clink. Another wave of my wand and I whipped the handkerchief off the glass with great flourish.
The arc of the drinking glass as it sailed into the air was directly equivalent to the path of my heart as it leaped into my throat and then plummeted to my shoes. We all watched it, helpless, and when it shattered on the floor, I could only think of how this was the worst thing that had ever happened to anyone ever. The moms gave a shriek and scrambled to protect the kids from any flying shards. Was this part of the act? Get back kids. I’ll get a broom. Everyone OK? As they fussed, I stood there dumbly, my humiliation complete.
After the damage was cleared and the audience reseated, I made a perfunctory rush through the rest of the trick, revealing the coin to be inside a little sealed bag inside a nest of trays within trays within trays. Whoop-dee-fucking-doo. The effect was ruined. Worst of all, there was no follow-up. That’s it, kiddies! Thanks and I’ll see ya! They were ushered back to the living room and I quickly began to pack up, wondering if there was a back door I could slip out. The blond mom returned and thanked me and I again apologized profusely. It was a painfully awkward exchange that concluded when she handed me my fee and escorted me to the front door.
I did a few more parties, applying my lessons learned (including always having a plastic drinking glass as part of my gear), but, if you’ll excuse the expression, the magic was gone. I wasn’t cut out for that racket. There were always the doubters, the wiseasses, the restless. And I had to admit to myself that I just wasn’t that good. In the end, my magical life could be best summed up by a trick I picked up right before I quit, which was one my dad loved. I would hold up a placard that demanded, APPLAUSE PLEASE. Then I would flip it over: THANK YOU. And the final flip: BOTH OF YOU.
1It was really more of a camper van, with a tiny kitchenette and removable tabletop. My dear mother loved campers. There was something about a home on wheels that really fired her imagination. If she spied one in a parking lot she had to go over and peer in the windows, much to her children’s horror. Considering the amount of kids she may have had to transport at any given time, it made some practical sense, but never so much as when she had an International Harvester wagon, which we dubbed “The Incredible Hulk.” But the one vehicle she seemed to love the most was the closest thing she ever had to a traditional camper, our Toyota Chinook, with its 4-cylander engine and eggshell of a fiberglass frame. The adventures in that beauty deserve their own entry at a later date. Go Back To Reading
2It was in this very courtyard that my brother had seen a free concert by Bonnie Kolac and Aliotta Haynes and Jeremiah some time earlier. He even got autographed pictures of them, which he hung on the wall of the room we shared at our dad’s house. At the time that seemed like an unbelievable brush with fame to me, as I had heard “Lake Shore Drive” on the radio. And yet there you sit, never having heard of any of those performers before. Time’s a revelator. Go Back To Reading