Thursday, March 5, 2015

My Life In Magic

Magic featured prominently throughout my childhood. My dad used to disappear behind the couch. My uncle Bill used to pull quarters out of my ears. My sister could detach the top half of her thumb and slide it along her hand.

I used my very first words to demand a magic set for Christmas. I got maybe a third of the tricks to work, but even then they only fooled dogs and my sister. I couldn't believe that most of the tricks, like the Chinese linking rings, required hours if not weeks of practice. That would have really been a feat, considering my attention span didn't last through The Cosby Show.

Still, I kept going, gradually accumulating a box of simple tricks. The more I learned, though, the more daunting the hobby seemed. My friend Marty was just two years older, but somehow those years had imparted the world's wisdom to him, including how to grow chest hair at the age of ten. He told me about the superhuman efforts Harry Houdini put into his tricks. He could hold his breath for fifteen minutes. He could pick locks with his teeth. He could pull every one of his bones out of their sockets. My goal in life was to escape from a straitjacket inside a locked trunk, but Marty's first step was a stunner:

First hide a crochet hook in your ass.

This baffled me, coming completely out of the blue. I mean, I idolized Houdini, and would have given anything to be like him. Admired by men, loved by women, muscular and rich and amazing. But was this really what the job entailed? As far as I knew, this didn't happen to kids who had other hobbies. If you wanted to take up golf, the first step wasn't stuffing tees in your butt. If you wanted to try out for football, you didn't have a jam a goalpost up your ass. To a kid who was still four years away from initiating contact with anything downstairs, this was equivalent to saying, "Why don't you take up stamp collecting instead?"

Mere minutes later, though, David Copperfield hit it big. He was Houdini reincarnated. The whole world was riveted to their couches when he made the Statue of Liberty disappear, and the next morning I raced to Marty for details.

The solution seemed obvious as he related it, in between taking shots from his flask. Everybody was facing the Statue of Liberty, and then they weren't. Clearly that was the only way to do it, since thousand-foot-tall structures don't disappear. I remember standing there in shock: I mean, if that was the solution, it wasn't a real magic trick. Picture Houdini trying it:

HOUDINI: I am now going to make myself disappear!


HOUDINI: Okay, everybody turn left!


HOUDINI: Can you see me? No? Ta-dah!

Copperfield's next TV special took place on an airport runway. A bunch of people made a big circle around a 747, holding hands. A curtain closed in front of the whole thing, and when it opened, the people were still in a circle but the plane was gone.

I was baffled. Clearly something inexplicable had happened, but once again Marty knew:

"You really are a kid, aren't you?" he said, taking a puff on his Pall Mall. "You know all the people surrounding the plane? He paid them off. The second the curtain closed they backed away so the plane could get dragged off."

My mouth dropped open in disbelief and it didn't close for weeks. That was the solution: "Everybody was paid"? I went through all the stages of loss over the next few months. I was horrified, disenchanted, disgusted. After finally reaching accepetance, though, I realized something:

If magic just required paying off people, then it really was something I could do.

I quickly devised some simple tricks and spent more time posting signs around my neighborhood. "MAGIC SHOW," they read. "AMAZING SKILLS OF PRESTIDIGITATION BY MUSTARDO THE MAGICIAN! Admission $1." Probably the most amazing thing was that nine people actually showed up that day in my backyard, including adults who should have known better. I gave two dollars to my stooge in the audience, and the show was on.

I gazed out at the audience and pretended to randomly pick someone out, though most of these folks lived within a five-minute walk so they recognized my sister.

ME [HOLDING UP A DECK OF CARDS]: Miss, I'd like you to randomly name any card of any suit. Any card of any suit.

MY SISTER SUE: Okay. I pick the eight of hearts.

ME: Would you be so kind as to look in your purse?

SUE opens her Hello Kitty bag and pulls out a playing card.

SUE: Ohmigod! It's the eight of hearts!

THE AUDIENCE murmurs a bit of approval but foreheads furrow too.

ME: Now I will transport an ordinary piece of string across the room. [I PUT IT IN MY POCKET.] Miss, please look in your pocket.

SUE: What? Oh, this is a surprise.

As SUE fishes the string out there's still a paucity of oohs or aahs and more grumbles and harumphs. "Can you do a trick with somebody other than your sister?" somebody yells. It suddenly occurs to me that David Copperfield probably doesn't perform around people who live on his block.

ME: Is anybody thirsty? Now I will take a drink from the magic cup and transport the magic liquid to a random audience member.

SUE acts shocked and clutches at her throat, then she hocks a huge loogey on the ground.



ME: Next let's try a stab at mentalism. [I PRETEND TO CONCENTRATE.] Is somebody thinking about a ... cat? Wearing a pink sweater?


At this point a couple younger members of the audience leapt up and started chasing me. While I didn't exactly need a crochet hook up my ass, a little more practice probably would have helped. But the Amazing Mustardo wasn't particularly scared. He was a pretty quick runner back then, and the cape certainly didn't hurt.

1 comment:

Yet Another Steve said...

About time we had another episode from your thrilling and bizarre childhood. This is a good one.