The Prestidigitator

We read in our languishing weekly (it has to be languishing because I haven't published there recently and because this here blog has been rejected there) about a Mexican restaurant with great tilapia tacos at a bargain price. We went there tonight and sat at the bar because it was so crowded. Luckily the whole restaurant was non-smoking. Behind the bar women with white blouses and black pants, ranging in age from around 13 to 40s, moved in and out, sometimes five or six people at a time, usually good-natured and not bumping into one another. A very very young girl with braces and small voice and a clipboard was taking names of people waiting for tables. This was not a perfect job for a girl with a small small voice in a crowded restaurant. After a while a guy sat on a stool near us and took out a deck of blue Bicycle cards. He was shuffling them, a mixture between awkwardly and nimbly. I couldn't tell if he wanted people to ask him if he did tricks. I asked him. He did tricks. What can I say? We picked cards, we put them back, he found them; we shuffled, we picked cards, he found them; we cut cards, we shuffled, etc. He always got his card. He had gone to arts summer camp in Canada where he'd had a bunkmate, who had learned from Doug Henning. The bunkmate's father was Henning's lawyer. Our prestidigitator said he'd looked for his old campmate on the internet but couldn't find him. He lives a block from the restaurant and said he comes there about once a fortnight. Because he used that term and because of the location of the summer camp I asked if he was Canadian, but he said no. Fortnight is a useful term, but like the metric system, it just hasn't caught on here. He said he used to bring a deck of cards to high school and do tricks during recess. He seemed like a shy high school kid grown up who was still using cards to open conversations. He asked us boilerplate questions about where we were from and what we did. He did not seem a natural at patter. He works for a law firm that L recognized as a notorious union-busting operation. But L remained cordial.

Last night we had rented Woody Allen's movie Scoop, in which Allen is the fabulous Splendini who does card tricks and rearranges molecules, so card tricks were on our minds. I wanted our prestidigitator to read our minds but I didn't ask because he didn't seem to be that kind of performer. I thought we would be easy to read as a couple, even though we weren't wearing wedding rings. L doesn't like them and I'd never put mine back on after surgery. L and I shared our food without much comment and when I asked him if he was doing anything with his after-dinner mint wrapper, he gave it to me without batting an eye. He knew I was going to use it in a collage. We decided toward the end of the meal that this was our anniversary dinner. We were married three years ago yesterday, but the wedding was so small and quick we keep forgetting the date. The day we remember is the one we met: June 3, 1995. The prestidigitator said he had a lot of books and DVDs on card tricks and magic, and I said, I thought magicians aren't supposed to give away their secrets. Give is the word, he said. They don't give away their secrets. They sell them. I was surprised by this. I thought that magicians were secretive because of the pseudo-mystical nature of the work, and because it takes so much practice to perfect their show. In the movie Woody Allen had said the same thing over and over at the end of his act --you've been a great audience, you're a credit to your race--delivered with the characteristic Woody Allen stutter and you knew he wasn't supposed to be sincere. It was mindless patter, and supposed to be mindlessly offensive. Our local man wasn't mindless enough. Magic is supposed to look effortless, and even if you're pretending, for effect, that it's difficult, you're still supposed to be smooth. You're supposed to be insincere. We want that polished, infinitely repeated insincerity. It's part of the magic, the unreality. We want it to turn out the same way each time, though there's always that tension that it might not. So the magician has to say the same words, like an incantation. Our prestidigitator said he likes doing card tricks to make people happy. But I think the reason we delight in them is their surety. You pick this card and you put it back in the deck and the guy holds it up--amazing!--the same way, each and every time.

The tilapia was great, just as the review had told us it would be.