“Open sesame,” I said. A wooden door creaked open to reveal a velvet waiting room tinted with cigar smoke and laughter.
It was Sunday brunch at the Magic Castle, a private club for established magicians and invited guests. A family friend had gotten my dad, my best friend and me on the list. We buttoned up and stuffed our pockets with playing cards, determined to learn from the greats.
It was then that I fell in love with magic as a legitimate practice. Overheard conversation sounded like spells. There were flourishes, false cuts — shuffles, riffles, shifts and crimps. To preteen eyes, that room was Las Vegas royalty, the height of a hidden society. I was entranced.
When I got home, I spent hours a day learning cups and balls routines and close-up sleight-of-hand tricks. I made business cards advertising my services as “Stiles Sleights, Inc.,” with my mom’s phone number attached.
I loved the feeling of it — having things to hide, having invisible strings to pull, the lighthearted manipulation of misdirection. I could weave narratives of intrigue with a few pieces of cardboard, spin fictions like stretchy pizza dough. Plus, I got attention for the entire show.
Of course, I did get made fun of. At the time, I thought they were just laughing at the dorkiness of a 13-year-old in coattails, and they probably were. But they also saw right through my routine to the desperate kid faking bravado he didn’t have. At that point, I was unapologetically self-centered.
My insecure style of socialization was understandable. I was a scared little kid in a new environment. I wasn’t well-liked in elementary, or at least, I didn’t feel like it. Middle school was my chance to have real friendships, and I jumped at every opportunity to win people over.
But perhaps my critics were right. There were some toxic elements to it. I filtered my interactions through a curtain of whimsical disbelief. I saw my life as a stage, and although Shakespeare might applaud the effort, my friends didn’t appreciate always being an audience.
The memory of that velvet, smoke-filled room started to smell like quarter-life crises and arrested development. They started to look like grown men infatuated with a childhood pastime instead of titans of their craft.
I felt childish pulling quarters out of places and always searching for applause. My love for magic was replaced with a burning desire to be popular. So, I released all the live doves in my backyard and hung up my top hat, determined to be cool.
Of course, no matter where I stashed my costume, those impulses didn’t go away. The little magician inside of me, scratching at my ribcage, pushed me to audition for musicals and writing workshops. I found a new avenue for performance that didn’t always require a cape.
That room full of smoke and magicians that once looked unemployed and under-celebrated now shone as a community of devoted artists. They could dress up and live their dream of being shrouded in mystery and infamy.
And, of course, they’re faking it just as much as the rest of us, just like I was in the middle-school cafeteria. But the secret is that they’re content to entertain one another with whatever new thing they cooked up in their garage. They learned long ago that self-worth comes not from your entertainment value but from your craft.
Some of my favorite magicians, Penn and Teller, like to let the audience in on most of the workings of the trick. They keep one piece to themselves for the final reveal. It’s touching, being able to delight not only in the trick but also in the work they’ve put in.
So, allow me to do the same. My weeks start with a scrambled text to my darling editor, who adds some thoughts of her own and (hopefully) gives me the go-ahead. Then I make coffee, sit down, and expel a rambling four or five pages. The painful part is the chisel — when we frown a lot, cut words, read it out loud and make more coffee.
Looking at that process, it’s easy to see the similarities. The discipline of learning and honing skills; the power of language and performance; the feeling of leaving someone wowed and pleasantly confused. Those goals still motivate the work I do. Spectators just happen to be in their own living rooms instead of mine.
Every once in a while, my parents will drag me out to entertain an old friend or new acquaintance. I’ll sigh and fish out a weathered deck of cards, trying to hide my excitement as I start the same speech of “if you see here” and “watch closely.”
I hope that what I’m doing now can serve the same purpose. One day, I’ll sit back on the couch as you do the entertaining. But for now, I hope you drag me out so I can spin some fiction with all the misdirection and flourish I can muster.
For my final reveal, imagine I vanish in a cloud of smoke and leave you wondering, how on earth did he do that?
Are you ready? On the count of three. One-