GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:
Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT, the "Presto" episode. Today, we're talking to people in possession of strange and wondrous powers. And our next story is about the time that comes in every young man's life, when he discovers that magic, contrary to everything he's ever been led to believe, is not cool.
DAVID HILL: When I was a kid, I did magic, and when I say, a kid, I don't mean 8 years old I did magic, you know, the way you did magic when you're a kid with that plastic magic set your parents got you for Christmas, with the thumb tip and the little box that broke the pencil into three pieces and then turned it back into a whole pencil. I'm talking about I was doing birthday parties when I was a freshman in high school. Full-on 15-year-old magic dork with a fancy magic table and a kid's tuxedo jacket with secret pockets and a cane that turned into flowers and a pet dove named Priscilla. I had business cards. Mystical act of magic, they said, and next to my name was Ed's name.
Ed was a junior. He was my magic mentor. I met Ed at my best friend Stuart's house after Stuart's big brother was doing some coin tricks for the other kids. You should meet Ed. He's a real magician. The suggestion that somehow I wasn't a real magician offended me, but Stuart assured me that his brother wasn't messing around. Ed's no joke, man. He made an orange appear in this box right in front of me. I mean, it just appeared. I have no clue how he did it.
I knew how you did it. Stuart was describing a trick called The Crystal Casket. A simple, clear, plastic box about six inches tall, yet objects seemed to just materialize inside the clear box right before your eyes. The secret was simple; one of the sides of the box was a mirror. The object was hidden behind it. The mirror was spring-loaded. It could drop so fast, you wouldn't even notice it. All you noticed was the load or the object appearing inside the box. Stuart was right. Ed was no joke. Crystal Casket must've cost 60 bucks. Who was this older magician with $60? I had to meet him.
Ed and I hit it off right away. He was frenetic, talkative, nervous, weird. He was always trying to be funny, to make people laugh - either with him or at him - it didn't matter which. He lived to entertain others. Ed never left home without a huge leather bag filled with tricks. He was always prepared for a magic show at any given moment. And wherever Ed went, people were happy to see him. Do a trick, Ed. Hey, Ed Magic, show us a trick. Ed loved the attention, and I loved watching him perform. Ed was happy to take me under his wing. He told me he tried to teach other kids magic in the past, but none of them were very serious about it. None of them had the discipline required to get good at magic. They merely wanted to learn the secrets. I was different, he said. I had what it took.
I told my parents my new plan was to become a professional magician. My father rolled his eyes. My mom said, well, you better start making some money then. She introduced me to Bobby, the leader of a local biker gang. He was also a pimp. Some of the girls he'd hire out for parties and whatnot just to dance - nothing hard-core. She had heard he was in the market to just go legit, you know, get some clowns and jugglers and whatnot. My boy and his weird friend can do magic, she told him. Can they drive? Yeah, the weird one can. Tell him to call me. I got a job for him. And just like that, Ed and I went to work for Bobby the pimp.
He got us some birthday party gigs, and eventually he scored us a job doing magic at the local Pizza Hut every Tuesday night for kids' night. The manager would pay us each $25 and gave us free pizza at the end of the night to take home. I don't know what Bobby the pimp's cut was, but I'm sure it was a lot more. It wasn't glamorous, but it was a chance to try out new tricks and routines and patterns on a new audience every week. Sometimes we'd even bring some stuff that was pretty fancy for a bunch of kids at Pizza Hut. We'd set things on fire. We'd produce and vanish a dove. Once, Ed even brought The Crystal Casket.
Here, examine the box. Make sure there's no trap doors or anything, Ed instructed some kid. The kid stuck his hand in the box so hard, he cracked the mirror. He ruined Ed's Crystal Casket. Ed shrugged it off and moved to the next trick. I was devastated for him. A few months later, Bobby went to prison on a kidnapping charge. And soon after that - in what I'm sure was a complete coincidence - the manager at Pizza Hut decided that she did not like magic, at least not for $50 a week. At the end of our show, she's paying us our money, and she said, I'll tell y'all what - I'll let y'all keep doing a little magic show, but I'm not paying you any more money. I'm just paying in pizza from now on. How much pizza, I asked. No way, Dave, Ed admonished me. We don't work for pizza. Well, y'all can do next week since it's the Christmas party, but after that, we're done.
On the way home, Ed was dejected. I didn't really think you liked that job anyway, I said. I didn't, but I needed the money - it's Christmas. That weekend, my dad drove me to Little Rock. He'd asked me what I wanted for Christmas that year, and I told him I wanted something from Colonel Seymour's. Colonel Seymour's was the only magic shop in all of central Arkansas. And more than a magic shop, it was just a huge mess of magic props and effects piled up in the garage of a man who was probably mentally ill who called himself Colonel Seymour. His house was decorated with manikins and yard animals and hand-painted signs.
He greeted us that Saturday morning during a rare Arkansas snowfall, wearing nothing but a bathrobe and slippers. He offered my dad his hand and introduced himself as the Colonel. My dad, a Vietnam veteran infantrymen who suffered no fools gladly, grimaced. Then he looked at the panic look on my face and begrudgingly took the Colonel's hand and shook it. The Colonel took us to the garage to look for the trick we had come for, my Christmas gift from my dad - The Crystal Casket.
That next Tuesday, Ed picked me up to take me to our final Pizza Hut show. I gave him The Crystal Casket. Merry Christmas, Ed. He was shocked. I - I - I didn't get you anything. Well, that's OK, we'll use it in our act. It's for both of us. Yeah - Ed was relieved - cool. The scene at Pizza Hut that night was a horror show. The place wasn't filled with the usual 7- and 8-year-old crumb snatchers. No, there was an entire boys' peewee football team awards banquet happening at the same time as the kids night Christmas party. And all the 12- and 13-year-old boys wanted to watch the magic show - 12- and 13-year-old boys, the worst kind of boy there is, gangly and hairy and stinky. Worst of all, these boys weren't all that much younger then I was. The worst thing about doing magic for 13-year-old boy is that he doesn't like to be fooled. He only wants one thing - for you to screw up.
Ed and I's act was basically a handoff between the two of us. He'd do a routine, a few tricks in a row with some powder, then I did a routine. And then he'd come out and do a big routine to finish off the show. Now, I wasn't half the magician Ed was, and my portion of the show mostly consisted of easier effects, less impressive stuff, self-contained tricks that fooled most little kids but really had no effect at all on older kids or adults. Where Ed would deliver his lines like a professional stage comic, I stammered through my act every week as if it was my first time ever speaking in public. Ed was more than just a talented magician; he was a showman. He had no fear on stage, and he commanded respect. I had none of that. And on this night, our final night, I did not find my voice. I bombed hard.
I was doing a trick called The Zombie, where a silver ball floats mysteriously underneath a silk scarf. One of the boys ran up on stage, and he yanked the scarf from my hands, exposing the rod that connected the floating ball to my thumb. Everyone roared with laughter.
HILL: You suck, one yelled. Nice zit, another said. I looked up at Ed with fear on my face, but Ed was mad. It was one thing that they were teasing me, but I should be able to handle that if I'm going to make it in showbiz, I'm sure he thought. But an audience member coming on stage uninvited, snatching away a prop? This was a mortal transgression. Ed Magic did not get down like that.
Ed came to the front of the stage, and he said, OK, who wants to come up here and help me with a trick? Every boy shot his hand up. Ed brought one kid up on stage, a big jockish one with a mullet and an expensive pair of Gerbeau jeans. He handed the boy a spongy, red ball. Here, close this up tightly in your fist, he instructed, and hold your arms out like this. Ed held both the boy's fists out to each side. Now, would you be amazed if when I counted to three, that ball jumped out of this hand and into this one? Yeah, that'd be amazing, the kid puffed. One, two, three - Ed told the kid to open his hands. The ball was still in its original hand. Nothing had happened. The kids cracked up. Ed scratched his head. I screwed up. Here, let me try someone else. So Ed brought another boy up from the football team. Again, he gave the kid the ball, held out his fist to either side, counted to three and poof - nothing.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOOING)
HILL: The ball stayed in the same hand. Ed looked genuinely perplexed. He did it a third time with a third boy - one, two, three - nothing. By now, even the gross coaches were laughing and slapping each other high fives in celebration of Ed's failure. I couldn't understand it. What was he doing? What even was this trick? I shot Ed a look. He looked back at me and just shrugged his shoulders. Eventually, Ed tried the trick on every boy on the team, failing each and every time, each time getting a bigger and bigger reaction from the crowd.
Expecting a big payoff at the end, they all hushed and quieted down. But Ed just said, well, I guess I need more practice, sorry. Merry Christmas, everybody. And with that, he packed up our stuff, and he headed for the door. Julie said, what was that? Don't worry about it, Ed said abruptly. Well, what kind of pizza do y'all want? Keep the pizza. And out the door we went.
We spent the first few minutes of the drive home sitting in stunned silence, Ed driving faster than he normally does. I eventually broke the silence. What happened back there? I figured out what to get you for Christmas, Ed smiled. Yeah, what? He rolled down the car window. The cold winter air filled the car as Ed sped down Central Avenue. He rolled his short sleeve up on his left arm. From his wrist to his elbow were maybe eight or nine kids' watches. He took the first one off, a digital with a bright, red band, and he handed it to me. Merry Christmas, Dave. He took the second one off, and he flung it out the window, then the next one and the next one. We laughed and laughed as he flung those watches out the window into the cold winter night.
WASHINGTON: That story was told by David Hill, with help from Cameron Fleming (ph). David is a contributor at Grantland and a writer at the Upright Citizens Brigade. His work can be seen on davidhillonline.com. And many thanks to Jon Solomon's 25-hour holiday radio show on WPRB, which is where we found this story. For more stories from Jon's show, visit keepingscoreathome.com.
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