I’ll let you in on a secret that very few people know about me: When I was a teen, I’d wanted to become a magician.
I don’t know why I treat that as a state secret, but I do. Almost no one knows about this.
Until now, of course.
I remember exactly where I was when that realization hit – the adult section of the public library in my hometown. At the time, the library – the Old Library, I should say, since that particular building no longer exists – had two areas: The adult section was on the street level, while the children’s section was located in what was essentially the basement. I was either eleven or twelve at that point, and I’d pretty much stopped using the children’s library years earlier. There was a rule in effect at the time, requiring minors to have parental permission to even look at the books on the adult floor; my parents decided to by-pass the hassle by just authorizing an adult card for me. They trusted me, for some odd reason, and they knew that I wasn’t one to barricade myself up in the “naughty” section; our library was so out-of-date that any risqué material they owned was probably available only on papyrus, anyway.
It was while wandering those lengthy aisles that I accidentally stumbled upon the section containing the magic books. It was a small collection located within a larger “entertainment” theme. Only one of the books had been published in my lifetime, and it was one of two that contained actual photographs. One of the books had dust on it that could actually be measured, that’s how thick it’d gotten. All the same, I felt as though I was like a modern-day Howard Carter opening Tutankhamen’s tomb; I’d stumbled upon something that interested me, and this was knowledge that I just had to consume.
This was a risky proposition. I’d never heard of an African-American magician at the time, and I had no idea of what kind of problems trailblazing on my own might bring. It wasn’t just fear of how I’d be received by white performers; there was the potential for an equally strong reaction from within the black community. People were hung up on declaring actions, thoughts, and words, as being “white” or “black,” and I can’t tell you how many times I heard, “Black people don’t do that,” from people on either side of the color line. While starting something new and different in today’s world is usually not a big deal, it was back then; being first was not always a good thing.
At the time, the most famous magician in the world was probably Doug Henning. I’d seen his various television specials and sporadic guest appearances on the talk show circuit. I didn’t care for Henning personally, but I did think him highly creative. His various illusions always managed to baffle me, and one couldn’t help but notice that almost every female celebrity that appeared on his specials seemed to practically throw themselves at him. He was a nerd-stud, a guy who lacked coolness on his own, but his skill set practically guaranteed him public success. I was still in denial at the time about my own nerdy status, but being able to do what Henning did – man, that’s what I wanted.
Despite my initial reservations, I tore into those library books, and when they proved incapable of answering my questions (like, how did a magician saw a woman in half, and where exactly did that card come from), I used the Interlibrary Loan System to order others. I used my paper route money to buy books from a local bookstore (long before the megabeasts of B&N and Borders), and even had my father – on a wet, Sunday afternoon – drive me to a magazine shop to buy a magic paperback they had in the window (which I later looked at maybe twice). I got in contact with Abbot’s Magic Shop in Colon, Michigan, one of the most famous magic shops in the world. A money-order later, they shipped me their current catalogue, which I poured over night and day for weeks. Funny story about that: At the time, the mail was delivered before 8 am, so the catalogue arrived just as I was preparing to leave for school. I begged to stay home to read it, but my folks wouldn’t relent. For some reason, they figured school was far more important, but I had the last laugh: I spent the entire day focused solely on getting home to read my newest acquisition. Force me to learn something, will you? Ha!
I ordered workshop plans and spent whatever money I had coming my way to fund props that were never completely finished. When I learned the secret to the classic version of Sawing a Woman in Half, I spent a small fortune on wood, nails, locks, and latches, to build a table that was lopsided, too long, and ultimately became my father’s scrap lumber. A lot of sweat, blood, and tears went into that table (mostly blood, though – I’m no carpenter). Still, I vowed that one day I’d build it and it’d be perfect!
I was big on writing letters in those days, and with the mistaken belief that membership within a magic organization would grant me access to the Inner Circle of Secrets,™ I even sought membership in the International Brotherhood of Magicians, one of the two largest professional and fraternal organizations. That fell apart after I learned that I needed to be recommended for membership by an existing member. On a good day, I could probably count two people with whom I was acquainted who even liked magic; I certainly knew of no one who was a member. I did keep that application for years, however, as a trophy of sorts, because I’d actually dared to do something for me.
Where is all of this coming from, you ask?
Well, I’ve been thinking again (uh-oh). I’d been considering posting a childhood photo on Facebook, and examining the photo made me wonder about whatever happened to that kid? Whatever happened to his sense of independence and wonderment? Where did his inquisitiveness go? What happened to his strength and tenacity?
How did I end up like this?
Every once in a while, I look at my life and I’m amazed at some of the things I’ve done. They just don’t sound like me. I’m not someone who takes a lot of risk. I’m not someone who travels often or engages in projects that are outside the mainstream. But I did this – and more, and I’m just baffled at how I’d ever been in such a place. They say that life is a series of independent choices; we are where we are because of how those choices intersect. I’ve made some great choices in my life, but I’ve also made a number of bad ones. And where I once had the qualities mentioned above, I jettisoned them all to make room for regrets, sadness, and anger.
And now, I want them gone.
I’d like to think that I’m a good person, but that’s not my call to make. But I also want to be that kid again – the one who was willing to step out into the Unknown to pursue answers to his questions, disregarding societal norms and expectations. I want to have the sense of amazement and curiosity that I lost so long ago.
Well, if I want those things, then it’s up to me to make it happen. Stop complaining about changing, and become the change that I want, eh? Challenge accepted! Maybe I should reach out to Abbot’s and buy a new catalogue. Might need to hunt for an assistant, though . . .