THE MAGICIAN TUGGED BOTH ENDS of the rope, showing his audience that it was whole and good. The rope was yellow and as nubby as a Sunday sweater. The magician tied four simple knots in the rope and held it out again. He released one end, letting it hang like a miniature scale version of a rope I once climbed in gym class. A child came over and took a look, curious to see what this street corner crowd was watching, and ran away.
I’d planned to spend the next hour taking notes at a new wave Belgian folk show, but this magician had my full attention. What drew me over was his face. My first thought was, Gee, I’m glad he’s not my old man. His natural expression reminded me of someone who’d been screwed over, and then, on the way to get his blade, ambushed and given a makeover. The makeup he wore was thick and applied in that style which made aging rock stars look spooky.
We were a fresh, festival-ready crowd, sporting v-neck sweaters and loafers, but the magician with his mournful eyes and flaming salmon jacket looked like a shylock, a hustler, some villain out of a Turkish comic book. He did not speak. This was his shtick. Reaching into his jacket, he produced an off-black rope, which was suiting, as it matched the color of his dye job. He held both ropes and then, like flicking a switch, twirled them so they intertwined. When he let the ropes unfurl, the four knots had jumped from the yellow rope to the black rope.
There were other tricks: The severed rope. The magic coloring book. At one point the magician gestured with his fingers for a cigarette. A chunky blonde volunteered one from her pack. Once lit, the magician tore the cigarette in half. He mimed putting it in his mouth, and then threw down the end with the cherry and stuffed the filter in his fist where it disappeared.
It would not be quite correct to say that these tricks were profound — he didn’t make St. Michael’s Church disappear. Nevertheless, he had a deliberate, robot-clean delivery. He was smart, and very good at articulating body language. You see a man performing on a street corner, and you generally think, That’s his passion — or at least I do. I pegged him as a traveler. The pockets and cuffs of his great salmon jacket were tinged with dirt. The pin on his lapel said “CARPE DIEM.”
The magician wrapped up his act with some sleight of hand, making a large coin jump from one hand to the other. This went on for some time and ended, mercifully, when he plunked the coin into a champagne bucket at his feet. Like the ringing of a dinner bell, the magician’s final trick broadcast action. If that was too subtle, lying beside the bucket was a dingy white sign that read, “MONEY PLEASE.” After bowing, the magician arose with his bucket and came round to collect.
When I tossed in my coin, I recalled a summer afternoon in Cary, North Carolina. My parents were selling pottery at an art festival, and I was at the kids’ area when The Amazing Fred stepped onstage. Top hat. Magic wand. Black cape. What I liked most about magic was how it disobeyed all laws of reality, not to mention fashion. The Amazing Fred seemed to embody this spirit, except for one notable exception. After each trick, without a hint of shame, he gave us insights to his financial woes.
“C’mon, kids,” he’d say. “Clap a little louder. I got a Mercedes-Benz payment to make.” Then he’d pull out a magic scarf and wipe great quantities of sweat from his face. Following our lackluster applause to one trick (I blame our tiny hands), he said, “Tell me about it. I got a kid who wants to go to UNC. What they should call it is IOU.”
An eight-year-old might hear this and think, What is this man talking about? The only reason I knew what a Mercedes-Benz was was because my grandmother drove one. I couldn’t imagine The Amazing Fred offstage, having problems like everyday people. Adult life was boring. It was going to the bank, paying for things (like college) and situations you didn’t understand (like women with a taste for foreign cars). For all of his grandeur on stage, it never occurred to me that such problems came with the territory.
The crowd was dispersing now. The magician was carrying the champagne bucket back to where he’d performed. I decided to speak to him, just to see what would happen. I circled around towards him, having no idea what I would say. When the magician turned, he saw me and held out his bucket, which gave me something to say.
“I’ve already given money.” He lowered the bucket to his side. After an awkward silence, I blurted: “Why don’t you talk?”
I regretted the question as soon as I said it. It undermined his entire approach. Here was a performer who was doing what he had to do, and doing it his way. On a certain level, I wanted to show him that while I blended in with the audience, I understood the subtlety of his method and appreciated it more than them. But my question made me realize how ridiculous this sounded. The Flanders tourism board had been generous enough to fly me to Belgium for a week, send me to 5-star restaurants and trendy hotels to write about their music festival, and now here I was, trying to interview a mute magician.
He raised an index finger like a monk, set down his money bucket and rooted through his bag of tricks. It was a beat, brown leather satchel, the sort old country doctors used to carry. He searched for a moment, stopped, and stood up empty-handed. He stepped over to the sign on the ground that read, “MONEY PLEASE.”
He squatted by the sign and considered it for a moment, cocking his head, as if seeing it for the first time. Then he flipped the sign over. It flattened like a stamp to the cobblestone sidewalk. The magician took two paces, turned and glared at me with those dark, mournful eyes.
“Fair enough.” I nodded, and began to back away.
On the opposite side, lying face up, the sign now read, “MONEY TALKS.”
This story was made possible by a press trip sponsored from the people at Visit Flanders.