Traveling downtown on the A train I was sitting and listening to music when a young man got on at 168th Street, sat down right across from me, and took out a pack of playing cards. I watched him as he started doing card flourishes - cuts, fans etc. He looked to be about seventeen years old, casually dressed, possibly of Latino or similar minority heritage. He was clearly practicing, and not showing off. In short, he looked to be a nice kid, one that seemed to be sincerely interested enough in cards to practice manipulating them wherever he was going.
As we were pulling into 145th Street, I suddenly remembered the book I had in my bag with me. It was Jamy Ian Swiss’ “Shattering illusions” from 2002. Swiss, of course, is one of the most renowned card and close-up magicians living today. This early book of his contains essays about magic theory and critical analysis about the art of magic. How I came to have this book in my bag, on this day, I'll recall in a moment, except to say that I'm not one to usually carry magic books with me to read on the subway - if I'm reading anything related to magic on the subway, it’s usually been a magic periodical, the printed version of which I've since unsubscribed from.
Without really thinking, I quickly took the hardcover book from out of my bag, reached over the aisle, and handed it to the young man. I did think long enough to remember the cover of the book, which features Swiss standing in front of a fence of some sort, holding a deck of playing cards in his hand. That image would convey the reason for handing the book to him without my saying a word, I believed. My intention at that point was to at least have him see the great coincidence of my carrying that book while he sat across from me practicing cards, and for him to leaf through the book until I got off at 125th Street.
After a brief, astonished look on his part, the boy cautiously turned the book over, read the back cover, and glanced at the table of contents. He looked up at me and I said to him,
“You can read it until 125th Street when I get off,” which was the next stop.
During that somewhat long stop between 145th and 125th, I watched the boy as he read the book. He started to read what appeared to be the first essay, entitled “Why Magic Sucks,” and he wouldn't take his eyes off until the train reached the next station. Rather than casually flipping through the book, as one of that age and living in this time of screens might do, he instead was reading it intently for a few minutes.
I decided then I would give the book to the boy.
When we pulled into the station, the boy reached out to hand the book back to me, and I told him he could keep it. As we walked onto the platform he said to me,
“Really, I can have it?
I asked, “Do you do magic with those cards?”
I wanted to make sure that he was a magician, and not just some Poker-obsessed kid interested in gambling moves. He excitedly told me that yes, he does magic, and that he performs card tricks and other close-up magic.
So I told him, “keep it” and we parted ways, walking different directions on the platform.
Shattering Illusions, that seminal book on magic theory, came into my possession when I briefly worked as a magic demonstrator the at New York’s Abracadabra costume shop in 2002, when the book came out. I brought it home to read, and it seems, never returned it. The book still bears the $55 Abracadabra price tag on the inside cover. Paul, the notorious owner and founder of Abracadabra at that time, wasn't a particularly nice or fair person, so magicians who felt shafted on their weekly earnings or commissions would lift items from him from time to time. I never stole from the store, but I suppose in this one case of not remembering to return this book, I did.
Shattering Illusions has been in my barrister’s bookcase of magic books ever since.
I was interested in Swiss’ writing at the time because a friend of mine, Howard Rappaport (The Great Howdini), had taken lessons from Swiss. I was impressed at the reasoning and methodology behind some of the moves Howard said Swiss had showed him. He seemed to be a deep thinker of magic.
I hadn’t picked up the book in years until last night when I pulled it out to re-read parts of it while traveling on the subway this late summer day. I had only thought of it because last week I saw the magician Teller perform a old Johnny Thompson routine on Penn & Teller’s Fool Us TV show. I was reminded that a book about Johnny Thompson’s magic was in the works by Jamy Ian Swiss, and so I looked online to see how it was coming along (it turns out the book is finally in pre-order mode after years of being developed). That caused me to see what Swiss was up to these days (he also has a new book that I plan on checking out). In the meantime I pulled out Shattering Illusions to hold me over.
And that’s why that book was in my bag when I saw the boy with the cards. It’s his book now, and I hope it opens some avenues of thought for him. Riding the New York subway system can be such a soul-sucking drag, especially nowadays. But it can also be a place where one can have a moment of humanism, if you allow yourself. With serendipity's help, a nice connection can be made.