“Mr. Ash”, or “The Time I Skipped Psychotherapy to Visit a Magic Shop”
It’s a hot day, and I have some time to kill before I have to get on the bus to my therapist.
I see a therapist because I feel like I will never do anything important. I attempt something, and lose interest or fail. And then my failure causes me to get discouraged and not try anymore. It’s tinging all of my actions with a color of hopelessness. I am already 23, so I feel like I am running out of time.
The therapist, while helping somewhat with other things, is not really doing much for that portion of my neuroses. At this point I mostly go because I go every month and don’t feel compelled to remove the element from my routine.
It is boring to go talk to him, and it never feels like things get better as a result of it. I can’t get it out of my head that I am speaking to a person who went to school and has a degree. This person has direction. What could they offer me?
Near the stop for the bus I have to transfer to on Western Avenue, I decide to go to a little store that has always caught my eye. It’s tiny and an ashy blue. In white on the side it says, “ASH’S MAGIC SHOP”. I pull open the door, and go in.
The shop was tiny and cluttered and dark. It didn’t seem to have an inventory — there was only one of everything, save for the boxes of cellophane-wrapped Bicycle playing cards on the counter.
And it was shamelessly dirty. There were tupperware containers sitting on shelves, and empty orange prescription bottles from 1980 on the ground. The drawer of face paint crayons had all but melted into clown soup. One of those parrot toys that repeats what you say in a high pitched voice hung from the ceiling. The batteries were low, so whenever it heard a sound, it would screech back at it like a demon. It felt like I was inside an apartment that an insane man died in. I was enchanted.
From a newspaper clipping that was taped on the door, I gathered that the Ash in question is The Amazing Mr. Ash, or Mr. Ashfor short. He is an Armenian man in his late seventies or early eighties. He owns the shop, and lives upstairs with his wife who he has known since high school. The mayor of Chicago recently gave Mr. Ash a lifetime achievement award.
“Hello,” barked a voice from behind me. I jumped and turned around, surprised that I wasn’t alone. There was a short old fat man with thick glasses behind a tall pyramid of unmarked brown boxes. I assumed that it was Mr. Ash.
“Hello,” I said, and turned back around. When I looked back ten seconds later, he wasn’t there anymore.
I spent probably thirty minutes quietly digging through drawers, picking up and considering relics from a time and place I was completely unfamiliar with: Heavy pastel colored envelopes with names of tricks mimeographed on them, filled with obscure cardstock shapes. Ancient pouches of powder in white envelopes that said, “BEWARE! DISGUSTING TASTE!”, and had a cartoon of a man with his eyes bulging out of his head, choking. Broken ceramic hourglasses with no sand in them.
Looking at all of these things I had never seen even a facsimile of before was endlessly reassuring — it gave me a feeling like the universe is massive, which it is, but in my depression I tend to forget.
At one point, I turned around and Mr. Ash was there regarding me with an expression I could not read, probably because his glasses were an inch thick. I felt like I should say something.
“Do you know who Ricky Jay is?” I asked a little too loudly, feeling like a moron immediately.
Ricky Jay is a relatively obscure magician, and a personal hero of mine. I always get excited when people know who he is because I have a lot to say about him and think about him a lot.
“Yes,” he responded in a distantly irritated way that almost suggested he got into an altercation with him 20 years ago.
Thirty minutes later, I was sitting cross legged on the floor, with him and Dorothy, his wife, in folding chairs. The seating arrangement gave the situation a feeling like I was talking to a king and queen, but it was clear they didn’t feel that way. They were just sitting in their chairs, because they have been sitting in those same chairs for 30 years.
I was listening to his unbelievable history, about how he got started as a magician. I told him I was interested in it. I asked him how I could get started. He told me the trick to being a great magician is to be a great salesman.
“Even though you aren’t really selling anything,” he said, “you have to get people to stick around and hear out your pitch.”
“What do you mean?”
He was quiet for a few seconds. “People see magicians and they want to laugh at them. If they sense for even a second that they are insecure, the illusion is shattered.” He paused to think for a few seconds. “You have to sell yourself to them, really capture them, so they stick around and see your act through to the end. That is how you gain respect.”
“I’m not a good salesman,” I said. I expected him to say something encouraging, like “it is not a skill people are born with, and if you work hard you will eventually acquire this particular skill.”
“Then you’re not going to be good at this at all,” he said. “Good magicians are born with the personalities of salesmen. You should do something else.”
“Hey,” said his wife. She clucked her tongue.
He continued. “People say that you can learn anything. I think you can learn most things. If you do them every day, you will get good. Hard work can get you many places.”
“But,” he said. “Look at Al Flosso.” Al Flosso was a magician we had been talking about earlier, a Jewish Brooklyn native, who looked like a car salesman and talked like an auctioneer. He was short and wore ill-fitting suits and had thick coke-bottle glasses. He held his Coney Island audiences rapt on the boardwalk with his shows that were all at once astounding and funny and poignant.
In black and white footage of one of his performances, Al summons a shy bespectacled schoolboy onto the stage. He pulls a coin out of the boy’s ear, and then pulls a coin out of his shirt. Somehow Al Flosso produces 40 coins from the kid’s clothes.
The boy turns from shy and nervous to a reverent reverse piggybank (in a dime-store top hat that Flosso also produced from seemingly thin air) in the span of five minutes, his smile beaming like the sun. He seems genuinely surprised, and it is impossible for me to believe that the whole thing was set up beforehand.
Not only is the trick itself amazing, but Al’s rhythm and warmth and stage presence is moving. You can imagine the kid going to bed feeling changed, recounting this to his grandchildren in 70 years and smiling. Watching footage of Al’s performances makes feel like I am his friend. They make me sad that he is dead.
The Amazing Mr. Ash continued. “That’s not learned. Al Flosso was born like that. I promise you. He probably had his first girlfriend in the second grade.” His wife rolled her eyes and laughed.
“You can learn to talk to people, hell, you can even master magic tricks. That part is easy. But you can’t learn to be a salesman. And you need to be a salesman.”
He stared far away for about ten seconds, and then his wife spoke up.
“When I met Ash, I hated him. I thought he was sleazy and irritating. And then one day, we got married. It still feels like I’ve been tricked.”
“I’m really surprised I haven’t murdered her,” said Mr. Ash, cocking his head at his wife.
His wife just smiled slightly and squinted. She looked like an old photograph. “I’m surprised I haven’t murdered you, you dumb old bastard.”
They looked at each other like they were flipping through a weathered book they would never get tired of reading, catching glimpses of sentences they repeated to themselves and each other during dark times like prayers. Somehow though, the moment did not feel particularly private or uncomfortable for me. It just felt like a fact.
I thought of them sitting together in this tiny cramped magic shop, and then going upstairs to their identically-sized apartment to sleep. I imagined them doing this every day for the next three hundred years.
“You idiot,” she said to him. He thought for a minute and then laughed in one short burst. The shop fell warm and silent.
I was standing outside. I had missed my therapist appointment by one hour and forty five minutes.
I got a heavy gold amulet on a leather rope that looked to be 80 years old. It is a head with a little weathered face. It was buried in a drawer filled with deteriorating corn cob pipes that got progressively yellower as you dug deeper.
“Why are you buying that stupid thing?” said Mr. Ash when I went up to pay. He gave me my dollar back. “You can just have it. I don’t care.”
“Some salesman you are,” called his wife from the back of the store.
He had given me his phone number. “If you would like, I can try to teach you,” he said. “But I can’t promise anything.” I never called him.
I sat down on a bench near the bus stop. I opened up my hand to look at the heavy gold amulet, now warm from the heat of my skin.
“I’m pretty young,” I said to him. “I have time.”
I gave the amulet a few seconds to respond, but he said nothing in return. And that’s fine. I didn’t need him to. I put him in my pocket, stood up, and started walking with no real destination in my head.