On stage, I make love to 25,000 different people, then I go home alone.
Trombone Shorty and Galactic were in town and playing at The Belly Up. It was going to be a good week.
We threw a potluck picnic party across the street in Balboa Park, in a large open area next to the big old Mississippi Magnolia tree, and we set up a croquet field and some families brought extra balls and mallets. A few friends with older kids ran a slack line between two tall palm trees, and a few with toddlers set up a picnic blanket under the magnolia’s wide canopy; the large leaves on the ground added extra cushion under the blankets, where a few babies crawled cheerfully.
I was across the street, under our balcony, and chatting with a few of Hope’s friends. They asked to see a magic trick. I did my best to make it layered enough for the adults lingering around our condo and the refrigerator full of beer and small kegerator of homebrew. I had been working on something new, something fun for me to perform and also suitable for a wide range of ages and interest in magic and attention span. I had been working on it since the summer of 1986, the year I had met David Copperfield and practiced magic with his producers, yet I still didn’t feel that I did it well enough to perform at The Magic Castle yet. It worked well that day, and everyone seemed to enjoy it or were polite enough to pretend, for the children’s sake.
“Where’d you learn to do that?” asked one of my friend’s friends who had joined the party and didn’t know me well. I tend to avoid any question that probes my background, and when people don’t pick up on social cues I don’t invite them to our parties, because I like feeling comfortable in our home, and I don’t like lying.
I said it was a long story, and asked if we could chat another time, because I was having fun with my friend’s funny kids, I said while making a funny face at them and eliciting what I hoped was genuine laughter. The man asked again, distracting me from laughing with Hope and her friends, and I made a mental note to not invite him to our next party. To avoid more questions, I asked if the kids wanted to help set up a pinata under the big tree partially shading our balcony. I had secretly stocked it with fake thumb tips, small red hankies, and an assortment of magic gadgets from Brad Burt’s shop downtown; I even included a few for adults, too, just in case. And to avoid sweets for one of Hope’s diabetic friends, I had asked parents who knew that a two kids were diabetic and one had cieliac to toss in small books, toys, healthy glueten free snacks, and anything else they felt like sharing that wouldn’t exclude any one kid. The kids didn’t know any of that, but of course they said yes – they loved Hope’s pinata parties! – and I felt that raising a pinata was more fun than telling a long story or simplifying a complex answer.
Debbie had become huge by 1980. She was committed to Parkland Mental Hospital, and for almost a year she had been prescribed a new type of medicine for schizophrenia that doctors told us made her gain weight. She squated silently, smoking inside, and watching television. She imagined that wizards or aliens were communicating through the television, and that because she paid attention she knew things other people didn’t.
Wendy said she looked like gold plastic Buddha in the Chinese restaurant, next to the gold cat waiving its hand beside the tip jar. That may have been true, even though practically comatose, Debbie would often smile and have a new magic trick to show and teach. She said she was learning it on TV from David Copperfield, who had had made the statue of liberty disappear and had walked through the Great Wall of China! And he could fly! And bookshelves were really doors to a world of wizards, and when you said “open seasame” at The Magic Castle, Paul Masson walked out of the bookshelf and sold you wine. And that she had seen that judge on TV, Judge Harry “The Hat” Anderson, do magic on TV, too. She even showed me how to do one of Harry’s tricks with a giant hat pin shoved through your arm; not in real life, of course, because she was in a secure place and couldn’t hurt herself or anyone – not that Debbie ever could! She was a chubby ball of love and transparency, and she shared everything she knew. She drew Harry The Hat in her sketch notebook, and drew a huge hat pin with a bulbous end, and she said it was where he kept all the blood and that the hat pin was hollow. She then showed me how to be super strong, like Batman, and to make her water cup pass through the table, like Aquaman.
Wendy and most adults thought Debbie was crazy. They said she imagined things, saw people and heard voices that weren’t there, and thought that aliens communicated to us through television. But, I knew they were wrong, and that my best friend was right. Debbie was always right, I said, probably every time we visited, and the doctors always laughed and said I was a good kid and that Wendy was a good friend to Debbie.
But, they didn’t watch much TV, apparently, or they may have known more than they whatever they learned in medical school.
Harry Anderson had done his famous “needle through the arm” trick on one of his eight times hosting Saturday Night Live, and the TV had reruns of him on the sitcom Night Court showed him doing magic tricks as Judge Harry Stone, and Debbie was observant and always saw through the tricks on TV. In one of his famous routines, the needle through the arm, he uses a big, antique looking hat pin and pokes it through his arm in a comedy skit where he’s stuck in a bad joke, looking for the instruction manual to finish the trick, trying not to drip fake blood onto the stage. Debbie had rightfully seen how he had done it; she wasn’t crazy, like the doctors had said.
The doctors also probably didn’t realize that in the 1980’s, Orson Wells, the huge and deep voiced president of The Magic Castle and spokesperson for Paul Masson wines (“We well sell no wine, before it’s time”), hosted an annual Magic Castle special. Debbie probably watched him begin a Magic Castle special where he spoke at the magic bookshelf in his deep, booming voice and said, “open seasame!” And she would have seen the bookshelf swing open and the camera crews follow him inside of the vast expanse of the old Victorian mansion’s elaborate interior.
And, the doctors may not have known the one thing probably most relevant to Debbie’s improving skills, that David Copperfield, the world’s most famous magician who hosted annual television specials, each centered around a major illusion, like making the Statue of Liberty disappear and walking through the Great Wall of China, also ran a nonprofit organization that trained volunteer magicians to go into hospitals and teach magic to patients to improve self-esteem and develop hand-eye coordination.
And every Saturday morning on Saturday morning cartoons, at least as long as I could remember, one of the Super Friends would teach a magic trick at the end of each episode. For example, Batman had taught Robin how to fake being strong and break a rolled up newspaper by secretly wetting it; and Aquaman had taught how to make a glass disappear and fall through a table. I can’t recall what Superman and Wonder Woman taught, and though I can’t see in my mind’s eye everything Green Lantern taught, I remember his green ring making magic happen and Debbie saying that his secret power was controlling his emotions.
Debbie wasn’t crazy; she was my best friend who knew more than the doctors. She stayed in Parkland Hospital for a long time, and Wendy brought us there every wee, religiously. Debbie gradually improved, and she continued to teach me better and better magic tricks.
She felt better and better, and began creating art again. On one visit, she gave me a framed painting of a two deer walking side by side that said:
“Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow.
Don’t walk behind me, I may not lead.
Just walk beside me and be my friend.”
I thought it was fine, and she helped me make a mother’s day present for her, a tiny heart that I insisted on painting green, like Green Stretch had been, sort of like a tribute to him. Debbie and I always talked about green men and aliens and things that would have sounded crazy to my classmates if I had told them. But, I wouldn’t. I was a magician by then, and magicians knew how to keep secrets.
I kept the little green heart necklace hidden until Mother’s Day, when Wendy took me to see Debbie, and gave it to her. She was so surprised! But, she said, this is for your mother, and Wendy loved me very much. I said okay, and gave it to Wendy, and she was cried from what I had mistakenly assumed was happiness.
In hindsight, perhaps it was the Raisenettes making Debbie ballon up like Buddha, not the medications. It was likely both, because early attempts at antipsychotic medications led to rapid weight gain in the first few months, especially olanzapine and clozapine. Patients would retreat mentally, almost becoming comatose, and the patients who did best were the ones lucky enough to have friends visit them once a week and to see kids they loved and with whom they could share their rehabilitation artwork. Patients who aren’t so lucky struggle with what’s commonly called antipshychotic-induced weight gain and social withdrawal, and the patients without a support community seem to never fully recover. In 2020 hindsight, some things haven’t changed since 1980.
One thing I heard in 1980 that sticks in my mind, is that Debbie and her hospital staff had been right: Wendy was a good friend, she loved me very much, and I was lucky.
I was dropped off at home late that night, after having and having had a few beers and dancing all night with good people at The Belly Up, and I felt fine. I was a bit loose and happy, and I wanted to share. I opened a tiny jewelry box I had put on the bookshelf and removed a small necklace with a green heart. It was scratched and dulled and faded and full of love, and I had found it in Saint Francisville, in Wendy’s jewelry box, next to Granny’s gold watch. I hadn’t thought about it in 40 years, and I don’t know why I held on to it so long after Wendy died, or why I hadn’t mentioned it to Cristi yet or why I was sharing it then.
Cristi was asleep, so I was quiet, and I slowly draped the scratched and faded little heart over the bedroom mirror, so that she’d see it in the morning.
I love you, I said to The Universe and a lot of people who had loved me over the decades. I was still a little high, so my emotions were strong, but I believe I still spoke from a good source.