The more I write—let’s be frank: the older I get—the more I find myself reaching back into my own life not so much for material to write about, but for the scenery of plot and narrative. For all of my years as a novelist I’ve really never used the materials of my own life, partly out of respect for others whom I certainly wouldn’t want to betray in any way, though mostly because I couldn’t yet see it objectively: the past hadn’t completely separated from my present. With my latest finished novel, Airtight, that changed utterly.
Though Airtight draws upon my college years (and earlier), I find as I begin a new novel I’m reaching back even further for material. I can see why. The past is, as L.P. Hartley famously wrote in his novel The Go-Between, a foreign country, but it’s also a lost world. What we lived through when we were six or seven or even eighteen no longer exists. To someone of any of those ages today our pasts would seem as antique as the world of, say, 1920 did to us.
Writing yesterday, I realized that a scene I’d sketched out for a proposed (happily aborted) memoir could be used in the novel. When I was a kid the most important question my friends constantly posed to one another was “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, as though tomorrow never existed, and, as we shuffled out of our second-grade classroom in North Yonkers, we might suddenly step into the world of early middle-age and emerge from the building in gray flannel suits, carrying briefcases and hurrying off for a last martini at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central. For some reason, youth was not something we were looking forward to. We all just wanted to be grown-ups. And fast.
I spent far too much time mulling over a future profession. When I was six I decided I’d be a writer. Writers were cool, they smoked cigarettes in their author photos, and we had lots of books in the living-room shelves. Plus, I liked to read as much as I liked watching movies. And then, for a few years, I entertained the idea of becoming a magician. And for me there was only one place to buy magic: Polk’s Hobby Shop, on Fifth Avenue. Now defunct but famous for the scene from “The Godfather” when Tom Hagen, Don Corleone’s adopted son and consigliere, is waylaid in his Christmas shopping by Sollozzo, aka “The Turk”, who says, “Get in the car. If I wanted to kill you you'd be dead already.” And then he adds, “Trust me.”
The man who ran the magic trick concession at Polk’s always wore a white shirt, cuffs rolled (“Nothing up my sleeves”), narrow tie loosened at the throat, and above it all a five o’clock shadow that seemed to tell its own story of late nights and thick hangovers. He looked as though he lived a bit too much within the confines of his skin, and his rheumy gaze and melancholic smile spoke of a lifetime of disappointment and the kind of dashed dreams that push you to the back row of life: cancelled gigs, second-billings and threadbare audiences in the Poconos or the Catskills. A card taped to the glass display case behind which lay the wonders of this man’s profession showed that he was a member in good standing of the Society of American Magicians, and his job at Polk’s was to perform trick after trick, convince you through his masterful legerdemain to buy one, and then afterwards take you behind his counter where he quietly and discreetly showed you how it was done. His breath carried a complex aroma of bourbon and Sen-Sen. By that time money had changed hands, and the horrible realization that nothing magic had actually happened—that the whole damned thing was just another cheap trick crudely devised with bits of wire and lengths of fishing line—also meant that refunds were not available. Trust me, he seemed to say: magic, like life, is just another five-buck trick.
“Never reveal your secrets,” he’d always tell me as he placed my trick in a paper bag. “A good magician keeps it inside, right?”
His look told me a much deeper story. Reveal how a trick was done and someone might come along and kill me. Maybe that was why the poor man looked so miserable: too much drink, too many tricks divulged, too many late-night visits from strong-arms and button-men.
I think what interested me even more than the magic was what I take away from a mental snapshot, with me still, of the man with his Daily Mirror, folded in half, and a brown-bag lunch on a stool beside him. He seems enveloped in solitude, the particular kind you see all too often in New York that both makes him a part of the whole and yet, when night falls and gravity has its way with us, utterly distant as his orbit loops him further adrift, to an apartment you glance into from the number 4 out of Woodlawn as you head south to Manhattan. He drinks Seagrams and watches the fights and falls asleep in front of “Sergeant Bilko” or “The $64,000 Question.” He does the occasional charity magic show, or performs at children’s parties, practicing for twenty minutes in front of a mirror, lighting up a Lucky, tossing down a shot before setting out for a night of mystification. When once a month he gets together with his fellow practitioners of the black arts he’s a real kibitzer, lurking by the bar, slapping backs and telling boner jokes. He’s had a wife, who ran away with another performer, and the two of them live in Vegas. Eventually her husband will retire, she’ll sell the Caddy, and now and again she’ll think of the man she left who worked at Polk’s, and of how, when they were both young and in love, he could pull a Queen of Hearts from the air and make her feel like the luckiest woman in the whole wide world.
Causes J.P. Smith Supports