5 Hidden Dark Sides of Life as a Street Magician
It's easy to think of magic as kind of a silly job, whether it's doing card tricks at children's birthday parties or performing stunts on stage in some kind of ridiculous costume. But then you have the street magicians -- those of us who stand on the corner and perform illusions for passing strangers and hope we don't get stabbed. That's where things can get pretty hardcore -- I know from experience.
My name is Matthew Collins, and while working on the streets of Savannah, Georgia, I've learned a few things about the dangers of being a professional street magician. Namely ...
You Can Use Your Powers for Evil (and Almost Get Killed in the Process)
So, you're a street performer who has mastered sleight-of-hand and all sorts of other techniques meant to fool the eyes of an observer. How long would you be able to resist the temptation to, say, take those skills into a casino, or a high-stakes card game?
Shouting "Ta-DA!" won't help you here, but it's a great way to piss off the pit boss.
Yeah, it's no coincidence that many card cheats and scammers come from the world of magic -- it's not like you get rich performing on street corners. For years I scammed people at sketchy back-alley poker games and made a killing, so much so that I didn't stop even after getting shot at by someone who lost his dope money to me. I finally quit after taking a severe beating as a result of being caught. But it's not always that easy to walk away -- to some magicians, cheating at cards is a serious, life-threatening addiction.
I had a buddy, we'll call him Steve, who cheated at an offshore "casino" hosted on a little fishing trawler, and got caught after giving himself two statistically unlikely hands in a row.
"Read 'em and weep, suckers."
The people at the table beat him, took his money, his suit, his watch, his shoes, and dumped him five miles off the coast with nothing but his underwear and a life preserver. Luckily he was picked up by an actual fishing boat and made it home safely, although with a few cracked ribs and one hell of a sunburn.
"So, you guys feel like playing some cards on the way back to port?"
Another acquaintance of mine, let's call him Abraham, doesn't have two fingers that point in the same direction because they've each been broken by some of his more perceptive and violent marks. I last spoke with him in 2011, just after Christmas. He was in the hospital with broken ribs and a shattered collarbone after one of his cons went wrong. But he didn't plan to stop, because he wasn't doing it for the money (he was actually sorta rich). He was doing it for the thrill. So what I'm saying is, don't invite a magician to your card game.
Customers and Fellow Street Performers Are Equally Dangerous
Street performance has an insanely long history all over the world and plenty of unwritten rules. For example, everyone understands that you never grab people by the hand, even in a playful manner, because that's a great way to get a black eye and ruin business for everyone else. And who enforces those rules? Why, your fellow performers, who have taken it upon themselves to monitor your behavior. Give them a bad name and you will be beaten down by the docks by a gang of dudes probably dressed as living statues and carrying saxophones.
Needless to say, the witnesses won't be talking to the police.
I remember one guy who would routinely make lewd comments to women and just generally make everyone around him feel uncomfortable. We told the guy to clean his act up, but he didn't listen. Once his attitude started turning people away from all of us, we reported the asshole to the city council office, to no avail. One day he just stopped showing up. His section of the street stood empty and was eventually taken over by a kindly Jamaican man who played the drums. I later found out that someone dumped all of the asshole performer's equipment off a pier and beat the left side of his face most of the way in. I'll never know if the guy who did it had, like, six musical instruments strapped to his body at the time.
And then there are the customers.
Street performers are powerful figures to the people around them. We have complete control over the atmosphere and the mood of the crowd, and sometimes that becomes intoxicating for all involved. Unluckily for me, it also means that guys who probably bench press refrigerators sometimes accuse me of using my act to try to steal their girlfriends.
Avoid the big dudes with "Hate" and "Magic" tattooed across their knuckles, in particular.
I've had sober boyfriends try to pick a fight with me a half dozen times, and who knows how many drunk ones. Some have even tried following me to my car to start a fight with me. This is where that "no touching the public" rule from earlier comes in really handy, because you never know how people are going to react to you. You're a charismatic, talented individual performing in front of a crowd, everyone's energy is up, but when emotions run that high, it's a very short step from a guy wanting to buy you all the beer in the world to threatening to shove a bottle in your eye socket because "HOLY SHIT YOU SMILED AT MY GIRL, WHAT THE FUCK BRO, LET'S FIGHT!"
You Will Get Mugged
When you first start performing magic on the street, you mainly worry about messing up a trick in front of a crowd or finding a suitable birthday present for David Blaine after he inevitably sees your act and wants to become your best friend. I was the same in the beginning ... until I got mugged. And then mugged again. And then stabbed. Think about it -- it's a cash-only business, performed alone, on the street. We're the world's most obvious mugging target for every criminal who isn't secretly worried that we have real wizard powers.
Try yelling "Crucio!" when using pepper spray to help cement the idea.
So, one day after work, I was heading to the car with my props and cash box under my arms. Momentarily forgetting the wisdom of Batman, I made the wrong decision to take a shortcut through an alleyway when a junkie jumped out and made a move for the cash box. Unfortunately, unlike the time David Copperfield was almost robbed but used his training to convince the robber he had nothing in his pockets, my guy already had my money in his hands, leaving me no other choice but to wrestle him for it. That's when he pulled out a kitchen knife and plunged it into my left side, just above the hip bone.
A lot of things go through your head when you get stabbed, usually along the lines of, "There's a long piece of metal inside my body. I may require assistance to deal with this." Funny thing, though: When those thoughts leave your head through your mouth, they apparently take the form of a blood-curdling scream of pants-shitting terror.
"And for my next trick I'll make my knife disappear ... into you!"
But, as luck would have it, doing an impression of an air raid siren is apparently the only weakness of crazed, knife-wielding lunatics, because it caused mine to run away and leave me to bleed out on the ground. I thankfully managed to call for help and took a ride to the hospital where I got 21 stitches and a 3-inch scar to remember that day by. Ever since then, by the time the sun goes down my ass is already safely back home, trying not to think about what would've happened if my attacker had a gun like the ones who mugged that American magician in South Africa.
Fortunately, I've only been mugged, uh, three other times.
Getting Attention Means Setting Yourself on Fire (Accidentally)
Street magic is a never-ending battle for people's attention, and nothing gets the attention of passers-by like doing a stunt that looks like it can set the magician aflame at any moment. This is accomplished by actually doing a stunt that in fact can set you aflame at any moment. We magicians would do things like fire spinning as a form of advertising -- you use it to make people notice you, and only then mesmerize them with your actual magic.
For example, I used to do tricks with fire knives, like you see this guy doing here:
... until, while in Miami, I fucked up a twirl and set my hair on fire in the process. Burning hair is not as easy to put out as you'd think, so I had another one of my frequent encounters with emergency services. Hey, it's not like this is a tightly regulated industry with some guy with a clipboard looking over your shoulder to make sure you're using all the safety precautions. There's nothing stopping you from going out and juggling some flaming machetes right now.
Aside from the Home Depot cashier who will obviously be calling the cops
when you show up with a cart full of machetes and liquid butane.
Other than the law, that is -- for some strange reason a lot of cities now frown on this and have made it illegal for street performers to use fire, except at certain city-sponsored events (where they can have emergency personnel on hand to deal with any spontaneous Ghost Rider situations).
So why the hell would somebody put themselves through all of this? Well ...
Magic Can be Used for Good, Too
Don't let me make it sound like magic -- even street magic -- is for borderline crazy people and aspiring con artists. There is a reason magicians have been around for thousands of years -- people love to be amazed, to see something happen right in front of them that they didn't think was possible.
Like a guy dealing cards on the street without any obvious gang affiliations.
A while back, I met a boy named Jimmy who was sick with leukemia. His father wanted me to teach Jimmy some magic, and I gladly did. We hung around for four months doing magic together, until Jimmy passed away. Later, at his funeral, his father told me that I was the best thing that happened to his son since he was diagnosed.
I started crying. Not a dignified, "one tear rolling down my cheek" cry, either. We're talking full-on, "blowing snot bubbles, can't breathe because I'm choking on pure, unfiltered sadness" type of crying. My little buddy was buried in a suit and tie, with the deck of cards I gave him on display in his front pocket.
And that's why I can't stop doing magic. It's an emotional roller coaster that takes you to the highest and lowest parts of your own self, but the good bits ultimately make the entire ride worth it. Even if you occasionally get stabbed.
"All worth it, kid. Now go look in my magic hat and see if there's anything we can use as a tourniquet."
Matthew Collins has since gotten a real job designing websites for people. You can contact him with questions about his time as a magician, or commission a website here.
Cezary Jan Strusiewicz is a Cracked columnist and editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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