Last week, on another depressing Friday night with no plans because, well, you should know why by now, I stayed home and logged on to another Zoom call. But this wasn’t a Zoom like the countless others I’ve done — no one tried to get me to play Pictionary, there was no unbearable lull after I stupidly ask, “So, how’s everyone doing?” as if the answer won’t be, “Fine, other than the fact that I am afraid of the air.” Rather, this was a virtual magic show hosted by New York magician Dan White — live, interactive, and exactly what I needed.
White usually performs at the NoMad Hotel in Manhattan but has had to rethink his act since crowding together in a hotel bar is an unlikely outing these days. His digital act — called “The Magician Online” — is a 90-minute show that costs around $130 per household. If you’re looking for Thanksgiving plans, you’re out of luck: He’s completely sold out of his Friday and Saturday evening shows through to Dec. 18.
If you do manage to get a ticket, you’ll receive a package in the mail a few days before the show. You don’t open it until showtime, but inside is a sleek black box with gold Gatsby font, filled with all the little props and devices you’ll need to participate. On the night of the show, I prepared my bedroom according to White’s instructions: I brought the black box, a pen, a lighter, and a very large glass of red wine. I dimmed my lights so that I felt spooky but was still visible on the Zoom. The show started at 9 p.m., and since most of the pleasure that comes from a magic show is derived from the unknown, I can’t really tell you anything more aside from the fact that it was the best day of my life.
White is hardly the only magician doing Zoom magic shows, but I do appreciate the particular spoopiness he brings to the event. In any case, we’re all looking down the barrel of a tough, secluded winter, either alone or with a partner whom you now possibly hate. What better way to reconnect than by watching an adult man wiggle his fingers at you while he pulls a long-stemmed rose out of his ear?
A good magic show does something that other escapist entertainment doesn’t. It demands trust in a process you can’t see, and blind faith in things much bigger than you. I’m not very religious — the extent of my Hinduism is making too much food at Diwali, being nice to cows on road trips, and refusing to touch books with my feet out of fear that I will become illiterate — but watching a magic trick feels like the closest I get to believing in the unknown.
Still, magic and magicians get a bad rep. It’s a little dorky, the whole routine with a man (usually) wearing a vest (White was in a turtleneck but it did have the spirit of a vest) acting as if he has the answers to the universe because he knows how to make an orange disappear up his sleeve. But goddamn it, I fucking love magic. I love it! I love a card trick, I love a rope trick, I love a quick-change. I love sleight of hand, even though I know I’m being tricked but every time a magician makes a coin disappear, I scream, “HOW’D HE DO THAT???” as if someone will answer me based on my own volume alone. I love being called on for a magic trick — it’s the only time that I will gleefully allow someone to repeatedly mispronounce my name. (Though, in all fairness, White got my name right on the first try, which tells me not only that magic is real, but that he is clearly some kind of all-knowing land-demon.) Even when I know where a trick is going, it gets me every time — I go full Lucille Bluth and everyone within 50 feet of me has their eardrums blown out.
I love magic so much that I hope my husband leaves me one day and that a magician asks me on stage to help him with a trick and then we fall in love when he saws me in half. I hope our foreplay is just him pulling scarves out of my mouth for six tantric hours. One of the last normal things I did pre-COVID (using the term “normal” real loosey-goosey here) was visiting the Magic Castle in Los Angeles, a baroque-ass castle where you need to know a magician to get in. Inside, you can watch different shows, meet different magicians, and see a piano play by itself. I had four Negronis and refused to eat a single bite of food in the restaurant out of fear of missing anything. Even after visiting just once, I continue to hope that the Magic Castle is where my body will lie in state. (They, too, are doing virtual shows, but if you ask me, a big part of the joy of a Magic Castle show is getting spooked by the telephone booth with a skeleton in it.)
Nothing turns the endless fatalistic churning of my brain off like a good magic trick.
So considering my both humiliating and intense affection for magic, it’s unsurprising how much I loved White’s show. I probably would’ve loved it in any context, but it is impressive how well a magic show like White’s could translate to a Zoom call. The awkwardness of our digitized socializing almost contributes to the pleasure of it; people forgetting to unmute, moms and dads not knowing how their cameras work, couples chewing on steak together — a peek into their little date nights. It worked, but it also reaffirmed something I’ve been feeling for a while: that being stuck in quarantine is a great time to accept that magic is good for you.
Increasingly, magic content is the only kind I want to engage in. I’ve already watched every episode of Magic for Humans on Netflix, every season of Penn & Teller: Fool Us. The latter is particularly delightful — magicians come on the show, do a trick, and if neither Penn or Teller can guess how he did they trick, the magician wins. (Wins what, exactly? Mostly my endless adoration while I scream, “WHY WON’T ANYONE TELL ME HOW THEY DO THIS???”) Quarantine should be a good time to hone a skill or get some long-put-off work done, but instead, I have trouble focusing. My ability to read is limited, my rat-brain is having trouble understanding whatever’s happening on Season 1 of The Crown (divorce sucks, turns out), and if I’m not worried about the coronavirus, I’m worried about how the current president might steal the election from the president-elect. But nothing turns the endless fatalistic churning of my brain off like a good magic trick, and when White called on me to pick a card from a deck sitting in a glass, I felt a burst of endorphins flood my veins. Did he find my card? Of course, but I barely remember it, because I felt like my entire body was being dipped in a vat of warm caramel: I smiled like an idiot and just let myself sink. Haven’t I earned it?
The election’s over and we’re closer than ever to a vaccine that will, hopefully, bring us closer to some kind of version of normal. But for now, we’re still in a terrifying place, we’re still alone (together), and we’re still not sure how we’re going to climb out of this crevasse. I don’t have a cure for anything, but I do know that letting yourself enjoy a magic trick is a step toward faith in an undecided future. If a stranger I’ve never met can find the card I was thinking of, then it doesn’t feel like such an impossible extension to believe that our circumstances can improve. Frankly, good news these days feels about as mysterious as any magic trick I’ve seen this year.
Near the end of the show, White instructed his audience to pick up a small white package in our black boxes. We held it between our thumbs and forefingers, and bent the object in half. It was tough, but most of us did it. When he told us to open the package, we were all unmuted at the same time, and my headphones filled with the sounds of nearly 60 people screaming in wonderment: We had all, somehow, bent a small brass key. White told us we were able to do it because we didn’t know what was inside — if you don’t know your own limitations, sometimes you can surpass them altogether.
The metaphor, like with most magic tricks, is pretty thick. But every night over the last nine months, I’ve gone to bed with a stiffness in my chest that I can’t cure. I’m lucky, and yet, despairing, like most people waiting for a vaccine, a cure, a treatment plan, or even just an adult in the room who will start the process toward a recovery. Magic is goofy, but it also gives you a chance to suspend your belief for a little while and enjoy the unknowability of your surroundings. I want to believe in something good, even if it’s just for an hour and a half, and even if that kind of magic is over once I turn on the lights.
I took my bent bronze and attached it to the rest of my keys. On my sometimes daily walks, my face tucked in my mask as I pretend to enjoy the crispiness of fall in New York, I hold the key in my pocket and try to find comfort in mystery. I know, I know: the metaphor is just lousy. But you gotta believe in something. ●