Ian Frisch | Longreads | June 2018 | 7 minutes (1,683 words)
Ludlow House, a members-only club in the Lower East Side, is a catacomb of various bars, lounges, parlors, and restaurants. That night, the place was packed. I followed my friend Doug, a magician, from floor to floor, trying to find a place to sit. I had become used to Doug’s spontaneous offerings to go to fancy places — rooftop bars, underground speakeasies, esoteric clubs — and knew, whenever we went out, he couldn’t help but perform some magic to people we ran into. I learned quickly that, when you’re with magicians, something memorable is bound to happen.
There wasn’t a chair open in the house. Clusters of women in leather pants and high heels noshed on appetizers, finance bros in double-breasted suits sipped Manhattans, and rocker cliques in skin-tight jeans and chunky boots lounged in suede armchairs and on leather couches. Music rumbled through the building and waiters scurried about. There were four of us — Doug, myself, and our friends Chris and Xavior, also talented magicians —and, after some more scouring, we finally spotted a small couch with two tables occupied only by two middle-aged women.
“We are waiting for a couple friends,” the women told Doug when he asked if we could sit with them. They must’ve been in their early 50s, well-dressed in that Madison Avenue type of way, their shoulders wrapped in sleek sweaters, legs sporting long skirts and leather boots, with fur-lined coats draped over the spine of the couch.
“We’re just going to sit on this side. We’ll find another chair,” Doug reassured them, waving for us to sit down. We crowded around the small table, on the butt-end of the couch, and ordered a round of drinks. We all took out a deck of cards, eager to fiddle a bit. A few minutes after our drinks came, two men walked over to our couch and the women stood up to greet them—a peck on each cheek, hands resting on their shoulders. Both guys had a full head of silver hair, short but swept back, with a glowing tan, as if they’d just gotten back from somewhere tropical. One guy was shorter and more full in the face than his counterpart, who was lithe and sinewy, dressed in black. The taller man took off his suit jacket, revealing a shallow, v-necked T-shirt underneath. Tattoos fell down his arms.
It was Anthony Bourdain. He had rolled in with restaurateur and fellow television personality Eric Ripert, the owner of Le Bernardin. My friends and I looked at each other and smiled.
It wasn’t long before the women asked us about the cards. “Are you guys playing a game?” one said, leaning over towards us, clearly intrigued.
“Actually, we’re magicians,” Doug replied.
“Magic! Ah! I love magic!” the woman squealed. “You’ve got to show us something!”
Doug and Chris took turns showing the women some simple card tricks, warming them up, waiting for Anthony and Eric to catch a glimpse at what was going on. Deep in conversation with each other, slurping down a shared pot of mussels, they weren’t paying much attention to our side of the couch.
“Ah! Oh my God!” one woman yelped after a trick. “Eric! Tony! Look! You’ve got to see this! These guys are magicians!”
I sat off to the side and watched Doug go to work. He ran through his repertoire of slick and deceptive card routines. Chris jumped in and did a few effects of his own, including a trick where Eric picked a series of cards, laid them out on the table in random order, and chose one card to be turned face down—”X’ed out,” as Chris put it. Chris then rolled up his sleeve and revealed a tattoo of the exact numbers in the exact order Eric had chosen, with an X scrawled over the number corresponding to the card in which he picked to turn face-down.
Anthony sat there, smirking and chuckling with every reveal. But as I kept watching him, I started to see it: He saw most of the sleight of hand. He knew how the tricks were done. But he let us keep going; he understood, like a chef with food, magic is a practitioner’s artform. The experience is not contingent upon the transparency of ingredients or methods, but rather the dedication of the specialist, the presentation of hard work, and the experience given to the spectator.
My heart raced as I watched the guys perform. I had a deck of cards in my hand and I was right here. We had the entire group in the palm of our hand, completely enraptured. I debated if I should jump in and do a trick. It was Anthony Bourdain for God’s sake! How could I let this opportunity just pass me by? I kept deliberating. I was nervous. I didn’t want to crush the mood by performing a lackluster effect, but I also didn’t want to regret throwing away such an incredible opportunity.
I had first stumbled into the underground world of magic in late 2015. I had never been a magic geek growing up, but I fell in love with this esoteric art form, and became close friends with the subculture’s most prominent young magicians. I started writing a book about this world, and began to practice sleight of hand and learn magic tricks and routines. My new cohort of friends shared with me their secrets, and I began to understand magic from the other side of the curtain: the ingenuity of its mechanics and structure, the theory behind its presentation, the dedication required for flawless execution and a captivating performance. Magicians are an outlier on the artistic spectrum; instead of clay or paint or dance, they poke and prod at the human mind, knowing full-well that they could reach in, twist some hidden knob, and alter a person’s concept of reality. But performing still terrified me. When a spectator entrusted me in providing them with an experience, the pressure sometimes seemed unbearable in its weight. I continued to sit on the edge of the couch.
Anthony got up from his chair. He threaded his arms into his blazer and went to shake our hands. “Thanks a lot guys, that was really great. But I have to get going,” he said. I gripped his hand, smiled, and before I knew it, started talking. “Before you go,” I said, “can I show you something?”
“Sure,” he said, sitting back down. I fanned out the deck and had him point to a card. I removed it from the deck and ripped off its top-right corner.
“Watch,” I said, slowly opening my right hand, which held the torn piece. I went from pinky to index, slowly lifting each finger one by one. But when my hand was completely open, there was nothing there. The piece had disappeared.
“It doesn’t just disappear, though,” I said. “Check your pocket.” Still holding eye contact with me, he reached into his blazer, pulled out the corner, and let out a guttural laugh. He lined it up with the rest of the card. It matched perfectly. It was the same corner I had just ripped off. He tossed it down onto the table.
“OK, I am definitely done here!” he said, rising from his chair, shaking his head. He looked me in the eye, said thank you, and walked out. I sat back down and smiled to myself. My friends looked at me, proud of the little moment I gave to Anthony. With magic, that’s the ultimate goal: Give someone something they can carry around with them for a while. And, at his core, Anthony Bourdain did that very same thing with food and travel.
When I heard the news of his death this morning, I walked over to my desk and pulled open the drawer. There, underneath a stack of papers, was the card he chose, its corner missing. I rifled around, trying to find the missing piece. I thought he left it on the table that night—but maybe I was wrong? Maybe he brought it with him when he left the club. I sat on the edge of my bed and held the torn card in my hand and thought about that night. Although I could tell he knew how some of my friend’s tricks were done, he didn’t show signs that he knew the secret behind my trick. Was he really fooled? Was he astounded? Or was he just being nice because he knew that I, the nervous guy on the corner of the couch, was still on some sort of journey—that, if he let me down by making it obvious that he knew how the trick was done, that I’d be crushed? That, perhaps, he had been giving to others his entire life and couldn’t stop now?
I tried to pinpoint, more than anything, how long that moment of wonder and awe my trick produced stayed with him. Maybe it lasted only until he reached the stairs and fell out of sight, but maybe it stayed in his gut until he reached the street and hailed a cab. Maybe, after he climbed into the taxi, he cradled the card’s corner in his hand and wondered. Maybe it was still with him there, at least for another moment.
Much like a magician, Anthony instilled a sense of adventure and wonder and awe into people—an honest quest not only to experience humanity and its complexities through food and culture, but, more than anything else, the determination to give that same sense of discovery and adventure to an audience.
He once said that travel is about the gorgeous feeling of teetering on the unknown. And magic—the romanticism of the inexplicable, the awe and admiration of the unexpected—is an underlying force in how we view the world and its myriad possibilities. Now, on the day of his death, I feel that Anthony truly understood the power of that sentiment and tried to translate that same sense of astonishment with his own exploration of the world. That, if he tried hard enough, he too could create magic for others.