Gary the Great has abandoned his cup of coffee and is rooting about in a trouser pocket, pulling its white tongue out in search of an unknown thing.
Noting the struggle, I say—I am not proud of this—“But you have to magically produce it!”
Gary grins. Likely he hears variations of that joke every time he misplaces a key, but he shows no irritation.
From the depths of the pocket emerges a red sponge ball.
Placing this on his palm—here comes the magic—Gary knifes it with an index finger in two. A moment after his fist closes upon two, it opens to reveal three.
I am—it is no use pretending otherwise—laughing like a child shown a panda. The barista, previously slouching at the counter, takes note. He puts his cell phone to rest, and wanders over to watch. Gary Ferrar, resident magician of the Brooklyn Public Library, has done it again.
Behind the cheer on his face—and it is a pop-star face, handsome and sunny—is a mind leaping ahead of you, evaluating your response. Are you skeptical? Are you catching up to the logic of what he’s doing? Gary is reading your mind. He is tuning the trick.
Onstage, he might throw a move, so that his viewers gasp and lean forward, feasting on his embarrassment. But he recovers with a flourish. He takes you from a moment of uncertainty to one of triumph as you realize that his mistake was by design. Errors, after all, keep us engaged. Errors make us empathize. There’s a CGI concept—
“It’s called . . .” says Gary. “It’s called . . . ah . . .”
“Uncanny valley,” offers the barista.
—which holds that almost but not-quite-perfect imitations of human form make us uneasy. In the moment, though, Gary and the barista misremember the term, persuaded that it implies the function of flaws in generating empathy. In our adoption of the term, it means that some windswept hair, a mispronounced word, sets us at ease. Yes, this is human.
The magician is both human and not, an unreliable element among the card decks, the dollar bills, the jewelry, the string. All of these comprise a basic magic briefcase, which travels with Gary. Some magicians use gimmicks—objects with a trick built into them. But getting caught with a gimmick, says Gary, feels terrible. He sounds like he’s speaking from experience.
Gary prides himself on staying current. The kind of magic that is hot right now is called mentalism. These are illusions that rely not on the vanishing or multiplying of props, but on the movement of your mind. At a show for adults, he might guess your phone password. He might guess the number you have written on an envelope. Mentalism involves complicated math equations, which the magician performs while smiling and asking you what you do for a living. This is hard. You’ll spot a beginner magician, says Gary, by how their stage chatter pauses for the moment in which they have to do the really sneaky move.
As the party goes on—and Gary’s parties have included a dog’s birthday and a convening of witchcraft enthusiasts in a dungeon—you get drunk, of course. Then he might switch to the sponge balls and other visual feats, identifiable by even the most intoxicated guest as impossible!
Eventually he shows me how the sponge ball illusion works. He secrets a ball under index and middle fingers, keeping it in his right palm while he pretends to transfer it to his left. Gary’s openness is touching to me. Surprising, too. Don’t magicians consider their illusions sacred?
He is not one to go about autopsying his tricks, but he doesn’t mind revealing the principles behind them. Besides, says Gary, tricks are just the mechanism. The real magic occurs in your mind, when the clips and hinges holding the rational day in place spring open. Ordinary life retracts, and you see a sliver you can’t comprehend. That is magic.
Gary grew up in Long Island, where he still lives. His grandfather, a lion tamer for the World’s Fair, gifted the boy his first trick. At a Pennsylvania show, his grandfather announced to the crowd that his grandson, “direct from New York City,” was “a prominent and upcoming magician.” He was twelve.
A surfeit of family enthusiasm will make any youngster run the other way. Gary gravitated to drama. Having graduated college as a theater major, he landed a role in an opera at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, but the part got nearly excised the day before the show. An actor, he learned from the incident, has little power over the production.
Dismayed, he took inspiration from a friend who played the guitar for children in hospitals, and began performing magic in pediatric wards. Walking down a hallway from room to room, he performed for kids immobile with broken bones, kids paling of cancer. It was great practice—not before a mirror, but before spectators. When he grew immensely confident, and a little bored, that’s when the kids got excited. That’s when he knew he’d perfected an illusion.
Gary, now thirty, has been a professional for seven years. A few years ago, at a small show at a cabaret, he chose a woman from the audience to help him with a mind-reading demonstration. The woman, a librarian, was so impressed she put him in touch with the manager of children’s programming at the Brooklyn Public Library.
Now when he performs at branches of the library, he remembers to tell every awed child one thing. If they look in the building, he says, they can find books that teach them how to do what he has just done. Books, though. Not videos. Books in which tricks appear as text and numbered illustration, pages that demand that you, child, do the imaginative work of collecting the static parts and charming them to life. A video allows only emulation, and where’s the fun in that?
I get the sense that Gary sees children as human beings whose time and curiosity merit serious consideration. (He is a new dad—his son is one—and for Halloween, he turned down shows to take the boy trick-or-treating.) If sometimes wary of adults’ prying questions about the secrets of his trade, he will share with children how to learn and practice. Every summer, he runs week-long magic camps in Westchester, the Adirondacks, and Long Island. The basics are not so hard. If you learn three moves with a deck of cards, for example, you can do limitless stunts. What makes a move yours is not the invention of new principles, but the adjustment of known principles to your own flair.
This is why he admires the child’s fascination— how can I do that?— while the adults inquiry remains, how did you do that?
In the coffee shop, the clock signals dinnertime, and most patrons have left. The barista has returned to that essential companion, the phone. Gary appraises the environment and remarks that if he were to perform in this coffee shop, he would prepare beforehand a trick with an item commonly found in this place. Say, a coffee cup. Then, at the show, he would casually look about, his glance landing on a cup, his eyes lighting up with the promise of a move he just might manage.
Sometimes, Gary admits, he doesn’t like to say he is a magician. He says he is an entertainer. He is a one-man theater show, the light guy and the sound guy, prop master and stage manager. He inhabits the character of a person (there, again, his long-ago dream of being an actor, which in his life has been reimagined but never discarded) with the extraordinary capacity of bending natural law. All magicians act. His admission of pretense directs you to consider the existence of something that might be called real magic— his art approximates what might be possible elsewhere in the universe, for an evening, on your birthday.