I met 39-year-old Paul on a MegaBus from Houston to New Orleans. He sat in the row in front of me, his gray eyes looking through the cracks of our seats as we pacified the seven hours of boredom by talking about Napoleon Hill, the Georgia Guidestones, and hypnotism. Having lived in New Orleans years prior, he was returning for the time being following his travels through Israel as a street magician.
“A street magician?” He had my attention.
“Yup. A very poor street magician.”
For two hours, he entertained a middle-aged woman, her two teenage daughters, and myself in the back of the bus with hypnosis, bending forks with his mind, and picking the right card from the deck every single damn time.
“How the hell you do that?” the mother asked, her left eye squinted and right eyebrow raised.
“Magic!” Paul laughed. “How else could it be done?”
As we pulled into our bus stop that night, Paul gave me his number and told me to get in touch the next morning. He wanted to show me around New Orleans.
After meeting at Cafe Du Monde at 10:00 am, we ambled across the street to a produce shop, brushing flakes of beignet and powdered sugar from our laps.
“Hey, watch my case, would you?” Paul passed me his frayed briefcase held together with duct tape. “I gotta go in here and buy a lemon.”
He walked out a few moments later and rubbed his hands together. “Want me to do a show?” He dropped the lemon in his pocket. “Let me draw a crowd.”
He tossed open the briefcase revealing his office of cards, balloons, and handkerchiefs. With a booming voice, he attracted a crowd of nine who were passing by in Jackson Square. He bent forks with his mind, swallowed a three-foot inflated balloon, and plucked someone’s card out from right under his tongue. But the most impressive act was his finale.
He picked an eight-year-old volunteer from the crowd and asked for a bill. The boy’s grandfather, his arms crossed and eyebrows raised, pulled out a five, which was then marked with a black sharpie and handed to Paul. After a snide routine of comedic banter, Paul pulled the lemon out of his pocket. He slowly cut around the skin with a knife — fresh lemon juice spurting out with each slice. Inside the lemon was the marked five dollar bill.
Once the clapping, oohing, and aahing subsided and the crowd dispersed, I approached Paul as he packed up his briefcase and wiped sweat from his forehead. I handed him a water bottle, which he threw back and chugged.
“That was awesome,” I said.
“You think?” he took a breath as water and sweat spilled down his chin. “I think they were kind of a drag.” He snapped the briefcase shut and heaved it on his shoulder. Waving to an older magician setting up some coins for a show a few yards away, he called out, “Tough crowd today!”
“Tell me about it, Paul. You need to get bigger bills next time you do that lemon trick!”
“Uh oh,” I said, cupping my hands as I felt raindrops. Thunder rolled through the streets as the clouds darkened. “Here comes some weather.”
I followed Paul to a nearby restaurant called Muriel’s Jackson Square. He walked up to the hostess and, in a meditative voice, whispered, “Would you mind watching my briefcase for me while we wait out the storm?”
She smiled, her wrinkled cheeks pushing her brown eyes into a squint. “Of course,” she said, sliding the briefcase behind the hostess stand. “Good to see you back, Paul.”
He pressed his hands together against his chest and nodded. “C’mon,” he motioned towards me, “Follow me upstairs.”
He led me to a sultry brick room called the Seance Lounge — red curtains draped over plush, red sofas accented by a red velvet carpet. In the center of the room was a round table and leaning against the wall were two Egyptian sarcophagi, separated by a mirror in the shape of a sun.
Paul sunk into one of the sofas. “This room doesn’t really have too much history. It’s just a place where people hang out before and after they eat. Personally, I like coming here during the slow part of the day when it’s just me. It’s pretty inspiring for a magician.”
I sat down on the other couch. As the rain pounded against the roof in waves, I asked him how he managed to travel for so long on an empty pocket.
“If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me that, I wouldn’t have such an empty pocket,” he snorted. “But what makes my travels so important to me is that I do it without a bunch of funds. My goal was never to travel — it was to travel poor.” He leaned forward, taking off his tan hat. “Take my lemons. Those little sour bastards are what helps me to keep traveling. It’s everyone’s favorite trick. People can’t wrap their minds around it. And it’s so simple — if you even knew how simple it was, you’d be pissed. But my audience doesn’t want simplicity. They want mystery, which is what pushes me to keep going. And, for the most part, they let me keep the money I pull out of the lemon. Almost like they wouldn’t know what to do with it if they got it back.”
After the storm, we walked outside to street soaked in puddles. He grabbed his briefcase as we headed back toward Decatur Street. “Here, hold this,” he said, handing me the briefcase before darting into a produce shop. “I gotta buy a lemon.”
Photo: by author
Originally from Chattanooga, Shannon now spends her time gallivanting around Colorado, writing about everything from flattened fauna to spiritual midwifery. She likes food that makes her sweat, towns with grit, and the occasional shenanigan. Follow her adventures at The Strange and New.