David Groves Soon To Be Released Book,Too Much America;Based on His Experiences Busking in New Orleans
About a month ago, we brought you an excerpt from a forthcoming novel called Too Much America, which is based on the actual busking experiences of David Groves in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, 1995. It was very well loved, and we have received a number of requests for the rest of the book! We can’t bring you the entire book yet, but, we can at least give you the rest of Chapter 8!
Click HERE to read the first part of the chapter. Then continue reading below, to enjoy the rest of the journey.
Too Much America (cont.)
Zuma had developed a fledgling friendship with a masterful Boston busker named Blair Tollefson. He had a killer show, doing a straitjacket escape while hanging from his heels in gravity boots, flailing and red-faced, from a 9-foot-high tripod. By noon, we were sitting with him at a table at Central Grocery shooting the breeze. Blair was originally from Minnesota and looked like he should be sitting in a pew in some Lutheran church in Minnetonka, blonde and square jawed. Everyone called him Boy Scout because he was so straight about everything.
Zuma was working on a po’ boy and spouting off about how Bill Clinton, with his 6-foot-two frame, outsize personality, and feel-your-pain smile would have made a fabulous street escape artist “if he hadn’t wasted his goddamn life on reforming health care.”
“Oh yeah,” I said, shaking my head and smiling, “and Madeleine Albright would have made a great stripper.”
Blair and I cracked up.
“I’ll get my dollar bills ready,” Blair said, doubled over.
We went back to busking, and spent the whole day trying to slay the dragon. Then around 11, we joined Blair at a spot he had found on Royal Street as he wrapped up for the evening. We watched one show at 11:30, focusing mostly on his work with devil sticks. Then, as the crowds were thinning out, we sat down on the low curb with an antique shop behind our backs and chatted with him as he was packing his bags for the night.
That’s when the shrimper showed up. He was one of those big, strapping mooks that work on the shrimp boats, and from down the street, we could see that he was shitfaced and, as he walked down Royal, yelling at passersby at random, all of whom were moving away from him. We went back to our conversation, assuming, I guess, that the storm would pass if we just ignored it, but a couple minutes later, we turned around just in time to see the shrimper grab some longhaired kid with a skateboard by the shoulders and throw him to the ground, his equipment clattering on the pavement, all at a distance of fewer than 10 feet away. Zuma and I immediately stood up and stepped back, but Blair, already standing, just stood his ground, his back still turned to the guy. I looked down at Blair’s hand and saw that somehow, he had gotten a devil stick into his hand.
“Gimme your fuckin’ money!” the shrimper said, kicking Blair’s bag, and a couple bills fluttered out and the whole thing jingled with the sound of a couple pounds of spare change.
Blair didn’t wait for the shrimper’s next move. Within a moment, he wheeled around and swung the devil stick overhand, striking the shrimper’s forehead with full force. But to our surprise, the stick broke in half and it didn’t seem to faze the guy. So Blair reached into his bag and grabbed another devil stick. He whacked the shrimper across the face this time, and then again, and finally the guy staggered back a few feet. But it still didn’t bring him down, and I thought, My God, what is it going to take to bring this guy down?! because the guy was obviously feeling no pain. So I reached into my bag for my decorative Chinese knife with the dulled blade that I used for tricks and pulled it out of its sheath, moving in to help. But Blair just waved me off.
“I got it,” he said firmly, never taking his eyes off the shrimper.
By now, a couple rivulets of blood were streaming down the shrimper’s face, and he was staring at Blair with a blankness that was at once unfathomable and disturbing. Blair raised the devil stick again and took a step forward, ready to strike. But this time, the shrimper took a couple steps back. Then he turned around and walked away, staggering back down the dark street.
“Man, I swear we would have helped you if you’d been in real trouble,” Zuma said, finally moving back toward Blair.
“It just happened so fast,” I said.
But Blair smiled.
“I took care of it,” he said simply.
Our adrenaline was pumping, and even though it was midnight, we were wide awake now and knew that we would be for hours. We were buzzing with the high of physical victory, like Buster Douglas and his trainers must have been in the minutes after whipping Mike Tyson’s ass, and after a few moments, we traded high-fives and started talking about it, breaking it down moment by moment and laughing and shaking our heads. Blair suggested we adjourn to Midnight Mass.
“I still have about ten minutes of packing left to do,” he said. “I’ll meet you at Café du Monde.”
And so Zuma and I walked on over to Midnight Mass, light footed and chatty and laughing, and when we arrived, spread the word about Blair the Giant Killer. We told the story once, then again and again to every new arrival to the group. We waited for Blair to return, but as time went by, we became increasingly concerned.
Later, we learned what had taken place only minutes after we had left Blair. Apparently, the shrimper had come back. They were all alone, not a soul on Royal Street except for Blair, the drunken shrimper, and a homeless guy who was lying in a doorway, watching with a grimy face and dull interest.
The moment Blair spotted him, he grabbed the devil stick again and stood up straight. He must have wondered whether his measly little stick would stop him this time. He must have wondered whether the guy had gone back to his car to get a gun. Apparently, the guy began walking toward Blair slowly but relentlessly, the blood now dried in little dark streaks down the side of his face and one of his eyes starting to close up. Blair gritted his teeth and set himself in position, ready to whale on him.
But something wasn’t right, because the shrimper didn’t come straight at Blair. Instead, he started walking around him in a kind of semicircle. Blair must have wondered, What is this guy up to? Suddenly, Blair swung around behind him, thinking that maybe there was a second guy sneaking up on him from somewhere, and then Blair swung around again and again, but there was no one behind him, it was just the two of them.
Suddenly, the shrimper just stooped down, picked something up off the ground, and stood back up again.
“I dropp’ my hat,” the shrimper muttered, and then he walked off.
When Blair finally walked into Café du Monde wearing his black backpack, he was given a hero’s welcome. A half-hour later, after everyone had heard the story, the commentary, and the footnotes six or seven times at least, Blair, Zuma, and I retired to a back table and Blair filled us in on the rest of the story.
By 2:30, most of the other buskers were gone except for Cheese, who was making a play for Chelle the harpist, sitting close and touching her arm and shoulder a lot. Chelle had the look of Maybe in her eyes. And Zuma and Blair and I were still chatting at the back table. That’s when I dropped the bomb: I wasn’t going to play Washington Artillery Park.
“Why not?” Blair said.
“Because he’s a chickenshit,” Zuma said with a grin.
And then I outlined the reasons, foremost among them that Washington Artillery Park was a spot that required a sound system.
“Hey, I’ve got a sound system in my trunk,” Zuma said.
“You do?” I said.
“Yeah, but it requires an electric outlet.”
“Oh. Where are we going to find an outlet on the street?”
“Do they have battery-powered sound systems?”
“How much does one of those systems cost?”
Blair piped up: “It’s five hundred for the cheapest Mini Vox. But I don’t know where you’d get one out here in New Orleans. It takes a lot of shopping.”
So that settled that. The Special Commission on Chickenshits had cleared me of all charges.
Later, Cheese and Chelle hopped into a cab together with the look of Yes in Chelle’s eyes, which was the start of a thing that ended two nights later when Cheese told her that he was married, and Chelle spent the rest of Mardi Gras with the look of Motherfucker in her eyes. At Café du Monde, the outside patio was nearly empty, but our adrenaline was not completely drained, so the conversation drifted back for maybe the 30th time to Blair’s fight, and he was telling us that the reason he liked Homer’s Odyssey so much was because it had so much resonance for busking.
“See, Odysseus embarks on this long journey, sailing from land to land and facing adventures and challenges everywhere he goes,” Blair said, downing the last of his warm cider. “That’s what we do. I hit the road in ’83, and I’ve spent time in Key West, Chicago, New York City, the Carolinas, Canada, lots of places. That was my Odyssey. The Iliad is filled with a lot of smiting, but in The Odyssey, when Odysseus comes home, he’s a changed man. He’s wiser and humbler, and that was the reason why the gods put him through all that in the first place, to help him evolve. The Odyssey is a journey that leads back home, and what that really means is coming back home to your authentic self.”
As he talked, I realized that Blair had clearly been miscategorized as a Boy Scout, for he had none of the naivete, the self-righteousness, the Rick Santorumness. The term was, instead, simply a way for darker souls to denigrate a man of pure motives, and as always seems to happen with name callers, their terminology said more about them than him. Suddenly, Blair stood up, picked up my magic wand from the table and, while idly performing the Vernon Wand Spin, which is the slickest aerial deception you’ll never see, he recited a passage from Homer:
“If you are curious, Father, watch and see
The stuff that’s in me. No more talk of shame.”
And old Laertes cried aloud:
“Ah, what a day for me, dear gods!”
“This has a good weight to it,” Blair said, holding the magic wand flat on his palm.
“Cost me over $100,” I said.
“I met him once,” Blair said, dropping the wand back on the table and sitting down.
“Vernon, the Professor.”
“Oh. Did he show you any magic?”
“It was after a lecture,” he said. “He was a little drunk.”
“Was he ever not?” Zuma said.
“All I know is that a genius of his caliber who’s drunk is ten times better than any average conjurer who’s sober.”
All three of us felt like lifelong friends now, bonded by spilt blood, and so we tossed out our best stories about Dai Vernon. He was the ultimate sage, the ancient yoda, the obsessed überthinker of closeup magic, which was the branch that I was now, by virtue of my poverty, embracing. By the ‘20s, Vernon had established his supremacy in the world of demanding sleight of hand, earning the title, “The Man Who Fooled Houdini,” which he won at a dinner in 1921 in Houdini’s honor with a groundbreaking card trick that I perform whenever I get the chance. His reign over that world would last for 70 more years. Mention his name to any serious magician and he will smile and sigh.
Still, the Professor was a contradiction, as all great men are. Rather than being a brilliant self-promoter, as Houdini was, the Professor was inept at the business side of things, and was more content just sitting on his bed in his pajamas practicing card sleights for 16 hours a day. In a most sublime way, he was a man obsessed. When he was around magicians, he would dazzle them with his sleights. He would casually show a sleight to a guy, and the guy would say: “What, did you do it?” because you couldn’t see the sleights. And Vernon would say that yes, he had indeed done it. So then that magician would call over other magicians in excited tones to try to see what he hadn’t seen, and a murmur would build and the crowds would gather and by the end, they would all become Vernon disciples. In 1948, his reputation firmly established, Vernon began lecturing, and hundreds of magicians would gather.
At these lectures, which are now the stuff of legend, Vernon would show his best moves. Picking coins out of the air one by one and dropping them into a wine glass, a sleight that takes years to learn. His 3-card monte innovation the double flash, more clever than the grizzled con men could ever invent. And his work on how to turn over a playing card—just lift it up from the table and reveal it—is something that is studied and admired far and wide.
In his pursuit of great sleights, Vernon often turned to the world of gambling, where card subterfuge was motivated by the mother of invention, the love of money. Every so often, Vernon would hear of some obscure gambler who could execute some impossible card sleight, and the Professor would drop everything to track the scoundrel down. Mind you, these are guys who don’t want to be found, much less teach you the mechanics of their criminal activity. Still, in 1932, he tracked down the Kansas City gambler named Allen Kennedy, who had developed his own center deal, a sleight for secretly dealing from the middle of the deck that many people thought impossible. He tracked down Dad Stevens, a Chicago gambler who pioneered the riffle cull, a sleight that earned him tens of thousands of dollars. And he tracked down the drunken genius who called himself Ping Pong. Vernon was an anthropological field worker of the highest order, bringing indigenous knowledge from the jungles of the gambling room to the civilized world of magicians. But believe me, the work that he brought back will bust your knuckles. Even today, there are only two or three people in the world who can perform a convincing center deal, and one of them is blind.
Vernon had an indomitable spirit. As a young man in New York City, he was carrying a heavy pail across a scaffolding above the East River when the scaffolding cracked and he fell six flights down, bouncing off every girder along the way and landing in the icy brine. When he woke up, a hospital official placed a pen in his mouth in order to “make his mark” on a release form to amputate his arms, saying that they were gangrenous. But the Professor raged, driving the guy out of his room. How different magic would be today—more pedestrian, less intelligent and sparkling—if that shithead doctor had prevailed.
Finally, we left Café du Monde and started the trek back to our respective beds, or facsimiles thereof, three guys walking sober and cold and exhausted through the early-morning streets. Just the thought of the Professor had breathed new life into me, though. It made me hold my head higher. Despite my poverty of sound and the Siberia to which I had been exiled by virtue of my relationship with coinage, there was still a worthy mountain for me to climb. And when I walked back that night through the nearly empty French Quarter at 3:30 am, first alongside my two buddies down Decatur Street and then alone, along Iberville, I was happy. There were no more revelers in the Quarter, and I strolled past the garbage trucks that flooded the streets with an intense white light and a roaring noise, scooping up the festive detritus every night by the ton—empty whisky bottles and paper Go cups and half-eaten Styrofoam bowls of gumbo and rivers of confetti and used condoms and God knows what all—and then down the broad southern boundary of the Quarter that is Canal Street, looking for one last taxi.
My eyes were puffy with impending sleep but my heart was full of Blair’s heroism, my head swimming with noble thoughts of Odysseus smiting shrimpers, Andrew Jackson smiting shrimpers, Falstaff and Hotspur and Prince Hal smiting shrimpers. The scar-faced Andrew Jackson, who was taken prisoner as a teenager during the Revolutionary War, and when he refused to polish a Redcoat’s boots, was slashed across the forehead with a sword. Prince Hal, whose verses were coming back to me from college, so I began to recite what I remembered aloud into the cold night air:
“By Christ’s blood, let not us that are squires of the night’s body be called thieves of the day’s beauty, let us be minions of the moon….”
And as I held forth, my words echoing off the buildings and storefronts, I gestured up to the moon, sitting up there so golden and fat in the black sky, the same moon that an exhausted Andrew Jackson saw on the night after he, now a general in the American army, saved this city at the Battle of New Orleans, a face destined to become a statue, a president, a 20-dollar bill. And when a compassionate cabbie finally stopped for me along the broad boulevard and I was rubbing my hands to get warm in the back seat, heading home to Kit’s, I knew what I had to do. I didn’t have to climb the biggest mountain. I just had to climb my own.
David Groves is author of Be a Street Magician!: A How-To Guide (Aha! Press, 1998), which has made him famous among magicians. The above chapter is from a forthcoming novel called Too Much America, which is based in his actual busking experiences in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, 1995. Groves performs magic for a living in Los Angeles, from closeup magic to stage magic to mentalism to motivational shows. He still performs street magic from time to time, although his heyday was 1994 – ’96, when he performed full-time on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, California.