A Process of Cultivation

Mike Rogers







I recently spotted the famous slight-of-hand artist Ricky Jay sitting at a table. He had a plate of fruit in front of him and he was picking at some grapes. He looked tired, his skin was pale, and he moved slowly. But when he spoke, it was in that same jocular tone that was familiar to me from the David Mamet films that he's been in. It's higher pitched than you would normally expect from a large man, and it makes you feel at ease, like he could be your friend.

I considered going up to him and saying something. But what do you say to a famous entertainer other than, "I really admire your work." Someone like Jay has heard that line thousands of times. It's meaningless chatter. If you had something special to say, that would be better.

For example, once I saw the actor John Malkovich walking down the street. I started to follow him and then picked up my pace, because I had summoned the courage to tell him that I was a big fan of his and had followed his work since he was in the theater in Chicago. But he sensed my approach and actually ran away from me. Another time I saw the character actor Richard Edson. Just the night before I had seen him in a commercial on television, and I realized that he must not be getting as many roles as he used to get when they needed a funny-looking guy in a movie. And I could have said to him, "Excuse me, but I knew your sister Jenny in high school. How is she?" But that would only have been partially true. She did go to my high school, but I never said a word to her the entire time we were there. She was friends with a girl I went out with for two months who later died of Lupus. But that's as close as I ever got to her. If he asked me how I knew his sister, I could either lie and risk being caught in the lie, or I could admit that I didn't really know her, which would deflate the encounter. So I decided not to approach Edson.

A while back, I was getting out of a taxi when the folk singer Garland Jeffries came up to grab the cab. I had seen him perform twice, so when I opened the door and saw him there, I was startled and said, "You're Garland Jeffries." He stared warily back at me, as if he was waiting for me to add, "and you owe me $1,000," or something like that. But instead, I said, "You're great." He smiled broadly and thanked me. We shook hands and he asked me my name. Then he got in the cab and left. I felt that he was genuinely touched. But I doubt anyone ever recognizes him. In fact, except for a handful of music buffs, no one has ever heard of him.

Of course, if you know magic, you know Ricky Jay. All his shows sell out within hours. Because of that, I was never actually able to see him perform. Everything I knew about him came from what I had read in the newspapers. I remember reading that he performed a trick where he asked a woman in the audience to pick a card from a deck. Then he took the remaining cards and threw them in the direction of a pumpkin that was placed on top of a stool. One of the cards stuck into the pumpkin like a dagger. He asked the woman to come up on stage and retrieve the card. It turned out to be her card. At least I think that's how it went.

Now, I could have gone up to him and said, "That was an amazing trick that you did with that pumpkin and the flying cards. How was that done?" But true magicians never reveal the secrets of their trade. And what if I got one of the details wrong and he could tell that I had never actually seen him perform that trick. That would be humiliating. So, instead, I stood there watching Ricky Jay.

Did you ever wonder whether famous people can tell whether they are being stared at? It's hard to know, because they're so good at ignoring everyone around them, as if they're on some other plane or as if no one else is there. But Ricky Jay is different. He must have sensed that I was staring at him, because he turned to me and stared right back. It wasn't a friendly stare or even an inquisitive stare. It was an annoyed stare. I should have stared right back. That would have convinced him that I was someone who was worth engaging in conversation. But I involuntarily lowered my eyes. I didn't even have a chance to think about it. It was almost as if he had the power to lower my eyes for me. Of course he doesn't have that power, but if he did, he would, because that's how good a magician he is.

Soon after, Ricky Jay got up from his table and walked away. Before the waitress could clear his plate, I walked over to the table, grabbed the sprig of grapes that he had been eating, and put them carefully in my pocket.

Do you know how raisins are made? We all know that they start out as grapes, but what kind of grapes? How do they dry out? Are they spread on tables or on sheets on the ground? How long does it take? Days? Weeks? Months? What happens to the dust that accumulates in the wrinkles of the raisins? Are they washed before they are packaged? And how did they make raisins before the advent of seedless grapes? Taking out those seeds took some doing.

I thought of all these questions on my way home and determined that there was only one way to find out the answers. I would turn Ricky Jay's grapes into raisins. In answer to the first question, I decided not to do this in my house for fear that the decaying grapes might attract ants. I've spent many an early morning clearing ants out of cupboards, and I can tell you that it's a royal pain. The next logical place was the dashboard of my car. It's sunny there, I could observe their progress easily, and no ant would be able to find its way to the fruit.

There were three red grapes on the sprig, and each day, I took a picture of the grapes. Nothing much happened at first, but the strong sun eventually worked its magic, as the grapes started to deflate, then wither, and then dry out. They also turned color, from light red, to black. Perhaps you find this a useless exercise, similar to watching paint dry. But can you say that you've ever seen grapes turn to raisins? Perhaps you've left grapes for too long in the fruit bin of the refrigerator, forgot about them, and then discovered them months later, all shriveled up. Well, those are not raisins. They're just rotten grapes. It's not the same thing.

Surprisingly, in the middle of this experiment, one of the raisins disappeared. When I went to photograph them one day, I discovered only two on the dashboard. Had one slipped off its stem and rolled out of sight while I was sharply turning a corner? I searched everywhere. On the seats; under the floor mats; in the air vents. I practically turned that car upside down. But that raisin could not be found. I've just chalked it up as another mystery.

So, now I have my two raisins. I must say that I'm a little wary about eating them, since I don't really know if this is the correct procedure for cultivating raisins. So they continue to sit on my dashboard, no longer changing consistency. They're as dry as they're ever going to get, I suppose. Just sitting there in the sun.

It did occur to me that I now have something to talk about with Ricky Jay. I'm sure he'd find the whole episode interesting. He might even have some ideas about the missing raisin. It wouldn't surprise me if he reached right behind my ear and pulled that raisin out just like magic. But I doubt I'll ever see him again. That doesn't happen.