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Magic Bob

“Magic Bob” is an excerpt from my first book, Down and Out in California.

At the turn of the century, I’m honing my hustle. I find practice and three hundred dollars per day after taxes in California’s unique voter driven ballot initiative system. I am a paid petitioner. Human nature and how it relates to politics and the entranceway of grocery stores becomes my study. I find that my put-on-airs intelligent tone inspires authority and trust in people around policy. I learn to size up and box down opinions. When it comes to sales, you either have it, or you don’t. Before working this job I think of myself as shy and unable to make a case to a stranger. The first day of this gig I learn I’m in the top percentile of petitioners.

The place is El Segundo, California. I am called in from Los Angeles to work a local petition that someone was desperate to get signatures for. The petition is not too hot button and the demography is clear. There’s a corporate campus that the city council has approved for development and the petition is to repeal that and open it up to a public vote. The petition is being funded by an asshole businessman who owns much commercial property in El Segundo, but not this one – so there’s evil on both sides. 

El Segundo is dominated by oil interests and I’m sure directly or indirectly the petition was paid for by them. El Segundo is named thusly because of Chevron’s second refinery built there.  It’s a small, blue collar company town within spitting distance from the Westside of Los Angeles.  Now that massive industrial cleanup is finally happening, the town attracts corporate headquarters of all kinds.  With these come a corporate elite that are pushing out the old breed of locals.  These are middle Americans that have resettled here from everywhere, to live out their days breathing in solvents from a brand new building of steel, glass, concrete, and carpet. They’re ready to rest at the top of the corporate ladder they’ve dutifully climbed, clocking in to be ignored and let time pass. They and the refinery workers, who value back-breaking work for a lifetime, do not see eye-to-eye.  I contend daily with the tension around this.

El Segundo is a maze of new corporate stores, but the customers of these are not the voters that are our target. For this I have to hit the local joints, and stay away from anything chain.  Because I am not a resident of El Segundo, I am assigned a Witness who lives in the city. I am paid per signature, and this initiative doesn’t pay much. I’m lucky if I make two hundred a day.  My Witness, however, will make fifteen dollars an hour regardless of signatures gathered. Theoretically he could, but he never makes more than I do. I’m relentless. 

The only requirement for a Witness is that they be an El Segundo voter. I show up at the grocery store parking lot. It’s the Ralphs grocery store on the main corridor. I only petition there a few times after that, because of realizing how many of the corporate workers who get their lunch there live outside the city and commute in, thereby making them ineligible to sign. It’s a new store, and squeaky clean.

The organizer and the Witnesses are lined up in front of the store waiting for adoption.  They give me first pick. I thought I couldn’t be shocked, but the selection of Witnesses terrifies me.  They stand out as scruffy, dingy, and slimy in this clean cut, sterile, corporate environment. Conveying and convincing seems impossible with one of these leering over me. Anyone can be paid to watch. 

At the very end of the depressing barrel-scraped lineup, an older man with sun damaged skin, stubble, and greasy grey hair under a faded baseball cap reaches out and shakes my hand.  He wears white clothing, stained, and mismatched. Paper white pants and a cream shirt.

“Hi!  I’m Magic Bob.” There is a faint hint of alcohol on him, but I can tell it’s not from today.  

“Hi Magic Bob.” Something about the twinkle in his bright blue eyes makes me say this smiling.  “I’ll take this one!” I call out to the organizer. I’m relieved with my choice.

“Awesome, she picked ME.  Do we get to have sex now?” he trots alongside me like a puppy.

“No, Bob, we don’t.” I am signing paperwork.  “What makes you Magic?”

“I’ll show you.”  He’s beaming at me. “Do you have a deck of cards?” He asks this assuming that I am in his world, a world of cards and sleight of hand and scarves and birds.

“No, I don’t.”

“Well, I do.” Suddenly there is a deck of cards in his hands.  I swear I didn’t see him produce it. The organizer takes my paperwork and hands me a fifty pound box of petitions to start.  I head towards the car while Bob pockets the cards.

“That’s it?” I ask. 

“That’s not enough magic for you? You can’t have it all at once you know.” He shakes his head.

We race towards the best local spot and claim it for the duration.  During six weeks of working ten hour days together, Magic Bob and I become very well acquainted.  Much to his chagrin, we never have sex.  

Magic Bob is homeless, alcoholic, sex addicted, has a degree in organic chemistry and another in electrical engineering and is a bonafide, practiced, and brilliant magician. He never drinks when he works, and he works construction or handymannery or anything he can get his hands on that will pay him daily cash. If he can get crack or cocaine on top of alcohol and sex he’s happy to add that into the mix. He talks to himself, which I get used to quickly, and it’s always funny to hear his monologue.

I choose the first two weeks of the petitioning time to try out the Master Cleanse for the first and unfortunately not last time. The benefits and drawbacks of fasting aside, that specific cleanse has few pros other than understanding the mindset of a trend. 

And a trend it is, sweeping Hollywood and Los Angeles in the aim at stripping models and actresses of their bodyfat as quickly and efficiently as possible. The idea of the Master Cleanse is a fast where you don’t feel hunger, because you are living on simple sugars. The mixture is distilled water, the juice of fresh, organic lemons, high-nutrient Grade B Maple Syrup, and cayenne pepper – to taste. You’re allowed to guzzle as much of the stuff as you want on this “cleanse”. 

Bob puts up with my manic clarity under the influence of starvation quite well, and never gives me any shit.  He supports and bolsters any behavior that I choose. He’s had enough of judgment in his life, whether given or received.

He entertains me and the marks all day long with magic and jokes, tirelessly. Everyone in town knows him, which almost always makes my job easier.  He is always smiling, always eager. At the end of the day, we stop by the organizer, drop off the petitions, and get paid. I then take him to the strip club, opposite a hotel.  He drinks himself blind and spends all of his money. At first he has enough to buy a hotel room and a prostitute after the club.  By the end of the gig he sleeps in the gutter or park outside the club and has a tab that I refuse to pay off for him.  

He asks me for money incessantly, yet never holds it against me when I refuse. In general, he’s very even tempered, sometimes more a wizard than a magician. The only thing that makes him mad is when someone calls what he does “magic tricks”.  

“What’s the difference between magic and magic tricks?”  I ask.

“Fifty years of practice.” he says sternly. 

“Have you ever worked magic professionally?” I’m driving him to a construction gig he’s working after a half day of witnessing me petitioning.  This ride is the first time I’ve given him anything, despite his constant asking.  It prompts a tourettes-like episode of him petitioning me for sex, calmly and patiently denied.

“I’ll tell you if you have sex with me.”  It’s his last try of the day.

“No, Bob, I’m not having sex with you.”  I retort almost automatically at this point.

“Well okay then I’ll tell you anyway,” You’ve got to hand it to him for taking rejection as well as he does.  “I did work the clubs for a while here. Vegas is where it’s at though. A buddy of mine, I was working on his house out in Agoura Hills and his agent stopped by one day we did a private show. Then he came see me at the club. I had a good night, too. They offered me a deal.”  The corners of Bob’s mouth are no longer smiling.

“A Vegas deal?”  I try to encourage him.

“Yeah.”  He says listlessly.  

“Whyn’t you take it?” I ask.

“Well, there were strings, you see…” he trails off. I think of all the strings it could involve except the one it does.

“Sobriety?” I ask.

“Basically, but no. I’d have to lose thirty pounds for the deal. Clean up my act a bit for the stage.  They don’t care what I do on my off time, but… I can’t lose thirty pounds. I’d have to cut out the booze to do it. Million dollar deal, too. One point two a year. Still stands, ya know.”

“Bob, if I were you I’d take that. I’ve lost thirty pounds. Even on this cleanse I’ve lost ten already.  It’s not that hard, really.” I rarely give him advice, and he smiles at this piece.

“You ain’t me, sweetie, you ain’t me.”

The next day he meets me brighter than usual. “Good morning!! Let’s go to the park!” he says “We can register all the bums to vote and get them to sign. It’ll be like 25 signatures.”

“I can’t argue with that.” I say, despite being sure he’s come into some cocaine and wants to sell off as much of it to them as he can before he himself blows through it. Alcohol and sex are far more important to him than cocaine or crack, and maintaining a steady work rhythm for 40 years is how he’s kept himself in both.  Still, we’ll be registering people to vote.  On our way he makes me think of a card.

“BUT DON’T TELL ME WHAT IT IS.” he says.  His intensity under the influence scares me a little, but Bob and I are so accustomed to one another’s rhythms by now that we still find a stride.  I think of the eight of Hearts, but keep it to myself. He shuffles the deck as we walk towards the library, the back lawn of which the local homeless crowd refer to as “The Park”.  

I tap the deck at Bob’s request and he flips the cards over and the backs of them have turned from red to blue. 

“How the…?” I trail off, still slowly walking. He offers them to me again to tap. I do it again. They change again, in front of my eyes this time, without blinking, without looking away.

“Do you want the red pill, or the blue pill?” he asks, again with that twinkle in his tone. He goes into his pocket and hands me a folded leather case with a snap that I’ve never seen him have before. I unsnap it and inside are two compartments, one empty, the other zippered. In the zippered compartment is one card. The eight of Hearts.

“You really are magic, Bob.”  I am flabbergasted. He puts his hand on my shoulder.

“I know.”  He leans in.  He’s positively magnetic. “Will you have sex with me now?” 

That day we get tons of signatures from Bob’s homeless friends. Under his instructions, I sit by the sidelines while Bob collects them and sells cocaine. I’m grateful for the day off, as collecting has become more and more difficult. There are days it’s abysmal as the opposing side hires teams of people to follow us around and hand out leaflets to anyone who signed our petition. We learn to outrun them, to plan swiftly. Bob proves very good at this, and sometimes we end up in street races with them to lose them, serpentining through the grid of El Segundo. We’ve had to frequent smaller and smaller stores to the point of standing outside of corner convenience stores, we’ve gotten creative about where people congregate, and now literal and have resorted to churches. After today we’ll spend the final two weeks door-to-door canvassing before the campaign is mercifully called to a close.  

Bob proves less useful on the canvassing grind, the grueling walks and odd pace interfere with his magic. Still, he hangs in until the bitter end, and we hug goodbye in the same parking lot where we met as though we’ll see each other again, but both with tears in our eyes – knowing the underlying reality.

But I do see Bob again, one more time.  

It is a few years later and the first time I smoke DMT. I’m in a safe environment with a good friend, in his quiet room with futons and tapestries and a lot of computers and electronics. I ask him to play some Shpongle, some psychedelic electronic music, and I take three massive hits of DMT and then lie back on his bed.

I’m teleported to another dimension, a dark, dingy, alien root cellar and machine room. There is an angry, vengeful deity who seeks to humble me, and I feel as though I’ve naively opened a humiliating door I’ll never be able to close. On my way out of the trip I see the classic light at the end of the tunnel, and later read that DMT is naturally released by the brain on death – or near-death as the case may be.

Hours after this experience my friends are driving to El Segundo because it’s the closest Fry’s Electronics on the westside, and they are geeks and want cheap parts for some geek project. Despite an intense and dark first DMT experience I’m euphoric at comedown and all day, and I ride along with them just to experience memory lane in my current state.  We park at a meter on the main drag just as I’m finishing telling my friends the story of my tenure in the town and of Magic Bob.  We’re just down the street from The Park.  I get out of the car.

“So, I hope I see Magic Bob…”  I say, and looking up he comes walking around the corner… like magic.

“HEY!” he runs at me and gives me a hug. I introduce him to my friends and he does a little magic for them. He seems worse for the wear physically, better at his magic – yet same as ever.  “What are you doing here?” he asks me incredulously.

“I just did DMT for the first time and I wanted to see you and there you were.” I blurt out.

“No shit.”  He grins at me like a partner in crime and then sobers “That stuff’s a wild ride.  Be careful with that shit – it fucks with your magic.” he looks more stern than usual.  I nod.  We talk for a while and then I’m called back by my friends to leave. As a final goodbye I take his hands.  “Hey wait, you know those bums we registered that day?”

“Yeah, I remember.”

“They voted you know.  Every one of them.”  His face beams with pride.  So does mine.

“That’s fucking awesome.  Frontlines of democracy.”  I smile, and massage his hands.  “Take care of yourself, Magic Bob.” I mean it.

“Ok, I will.  You take care of you, okay sweetie?”  He looks deep into me.  “Can we have sex now?” he asks, as though he never has before.

I lean in and kiss him on the mouth.  “No, Bob.  We can’t.”


(If you liked “Magic Bob” please buy a copy of my first book, Down and Out in California, or support me on Patreon for a free copy)


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