He approaches me in the parking lot as I’m leaving work.
“Just a dollar,” he pleads. “A quarter. Anything.”
I squeeze past him as I attempt to get into my car. He is persistent.
“I can do magic,” he says. “Give me a quarter and I’ll give you magic.”
This isn’t the kind of neighborhood where you stop for magic tricks from a stranger. Then again, there probably isn’t any kind of neighborhood where you’d do that. For a second my mind gets distracted and I think about magicians driving around in ice cream trucks, selling their performances for quarters, playing “Oh oh oh, it’s magic” on the stereo as they drive around trying to get kids to pay them to pull a rabbit out of a hat.
“No thanks,” I say. He stands there as I open my car door and throw my bag on the passenger seat. I realize this is a stupid move but it’s done already so I try to hastily shove myself into my car, a feat made difficult by the fact that the car next to me is parked way too close to mine. Plus there’s this would-be magician staring me down.
I finally get into my car and the guy is still standing there, his hand now resting on my hood. He’s wagging a finger at me. “You’re missing the best magic show ever, lady!” He then does something that I assume is fancy magic maneuvers but look more like drunken jazz hands. I smile. Put the car in reverse.
“Nobody believes in magic anymore,” he says and there’s an abject sadness in his voice. Part of me wants to get out of the car, give him a dollar and wait for his magic show. The other part of me knows this is a parking lot frequented by crack dealers, muggers and day drunk vagrants and stays in the car. Still, magic. What if he can really do magic? What if he’s from another time, another place and is just dressed as a homeless dude to throw people off as he quests his way through the 21st century? What if he is part of a pack of dressed-down wizards testing random people to see if they believe in magic in order to recruit them into a special alliance, like the National Society For the Appreciation of Magic? And I don’t mean David Blaine magic. I mean book magic. Potions and spells. Turning people into newts. That sort of thing.
“I do. I believe in magic.”
I say this to myself, not to him, because the rational part of my brain is saying “He’s obviously on something and a potential danger” and that part of my brain is making me lightly step on the gas pedal. I roll away from him. His hands are still going. He’s still yelling about magic.
My mother used to subscribe to a magazine called Man, Myth & Magic. In it were tales of the weird and wonderful, a mixture of real men doing extraordinary things and extraordinary men doing magical things. There were gods and goddesses, creatures from other worlds, normal, everyday people practicing both black and white magic.
I believed in all these things. Well, I wanted to believe. I wanted to believe you could conjure up beasts to do your bidding. I wanted to believe you could speak a few nonsensical sounding words and have sparks fly out of your fingers. I wanted to believe you could throw some herbs in a crockpot and control the weather. I didn’t care if you could pull a quarter from behind my ear; that trick was for weird uncles and babysitters. I needed better magic than that. I needed magic that could change the world.
I never really stopped believing in that kind of magic. It just took on other forms. A belief in the possibility of time travel, of aliens existing among us, things that seem impossible to others and fantastical to most are things I hold on to as necessary to believe in because they make the possibilities in life endless. There are other worlds, other planes of existence. Places where magic is the norm.
What if this guy is from one of those places? What if he’s a real magician? A god? A visitor from another world sent here to prove to me magic really does exist?
“Nobody believes in magic anymore.”
I stop, put the car in park. Fish a dollar out of my glove compartment, roll down the window, hold out the dollar bill. He comes forward, smiling. Grabs the dollar out of my hand.
“Want to see my magic trick?” He leans into the window. His words are slurred, he smells like a brewery.
“Maybe next time. I gotta go.” I put the car in reverse again, signaling to him he should probably move away from the car.
“Wait,” he says. “Wait.” He leans in again. He whispers to me. “You believe in magic.”
“I do,” I say. His smile is wide and nearly toothless.
His greatest magic trick is going to be turning that dollar into a beer. Or, who knows. Maybe a dollar bill from the year 2013 was the last ingredient needed to complete a potion he started in another time.
I drive away, looking once in my rear view mirror to see where he’s headed. He’s walking toward McDonald’s. I suppose their dollar menu is kind of magical if you’re really hungry and broke.
If anything, the guy did perform a pretty important trick. He reminded me that I once believed in magic. And in a way, still do. Always will.
[I posted this at medium six months ago and I’m repeating it here because it’s relevant to conversations I’ve been having with other writers]
The words are alive with the sound of unreasonableness. They are active little creatures and while I want them to be alive and active, I also need them to be cooperative. They are, however, tiny little children, hellions determined to do everything in their power to make my morning difficult.
I’ve been wrestling with them for months, trying to pin them down in at the very least a three count so I can finally hold my hands high in triumph. But every time I think I have them in the right position they slip my grasp and I’m unable to hold them in place. And when I do grasp them for a few minutes, they will not relent. They give me unfinished phrases, thoughts with no endings, unbalanced finality.
I stare at the page, a blank sheet which looks like the proverbial polar bear in a snow storm. Somewhere, a sentence laughs.
They are petulant as well as obstinate. I have brought them together in entire paragraphs only to have sentences rebel against me and demand to leave the fold or be moved to a better position. The sentences fight me at every turn, refusing to stand where I want them to, turning their backs on me just when I think I have them complacent. At times the sentences break up into words, scatter about aimlessly so what once seemed cohesive becomes a jumble of bratty kids all wandering the toy aisle unattended. It’s all noise and slobbering mess and I become tempted to round them up, throw them outside and pretend I was never with them.
They demand. They want to be dressed better. They want to be more formal. They want smoother edges sometimes and other times they cry for more jagged, pointed ends. They want to be held up, prodded, lifted by the other words and then they turn around and demand to be let go, leaving everything around them floundering, drowning in a pool of adverbs and adjectives that were meant to save them, not sink them.
I try, but I just do not know what they want. They cry to me. The paragraphs, the sentences, the words. They want to be put together. They want to form a more perfect union. Then why do they fight me so? I grab them all, force them together and when one full sentence protests, I shrink it down, it loses ungainly weight as I work on it and then suddenly it cries out for that weight back and I can’t, I can’t deal with the indecisiveness anymore so the backspace key comes in, a stretcher underneath the body of the sentence, carrying the words out one at a time until it’s gone, time of death pronounce to be not a moment too soon. There’s no time to mourn, there are other words, other entire paragraphs that need the stretcher and soon they are crying, wanting to be rescued or put out of their misery.
There’s a great, big nothing here on this white page. Just a vast, hollow emptiness accompanied by the sound of snickering words laughing off camera.
I will find them. I will make them obey. They will cooperate.
But not today. Today is for polar bears in the snow.
Albeit with a subdomain.
All my serious writing, including my music stuff and 3am ramblings, will go there. Tumblr will be just for fun stuff and photos and posting songs.
I started it off by putting that National review there.
This was the domain I grew up with, blogging wise. It will always be home to me and I don’t know why I didn’t go back there sooner.
So look for me there, if you want.
(I’ll be linking to anything I write here).
I have a weird relationship with the music of The National. Most of the music grips me in places I don’t want to be touched, yet I listen over and over again, letting it not only touch me but embrace me, pull me in close and whisper in my ear. Sometimes it’s ok and I get a certain comfort from it, like somebody sitting quietly next to you, just handing you tissues as you mourn a loss. But sometimes it pushes a button and takes me to a floor I didn’t want to get off on. And I stay there. I stay on that floor with that music, with that awkward arm around me, with emotions that flood my heart and my eyes and I revel in it.
There are some albums more than others that force these feelings upon me. Boxer and Alligator both have the ability to set me on a path that usually ends in tears and a feeling like having your soul poked with a stick repeatedly.
And here is Trouble Will Find Me, an album that took just one listen to surpass both Boxer and Alligator in terms of emotions felt and fists squeezed around my heart.
Make no mistake, it’s not simply a case of lyrics hitting home. No, there’s so much more to the National and especially to Trouble Will Find Me than that. It’s in the tone, in Matt Berninger’s beautiful baritone, in the presentation and arrangement. It’s all put together in carefully constructed layers; a cake made of ingredients you find in your brain at 3am. All this beauty and sadness, all the poignancy and melancholy, crafted so precisely, so perfectly layered you can barely tell one piece of the cake from another, you just devour it without knowing which parts are which and you taste everything at once. You’re smiling, you’re crying, your heart is soaring, your heart is breaking, you want to turn off the record and never listen again and you want to listen to nothing but this forever.
So you listen. And your heart goes one way while your brain goes another. There’s a tug of war between your rational self and your emotional self, part of you just wanting to enjoy the intricate melodies, the lullaby lilt of Berninger’s singing and part of you wanting to just find someone to cling on to and hold tight while you weep and sigh and love and rage.
The best thing about Trouble Will Find Me is the best thing about most of The National’s music; each song is immediately familiar and known, a friend you didn’t know you even had until it knocked on your door and let itself into your world. You pour it a cup of tea and sit there talking about love and loss and fear and anger like you’ve been friends forever. In a way you have. Trouble Will Find Me is a culmination of all your inner thoughts and emotions come to life. That friend you’re having tea with, that song you let into your house and heart is just really a piece of you. The National are best at being familiar, at turning a mirror on you while you listen to their music so you’re never listening alone, there’s always your Demons to hang out with, there’s always the trouble that will find you, knock on your door in the form of album full of salt for your wounds and then offer you a salve for the sting.
If you are your own best friend and your own worst enemy, Trouble Will Find Me is a manifestation of self, something to listen to alone - which is really the way to listen to all of their albums. But you’re never really alone. You share this one with your demons, with your hidden skeletons, with all those 3am ghosts that hover around your bed. And you don’t mind. You don’t mind them coming out because my god, the music is beautiful and heartbreaking, music that needs to be shared, even if it’s with just the other parts of yourself that understand how a simple set of notes strung together can make you feel so much.
I’ve tried to foist The National on others to no avail. Maybe they don’t hear what I do. Maybe they don’t listen for it. Perhaps The National is one of those bands that you have to have a certain mindset to get. To someone else, maybe all the songs sound the same, maybe in a perfect world that voice and these arrangements and the low key cadence shouldn’t work. Maybe if you live in a world that has its share of cracks and sharp edges you can hear it. You can hear it in “I Should Live in Salt” and “Sea of Love” and you can feel it in “Slipped” and “This is the Last Time.” In a perfect world a band like this couldn’t pull off six albums of sounding exactly like the other albums, but in a perfect world we don’t need the comfort of songs that sound like old friends to sit with us while we mourn. In a perfect world, everything sounds like a pop song played on a car stereo on a hot summer evening, but this is not a perfect world and sometimes things need to sound like this, like the world is cracked and peeling and falling apart and the only thing that holds it together is knowing you’re not alone. So you slow dance with your demons and skeletons and ghosts while you listen to Trouble Will Find Me, knowing your cracked world is, in a way, perfect for you and whoever else finds their heart in these songs.