Articles by Ben Robinson
THE MEANING OF MEANINGLESSNESS
by Ben Robinson
Edited by David Groves
originally published in Shakespeare’s Email
New York City–September 25, 2001
Send in the clowns.
On Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001 at 8:30am, I was in a company office at 38th Street and 8th Avenue discussing a show that would be attended by New York State Governor Pataki on Wednesday morning, September 12. I was confidently rebutting a hardball condition that had been handed to me on Monday afternoon.
At 8:45am, my cell phone rang and my wife, not two miles from the World Trade Center said, “A plane has just crashed into the World Trade Center.”
A terrible business morning just became much worse. I thought that only a small, two-seater launched from Staten Island could get so close as to commit a suicidal act. Then, 30 seconds after I ended my call, all hell broke loose in our discussion. I stood up, told the company that I considered our discussion over and ran for the door to get to my wife, 6 blocks away. I arrived at her office on the 22nd floor of 37th Street and 5th Avenue essentially in time to see the second plane hitting the second tower, and later, the horrific collapse of both towers.
Then the news came through that the Pentagon had been hit and several other planes were hijacked and unaccounted for.“
We’re going home,” said my wife. “I’m worried about Stubby.” Stubby is our parrot.Walking home, we didn’t say much. We felt like we were going to die. We were two among thousands who streamed lower Third Avenue near our house. Others walked up Third Avenue dazed, covered in dust and panic stricken. The subways were down and the overcrowded buses, hardly moving in gridlock.
Once home, we each packed one bag and a travel carrier for our pet parrot. Our gunny sack was filled with bottled water, medicine, a change of clothing and a few valuables. We pondered whether or not to try to leave Manhattan.
Over the next hours and days, Manhattan became a locked box. All bridges and tunnels closed. Nothing moving in. Little allowed out. The phones were down. We worried about friends.
I suddenly exclaimed “Oh my god — Rebecca!”
We had a special concern for a violinist I had just gigged with in Central Park at the band shell who lives within spitting distance of the twin towers.
Luckily, the brilliant Ms. Moore grabbed her cat, violin, and fled her apartment on foot after she witnessed the first plane hitting.
Amidst falling debris and the unforgettable hellish smoke and fire, she made her way to Little Italy to a friend’s house. (Rebecca composed and played music in a new documentary called TREE SIT, about the fight against loggers in California.) As a full-time professional magician I do many shows and I travel a lot; carry a lot of stuff and my back pretty much always hurts. I have a tough time with props I try to bring on board airplanes anyway, so the tragic events only complicate matters.
However, do not mistake this for a complaint. Once, traveling from a week of street performing in Holland, I was held at the gate of Northwest Airlines in Amsterdam for attempting to bring a prop knife on the plane. Not only was my prop taken from me, but also never arrived in New York.I’m all for security, but the lack of it has now led to thousands dead. I feel that the airlines ought to be run by the Feds.It’s more important that the magician rather than theprops make it to the gig anyway. So here’s one effect of this tragedy for all magicians worldwide: Forget your props and learn to do magic that can be done anywhere with anything. Now you know how Malini was able to travel the world so easily.
On Friday, September 14, I was booked to do a school assembly at The St. Bernard’s School at 98th Street and Fifth Avenue. St. Bernard’s was the only school in Manhattan to remain open on Wednesday, September 12th.
On Thursday, September 13th I met with their assembly director and told him that I was prepared to continue with my scheduled performance and provide, as magicians had for centuries, relief from the real world with indications of magic.
While waiting for the people in charge, I did magic in their reception office. While watching the magic, one woman fell against a wall, almost in tears, thanking me for coming.
“You’re a blessing,” she said. “The boys will love you.
”After all, for the last two days, all anybody had thought about was this unspeakable act of violence.
On Friday morning, September 14th, I had planned to pick up Rebecca (whom we relocated to live at my rehearsal studio) at 7:30am. Our load-in at St. Bernard’s was set for 8am for an 8:50am start. Even without the added chaos of being in Manhattan at this terrible time, we were cutting it close. On top of all this, it was raining fiercely that morning. Luck was with us and we were able to get cabs to and from the gig with relative ease.
I will remember the show at St. Bernard’s as one of the most emotional experiences of my life. I have been a marginal victim of a Shiite Muslim terrorist blast in Paris (1986), and I have seen an avalanche kill six of an Everest expedition in the Himalaya in 1989. However, neither wrought the type of gut-wrenching emotion I felt backstage when 500 little boys (attired in their jackets and ties) sang “America the Beautiful” prior to my presentation. Rebecca mournfully looked on as I wept, my tears soaking my bow tie.
Rebecca Moore floats in a New York rehearsal on Swing Street.
St. Bernard’s School photos by Rebecca Moore
The Headmaster introduced me. “Laughter is powerful medicine,” he said, “and today we have a gentleman who I am sure will be able to provide that and much more. Please welcome Ben Robinson!”
I came on. Standing onstage, looking out at the sea of little faces, I had a silent moment of revelation. These were kids who rightfully did not understand why everything was now different. These were kids who did not deserve to live in the shadow of this tragedy. Why was this shadow cast over them?
Come to think of it, does anyone really understand this incalculable selfishness and horror?
The audience was very ready to be entertained, and why not? When swimming in a sea of sewage, magic is even more magical. This is what I have always contended.
If people who call themselves magicians would do their homework to glean an understanding of “real magic,” our audiences would feel more satisfied. They come to us looking for wonder, and mockery of miracles doesn’t fill the bill. You have to actually take a spoonful of the metaphysical for sustenance in order to deliver it. Tearing out the secret to illusion is mere cynicism; creating wonder is the work of poets.
I finished the St.Bernard’s show and was thanked by the Headmaster onstage. The kids and faculty had a fine time. For a brief 35 minutes, we all played the game of wonder working and laughs were abundant.
The following day, Saturday September 15th, I traveled to Long Island to perform for one hour at an extremely wealthy country club. There the people could not be bothered by “some real estate accident” as long as their assets were intact.
I was hassled by the kids, and the parents smiled their fake smiles while the booker hassled me. I nearly walked. I was astounded by the pettiness of these people, and their attitudes made me sick to my stomach.
On Sunday, September 16th, back in Manhattan I asked my wife to take a walk with me in Central Park. We were getting cabin fever and while gun shy of being in a crowd-filled center of Manhattan, the weather was hard to resist and we thought to attempt some normalcy.
Two street performers caught my eye. One acrobat was turning backflips on the steps near Bethesda Fountain at 72nd Street and received the cheers and applause of roughly a thousand people seated and standing around him while his partner worked the crowd for tips with a bucket.
Toward the children’s zoo in the upper 60s, we caught the tail end of a performer about to shirk off a strait jacket. He concluded his show by shouting, “If you liked my show, my name is Abraham. If you didn’t, it’s Abdul.” The crowd winced and didn’t leave many tips. The anything-goes attitude of street entertaining crumbled and this performer blew it at the end with unthinking moxie.
I normally feature some card magic that involves a minor weapon, and I shared this wonder with my good friend, Atlanta’s busiest magician, Howie the Great. On Saturday night (the 15th), Howie and I were both doing close-up at parties in Atlanta and New York. I featured the trick and so did Howie, and at nearly the same time we called each other’s cell phones.
“Yo Ben,” I heard on voicemail sometime later, “Howie here. I’m at a gig and I wonder if you think the Christopher magic is appropriate. Hit me back.”
Each of us asked if the other thought the prop was offensive given the world events. Neither audience objected. Yet, now my old prop was a creative risk whereas it used to be just cartoon drama. I can no longer take this prop with me in my day bag into museums where bags are now checked.
One abhorrent note: the DJ at Howie’s gig yelled into the microphone as people were dancing, “We’re gonna party like we’re on the top of the World Trade Center!
”Howie passed this ignoramus a note and told him there were people at the party who had lost friends in the attack, and he should cool his comments.
At my gig, all I had to deal with was some self-important jerk, and his unthinking pettiness. Howie also mentioned to me that he felt the work of good performing magicians will ascend to positive heights. People who mock the idea of magic are doomed to damning hope, and that isn’t the job of wonder working. Think about it.
In my mind, the following two quotes apply to our situation. My teacher, Milbourne Christopher, said in a 1974 interview for a Pushpin Studios publication (for the advertising industry):
Magic is more popular now than at any time in the last couple of decades. Magic always does better in times of disturbance and upheaval.
And from Jonathan Franzen in the black-covered New Yorker magazine (p. 29) dated September 24:
The challenge in the old world, the ’90s world of Bill Clinton, was to remember that, behind the prosperity and complacency, death was waiting and entire countries hated us. The problem of the new world, the zeroes world of George Bush, will be to reassert the ordinary, the trivial, and even the ridiculous in the face of instability and dread: to mourn the dead and then try to awaken to our small humanities and our pleasurable daily nothing-much.
We now live in a time when all rules have changed. Freedoms we once enjoyed will necessarily be rescinded. The no-rules atmosphere of cyberspace has created the means by which criminals fight for their selfish end with credit cards, airplane tickets, American and Israeli flight training, Internet access, and the will to die for an unstated cause or belief.
May the tools and practices of the magician aid the innocent to enjoy the bountiful experience of peaceful co-existence.
Howie the Great breathing fire in Atlanta, GA