He sits cross-legged on the sidewalk, top hat upturned in front of him, same as the day before and the years before that. Oblivious to the human surge racing across the intersection at every light change. His craggy, lived-in face and robin’s nest beard blend him into the Midtown streetscape.
A lycra-clad jogger bounds down the sidewalk, almost kicking the hat with her neon cross-trainers. He brushes a graying string of hair from his face. His eyes never waver from that damned hat.
The swell begins to subside. The lunch hour reaches its waning minutes.
A gleeful young girl totters up to him, a dollar bill clenched in her miniature fists, pigtails and purple ribbons bouncing with each step. She carefully places the bill into the hat, squealing with delight as she scurries back to her waiting mother.
He removes the dollar and drops it through the sewer grate beside him, a rote response at this point. She misunderstood. He blames the hat.
He cracks his knuckles. Takes a breath. It’s time. He closes his eyes, reaches inside the hat, and feels the frayed silk edges. He sighs. Leaning forward, he glances into it, just to make sure. He sees the worn-out insides of an empty, black, top hat.
He’ll try again in a few minutes. When the time is right.
There had been a time, a right time. It had not felt different in the moment. But it had been different. He had attempted to recreate that moment. In similar locations. Under near-identical circumstances. With friends as stand-ins. Until the friends dwindled and he was the only one left trying, and his favorite cloak became his only cloak, and his home became the street corner.
He had been there, in that room full of flailing four-year olds; couches pushed aside to give the magician room to do his tricks. The birthday girl in her frilly pink tutu and plastic tiara. The mothers watching, waiting, drinking. And the lone father recording the festivities on his flip-phone, scarfing down a cheeseburger with his free hand.
And finally, a gift for the birthday girl.
He reaches inside the top hat, as he has countless times before. A simple deception.
The birthday girl approaches, giggling, rosy-cheeked.
Happy Birthday, Sarah!
A king cobra hisses and writhes in his hand. The birthday girl screams. The four-year olds scream. The mothers scream. The father tries to scream, but chokes on an unmasticated piece of cheeseburger patty.
He drops the cobra. The frightened creature slithers towards the wailing birthday girl and bites her on the ankle.
The other frightened creature runs out of the house and dives into the beat-up van he calls The Magic Bus. He stays there for the next hour, crying in the driver’s seat, trying to make sense of the day’s events. After that long and tearful deliberation, he comes to a verdict: it was the hat’s fault.
King cobras aren’t even indigenous to New Jersey, he will later explain (to the police). And why would he have brought a king cobra to a child’s birthday party? What kind of a monster do they think he is? The worst kind.
He shows them his jacket pocket, the white rabbit hidden inside, ready to be conjured. Her name is Mathilde. The cops refuse to pet Mathilde. He feeds her a baby carrot. The trick was to pull a rabbit from a hat. Instead, he pulled out a king cobra. He swears it was magic. He blames the hat.
After six months in jail, he finally tastes freedom. It takes a lot like Hoboken. He learns that his final performance as a magician was performed six months ago. He also learns that he is being sued for sixty thousand dollars. He wants to stop learning things. He blames the hat.
The evening breeze carries a chill. The lunch hour long past. Shadows stretch across 49th Street. He has a long walk ahead of him to the shelter. But there’s time for one last attempt.
He cracks his knuckles, takes a breath — and reaches into the empty hat. Not even thinking about it, really. He’s still remembering the birthday party, and the six months in jail. He feels a prick on his fingertip. Shooting pain.
He removes a thorny rose from the hat. Vibrant and red. The kind you would see in a Valentine’s Day commercial. He admires it for a moment. Floral perfection. Conjured out of thin air. But it’s not a king cobra. So he tosses the rose into the gutter and waits to try again. Maybe, this time, he’ll finally get it right.