This Magic Moment

In familiar, stoic poses, the Duke hangs purposefully among framed moments of bronco busting, ranch landscapes, and flyers publicizing an event called "Bill Williams Steak Fry and Dance." Juke-spewed country and classic rock thump through the lounge's dim light and blue curls of cigarette smoke. Men in uniforms chase balls around on numerous TV screens.

And smiling down, almost voodooesque in this cowboy-ready element, is a Pee-wee Herman doll pinned up over a dollar bill behind the bar. It is late on a Sunday night and we are in a northwest side bar called My Old Man's. The lounge sits smack in the middle of an amorphous strip mall alongside the usual pizza, gym and video rental chain outlets. We are here because we saw the place from the road and came in.

Hurling darts, pushing billiard cues or sitting along the L-shaped bar are a dozen or so drinkers, dressed unfashionably comfortable or work-week weary. Readily fueling grim a.m. hangovers, the gathering seems in cheery denial of the new work week beginning on the morrow.

Spats from an enraged couple rise and fall from a corner table. Their vain attempts at resolving infidelity issues are fueled by a considerable cocktail intake, and we half expect one to break a beer bottle and stab the other, maybe into something esophageal or the face.

Says the woman: "You're guilty, don't deny you did her. And it is not about us!"

The man says: "I didn't do anything! How can you say that, babe?"
"Don't 'babe' me, jerk. It's what you always lie about. Liar!"
Later, the broad-shouldered man stands up and huffs out the front door. The woman sheepishly follows, her face swollen and damp. Then together they return, sit down and repeat the skit. Though the second time through there's a different ending. They don't come back in, and we don't see either of them the rest of the night.

The barkeep brings more drinks around. His movements are smooth and graceful and he uncaps and mixes with confidence. His voice has the friendly rustle of dry leaves.

The barkeep's name is Dick Robinson. Tricky Dicky is the name inscribed on the top of his business card--a card that includes a phone number and an eerie illustration of a shamanic skeleton in a tux with a cigarette in one hand and a top hat in the other. Below the fleshless cadaver are some tiny roses and the words "Tragic Magic."

Dick Robinson and Tricky Dicky are the same guy, a skilled, sleight-of-hand tapster.

Robinson has slightly receding gray hair, some of which is pulled back into a small ponytail. He sports a handlebar mustache on a rugged but affable face, a slender build, and he wears a studded belt over tight jeans. He looks old enough to have been shagging girls by the White Album but puerile enough to still get them. He's part Pee-wee, part Duke.

With his long fingers, he takes a fiver from our hands and jabs a ballpoint pen clearly through the bill. He shows us up close. He pulls the pen out and hands the cash back. Upon inspection we find no holes.

Next he takes a salt container and pours salt into his palm, then into a rolled bill and shakes it up. He then unfolds the bill--the salt seems to have disappeared--and brings it to our ear. We can hear the salt swish around like it is inside the bill. He brings the bill back over the bar and the salt somehow falls from within it.

Robinson was born 46 years ago in Phoenix, a city in which he has remained his entire life. Robinson says his grandfather was a violinist who could make his instrument talk in a way that was like magic. From then on, young Robinson was smitten with the unexplainable. At the age of 6, he started ordering magic tricks from the back of such comic books as Batman and Dick Tracy.

"I did magic shows for my mom and dad when they had parties when I was a kid," he recalls while quickly flipping full drinks over and not spilling a drop. Others try the same maneuver and squander perfectly good booze all over themselves and the bar. "Back then the tricks cost a quarter, now they're like 25 bucks!"

Robinson met his wife three decades ago, and married her just after her 16th birthday. He was all of 17.

"We had to have a judge sign for us to get married because we were so young. And I am still with her. We are still together. I have one of a kind. If I lose her, I lose my halo, if you know what I mean. We have been married for 30 years."

In a curious, conjugal parallel, he's been working in bars for about the same length of time.

"At 15 years old, I was a barback at Neptune's East in Scottsdale. It's not there anymore. It was a classy place. I started tending bar there at 17 years old," he says laughing. "And they knew how old I was. And I used to have real long hair, so I wore a short-haired wig when I tended bar."

A deck of cards appears in Robinson's hand. He shuffles them and has us choose one, look at it, and return it to the deck. We do. He sets the deck against a Bud bottle, instructing us to watch closely. Our card rises up from somewhere in the middle of the deck.

"That is the most amazing card trick you'll ever see," he says.
Others are impressed, and the tips come forth.
"It's the magic of the booze," someone says.

Aside from the legerdemain dispensed free of charge at My Old Man's, and the recent loss to thieves of nearly 40 years of his collected magic supplies, some of which belonged to his grandfather, Robinson generally pulls off one magic show a week for kids and adults.

"I'd rather do shows for adults because my magic is more towards adults than it is kids. I use a lot of blood. I do the needle and knife through my arm. Arm amputation. I cut off my whole left arm. There's lots of blood. I do sleight-of-hand tricks; I do coin tricks and card tricks. Though, since my stuff was stolen, I haven't done much. I only have replaced about one third of the stuff that was stolen.

"The tricks I'm doing here I have been doing behind the bar for almost 30 years. People find those amazing. They are really simple; I can do them very fast, and it doesn't take a lot of setup. They are just easy to do behind the bar."

A bearded drunk, perhaps 50 years old with a big red nose and white hair, is passed out at the bar, though his slightly swaying head miraculously stays perpendicular. Robinson arranges a number of dirty drink glasses from an earlier crowd in front of him.

The drunk wakes up, opens his eyes, and shakes the sleep from his head.
"Shit," he says lightly, staring at the unwashed tumblers in front of him.
"Looks like you could use another drink," Robinson says to the drunk, sparking laughs.

Robinson moves over to the coffee maker, pours a thick cupful and sets it down in front of the drunk. Steam rises from the dark liquid.

"God bless you, Dick," the drunk slurs. He lifts what he obviously assumes is a boozy blend, and takes a gulp. Suddenly his face turns pale.

He coughs. "This stuff's awful!"
Not two minutes later, the drunk's eyes shut again, his chin drops to rest on the top of his chest and he lets out a deep, throaty snore.

He's out.
There's some kind of magic in that. And late on Sunday night, we could think of worse places to be. A fresh round of beers appears in front of us. The clock reads 12:45.

Some kind of magic, all right.