Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Ricky Jay

I've been thinking a lot about Ricky Jay, who died last month. If you don't know about Jay, you absolutely need to. Start with the documentary about him, "Deceptive Practices" (free on Amazon Prime), move on to the New Yorker profile, and from there you have a world of books, films and videos to explore (as well as Jay's own web site).

You don't need my two cents about Ricky Jay. It would be ridiculous to try to sketch - to capture and circumscribe - a man who'd made an exquisite art form out of startled surprise. Lightning resists bottling. However, I will relate the most Ricky Jay-ish experience of my life. If I'd ever met Jay - alas, I did not - I'd have told him this story, and I'm certain he'd have loved it.

There was a "bookstore" in the East Village in the 80s called Harris Books. I use quotation marks because it was not, in fact, a bookstore. It was just this dude's apartment. His name was Harris, and he lived a couple floors above Kiev Restaurant on Second Avenue with his hippy British girlfriend and an autistic (or maybe I should say 'especially autistic') cat. If you rang the "Harris Books" buzzer, and he was at home, you could come up and hang out, and perhaps buy a book or two from his large-ish collection.

Harris looked a bit like Zonker, the character from the Doonesbury cartoon strip, and he was a real character. Once, I mentioned that I'd been hunting for a certain extremely obscure book. I was mostly just making conversation. The title was much too arcane to be found even in a gigantic bookstore. But as soon as its name left my mouth, he broke in and said "Look straight down." I did, and there it was. The very book.

I tallied the miracles. First, that he had the book. Second, that I was standing right in front of it. Third, that he knew that I was standing in front of it. And fourth (and perhaps most unsettlingly), while there were hundreds of volumes within my line of sight peering downward, something about his unequivocal command to "look down" made my eye lock straight onto that specific book.

Next visit, I mentioned another obscure book (different topic), whose title I'd forgotten. He asked me to describe it, I offered a vague few words, and damned if he didn't pull it straight off a shelf and hand it to me.

On the following visit, I'd planned to ask about yet another book in yet another topic, but when I arrived the title once again escaped me. "What's it about?" Harris asked. That, too, had suddenly slipped my mind. As I stood, sheepishly mute and struggling to recall, Harris walked to a shelf, pulled out a volume, and it was, somehow, that very book.

This was one of only a precious few times I've experienced a sense of heart-stopping wonder akin to the Max Malini ice block trick.

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