Some magicians work on stages and some in parlors or on platforms. Some perform at trade shows or theme parks, and others at parties. And then there are those who work the streets or have gigs in restaurants. To all of these venues I would like to add a heretofore lesser-known category at which I used to excel. It’s called Cafeteria Magic.
For the ten years that I was the principal of an upper elementary school, the cafeteria was where I honed my chops, rather than consuming them. Then again, we never served chops of any kind. In fact, for a long time we rarely served dishes that might fall under the category of food in general. At least that’s what the kids would have said. We did offer what the students called "Hockey Puck Hamburgers," oven baked chicken “Mc-No-Guts,” “Mystery Meat Sandwiches,” and as mandated by governing bodies, fruit and vegetables that the students dumped in the trash bins literally before finding a seat at a table.
The tables themselves were long with double-sided benches that could accommodate roughly twenty fourth and fifth grade students (depending on how well they compensated for school lunches by eating what one kid called “realfast food” for meals at home). And then we also had a few smaller tables for the "peanut free" kids and their friends.
Now, lunch in an elementary school cafeteria is a lively affair. Lively, of course, is most often a euphemism for what might better be termed controlled anarchy. As any elementary school principal can tell you, there are certain times of day when “control” has a relative meaning. Arrivals, dismissals, lunch, and recess all have the potential to create situations and conflicts that lead to hours of investigation, interrogation, conversation, and consternation. And that doesn't even include the contacts with parents, which often transitioned from communication to frustration, often resulting in feelings of indignation. (By the way, indigestion, which doesn’t fit neatly into the preceding sentence, was, nonetheless, a factor as well.)
However, despite my limited talent as a magician, my propensity to “do a few tricks” led to a reputation that proved to be a highly effective tool for what was technically called “student management,” another euphemistic way of saying I could soothe the wild beasts and like the poets, render order unto chaos. (I should add that being “The Principal” helped enormously, as I often heard students mutter as I entered the room, “Cool it! It’s the principal!”)
Still, despite the authority of my position, a few coins, a deck of cards, or even a pad of paper, proved to be my best friends. A simple effect, no matter how easy or challenging, calmed even the angriest and/or saddest kids in the school. It was remarkable how effective magic was and frankly, how satisfying it was to have an adoring audience. (By the way, this is not hyperbole. When I brought out a deck of cards at home or at a party, I could clear the room and send guests running for the coat closet in a matter of minutes.) But the kids couldn't get enough of it. They literally begged me to show them something, and so I worked the room for several periods a day, keeping them distracted and entertained. The kids were happy, I was happy, and the lunchroom monitors were ecstatic. (By the way, any magician considering this type of work should know that tipping is prohibited.)
The menu item one particularly memorable day in May, was tacos, which surprisingly, was a favorite among the students. It consistent of your standard precooked taco shell filled with a not so heaping spoonful of beef and sauce, with optional shredded lettuce and cheese. Also, I should point out that our school was located in a suburb of New York City, so this menu item would never be mistaken for authentic Mexican cuisine. But as I said, the kids loved it and the lines in the cafeteria on taco days were always long.
I don't remember specifically which routines I had prepared for that day, but I do remember it involved a deck of cards. I think this was during my Harry Lorayne phase when I voraciously consumed anything Harry wrote (I still go back frequently), and practiced my HaLo cut, miscellaneous counts, sundry sleights, and his published routines and effects whenever I could. Indeed, I spent many a night alone at the kitchen table, building my skills and knowledge, thinking about misdirection and patter, knowing I could take whatever I was working on for a test drive the following day.
By the time I got to a table containing a group of fifth grade boys I was feeling pretty confident in my ability to perform a few effects that would keep them distracted because it was an especially hot day in May and they had just come in from recess. (Yes, we did recess first because after sitting in classrooms all morning, the last thing kids wanted to do was sit some more and “behave”in a hot cafeteria.) So here I was making the rounds, telling my silly jokes and doing card stunts and tricks that seemed to be a big success. They say nothing draws a crowd like a crowd, and I remember feeling surrounded and enjoying the fact that what I was doing was angle-proof.
Oohs, and ahs, and the frequent “I know you how you did that” (when they didn't have a clue) followed each effect and I knew from experience that things were going exceedingly well. I remember feeling like a million bucks, until I looked across the table at a boy named Larry. He was one of the good guys, never any trouble and a pretty good student too boot. But the expression on Larry’s face was unlike any of the boys next to and behind him. In fact, he was crying.
Tears streamed down Larry’s cheeks and I debated how to help him without making him feel embarrassed. But only for a moment, because it was just a fraction of a second later that I noticed that he was turning blue. Put simply, he was choking and I raced to the other side of the table and lifted him from his seat. Though I had never in reality done the Heimlich maneuver, my training kicked in. I gave him a whack on the back and then put Larry in a bear hug of sorts, and pressed hard on his diaphragm.
The cafeteria got remarkably quiet at least as far as I can remember, because time seemed to stand still. I compressed his body at least three times, with the faces of a stunned group of kids all around the cafeteria coming to the realization that this was neither a joke nor a trick.
Maybe I told someone to go get the nurse, and I’m sure I prayed like crazy. Larry was limp in my arms and sweat was pouring from every gland in my body. And though I could not see his face from behind, I knew from the faces of the children that were watching, that his lack of oxygen was rapidly taking a toll. I don’t believe I’ve ever been more frightened in all my life.
I wouldn’t describe what happened next as an act of God, though many might argue that it was. But suddenly, on one of those compressions of Larry’s diaphragm, a piece of a taco shell was ejected from his throat, a piece surprising small considering how effectively it had blocked his wind pipe. Nonetheless, that shard went airborne and Larry, and I, started breathing again.
I do remember the kids all cheering (except for the boy who had the taco shell piece land on his food tray). And I remember trembling all over and trying hard to smile and be reassuring to my stunned and terrified audience.
When lunch was over I staggered back to my office. It was, to say the least, a most memorable day in the life of a cafeteria magician. And though I said with tongue in cheek earlier in this article that there was no tipping in this venue, you might say I received the tip of a lifetime. Look, I know I’m not the best magician in the world, or the best principal that ever ran a school, but I can honestly say that I know from that experience what it feels like to perform real magic.
Previously published in The Linking Ring