Illustration by Marrilee Challis
alf-a-dozen Dutch women are eagerly opening small, bright packets as they walk across the Charles Bridge. They've just purchased a homemade souvenir kit that contains a little bit of the "magic of Prague." This magic, however, outdoes any mere shell game.
Jonathan Pontell, street prestidigitator extraordinaire, sells the secret to the magic trick that has mystified thousands of Prague's denizens and visitors. His easy California sales pitch always draws gaping groups to observe his prowess, and today is no different.
This time they are Italian. He approaches them, in his ripped jeans and trademark bandana: "You all speak some English, right?" he says without really questioning, and moves casually into his routine. He's "Just another American writer in Prague" who's found a creative way to support himself.
"I am going to show you all an incredible little magic trick. For a small price, I will reveal the secret so you can go home to your own countries and amaze your family and friends... But to look is free."
In two minutes, before astonished eyes, Pontell makes one coin appear into a volunteer's closed fist and another seemingly materialize from thin air. So beguiling is the sleight-of-hand that even trail-hardened backpackers have to smile. "Suddenly," he explains, "it's like the walls are dropping."
Pontell began studying magic a few years ago and created several tricks before settling on the one that most people simply can't resist. From there it was only a question of polish, which he works on constantly, chatting with rickshaw peddlers and earring vendors. Interested spectators part with around 200 Kc a head (prices vary) for the secret to his magic. So far, customers have all gone away satisfied and last summer in the equivalent of four, four-hour workweeks, Pontell pocketed enough money to live and travel for a year.
Spectators be warned: once you've seen the demonstration, discovering the trick will instantly become a obsession. Pontell claims he's ha people approach him days after seeing him for the first time. "I've been looking for you all over town," they'll say "I've got to know the secret."
While Pontell loves to ply his trade through the streets, he uses the proceeds to support his other creative endeavors. He recently has been writing a series of essays about bohemia cultures around the world. Last winter he spent three months on the beaches of Goa, India, where English-speaking hippies have been living since the Sixties. In small Indian villages, he became known as Jadu Wallah Baba, which roughly translates as "respected guru of magic." He recalls being summoned once atop an elephant by religious man with a painted head. The sadu wanted an on-board demonstration of Pontell's talents.
"You would not believe the doores that magic can open," Pontell say the pun perhaps intended. "From free food and drink in Las Vegas to a water pipe in Glastonbury." He can take his magic almost anywhere in the world and make a living by working only a few hours a week. Now that no small trick.
This month's FIRST contributors are Omri Ben-Amos, Michelle Legge, Michael Wayne Jr., David Freeling, Radha Burgess and Anne Renahan.