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I first met Mort at the Bellmore Cafeteria on Broadway in New York City. On Saturday afternoons it was the place where magicians congregated to entertain and amaze one another, socialize, and show and tell; just about everything but eat. Mort loved to eat and made an unabashed ritual of it during the week when he gathered at one of the other, more formal magical meeting places for luncheon. He would open his suit jacket and tuck one of Rosoff's large linen napkins behind his shirt collar, straighten the square over his large mid section and ask what kind of soup was being served today to start with.
But on this Saturday afternoon Mort was not eating. He was otherwise engaged in demonstrating a piece of magic to a small group of magi, whose rapt attentions were focused on a couple of coins which Mort kept dropping as they slipped through his chubby fingers. At first, going by the little coterie, I mistook Mort for one of the senior sleighters who appeared from time to time on Saturdays, like memory maven Harry Lorayne or young David Roth, but it soon became clear that Mort, although he desperately tried to battle his way through "moves" and manipulations was, despite his ring, no master magician. (I asked him where he got his master magician's ring... he said he bought it for himself.) Essentially he was a collector, a lover of magic and magical apparatus, or as he called it, the affus-gaffus.
My curiosity led me to ask Mort what he had there, and thus began a lengthy friendship during which I don't think I ever witnessed Morty perform an... "effect" without a fumble. But his ungainly finger flicking afforded me more spasms of laughter than anyone before or since.
I recall him walking down the aisle at the Hunter College auditorium with his extremely tall and lovely girlfriend Lynn. It reminded me of Mort donning the Rosoff's napkin... and of his attempts at manipulating a complicated "affus-gaffus." He was in charge, never mind appearances. Everyone smiled and greeted him. He was an integral part of his surroundings, although I certainly knew he was not the night's recipient of the Star of Magic Award! But everyone knew Mort. And he, slowly negotiating the center aisle, smiled at everyone on both sides.
Lynn was regal and stately, Mort, not quite. But they laughed together and fit together and enjoyed each other. They seemed to come from an adult mystery-world of romance, late nights, expensive dinners, nightclubs and country weekends. Mort and Lynn seemed to be forever emerging from the good life, sharing intimate thoughts and sharing each other. With his gold, diamond-topped pinky ring prominently in view as he was on the verge of a performance (a miracle, in Mort's words), or with Lynn on his arm, Mort appeared the quintessence of class and magic... during the time I knew him.
One afternoon Morty invited me up to his east side apartment. He turned on the fountain that he had bought, he said, for Lynn before their break-up, and led me into his room. As the water spouted through the pink and green lights (or was it the pink and green lights which illuminated the jets of water?) Mort treated me to a look at dozens and dozens of unopened pieces of close-up magic. Gawking in disbelief and wonder, I saw marvelous effects from all over the world, from the best and most exclusive manufacturers of magic: coins, cards, boxes, silks, dice, brass, copper, silver, mechanisms and assorted affus-gaffus. But they were all unopened. Some in see-through packages, some still sealed in mystery enshrouded brown envelopes, some boxed with gold and black printed labels, official and precise.
"You've not opened any of these," I said.
"I opened a few, not too many," said Mort.
"And what are you waiting for?
"Someday," said Mort, "when I am old and infirm I'll lie back on this bed and open all the packages and amuse myself." He said he couldn't wait.
Weekends for me were taken up with jaunts out of town and a thinner city life, but in time I had become inured of the tired colors of autumn leaf viewing. Country antiquing over the years had become less than novel and I missed the old urban magic... and some of the magicians.
I had lost track of Mort for some time and imagined that one day I would magically appear at the old cafeteria for a joyful reunion with all the boys, especially hoping to run into Mort. On an overcast weekend afternoon when I did show up, peering through the little clumps of people gathered at the back tables, I did not espy my old friend fumbling with slippery decks or trying to recover rolling gaffed coins from beneath a performing surface. I couldn't find him. In fact I could find no one I remembered. Mort, they asked? Mort who?
It was at the magic shop, months later, that I recognized one of Mort's pieces in a blue velvet box. It was one of those strange and contrived bits of magical mystery wherein linen napkins glide through golden napkin rings and are transformed into colorful silks. It was unused and judging by the complicated set of instructions that accompanied the effect it would probably never be used. But it had passed from Mort's estate into the magic shop and of course I bought it.
I sometimes think of the time Mort was showing off a new miracle he had recently attempted to learn which required a delicate double-lifting of the top two cards. With very little subtlety, Mort wet his thumb repeatedly as he brushed it across his tongue, and then proceeded to drop all the cards as the lift failed. Observing this as perhaps the worst, most audacious and inept kind of misdirection possible, I began to laugh uncontrollably. And knowing it was more than misdirection, indeed the end of a failed sleight as well as a performance, Mort shook with laughter as well. In fact, the two of us convulsed for longer than the effect could have lasted. And then one elderly onlooker who had been gazing intently at Mort's manipulation said: "You know, that was a shitty trick!"
I never performed the napkin ring effect... Somehow I never got around to opening it. I just look at the blue velvet box when I pass the case it rests in and think of the magic.
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