The Wizard of Chicago

During a recent visit to Chicago, I witnessed a high-caliber theatrical performance that was as troubling as it was thrilling. It took place in the subway, or the “L” as it’s called in Chicago—logically enough, since most tracks for most trains are “eLevated.” Subway is the wrong name.

But don’t let me confuse you with terminology. I was riding public transportation late in the evening, when a large, a very large black man entered my car, settled down cater-corner from me, and started his performance. He had a big voice and a big personality to go with his big body, and he wore a bright, a very bright Marlins shirt and matching baseball cap. The thing is, the Marlins aren’t a Chicago team—they’re based in Miami. And somehow the bright shirt from the wrong team contributed to the performance’s hypnotic power.

Let’s call the big Marlins guy "Merlin," since he was quite the wizard. Speaking loudly enough for the entire car to hear him, Merlin invited everyone to take a chance on the guessing game: “Here are three little red cups upside down, here’s me putting a little white cube under one of the cups, here’s me shifting the cups around. Take a guess, my friends! Where’s the little white cube now?”

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His performance is a con, variously called three-card monte and find-the-lady and the shell game. Merlin knows how to move the cups faster than your eyes can track them, and he knows how to cheat, and he knows how to get you to part with your money, and he knows how to get you to love him although he’s ripping you off. Needless to say, the con is illegal. It's impossible for you (aka "the mark") to win the game.

“It’s free to guess, and if you guess right I’ll give you twenty bucks! No, fifty! No, a hundred bucks, a crisp C-note! Guess it right, and it’s yours!”


A fellow sitting right next to me points at one of the cups, guesses right, and wins a hundred dollars, completely risk-free, easy easy easy! Merlin hands the fellow the money, and everyone riding that L train laughs and claps and loves every second of it. Why, how, why is Merlin just giving money to a complete stranger? Anyone can guess where the little white cube is, easy easy easy! Plus, Merlin isn’t even asking you to wager anything. Guessing is free!

The fellow who won a C-note is Merlin’s confederate. There’s another fellow who plays the game, guesses right, and wins easy easy easy—and he, too, is a confederate. The trio is extremely well rehearsed, extremely efficient, and extremely fun to watch. They are life-loving, people-loving, and Chicago-loving, and Chicago loves them back unconditionally.

After everyone is hypnotized, the real game starts, because the free rounds are over and now you have to wager to play—twenty bucks, for instance. “Bet $20 and guess right, and I pay you $20. Guess it wrong, and I keep your money.” And Merlin will keep your money, because you can’t possibly win the game.

The whole thing got me thinking about performance, persuasion, and connection. It’s tempting to consider performance the domain of the stage or screen: a theater company gives a performance, or a professional pianist gives a performance, in a specialized territory like a concert hall. In truth, we’re all performers, and we perform more or less nonstop, sometimes privately, sometimes publicly, sometimes knowingly, sometimes blindly. Waiting in line at the airport security check, you perform your take on the harried traveler, or the victim, or the stoic hero, or the rebel, or the cynic, or the . . . well, you get it. To live is to perform.

Merlin and his co-conspirators are trained professionals: they make their living performing. And to perform is to persuade, which involves the suspension of disbelief. Merlin made all of us, or many of us, or some of us, forget that he was a con and a thief and a cheat and a liar. We believed he was a wonderful human being, heaven-sent to elevate our moods with his booming voice, his bright shirt, and his generosity: “Take my money!”


You watch a movie, and if the movie is any good you forget it’s a movie (pixels on a screen, “people who don’t exist doing things that never happened”) and you get carried away, identifying with the actors who play fictional characters and their struggles. Then it’s your turn: you perform for your wife, persuading her that you never, ever said that needling little remark that so irked her. She’ll believe you, or not. Good luck with the performance!

Why are we willing to be persuaded by performances, authentic or misleading? We want to believe in something, and we want to be part of something—that is, we want to connect. Merlin brought us together, gave us the feeling that we were privileged and special because he loved us and he was big and wore a bright shirt and embodied the spirit of storytelling and of play and of generosity. These are good things to believe in when they are true. But we’re willing to believe them also when they aren’t true, too, because . . . because without belief there isn’t life. The word “belief” comes from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning “to care, love, desire.”

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The L reached my destination before anyone lost money to Merlin’s big lying heart, but it was such a clever performance that I, too, would have lost twenty bucks willingly. As for losing a hundred bucks willingly, or a thousand, or five thousand . . . suspension of disbelief can be expensive. I’m glad I got off the train.

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©2018, Pedro de Alcantara