by: Joseph Erbentraut
“We have an unusual assignment we’re looking to fill.”
It was the throes of the Great Recession of 2008 — as I will explain to my cats’ children and their children someday — when I delved into my first Chicago-based, post-graduation occupation: The temporary employee.
Hardly a glamourous gig, my work to date had consisted of the mundane — making copies, three-hole punching those copies, putting those copies into binders in one case, data entry in another. But the tone in my agency liaison Julie’s voice in the aforementioned sentence suggested something better lie ahead in my next assignment — Did you catch that? She said “unusual!” — or at least, perhaps, something other than spending hours standing in front of a Xerox machine once again.
“I’m all ears,” I said. My day to that 3 p.m. Thursday moment had mostly consisted of responding to Craigslist job postings, eating a Lean Pocket and yelling at the TV screen during Let’s Make A Deal reruns.
“Well, this is a bit more physical than most of our assignments,” she continued. “And there’s a magical element.”
I thought she was just trying to sell me on something diabolical at worst, painfully monotonous at best.
“Oh Sarah, all the assignments I’ve gone on for Lakewood Staffing have been magical in their own way. What time do you need me there?” I asked desperately — rent was due in four days and I had $50 in my checking account.
“Well, when I say magic, I really mean magic,” Sarah said.
“Have you ever seen a magic show?”
8.a.m. Monday, three days later, I found myself at the Midwest Water And Water-Related Products Expo at the McCormick Center just south of Chicago’s South Loop.
I nervously adjusted one of the two ties I owned – on Monday, I wore the grey one. I had just spoken with Michael, the magician, on my cell phone and he was en route to the convention center’s lobby to commence the magic training, I presumed.
Instead of being told to arrive armed with items such as candles or decks of marked cards, my pre-assignment instructions had been simple: I was to look, talk and walk the part of a Midwest-area water services professional working in some sort of liquid-related area such as pumping, drainage, flow or any combination of the above.
“Hello, Joseph? I’m Michael!” said the red-faced, medium-height magic maker as he approached me.
We headed upstairs to the main floor of the water expo and was led to Fool-Proof Flow’s booth in the middle of a massive grey-walled, grey-ceilinged airplane hangar-like room. The booth was outfitted with purple “Let’s Make Magic!” signs and multiple exhibits of various tubes, shoots and drains. As we walked along, Michael explained that he was from Salt Lake City, had eight adopted children and a “beautiful, beautiful” wife.
“You should see the way she just glows!” Michael noted.
A twenty-something woman with long, straight brown hair, too-perfect bangs and wearing a gradients-of-grey ensemble stood in the booth, looking somewhat uncomfortable surrounded by a half-dozen or so swarmy, car dealer-looking middle-aged men wearing ill-fitting navy blue and grey suits.
“Joseph, this is Carly,” Michael the magic man said as he introduced me to the woman. We shook hands. “You two are both journalism majors, right? Look, already something in common!”
“Actually, I did my undergrad in comp lit,” Carly clarified. “And I’m in an English grad program now. I’d like to teach.”
“Ah, right, right,” Michael said, with disinterest as he dug through a box of items he was keeping behind a black curtain in the booth. Carly could have said she was majoring in training monkey astronauts and the magician, who looked more and more like an overripe yellow tomato the more I looked at him, probably wouldn’t have reacted any differently.
Michael pulled out a pair of handcuffs and two identical black watches from the box. “So, do you two believe in magic?”
Later that day, I held my breath inside a large, velvet navy blue sack, with my arms handcuffed behind me, inside a slightly larger box. The sack smelled faintly of cat piss and solitude.
Over the course of that week, I’d find myself here seven times each day. How it worked went something like this: Each hour, on the hour, I’d do my best wandering act through the other convention booths back to Fool-Proof ground zero, usually just in time to be randomly chosen through a totally fixed little game of pick-a-card-any-card-will-do.
Then, I’d head to the stage wearing a varying shade of chagrin across my face each time. I’d offer a different name each time: Alex, Victor, Ralph, Hector.
Then, I’d be “hypnotized” as the magic man dangled a tiny piece of clear plastic on a string inches from my face.
“You’re getting sleepy, very, very sleepy. Verrrrrry sleeee-EEEEEE-ppppyyyy.”
That last one, he’d always turn to the audience, wink and point in a “Look at this guy!” sort of way. Each time, the onlookers would laugh. I knew this after Julie and I reviewed the cell phone videos we’d discreetly recorded of each others’ performances.
Next, he’d remove my belt, watch and untuck my shirt. For what purpose these tricks served, I would never know. This is where the identical belts and identical watches I was given on the start of each bizarre work day came in. I was to replace the missing accessories and re-tuck my shirt while inside the box.
“Are you noticing any of this, Victor?”
“Can you feel that, Alex?”
“I’m surprised you’re still standing, Hector!”
‘I’m surprised you’re employed,’ I’d think, in response.
Back to that box for the fourth — or was it the tenth? — time, I could hear Michael telling the small audience of onlookers.
“Our volunteer is trapped inside currently. He is locked inside and may never be able to find his way out,” he said.
That was my cue — to unlock the trick handcuffs, to crawl through the hole of the bottom of my body bag and get ready and to locate the hinge on the trapdoor at the top of the box.
Magical Michael is standing on top of the box now.
“And now, before your very eyes, I will free our volunteer — by trading places with him.”
Michael taps his foot twice after he pulled up a four-sided tarp contraption around the box to obscure from view his drop into the box and my climb onto it. As we meet halfway, his sweaty belly slaps me in the face, each time. I consider whether my per-hour paycheck for this humiliating gig would reappear if I happened to somehow disappear before the next show, each time.
Ta dah! No longer trapped, my ascent is met with tepid applause that grows increasing tepid by the weeklong conference’s end. After all, there are only so many Midwestern water product companies to go around and several onlookers have seen the shows multiple times.
By Friday morning, my performance began to receive a number of eye rolls from actual conference-goers. A few of the McCormick Place staff took to calling me “Box Boy” — one of them asked me if I’d divulge the ins and outs of how its done.
Of course, out of respect to the art form, I refused.
“Did you ever think that one day you might be a magician’s assistant?” I asked Carly on Friday, our last day of service. Carly’s every-hour-on-the-hour trick was the rectangular box on wheels sawed into tiny pieces bit. Every time Carly did the show, she was asked to take off her calf-high grey leather boots which, every time, Michael called her “elf boots.”
“No, not exactly,” she said, between bites of the $8 piece of Connie’s Pizza that both she and I had bought to lunch on while sitting at the floor on the opposite side of the conference floor from Fool-Proof Floors’ booth. “I guess it’s just a sign of the times.”
If this gig were referenced by road signs, they would forewarn “Degradation Ahead” or “Caution: Unemployed Writers.”
We had been told earlier in the week not to speak to each other while on the conference floor — it would introduce too much suspicion for witnesses. So we mostly went our separate ways, and hid out and read between “turning” our tricks.
By this point, Magical Mike seemed well aware that the jig was up. For his final round of tricks — including both of our performances, plus his own tried-and-true upside-down straitjacket escape — he wanted one of us to videotape it. While atop a 30-foot stepladder that he had hidden in the corner of the conference floor earlier in the week.
“But won’t that look suspicious?” I asked.
“No, it’s fine. I need this tape to make it in Vegas!” Michael replied.
My trick was up first. Just before I was to “randomly” be selected from the audience to begin my great sack escape, I looked behind me to see Carly had set up the ladder into place just across the aisle from Fool-Proof’s booth. I gave her a thumbs up.
My trick came off seamlessly — by this point, I had the moves down pat. After I walked some 50 feet away from Fool-Proof, I looped back to the area to do the camera handoff with Carly. For some reason, this last show was also one of the better-attended ones and I recognized the face of nearly everyone watching the show as a repeat visitor.
After Carly was selected from the crowd to do her trick one last time, I climbed onto the ladder, camera en tow. It wasn’t long before the same convention center staffer who implored me for magic secrets earlier in the day started to scream at me.
“What exactly are you doing up there, Box Boy?” she yelled up. A few of the individuals watching the show turned around.
“I’m just doing what I’ve been told. I’m working right now!”
“Well, I am too and I can’t have you on that ladder. It’s a safety violation and if you fall off of there you could sue our ass. Besides, I don’t think Mr. Magic up there would be able to do much about a broken leg.”
About half of the show’s audience had noticed our conversation now. The convention center staffer called for backup.
“I’ve got a twenty-something on a big ole ladder over here by booth 8G,” she said into a walkie talkie. “Yeah, yeah, the Box Boy. I need your help getting him down.”
With that, I climbed down and returned the ladder to its hiding spot. I guess Michael’s hilarious elf boot joke would not be recorded for posterity.
As I toted the ladder away from the booth, I overheard an onlooker say, “I thought that guy looked kinda familiar.”
By 5 p.m. Friday, the conference was being torn down and the magic had taken its toll. My legs ached from crouching inside a box and climbing through a trapdoor some 35 times over the course of five days. Carly said she was getting back spasms from the shapes she was forced to contort herself into in order to avoid being hacked into pieces during her trick.
But none of that mattered anymore — all we needed was Michael’s signature on our time sheet and we could get paid.
“You guys were phenomenal,” Michael told us while filling out our sheets. “When I’m in town next time, do I call you directly or should I call the temp agency?”
“The agency!” Carly and I shouted back in eerie unison.
“Well, all right then. The only thing, Joseph, is I wish you’d have kept videotaping after that black woman started sassing you. What is it with those sorts of ladies?”
I shrugged and replied that she had just been doing her job.
“Well, fair enough. There you are,” Michael said as he handed over our completed time sheets. “There’s just one last thing I’d like to share with you both.”
Michael turned around and rummaged through a brief case, pulling out a series of pamphlets.
“As a little parting gift, I’d like to offer you a fresh lease on life. Have you heard of the Church of Latter-Day Saints? I’d love for you to learn more about us.
“And if you’re ever in Utah, please do give me a call. I’d love to show you around the compound. It’s very beautiful there and I know the faith has helped me and my family so, so much.”
Michael the Mormon Magician trying to make it big in Vegas. As you do.
“No, just the time card will do. Uh, thanks!” Carly said.
We grabbed our sheets, ran and never looked back.
I guess it’s just a sign of the times.
Joseph Erbentraut is the associate editor of The Huffington Post Chicago. He has been writing ever since he can remember, including the creation of a middle school paper — the Sixth Grade Times — which offered in-depth coverage of school-wide assemblies, birthday parties and breaking playground gossip. Erbentraut earned a B.A. in Journalism & Mass Communication from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and moved shortly thereafter to Chicago, a city he has grown to adore. His work has also been featured in the Village Voice, Windy City Times, Chicagoist and Gapers Block.