A Year of Stories: “Tableside Nightmare”

Brian Miller - A Year of Stories - Tableside Nightmare

Posted by on May 8, 2016

I began my evening of table-to-table magic at a local restaurant like any other night. I arrived and greeted the staff, servers, and managers whom I’ve known and worked with for years.

Making my way to the small room in the back of the restaurant where I leave my coat and prop case, I scanned the restaurant for my first few tables of the night. I’m looking for tables with drinks and no menus. That tells me they have ordered and will not see a server again until their meals, or sometimes appetizers. Those 10-15 minutes of uninterrupted wait time are my window.

To the casual viewer, and to many servers (some of the hardest working people you’ll ever meet) it seems like restaurant magicians have an easy job: just do some tricks for people, collect a nice check, and go home after only two hours of work. Sometimes it’s like that, and I’m certainly not complaining, but most nights are much more involved. This would be one of those nights.

Baggy Pockets

This is not me.

I carefully placed a handful of props into very specific pockets built into my vest and pants. Deck of cards here, leather purse full of half-dollars there, handful of clowns noses here, whatever-this-is there, etc. You know the game of Tetris you play to fit your entire luggage for a long trip into the always-smaller-than-you-remember trunk of your car? Magicians play that game constantly. We call it “pocket management,” which is a fancy way of saying, “How the hell do I fit all this crap into my pockets without looking like I have a medical problem?”

Having completed my pocket ritual, and after a small bow to the gods of restaurant magic (which would go unheard, and unanswered), I proceeded to my first table of the evening.

“Hey folks, how are you? My name’s Brian, and I’m the magician here this evening. Would you like to see a minute or two of magic while you wait for your meals?”

There is a hot debate among magicians about whether or not you should ask the group if they’d like to see some magic, or simply inform them that you are the magician and start doing a trick. There are two very good arguments to be made. One is made often by living legend Jay Sankey:

Jay Sankey Headshot“I never ask people if they want to see a trick. They’re not qualified to answer. They’ve seen a card trick or an uncle pull a coin from an ear, but they’ve never seen anyone do what I’m about to do.”

It’s a good point. How can people know whether they want to see something if they don’t even know what it is they are agreeing to? Still, I always ask. Whenever I put myself in the position of someone out to eat, with no intention of seeing a magician or any form of entertainment, and I imagine a stranger walk up to my table, interrupt my conversation, and start doing a magic trick, it annoys me. If I would be put-off by it, it only makes sense that others might be as well. For that reason, I ask.

The problem with asking is that sometimes people say ‘no’. How often? Once a night or less frequently, and it’s almost always my fault when they do. Magicians learn to choose tables very carefully. We develop a sort of sixth sense for which groups would be receptive to magic, and avoid the tables that wouldn’t. But occasionally you catch a group of people who, contrary to all appearances, does not want watch magic. They might have had a bad day at work, or be fighting at home. They might be old friends catching up for the first time in many years. Sometimes they simply don’t like magic.

My first table said, “No thank you.”

Not the way I like to start the night.

I smiled, “No problem, enjoy your evening.”

Moving on to the next table, I offered my introduction with a warm smile.

“No thank you,” she replied. “My son is heading back to college and this is his last night home.”

That was unlucky, and unusual. I shrug it off and look for my next table. The same occurs at the next two tables. More tables have said “no” in the past 20 minutes than have in the last four months. I return to my prop room to collect myself. I check the mirror. Do I have something in my teeth?

Taylor Swift Shake it Off gifI shake it off and head back out. Ah, a table with a mom, grandmother, and two children, who look to be 10 and 18. Kids magic is not my forte, but in a family restaurant it’s part of the deal, and typically any table with kids is a sure bet.

I had barely finished my introduction when both of the kids were nodding enthusiastically, and preparing themselves for the magic that was about to take place. “Finally,” I thought.

As I begin my set, I notice that the grandmother is looking down at her phone, ignoring the children and my performance completely. Even though I am an intruder at a table, it always strikes me as rude when people do that, particularly because I ask for permission to perform, rather than simply diving in. My approach in these situations is to ask the distracted person a direct question, or get them involved in the trick.

“I didn’t get your name,” I say directly to her.

No response. She didn’t move or even flinch. Maybe it’s a language barrier?

I move back to the kids, and continue with the trick, in which some red clowns noses jump from my hand to theirs, appear and disappear at will. The kids, particularly 10 year old, are having a blast.

The young child, laughing, exclaims, “Mom did you see that?!”

I look at her, and see that she too is looking straight down at her phone. I can clearly see that both her and the grandmother are aimlessly typing nonsense (random characters) in order to make it look like they are busy. They are actively and intentionally ignoring their kids and me.

“Please, would you help us with this?” I ask the mother assertively.

“No. I don’t believe in magic,” she responded aggressively. “And it is inappropriate for my children. How dare you start performing without asking?”

My eyes went wide and I said, confused, “But I did ask.” Looking to both children I continued, “I received an enthusiastic ‘yes’ from at least two people at the table.”

The older child is nodding in agreement, giving me a look that silently screamed, “I’m so sorry.”

“He is only 11,” she responded, gesturing to the youngest. “He is not old enough to make those kind of decisions.”

Sword in Stone Arthur gif

Not old enough to make those kind of decisions? The decision to see a card trick? I had no choice but to pick up my props, mid trick, and to the very disappointed look on both children’s faces, take my leave.

“I’m very sorry to have bothered you. Have a nice evening.”

I walked away from the table in a very bad mood, and very confused. In 10+ years of restaurant magic I’d never seen or heard anything like that. It would have been easy to dismiss it as “some crazy lady” and continue with my old ways, but there is still a lesson to be learned: just because I’ve never heard such a complaint doesn’t mean there hasn’t even been cause for one. There may have been other instances of annoyance on the behalf of parents, who never felt comfortable voicing their concern in a public setting.

When I approach a table with children now, if the children nod ‘yes’ but the parents don’t respond, I ask the parents directly, “Is it okay with you?” Just to be safe.

Until next time,

Brian

Share your own experiences in the comments section below, and don’t forget to sign up to get a new story every Sunday!

Brian Miller
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Brian Miller

Brian Miller is a Connecticut youth motivational speaker who travels the country sharing his message and magic with high school and college students . His TEDx talk "How to Magically Connect with Anyone" is one of the most popular in history.
Brian Miller
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  1. Jon England
    May 8, 2016

    You can never misunderestimate an audience! Fortunately, you chose to bank this experience and it’s permeated your performing DNA which informs your holistic perception going forward.

    • Brian Miller
      May 8, 2016

      You learn more from failures than from successes, that’s for sure! Thanks for engaging with the blog, Jon.

    • Bryan Lizotte
      May 8, 2016

      I don’t let rude people bother me. I can usually tell after my first effect if they really want to see Magic or were just being polite by agreeing to see me perform.

  2. Don Rackley
    May 9, 2016

    In the South, it’s quite common for someone to equate performance magic with devil worship. Seriously, even in the 21st century. Even groups who might enjoy the show still prefer “illusion” to “magic”. My son performed the Yellow Bandanna trick at a high school talent show, and one lady sought him out afterwards to tell him she didn’t believe in magic, and needed to pray for his soul. You just have to be ready! LOL!

    • Brian Miller
      May 9, 2016

      I’ve definitely experienced that in the South, Don. Would you believe this was in Connecticut?! It just took me by surprise because, as I wrote, I asked before starting! But I asked the wrong people at the table. That was the lesson, and takeaway.

  3. Clive Court
    May 9, 2016

    I usually go to a restaurant with a friend or relative because we,re hungry or because we have something to discuss. So, unless, we are there to party, it comes as an interruption. If I happen to be in an accommodating situation. I may say: “Ok, but only one trick…and, please, no cards.” Yes, I do not want anyone coming to my table to show me card tricks. Sorry about that.

    • Brian Miller
      May 9, 2016

      Couldn’t agree with you more. That’s precisely why I ask every table. The unexpected turn that evening was that I asked, got enthusiastic “yes’s” and then got hit by a truck when the mom stopped me mid performance. The lesson, as I said, was that you need to be sure to get “yes” all around, not just from some.

  4. Steven Friedberg
    May 11, 2016

    Brian:
    When I work a table, I start with the following patter: “Good evening, I’m your magician for the evening. It’s my job to bother…er, entertain you….until your food arrives. And with your permission, I’d like to share a couple of things with you.”

    Each phrase, each set of words is designed for a specific purpose:
    • “It’s my job to bother…er, entertain you….”: I’m trying to show that I’m not “Mr. Magician,” and that I don’t take this stuff too seriously. After all, we’re all here to have fun, right?
    • “With your permission….”: I”m not insisting, and if some folks don’t want to see me work, I thank them for their time, repeat the specials for the evening, and move on.
    • “I’d like to share…”: This is key: I’m not doing a couple of tricks for them. I regard magic as something that’s incredibly fun and pretty darned special. Others have shared with me, and I’m trying to pay it forward by sharing with them.

    You’re never going to get the universal love. But, as you’ve noted, your chances of getting the chance to perform for and share with customers is heightened if you clearly demonstrate that you’re having fun, and want to share the fun with them.

    • Brian Miller
      May 11, 2016

      Thanks for sharing Steve. My restaurant intro, the same one I used on this particular occasion, is: “Hey folks, how are you this evening? My name’s Brian and I’m the magician here on [blank]days. Would you like to see a minute or two of magic while you wait for your meals?”

      Like yours, it serves multiple purposes that are all designed to cut down on issues. First, it gives them an option out. Some people aren’t in the mood for magic, don’t like it, or have other things going on. I don’t want to bother them, and, just like you, when someone says ‘no’ I respond, “Alright, enjoy your evening!”

      As I said in the article, I gave my intro, asked for permission, received it from at least two members at the table, and then you read what happened. The lesson learned was that you the kids themselves, no matter how enthusiastic, cannot give you permission. That has to come from the parents. In 10+ years of restaurant magic it only happened once, but I took it seriously when it did and learned from it moving forward.

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