I slipped his card into my pocket, imagining I’d done so with magically nimble fingers, fitting since it belonged to Mario le Magicien, star of children’s birthday parties in this long ago deindustrialized commuter arrondisement of Montreal.
Mario didn’t exactly hand me the card. As far I could tell, he wasn’t even present, though that’s obviously never a sure thing with magicians. But I didn’t exactly steal it, either. It was one of dozens pinned to a corkboard across from the cash register in a neighborhood casse croute where steady streams of fries and hamburgers were being served on a beautiful September’s end Saturday.
It seemed somehow apropos to pluck Mario’s card off the board and make it disappear when everyone else was distracted. I tucked it away, awaiting a timely reveal.
Not that I planned to perform feats of legerdemain. My wife had pulled me out of the crowd – well, away from my laptop on the front porch, to be truthful – to attend a municipal political gathering hosted by candidates she supports.
Montrealers are in the thick of what must be the most byzantine electoral process on the planet. We seem required to vote for a multiplicity of mayors with one ballot, and to elect more councilors than there were hands to shake when Ville Marie was born 375 years ago. Nothing ever happens in Montreal without a healthy dose of zany. The pace of peculiar is picking up with voting day a month away.
Oddities into the bargain, municipal politics has a quality that fits perfectly with enjoying crispy fries and all-dressed burgers in a casse croute crowded with Saturday afternoon locals. Because municipalities are the level of organization closest to citizens, they feel naturally and safely secluded from the great world of mass murders, terrorism, daily catastrophe, Donald Trump.
Of course, it’s an illusion. If all history is local, how localized must all suffering be? Still, just as we know all magic’s a trick, there’s a joyful comfort in being politically fooled again.
Squeezing us between people bearing trays of food, my wife drew me to a spot where I was told to stand and have my hand shaken enthusiastically. I noted a sign on the serving counter that warned in French: "Watch out for wasps. Check your cup."
Mario le Magicien’s card suddenly felt like a talisman, though other-worldly protection proved unnecessary. The candidates were all salt of the earth people, rooted good citizens, eager and willing to serve. They were running on a platform of change, though most would probably jump at the chance to make the arrondissement what it was before every factory died in the 1970s and ’80s. Change is the fundamental promise of elections and magician’s tricks. Paradoxically, both prestidigitation and politics must offer reassurance of safely restoring things to what they’ve always been.
A candidate approached. She supplemented her handshake with the quintessential Quebec two-cheek kiss that, for me anyway, always feels like my cat is head butting me to get out of bed and serve him breakfast. She and my wife fell into detailed talk about the intricacies of the local politics. I drifted into an awareness of how abundant the room was with the transcendent presence of Mario le Magicien.
Mario was clearly miles ahead in the business card count on the corkboard across from the cash register. But there were also sizeable posters of him on pillars supporting the low ceiling. They billed him as an expert in “micro magic” in addition to the culturally larger arts of mind reading and prophecy.
I wondered if he might suddenly materialize in the casse croute to buy fries or a hamburger and pop, then casually enchant the audience with a knowing forecast on how the election would turn out. If he did show up, I wondered, how he would arrive? I ruled out puffs of smoke.
In the photos on his cards and posters, Mario spurned the classic billowing black cape or deliberately ridiculous oversized top hat. The absence of both seemed strategically savvy for a “micro magician” whose act was more likely to be a crescendo of small amazements. What would grand, wand-waving gestures make a “micro magician” appear other than grasping and self-serving?
Instead of the usual magical accoutrements, Mario held a gold fish bowl containing a gold fish staring out at the world from the mid-point of the magician’s chest. The gold fish looked quite puzzled about being in the picture. It seemed uncertain how it might fit in with micro magic tricks suited to the Saturday afternoon birthday party demographic. If selected, would it serve? Or would it be served?
The candidate, finishing her conversation with my wife, caught my attention, and sought my support.
“We need your help,” she told me. “We need everyone’s help. Spread the word."
“I will,” I said.
One of her co-candidates passed by. He’d held office a few years ago, was voted out in the last election, and now sought re-election with a promise of bringing much needed change.
“Be there for us,” he said.
“I’m there,” I said.
“That’s good,” he said. “We need your help."
The candidates spoke to me in English, although I addressed them in French. Maybe they spoke to me in English because I spoke to them in French. There are more mysteries surrounding language in Quebec than even Mario le Magicien could unravel with all his prophetic powers.