We not not saying magic is real. We saying the Bronx ain’t for that mierda. Manhattan stayed believing in magic ever since Miracle on 34th Street and Brooklyn got embarrassed with these “Mimosa Magic Mingles.” And Queens, well Queens is Queens, you know? The Bronx stay skeptical, suck your teeth at Powerball winners, interrogate Nation of Islam for crowding the sidewalk, a snapped back chin at dudes holding open Mickey D’s doors and popped eyeballs for women whose five-year-old done outgrown that stroller. It wasn’t some glass half empty, glass half full shit. The glass was smudged, dirty, so you always had to squint. No straight answer no matter how many times the eyebrows underneath a Yankees fitted said the exact words straight up.
We knew language better than anybody, how you could crack it out of fortune cookies or loop it into a rhythm or rip it to shreds and make money off the confetti. But every deal we ever got was a backdoor to something worse, the Cross Bronx Expressway, Piano District, the NYC Department of Sanitation. And for the record, we ain’t agree to those. Here, everything happened around us, through us, circumventing us like the long legs of the 2 and 5 trains. We all drank the water but no one wasted breath on why it tasted funny. We all knew where the lead was but hustled our way past it. Every warning in a knelt ear wasn’t attached to a hand close enough to the problem to change it. So why bother? Our favorite phrases were It is what it is, No me importa, and a deep-throated chuckle ending in a high pitched laugh. Maybe that’s why Tío Mago was different. The trick was up front, live and direct. No disrespect except the OKed disrespect of magic.
Tío Mago floated.
All of Mott Haven saw it, the entire 149th Street – Grand Concourse Station.
It was rush hour; we don’t gotta explain rush hour. What we gotta explain is that the 2 and the 5 are in the catacombs, one of those tunnels built underneath a tunnel, with a two-story ceiling that shook loose the real smell of New York. But what’s wilder is Tío Mago knew what we knew, that if you walked down the platform, between the last two staircases at the northern end, there’s a metal 149th Street – Grand Concourse Station sign covering a tile mosaic. Water leaked out those tiles, mad water, dirty yellow piss colored, grimy water that looked like the borough had a culito that only drank coffee. Nobody stood there, ever. The closest anyone got was the last pillar before it, where dumbass kids called the phone numbers written on it in Sharpie and every single one was a woman or a girl who said Imma send my cousin to that pillar to whoop all ya asses, swear to god.
Tío Mago was leaning near that sign, just asking to be seen. Dude was straight goofy looking, skinny and bent like those redwood seed pods. You remember. The ones your elementary school teacher had you picking up off the street to make maracas and you sang some make-believe song every adult clapped to or rolled their eyes at. He was like that. From his red alligator skin shoes to his red linen pants swaying in the train tunnel wind, he was dipped halfway in blood. His beige guayabera had the two top buttons open, highlighting a dark patch of hair. His Kangol matched his deep brown skin, all framed by an afro whispering Style is how you wear the clothes, papa.
Then, he walked straight off the platform and stood there, halfway between uptown and downtown, three feet about the tracks.
Melvin lowered the volume on Jim Jones bumping out of his boombox, Stephanie stopped texting on her sidekick, Aurita looked up from her cellular biology index cards even though her nursing test was dumb close, Titi Tata let a Sprite can fall back into the garbage instead of tossing it in her bag, Hector let the lip of his 40 stumble back, and Ms. Lee let go of her shopping cart, stuffed with Oreos, Honey buns, blinding neon tops, and yo-yos. Even Lucille, the 5-train conductor across the way, stopped her train mid-pulling in and not one passenger yelled I can’t bro or Every goddamn day or I gotta move out this city. We were wildin’, doing stuff we never done before.
We had seen a SHOWTIME!, a Peruvian panpipe, an amateur beatboxer, but never responded to their begging. We were always doing stuff opposite of what people wanted, just to fuck with them, just to hold on to some piece of the day that was ours.
Tío Mago didn’t force us to do nothing, and so we were silent.
Everybody jumped when Lil Macho, nicknamed because he had that eager brawler’s grin, yelled You Criss Angel wannabe, I see the wires! We all squinted, then rang out a chorus of boos and hands swiping at the air, another joker playing games with us. We didn’t want to believe. We looked for any excuse to hop off dude’s dick, to knife the hiss out of hype’s balloon.
Tío Mago started rising, arms out to his sides, tips of his shoes looking like baby rockets pushing him up. He stopped just below the cracked ceiling tile. When Lil Macho opened his mouth again, Tío Mago spun, a complete vertical 360. His Kangol unmoving even when his toes scraped the ceiling. The air in the station shifted, as if we all took a puff and held it just as long as our homie said to. We were finally listening, and we were terrified.
A 2 train honked its horn and we jerked our necks in its direction, barely blinking. When we looked back up, he was gone, and nothing was the same.
But of course, everything was the same. We kept up appearances. We knew how the other boroughs saw us, what your moms thought of us while listening to 1010 WINS, how the movies tagged us in graffiti, birdshit, and fires they said we couldn’t smell no more. So, we kicked Tío Mago to the curb, said Don’t pay him no mind said I seen that shit before said you testing the lord’s scripture with all that followed by a veined and sprung finger.
We passed our time ragging on him, calling him Piss Angel and Hoodini. Asking Who the fuck he think he is? Tricking us, just to dip out. And why he disappear like that? Making us look like Boo Boo the fool. He mocking us? We knew the second you believe, the second you get played. We laughed, chuckled, then ground our teeth as a scrunched eyebrow leapt from face to face. But, for real though, how he do it?
The question hung like a bata out a window, or a Marlboro off a lip. That’s how it started. Tío Mago burrowed into our minds, blended into our day-to-day, and made a home at the edge of our vision.
Then it really started. Lil Macho got a group of seven Mott Haven kids to descend into the tunnel with ladders, spoons, flashlights, Ziplock baggies, and magnifying glasses. They called the area a research zone, they told everyone what they were doing, which was that they didn’t know what they were doing. They picked apart broken tile, inspected the multicolored gunk of the train tracks, ran their rough palms across the top of the curved ceiling, foot on shoulder on foot on shoulder on ladder like a Ringling Brothers show. They collected “samples” in their baggies and dowsed corners with light that hadn’t been witnessed in almost one hundred years. They left day after day after day, their pockets filled with details they slung on park benches, round corners, and beneath scaffolding. And every time, nothing added up.
That didn’t stop them though, because the more they didn’t find, the more sure they became: Skinny mirrors! and that’s how the truth squirmed, growing out of cocoons, Retractable harness! flying from platform to platform all across Mott Haven, Deal with the devil! until you could hear Tío Mago’s name repeated from every late night and early morning walk from stoop to bodega to subway and back again, Alien collaboration! from recess games of manhunt to Bx busline bochinche, Telekinesis! it didn’t matter how old you were, what block you lived on, which route you took, Ghosts in his armpits! we were obsessed, and that mafuka knew it.
He knew we would figure it out; he wanted us to. And we did.
But shit, we weren’t gunna tell you.
Melvin wasn’t no snitch, Hector threw up his hands and pointed to the sky, crossed himself, Titi Tata knew some things are best left alone, and Ms. Lee rolled her eyes and said if he doesn’t mess with my business, I don’t mess with his. We said the same thing to the NY1 News, to 60 Minutes, to ¡Despierta América!, Oprah, Montel, Barbara Walters, and Regis Philbin. Shit, we woulda told the same thing to Jerry Springer if he had been so inclined to ask.
In the face of our silence, they moved to a different question, the question they realized mattered the most: Where is Tío Mago?
He couldn’t be found, unsighted, in hiding.
Then came the smear campaign. El Día said he was born Joseul Vargas Jr. in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, the Daily News said he had multiple names and aliases, that he was wanted for pigeon trafficking in New Haven, counting cards in Atlantic City, and tax fraud in Kissimmee. They called him a scam artist, a charlatan, a regular Bronx criminal, they posted spoiler videos of his floating trick on Newgrounds, they called his clothes rags and his afro unkempt and his magic childish, and when they spoke about him, they were speaking about us.
Boy, let me tell you they were heated, fuming; finally on the other side. They yelled for Tío Mago to come forward, to explain himself, and we snickered. They asked us to do the right thing, to expose him, and we cackled. From our living rooms to our stoops, we spoke in eyebrows and chins, nods and the loud noises our teeth made, the slight crease of an upper lip and the long boomerang of an eyeball. We were well trained, loyal and waiting; we were praying for him to come back.
They appeared slowly, first tucked into train windows then in storefronts, pasted to bridges, fluttering in trees, tossed out of moving buses, and snuck under windshield wipers. They were bright red, small and thin, ugly ass squares that read Tío Mago. Mott Haven. 7:00PM. The Trick. Coming Soon. No location. No date.
And just like that, we anticipated magic anywhere, seeing it everywhere. Once again, we found ourselves doing shit we never done before. Aurita started taking her kid patients at Lincoln Medical up to the windows and asked them what they saw, a silver dragon doing acrobatics, rainbow jawbreakers raining against the window, talking pigeons telling knock knock jokes. And each time, she’d say, Tío Mago came to do a trick just for you. Stephanie made a map of Mott Haven, taking out the old Crayola Art Kit her pops got her years ago, to draw all the possible locations Tío Mago could be, from the Bronx Slide to Finca del Sur to Hostos. Every night at 7, she’d explore a new part of the neighborhood, registering a new smell or taste or view. Titi Tata caught wind of it and shifted her daily route to reflect Stephanie’s map, and they sometimes spent hours sitting on a different bench, watching the deep dark clouds scrapping with each other, as they spoke about the things only Mott Haven could speak on.
The whole neighborhood held their breath, and in that breath, we nodded to each other, held doors open, gave directions, shared sugar and gossip, and handed back things people dropped. We touched fingers over dimes, apples, keys, and subway tokens, and in those moments, we looked at each other as if for the first time.
Then P.S. 277 got turned into a charter and Melvin didn’t hit the lottery, Stephanie’s cousin got jumped on Brook Ave and almost died at Lincoln, and Ms. Lee was evicted without even a notice. Regular Bronx shit, the only real way to measure time passing.
Tío Mago faded into our mythology, he was another ghost story, another alien sighting, another trick. We wanted to be special, to be known for something good that wasn’t immediately stolen from us, but nothing good ever lasted here.
Shit, maybe Tío Mago didn’t float at all. Maybe Melvin just saw a rat scurrying up the wall and Lucille didn’t stop her train for any man but a shadow at the tunnel’s corner. Maybe it was the fumes of the sanitation department, the ashes of the ’70s fires, the lead deep-seated in every public school from the Harlem River to the Yonkers border. Maybe we were liars, frauds, dramaticos. Just a slick tongued bunch of believers. Truth is, we needed this, something real and collective, a secret just for us.
We were so busy tryna rid ourselves of magic, nobody noticed Lil Macho had traded his time at El Maestro boxing gym for the library on East 140th. In the weeks since the trick, he had tucked himself in a corner on the second floor, reading The Mole People: Life in the Tunnels Beneath New York City and 722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York. He started drawing sketches of the tunnels and trains, at first to learn how to redo the trick, then because he just enjoyed the shit. He found out 149th Street – Grand Concourse was historic, the first merger of the IRT’s East Side train line and West Farms train line and that Mott Haven sat at the head of 8,000 feet of track, proof everything below us was always Downtown. Wildest of all, that leaky ass metal sign, where Tío Mago started his trick, covered the last tile mosaic that read Mott Avenue Station, its original name. So naturally, Lil Macho went and ripped that dumbass shit down.
Then, it happened.
It was the Bronx Clock Tower. It rang its seven tolls for seven o’clock but then it kept ringing, a booming, annoying echo we sucked teeth at, then shouted at, then turned to each other with wide eyes and started running. The crowd stood thick as flies to wax paper on Bruckner. They called it a “work space” but charged hundreds of dollars for an hour, they called it the Clocktower apartments but didn’t offer anything rent controlled. We could see them, everyone that wasn’t us, staring scared from their windows, we could hear their locks clicking and their blinds closing, and their rushed voices calling back to all the states they had left to become a “New Yorker.”
We stood there, arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder, our necks craned up in anticipation.
Tío Mago appeared at the lip of the Clock Tower and spread his arms, dressed in an all-red suit. We cheered, hooped and hollered, clapped stranger’s backs, and hugged our children.
This time he didn’t float, he fell like an anchor. In those few seconds, we wheezed, threw our hands to our hearts, watched as he rocketed straight down to the ground. The oldheads got PTSD and the parents pulled their kids closer and we all just shook our heads in disbelief.
But when his body hit the pavement, a burst of flames shot up like hellfire, lifting its way straight to the green iron of the hour and minute hands, then licking across the red brick of the building, so bright it stung our eyes for a moment.
As the fire swept, there wasn’t black soot or charred brick left behind, but stained glass, vibrant and beautiful colors lighting up the entire boulevard. The mural grew and grew until we could recognize ourselves in it. There was Melvin bumping his boombox, Stephanie and Titi Tata at St. Mary’s, Lil Macho spitting knowledge at the library, and Aurita and her patients staring out into the night sky. And when the fire died down and the smoke faded, the mural glowed.
The mural was us, a mirror and a window, so real we could touch it.