Live at the New York Public Library


We Are What We Are

Earlier this evening Monday, March 16 we (Savitri D and Miss Justice Jester) attended a New York Public Library (Live at the NYPL) event at the Main Branch on 42nd St.  The world famous magician and stunt man/ endurance artist David Blaine was being interviewed by Paul Holdengraber, the director of public programming at The NYPL.

Blaine is interesting, a deep and serious person, but it was all pretty scripted and cautious, bordering on the sentimental. Forty five minutes in we are shown a particularly grisly video montage  of one of Blaine’s heroes Evil Knievel breaking bones and sliding out on his motorcycle. Blaine narrates. The video cuts to Blaine sitting by Kneivel’s hospital bed. Evil talks to him about how some people have a drive (to defy death) and other people don’t. At the very end he says:

“We can’t help it. We are what we are.” And the video ends.

Holdengraber: Your reactions “We are what we are.” What do you think he meant?

Blaine: I guess he’s saying like even if you could go back and stop you couldn’t, but he was suffering all these results of what he had done to his body later on in life, which he couldn’t really function so well, because he’s slowly dying as a result of the things he had done to his body that’s why he said lets try doing magic instead, and I said well that’s not my work I like to do things for real, and he says I get that, that’s what drives me even if I could go back I wouldn’t take it out

This is when we stood up in our third row seats and moved swiftly toward the center aisle of the room.

Savitri: Hey David, how about some real magic?

Miss Justice: Yeah why don’t you make the books reappear in the library?

Savitri: Make the books reappear

Bring the books back, bring the books back bring the books back bring the books back. 

At this point Blaine very skillfully diffuses the action by inviting us on stage and performing a magic trick with the deck of cards he always carries in his pocket.

Blaine: I have an idea

Miss Justice: Yes?

Blaine: Will you guys come up on stage?

Miss Justice: We’d be honored to

Blaine: You guys mind if I do a magic trick

Savitri As long it involves books

David: (to the crowd) You guys mind if I try something with them?

Savitri: As long it involves books coming back to the New York Public Library

After some friendly banter we hear David ask Miss Justice, “ Your not moving are you?” she says, “I’m not getting kicked out am I?” to which Holdengraber, the head of public programming, says “oh no no,  certainly not, you are most welcome.” You can hear me giggle at that and then Blaine makes me take my coat off and the audio degrades significantly since the recorder is in my breast pocket. We proceed with the “magic”.

The card trick involved piles and numbers of cards in piles and awesome sleight of hand, including that satisfying patter sharps do when they search around until they get the number they want. Even when you know roughly what’s going on the resolution of a card trick in the hands of someone like Blaine is breathtaking. Still, I was far more amazed by the larger sleight of hand. How did he transform a couple of imposing female activists into a couple of discarded jokers sitting on the carpet behind a pillar stage left? Maybe I should learn a few magic tricks.

We felt okay because our goal was not to create a huge disturbance or educate the room, though we did plenty of that afterward, but to put those Library Trustees and everyone else who is making decisions over there on notice. Bring back the books! We are paying attention!

We Are What We Are?

One of the first things Blaine said was how glad he was to be speaking at the NYPL, because he learned his first trick from a magic book in the Brooklyn Public Library. A librarian led him to the book and even helped him work out the trick.  Subsequently we were shown an image Blaine encountered as a young boy in a public library of a strait jacketed Houdini teetering on the edge of what appears to be a very tall building. Seeing the photograph (in a book!) sparked his lifelong obsession with magic and stunts. Clearly this is a man profoundly shaped by libraries and all their contents. So, we aren’t just what we are. We are what we are because of things that happen to us too, things we encounter, things that come into our lives. Blaine may have come into this world with certain proclivities and intuitions, but he had materials too, information, access, and he spent a lot of time wandering around libraries looking at books. Now that’s magic!

The culture we enjoy in New York City MUST include the presence of books in our libraries, from the Rose Reading room and the Sunset Park Branch, to Pacific Street, Downtown Brooklyn, Central Harlem and all the five boroughs. Lives are made in libraries, dream lives, practical lives, whole lives. And, after all, the culture that is made in those spaces is the culture we so heartily enjoy in public programming at the NYPL 25 years later. 

On the way out a fair haired European man told me that went to get a library card but when he went in the library all he saw were empty shelves so he didn’t bother to get a card, “I can browse books on a computer at home, that’s not what the library is for.”