The reward of deferred gratification

Revenge is wicked, & unchristian & in every way unbecoming, & I am not the man to countenance it or show it any favor. (But it is powerful sweet, anyway.)

Mark Twain in a letter to Olivia Langdon (later his wife), 27 December 1869. She was in Buffalo, New York and he was in New Haven, Connecticut nearing the end of a forty-nine city tour of the Northeast US in which he lectured on his travels in the Sandwich (now Hawaiian) Islands

In December, I wrote of an unnamed greedy 3rd party bookseller on Amazon who apparently fraudulently cancelled my US$54 order of a Ricky Jay book when he thought he could boost the price to the sky and make a mint off it (this was the day after Jay died).

In the four months since, I’ve enjoyed seeing that seller’s obscenely inflated price for the book drop precipitously on both Amazon and AbeBooks as the book sits unsold and once again gathering dust as it probably had for some years. His highest price was over US$200, about 400% of the price I ordered it at, and in the last four months he dropped the price at least six times. I guffawed when I discovered that, last week, he dropped it back to the original $54 on both sites. (Why “he”? It’s cynical, I’ll admit, and possibly bordering on sexist, but also based on decades of experience.)

And why am I writing about this again? Because today, I received in the mail this “As New” copy of just that book from a bookseller in Malmö, Sweden who doesn’t seem to view recently-deceased authors’ books as revenue-squeezeboxes. The book cost me US$33.57, including overseas postage, and arrived in six business days with a passel of cool stamps.

On the cover is Zazel, real name Rosa Richter, the first woman to be fired from a cannon, 2 April 1877. She was fourteen at the time.

Click for a larger size

My temptation is to write to the December seller again with something along these lines:

I’m sure you’ll be pleased to hear that I just received an as-new copy of that Ricky Jay book for the excellent price of $34 postpaid. Sorry I haven’t kept in touch, but I’m back and eager to hear how that greedy bastard thing is working out for you.

But that seems excessive, with unhealthy, red-faced teeth-gnashing the likely result, so writing it here will suffice. I’m sometimes mean in thought but rarely in deed.

Related serendipity: The day after I got that good price on Celebrations of Curious Characters, I received an email from AbeBooks saying they found a book I put on my want list in 2002, Natalie Wood: A Biography in Photographs, whose press run in 1986 was fairly limited. I clicked, fully expecting the US$100+ price I’ve seen a dozen times in the past seventeen years, but immediately bought it when I saw the price was $16.76. It arrived on Saturday. Now that’s deferred gratification.

Uneasiness sets in

Jeremy Hardy, Ricky Jay, and John Clarke were on my mind this week because “The News Quiz” just started a new series (the 43-minute “Extra” podcast is posted Monday nights here), I got good news about a particular book, and it’s now been two years since Clarke left us.

There are some people you wish would live a long time. When you have just a handful that you respect highly, it becomes increasingly unsettling as their numbers dwindle.

“We are a puny and fickle folk…”

“Avaritia” from the Seven Deadly Sins series by Pieter van der Heyden (1558)

Continuing the title quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “The Method of Nature,” originally in a speech to the Society of the Delphi at Waterville College, Maine, 11 August 1841:

Avarice, hesitation, and following are our diseases. The rapid wealth which hundreds in the community acquire in trade, or by the incessant expansions of our population and arts, enchants the eyes of all the rest; the luck of one is the hope of thousands, and the bribe acts like the neighborhood of a gold mine to impoverish the farm, the school, the church, the house, and the very body and feature of man.

It came to mind today as I wrote to a bookseller from whom I had ordered, last Monday, the one book by Ricky Jay that I don’t own. After I got the “shipped” email from Amazon, the third-party seller cancelled and refunded my order, claiming this: “We were in the process of packing and shipping out your order from the warehouse when we discovered significant damage.”

You would be wrong if you thought I believed that. You would be right if you think I’d be hopping mad if I then actually caught them in the lie. Just now, I did…and I am. I composed and sent this message to them only after counting to ten (see the clip below):

People are so predictable. Once you discovered Ricky Jay had died, you refunded my $54 order for this book, claiming you found the “Good” book was not even in acceptable condition when you went to ship it. I have to tell you that I didn’t believe a word of it. Now, a week later – exactly as I expected – you’ve re-listed the Good condition book at more than three times* your original price.

Did you really think, in these days filled with avarice, that I would accept your inexpert explanation and forget about it? That I wouldn’t think to check for you re-listing it on Amazon? That I wouldn’t also see it re-list in places like Abebooks? I mean, I am looking to buy the book, right? Frankly, your optimism surprises me.

Ricky Jay, for forty years one of my few heroes and a serious book collector himself, probably would have summarized this behavior with one word: despicable.

I can’t blame you too much for yielding to the temptation to cash in on Jay’s death as so many others are trying to do. I am, however, disappointed that you ended up fitting so precisely into the mold I imagined you would. My cynicism level remains unchanged.

*After I sent this, they of course sent no reply but did increase the price to four times their original, so no conscience at all. Wouldn’t it be amusing and immensely satisfying if they’ve priced themselves right out of the market?

52 assistants, no curator

Ricky Jay has left us – and left us bereft.

I have two recommendations for the uninitiated: The “Secrets of the Magus” profile of him that appeared in The New Yorker in 1993 – happily not behind their paywall – and the 90-minute documentary “Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay” (2012). The latter also aired in a severely edited, half-length form on the PBS series “American Masters” in 2015. The full version is preferred and you can find it on several streaming services. It’s free if you’ve got Amazon Prime, here.

From The New Yorker article:

The playwright David Mamet and the theatre director Gregory Mosher affirm that some years ago, late one night in the bar of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Chicago, this happened:

Ricky Jay, who is perhaps the most gifted sleight-of-hand artist alive, was performing magic with a deck of cards. Also present was a friend of Mamet and Mosher’s named Christ Nogulich, the director of food and beverage at the hotel. After twenty minutes of disbelief-suspending manipulations, Jay spread the deck face up on the bar counter and asked Nogulich to concentrate on a specific card but not to reveal it. Jay then assembled the deck face down, shuffled, cut it into two piles, and asked Nogulich to point to one of the piles and name his card.

“Three of clubs,” Nogulich said, and he was then instructed to turn over the top card.

He turned over the three of clubs.

Mosher, in what could be interpreted as a passive-aggressive act, quietly announced, “Ricky, you know, I also concentrated on a card.”

After an interval of silence, Jay said, “That’s interesting, Gregory, but I only do this for one person at a time.”

Mosher persisted: “Well, Ricky, I really was thinking of a card.”

Jay paused, frowned, stared at Mosher, and said, “This is a distinct change of procedure.” A longer pause. “All right—what was the card?”

“Two of spades.”

Jay nodded, and gestured toward the other pile, and Mosher turned over its top card.

The deuce of spades.

A small riot ensued.

The trailer for “Deceptive Practice”:

HBO aired a somewhat trimmed version of his show “Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants” in 1996. As with all of his stage shows, he only performed “52 Assistants” in small venues. Given the speedy scarcity of tickets every time he performed, he could have easily done larger halls, but he wanted to make sure everyone got a good view. To him, the art was far more important than the money.

A fair-to-middling full copy of the HBO special is on YouTube and linked below, but if you search a little, you should be able to find a 558MB version that’s 640×480 and twice the quality of this version.

I first saw Jay perform on “Saturday Night Live” in early 1977. Several months later, an article about him in the December 1977 Playboy – part of it shown below – further piqued my interest. The article mentioned that his first book, Cards as Weapons, was coming out, and I bought it a few weeks later. It sits on the bookshelf behind me as I type, along with his Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women: Unique, Eccentric and Amazing Entertainers (1986), Jay’s Journal of Anomalies (2003), and others.

I’m leaving out the rest of the two-page spread due to boobs and such

I’ve traveled to see shows in New York City just twice – not Broadway shows, but off-Broadway masterpieces by Ricky Jay. The poster from “52 Assistants” is on my office wall and “On the Stem” is at home.