The only open seat at Wiley’s Championship Barbecue was at the end of the counter, sandwiched between a three-, six, and eight-year-old allowed the momentary freedom of sitting almost on their own, and their parents, at a table behind it.
Before I could take my spot on the tall director’s chair, I had to wait out the magic. A customer named Marty–Magic Marty, that is–was working to plant a permanent look of wonder on the six-year-old’s face. With most of the customers either watching the show or immersed in their meals, several staff members also gathered around. He was a sight himself, in a wide-brimmed hat with magenta fabric woven through with flowers around the base of the crown. A bushy white moustache sprawled across his face. He looked like a cross between Albert Einstein and Wyatt Earp.
Marty was doing coin tricks. He made a coin disappear into the girl’s ear and pulled it out of her nose. That coin appeared and disappeared so many times, I was half expecting to see it show up in one of the capped beers in the refrigerated display case.
It’s rare that I think a magician a good addition to a night. Marty provided an exception to my rather strict rule. His magic was as clean as I’ve ever seen—there were no oh, I see how you did that’s because, really, nobody in the place could figure out how he did any of it. The adults were all caught up in permagrins, too.
Marty headed back to his table. It was clear that his dinner companions were used to him popping up to perform during nights out. They went right back to their conversation.
The spur-of-the-moment show kicked off something at Wiley’s, housed in a far-from-magical strip mall on 80, between Savannah and Tybee Island. The kids agreed. “Marty is magic,” the six-year-old crowed. “It’s good that his first name is magic because he is magic.”
“Marty is a magician!” the three-year-old added.
A few minutes later, one of the waitresses asked three-year-old where he was from.
As much as I tried to deny my Jersey upbringing when I was a kid—and on into my late 30s—I’ve come around on it. Jersey roots can’t be denied.
Resisting the urge to yell “You from Jersey? I’m from Jersey. What exit?”—it would have been lost on the three-year-old–I turned and asked his mom where they were from.
“Oh, I grew up in Teaneck.”
“My husband is from Ridgewood.”
Then, each of us with a smile: “Oh.”
Jersey credentials established, I turned back to my ribs (which, by the way, had a certain magic of their own).
A few minutes (and, I’d guess, a few bites of sweet potato casserole) later, Marty was back. We were joined by one of the wait staff’s daughters—three months away from finishing up training at the police academy, she’d run over from her shift at the liquor store next door. He decided I looked like the big tipper in the room (Marty’s one misstep) and focused his card tricks on me.
“Choose a card,” he told me as he flipped through the stack.
“You from the Bronx?” I asked.
My mother grew up in the Bronx. The Georgia BBQ restaurant had taken on a northeastern flavor. That happens a lot.
After Marty returned to his table again, the conversation with my counter companions went into high gear. Magic. Disney World. The magic of Disney World. My age. More Disney World. Is Walt Disney a real person? “No.” “Yes.” “He made the first Mickey Mouse,” the eight-year-old contributed. “Oh,” said the six-year-old. More on Magic Marty’s magic.
On and on. We built a mountain of conversation as the piles of food in front of us shrank.
The wait staff kept a close eye on my unsweet tea, filling it whenever the plastic go cup was anywhere near half empty.
The kids’ meals done, their mom came over to chat before they headed out.
The dad was in real estate—“I’m the one who caused the collapse,” he joked, before adding, “No, I’m not one of those guys”—and they had moved to the Savannah area two years ago.
“Your kids are great dinner companions. And they seem to look out for each other,” I told her.
“With all the moving, they’re each other’s constants,” she replied. “Tonight will go down in history for them as one of their best nights. A magic show and they got to sit at the counter without us, and talk to adults they don’t know. They’ll remember this forever.”
“Well,” I told her, “so will I.”