In the Flatbush district of Brooklyn, I had a patient with rheumatism of the ankle and knee whom I had to visit in an apartment three flights up. I had seen a colored phone-operator here, and one night as I came down the last flight of stairs, I noticed that he was reading a book about 14 by 20 inches in size. Inquisitively, I asked him what he was reading, and he replied it was a book on Magic.
I learned he had many other books hidden away among the papers in the small space he had to work in. He seemed to be posted on all the ancient and modern literature of philosophy, tricks, and esoterica.
He showed me the picture of a fiery-eyed black man with a turban about his head and a flowing robe over his shoulders, the man who wrote the book he was reading. He said this man was the greatest necromancer, prestidigitator, or Magic Man in the world.
He himself had no address, but just wandered about. “Why,” he said, “I have travelled all over the world, and required no money. I just returned from India, worked my way, am out of money, and so work here to get a little start and study Magic. I’ve been interested now some ten years, and when I am perfect I can get all the money I want. You can get anything you want if you work The Law, but always be sure you don’t get mixed up with Black Magic. Work by The Law, the White Magic, for if you work the Black, yo must pay. It will always get you.”
Some years later, I was about to board a trolley car in front of the Strand Theatre on Fulton Street, Brooklyn, when a colored man accosted me with, “Hello, Doc. You don’t remember me, do you? I’m the telephone operator you met over here some years back.”
We stepped back, and he said he made good. He did not want for anything. And he certainly looked it: well-dressed, chipper, and bright. He had another man of color with him to whom he introduced me.
It occurred to me to ask him about a problem I was working on then, as to how he thought it would come out. He took me to one side in the poorly lighted street, thought a few minutes, and said, “Yes, Doc, you’ll come out all right in your present plans, but you must be guarded about Black Magic. Be sure and work White Magic. A Magic Man who knows his business must not let people know that he knows all. Just work the straight game, and all will go well.”
However, He did not object to my purchasing two tickets for the show whose door we were standing before. He and his friend went in, and I considered my philanthropy a while and finally went my way.
[Background: here’s the preface, forward, and notes from the editor of R.L.W.’s memoir; here’s his account of his upbringing through medical school; here’s when he self-inoculated with tuberculosis and went off to Paris with a charlatan; here’s where he treated typhoid, learned to dance, theorized, and sutured guinea pigs together; here’s where he contracted cholera and hooked his uncle up with testicular juice; here are his misadventures in self-publishing while treating a slow-motion suicide-by-drinking; here’s where he hung out with a magician and a vaudevillian; here’s where he recounts his singing career; here’s his ode to a Fulton Market butcher; here’s where he explains his profound love of music; here’s an account of a hard-partying man named Emrich; here are his escapades with a reporter, landing him at Carnegie’s house; here’s where he gets rooked by a crook of a partner; here’s where he lost his shirt working on an invention for 15 years; here’s where he traveled south during the World War and became a DuPont physician who was present for a mass industrial accident; here’s his description of complications involving his patients and practice; here’s his take on syphilis, polio, avoiding impositions, and the nature of success; here’s his description of making a coats-of-arms lantern-slide lecture; here’s his encounter with the Gaekwar of Baroda; here’s when he hung out with a hard-drinking Know Nothing Mason; and here’s a piece I wrote for New York Press upon first reading the memoir.]