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  • Writer's pictureBilly Clery

Rats in the Sewer and Intimidation

So there I was on a blistering, hot Chicago Summer's day, shovel in hand, on a building site. I was feeling rather good to be out of brutal glare of the sun even though I was deep in a trench digging out a sewer line for a new housing development. This was my third, twelve hour day of working 'on site' and the black, Guinness t-shirt I was wearing had turned almost totally white from my sweat draining the black dye from the cotton. I was not enjoying this work at all.

On that day, as I was digging in the trench I stuck my shovel into the soil at about shoulder height and suddenly this black blurry mass spilled from the notch I had just created. It took me a second or two to adjust to this new presence in my trench and, when I did, I totally freaked out. I had disturbed a nest of rats! They were pouring out of the side of the trench and scurrying all around my feet. And I couldn't get out of the trench. I had to run to the end and climb the wooden ladder out. It was an awful experience.

Screw this, I said to myself. I'm getting me a pack of bikes and a suit.

You see, before leaving Ireland for Chicago I was totally enthralled with the Chicago bar magic scene. Reading about Marlo, Burger, Heba Haba Al, Bill Malone, Matt Schulien and the other famous and, to me, revered names on the Chicago circuit had made me think that little ol' me had no place working as a magician in their city. Hence, the fact that I was now digging sewer trenches with rats pouring from the walls.

I was so intimidated by the Chicago magicians that I didn't even bring a deck of cards across the pond with me. And the strange thing was that in Ireland I had done at least 200 paid magic gigs up to this point. But there is something about getting swarmed by rats during a twelve hour shift in the unforgiving heat with a shovel in hand that can blow away the sense of intimidation from other magicians...even for a short while.

So, the next day I did a Good Will Hunting move and didn't show up to get a ride to the building site. Instead I went to a Walmart and got me a suit, two packs of bikes (red and blue), a Sharpie and a pair of shoes and headed towards Wrigleyville; a bustling area of restaurants, bars and home of the Chicago Cubs baseball team.

Within twenty minutes I had three residencies. One paid $50 plus tips, one provided me with a meal and I worked for tips and one was tips only. I never worked for tips so had no concept of the amount of money that could be made on a busy day in was a lot. I got back to my apartment and told my friends that I had landed three residencies. I remember one of my friends said, "You don't seem to happy."

And I wasn't happy. The reality that I had landed three residencies hadn't fully sank in and I think I was in shock. I felt detached in a weird way. Like one minute I'm in a trench with rats and the next I am in a suit and earning way more money doing what I love in a city that seemed off limits to me because of the reverence I held the other Chicago magicians in. It took a long time for me to finally realise now I was one of those Chicago bar magicians!

Working in the Windy City proceeded to be one of the best experiences of my life. And to think that I could have missed out on all that due to feeling inferior and unworthy to work as a magician.

So to those rats, if you are reading this. Thank you for being the tipping point that forced me to follow my dreams. If we ever meet again I will bring you a block of cheese.

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