Friday, October 30, 2009

The Quarter Trick


In the seventh grade a friend named Buddy showed me how to fling a quarter into the air so it would land heads-up every time. He would toss it 10 or 12 feet high and catch it flat in his right palm, with his left hand slapping down to secure it. Then Buddy would lift his left hand to show the coin to whatever audience there was — heads!

Of course, it could be tails, if that’s what the thrower desired; yes, there was a trick to it. With practice I learned how to do it, too.

As I remember it, first I learned how to do the quarter trick, then the bright idea of teaming up to beat a third guy in playing odd-man-wins emerged. I don’t recall which of us first suggested it.

It worked like this: If I always came up the opposite of Buddy, one of us would always win at tossing quarters. I don’t remember how much I enjoyed working the deception, before it became clear to me it wasn’t really a good thing to be doing.

We did it a few times and soon quit; at least I’m sure I did. This was just one of my lessons about the difference between a prank and cheating that needed learning. Pranks, or stunts, such as Orson Welles' famous “War of the Worlds” radio hoax (1938), fascinated me as a kid.

As a cartoon-drawing kind of boy, I was frequently so lost in my imaginary thoughts that learning lessons the hard way was inevitable. This same trait bought me occasional trouble that flowed from my experimental efforts at being a comedian.

The quarter trick came back into the picture when I started drinking beer in bars in the mid-1960s. In Richmond then, 18-year-olds could drink “three-point-two” beer, which was less-than-full-strength — not so different than drinking a light beer today. The cans or bottles has a green stamp on them.

At some point I bet some guy a beer I could flip ten heads in a row. After that I pulled the stunt so many times I won’t venture a guess at the number. Every now and then it would miss and I had to pay; most of the times it was more of a demonstration than a wager, anyway. Whether in a bar, or at a party, plenty of witnesses scrutinized my hands closely. However, if I missed catching the quarter, for whatever reason, it didn’t count as a throw. The deal was: ten straight throws and catches.

As it was introduced in the context of a bar trick and there was no hidden conspiracy, to me, that meant any slight of hand that might be involved was OK, morality-wise.

From about 1966, I have a vivid memory of watching lights flickering on a soaring quarter in Luigi’s, a popular beer joint on Harrison St. (The building now houses the 534 Club.) With each consecutive successful toss some in the attentive crowd called out the number. A cheer met the tenth heads-up, and I guess I won a beer that probably cost twenty-five cents.

It was all in the technique of tossing the coin. It had to be a quarter, too, I could never make it work with any other coin. Over the years lots of people have asked me how I did it.

The last time I performed the quarter trick was for my two grandchildren, Emily and Sam. I didn’t make them buy me a beer. But I don’t think I showed them how to do it, either. In fact, I don’t remember ever telling anyone much about how I actually did the trick until the other day in Chiocca’s, after a round of Frizbee-golf.

During the ride to Chiocca’s from Byrd Park, I got to thinking about various pranks, then the quarter trick. When I walked into the bar the first guy I spoke with was called Buddy when he was young. So, for no reason better than that I tried my best to explain to him how to execute the quarter trick. And, why it would land just as I wanted it to, when I did it right.

The feel for how to do the toss is very subtle. If the technique is ever so slightly off it turns the toss and catch into a fifty/fifty proposition. Anyway, I told the guy how it worked, or at least how I think it works.

Which is where this little memoir was heading all the way — in truth, I’m not completely sure I know how it works. I just know how it feels when I execute it perfectly. It’s not so different from throwing a putt perfectly in Frisbee-golf — when it feels righteous leaving my hand I know it’s going to hit the target.

Maybe I knew exactly how/why the quarter trick worked back when Buddy showed it to me. Maybe I still knew why it worked that night in Luigi’s. Or, maybe I’ve never known, for sure.

It’s a mystery now.

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