Magic: the ashtray trick


In the Good Old Days when smoking was compulsory in restaurants, I used to be spellbound by the waiter’s ashtray trick. *

The waiter approaches the table, covers the old ashtray with a clean one (upside-down, to boot), picks them up together, and whisks the old one away while placing the clean one (now the right way up!) on the table with a triumphant flourish.

It may not sound like much, but its trompe-l’oeil was always a mystery that captivated me, a kind of magic. Like sonata form, some might prefer not to analyse its technicalities, and indeed I’ve only just worked it out. I recall admiring it mainly in Greek and Italian restaurants, but it’s clearly part of the urbane waiter’s general repertoire. The smoking ban hasn’t quite rendered it obsolete—now it can serve for an ashtray holding olive stones and pistachio shells [I beg yer pardon?The Plain People of Ireland].

I wonder who invented the trick. For the most artistic result, identical ashtrays are de rigueur, and since the device itself only became popular in the 20th century, it clearly can’t be credited to Socrates or Confucius, for a change. If only someone had documented early experiments; it’d make a great Tommy Cooper routine. I like to think of young trainees placing the new ashtray on top of the old one, picking them both up, and then nonchalantly replacing the old one on the table; or placing the old one upside-down over the new one, which is then put back on the table, still full… **

I imagine a handsomely-funded research project documenting the trick’s gradual diffusion around the world.

Thinking as usual of the Li family Daoists, Wu Mei hasn’t yet worked it into his routine for the afternoon of funerals (my film, from 42.52). Nor does it appear to have been in the skill-set of Julie Walters:

See also The wonders of juggling; and for more waiter jokes, click here and here.

* For punctuation nerds, Wiki helpfully tells us that the one-word unhyphenated form “ashtray”, rather than “ash tray” or “ash-tray”, didn’t come into common use until 1926.

** My fantasy here must be inspired by Woody Allen’s early “Yes, but can the steam engine do this?” (The New Yorker, 1966; included in Getting even, 1971). Some highlights:

It was just another item in one of those boiler-plate specials with a title like “Historagrams” or “Betcha Didn’t Know,” but its magnitude shook me with the power of the opening strains of Beethoven’s Ninth. “The sandwich,” it read, “was invented by the Earl of Sandwich.” Stunned by the news, I read it again and broke into an involuntary tremble. My mind whirled as it began to conjure with the immense dreams, the hopes and obstacles, that must have gone into the invention of the first sandwich. My eyes became moist as I looked out the window at the shimmering towers of the city, and I experienced a sense of eternity, marvelling at man’s ineradicable place in the universe. Man the inventor! Da Vinci’s notebooks loomed before me—brave blueprints for the highest aspirations of the human race. I thought of Aristotle, Dante, Shakespeare. The First Folio. Newton. Handel’s Messiah. Monet. Impressionism. Edison. Cubism. Stravinsky. E=mc²…

1741: His first completed work—a slice of bread, a slice of bread on top of that, and a slice of turkey on top of both—fails miserably. Bitterly disappointed, he returns to his studio and begins again.

1745: After four years of frenzied labor, he is convinced he is on the threshold of success. He exhibits before his peers two slices of turkey with a slice of bread in the middle. His work is rejected by all but David Hume, who senses the imminence of something great and encourages him. Heartened by the philosopher’s friendship, he returns to work with renewed vigor.

1750: In the spring, he exhibits and demonstrates three consecutive slices of ham stacked on one another; this arouses some interest, mostly in intellectual circles, but the general public remains unmoved. Three slices of bread on top of one another add to his reputation, and while a mature style is not yet evident, he is sent for by Voltaire.

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