Wearing a gray fedora and dressed in a white T-shirt, vest, shorts, and black shoes with bright white laces, Joe Spelton performed magic tricks at on Thursday, November 29, for a temporarily captive audience. The spectators were drivers waiting for the light to change at the intersection of Baltimore Drive and El Cajon Boulevard.
Spelton stood on the median facing north on Baltimore. At his feet was a brown case holding a sign that proclaimed "MAGIC SHOW." As drivers waited at the red light, Spelton produced a royal-blue piece of silk cloth and then made it vanish. The fingers of his empty hands moved as if he spoke a secret sign language, and then the blue silk reappeared.
A motorist responded with a honk. With a flourish, Spelton changed the color of the cloth to shamrock-green. He then turned the silk to its original color and transformed it into a coin. Some spectators tipped the magician. The signal arrow turned green, and drivers turned left onto the Interstate 8 east onramp or made a U-turn and traveled past the shopping center where tenants range from the 99¢ Only Store to El Torito.
Spelton, 23, was born in Oceanside. He's been a magician for two years and has performed in La Mesa for a year. "This is a full-time job,” he said in an interview. “I get to do what I love. The money is good — sometimes.” He said the largest single tip he's received was $20.
The pitfalls of doing magic in traffic? "There's always a chance of getting run over, but it's never happened," Spelton said. He performs on medians in La Mesa, usually around Fletcher Parkway, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Wednesday or Thursday. On the weekends, Spelton works his magic in San Diego, generally at Seaport Village. Those half-hour shows involve props like the ropes inside his brown case. On the median, Spelton is a one-trick magician who performs the "vanishing silk" routine during the two to five minutes when the stoplight is red.
"People look happy when I change the color. When I change the silk into a coin, they look confused," he said. "Most times, people love you. Sometimes people yell or cuss. However, that isn't often."
La Mesa councilwoman Ruth Sterling brought up Spelton's act at the November 13 city-council meeting, asking police chief Ed Aceves about ending the performances. Aceves explained that the vehicle code regulated how far from freeway on-ramps and off-ramps that people could stand. The police chief said that the City could "suggest the magic guy needs a permit for a business license."
Spelton said his last contact with La Mesa police was a year ago, when he was informed about the distance regulation.
"I'm protected under free speech, and I'm insured for $2 million," he said. Spelton knew "a little" magic and learned more from Jimmy Talksalot, a New Orleans magician who also performs at Seaport Village. Earlier this year, Talksalot won second prize at the street magic festival in St. Wendel, Germany. "That's what I want to do," said Spelton. "I want to be a world traveler."