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I wrote this because I heard a couple of kids talking about how great it would be to be the Wizard of Oz, and thinking that no job, no matter how interesting or powerful, is ever quite what it’s cracked up to be. Go ask George W. Bush or Barack Obama—or the Wizard of West 34th Street.

The Wizard of West 34th Street

I’m sitting at my desk, pretty much minding my own business and wondering how the Knicks will do when they go up against the Celtics in a few hours, when Milt Kaplan starts muttering into his phone about fifteen feet away from me. I try not to pay attention, but he gets louder and louder, and there is a desperate tone in his voice, and it becomes clear that he is being harassed for rent money or a credit card bill or a phone bill or (knowing Milt) probably a combination of all three.

Finally he slams the phone down and stares at the wall. For almost three minutes, which is a long time to stare at anything except a pretty girl. I am afraid he might be getting suicidal, so I figure a funny remark will bring him back to Earth, and I tell him that he can only stare at his half of the wall, if I see his eyes darting to the right I’m going to charge him the standard fee for staring at my half.

He doesn’t crack a smile, but when he speaks his voice is soft and strained.

“I think I’m gonna have to see the Wiz,” he says.

“Of Oz?” I ask with a smile.

He shakes his head and doesn’t return the smile. “Not unless Oz has moved to the West Thirties.”

So now I figure he has gone off the deep end, he’s just being quiet about it.

He checks his watch. It’s a quarter to noon.

“What the hell,” he says. “They’re not gonna fire me for taking an early lunch. If he’s in the usual spot, I’ll be back by one. If not, cover for me.”

I don’t want to let him go walking through noontime traffic in this state of mind, so I get to my feet.

“Want a little company?” I ask.

“Sure,” he says. “It’s chilly out, and if there’s a line waiting to see him, it’ll be nice to have someone to talk with.”

We put our coats on, take the elevator down from the 27th floor, walk through the lobby, and out the main entrance.

“I hope the import/export business doesn’t grind to a halt because we left a little early,” I say,

“I was arranging for two gross of Bermuda shorts for what we call extra-large women,” he replies. “I think the country can survive an extra hour and a quarter without them.”

We walk south a few blocks, then turn right when we come to 34th Street.

“Six or seven cross-city blocks and we’re there,” he announces, heading off.

“We’re where?” I ask.

“Where we’re going,” he says.

“Is it a building, or a restaurant, or what?”

“That all depends.”

Now I know he’s crazy, because locations don’t change from one thing to another on a whim. It’s getting chilly, so I figure if I can get him to admit we’re on a wild goose chase, maybe we can stop at a coffee shop, warm up, and go back to work at a quarter to one, before anyone gets too mad at us. So I ask: “What does it all depend on?”

“Where he’s at, of course,” says Milt.

“Where who’s at?” I ask in exasperation.

“The Wiz,” he explains as if to a child. “Where the hell did you think we were going?”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” I say, because there is a story circulating around that whenever Milt Kaplan gets lost he can usually be found in Passaic with a blonde named Bernice. He doesn’t seem inclined to expand upon his answer, so finally I ask where we are going.

“West 34th, of course,” he answers. “Where else would we be going?”

“Beats the hell out of me,” I say. I’d shrug, but it’s too damned cold out.

“I mean,” Milt continues, “he is the Wizard of West 34th Street. Why would I look for him anywhere else?”

“The Wizard of West 34th Street?” I repeat. “I never heard of him.”

“He doesn’t advertise.”

“An understatement,” I say.

“My wife hates it when I go to him. She always thinks he’s going to want to be paid with my soul instead of with money.” He snorts. “As if anyone could find the damned thing.” He shakes his head. “I’ve got no choice. We could lose the apartment—and trying to get a place after you’ve been living a dozen years with rent control …” He lets his voice tail off.

“Tell me about this Wizard,” I say. “Does he wear a pointed hat and a robe with all the signs of the Zodiac?”

Milt shakes his head. “He dresses just like anyone else.” He pauses thoughtfully. “Maybe a little worse.” Another pause. “And he usually needs a shave.”

“Goes with having a long white beard,” I suggest.

“Nah,” says Milt. “Usually it’s just stubble. Kind of the way Clint Eastwood used to look in those spaghetti Westerns, only gray.”

“And this is a guy you think is a wizard?”

“I don’t think it, I know it,” replies Milt. “We all know it.”

“Who all knows it?” I ask.

“All the guys who use him.”

“Sound like he’s got a hell of a sweet racket going,” I say. “I’m surprised the cops haven’t busted him.”

“Why should they?” he shoots back. “There’s never been a complaint against him. Hell, sometimes the cops use him too.”

“I’ve got to see this wonder worker,” I say.

“You will,” he promises as we cross Sixth Avenue. “He’s usually somewhere between Eighth and Tenth.”

“He must be freezing his ass off.”

Milt chuckles. “We’ll find him in a bar, or perhaps a sandwich shop, either on 34th itself or maybe two or three buildings north or south on one of the cross streets. He doesn’t like being outside except in the summer.”

So we walk, and I try to guess which brownstone Rex Stout pretended that Nero Wolfe lived in, and we peek into the windows of a couple of bars, but Milt shakes his head after a moment and we keep on, and finally come to a deli.

“Yeah, there he is,” says Milt without much enthusiasm. “Damn, I hate this!”

“So let’s turn around and go back to the office,” I say.

“I can’t,” he responds unhappily. “I need the money.”

“What is he really?” I ask. “Some kind of loan shark?”

He shakes his head again. “You coming in with me?”

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” I say, falling into step behind him as he enters the place. We make a beeline for a table where this middle-aged guy is sitting. His clothes clearly came off the bargain rack to begin with, and have all seen better days and better years, and the shoes have probably seen better decades. He’s got a bowtie beneath his unbuttoned collar, but it’s just hanging down, and I get the feeling that the next time he ties it into a bow will be the first time. There’s a patch on his jacket’s elbow, and he could use a haircut or, failing that, at least a comb.

“Ah, Milton!” he says, looking up from his meal, which seems to consist entirely of chopped liver and rye bread, plus a couple of cheese blintzes. “How nice to see you again! Sit down. Have a knosh.”

“‘Have a knosh?’” I repeat. “What kind of language is that for a wizard?”

He stares at me. “How many wizards do you talk to on a daily basis?” he asks at last.

“This is my friend Jacob,” says Milt hastily. “Can he join us?”

“Got no room at this table for Jacobs,” says the Wizard. He turns to me. “You want to sit at an informal table like this, you got to be Jake.”

“Okay, I’m Jake,” I say, sitting down.

“You look like you are,” he says. I frown, trying to figure out what the hell he’s talking about. “Forget it,” he adds. “It’s an old expression I found lying on the floor.”

“Have you got a name?” I ask.

“You couldn’t pronounce it,” he replies. “Just call me Wiz.”

The waiter comes up and hands the Wiz a folded note. He opens it, reads it, and shakes his head. “It’s gonna rain Tuesday morning, and this horse can’t stand up in the mud, let alone run six furlongs on it. Tell him No.”

“I heard the forecast just before I left the house this morning,” I say. “It calls for clear weather all week.”

“Amazing how these guys can stay in business when they’re wrong so often,” comments the Wiz, pouring some cinnamon sugar on his blintzes. “So, my friend Milton, what can I do for you today?”

“I’ve got a bit of a cash flow problem,” says Milt.

The Wiz closes his eyes for a few seconds, and he frowns like he’s concentrating on something. “You don’t have to sugar-coat it, Milton, not with me. You’re in deep shit.”

Milt nods uncomfortably.

“Could be worse,” says the Wiz. “You could live in some town where you needed a car, because if you did they’d sure as hell have repossessed it if you’d waited this long to see me.”

“I kept waiting for the market to turn,” answers Milt miserably. “My broker kept saying it would happen any day.”

The Wiz makes a face. “Brokers!” he snorts contemptuously. “They’re almost as bad as weathermen.” He pauses and stares at Milt. “How much do you need?”

“Don’t you know?” asks Milt, surprised.

“My mistake,” amends the Wiz. “How much do you want? We both know how much you need.”

“Twelve, thirteen grand?” says Milt, though it comes out more as a question.

“How soon?”

“By Friday.”

“Too bad,” says the Wiz. “There’s a really nice filly who’ll be running for a big price on Saturday.” I must have made a face, because he turns to me. “You don’t think she’ll win?”

“I don’t even know who the hell she is,” I say. “But somehow I thought a wizard was more than a racetrack tout.”

“I’m not a racetrack tout,” he replies. “I haven’t been to Belmont or Aqueduct in years.”

“You know what I mean,” I say.

“Yes, and I want you to remember that I didn’t take offense at it.” He turns to Milt. “Give me a pen.” Milt supplies one, and he begins scribbling on a paper napkin. “You still have a little over seventeen hundred dollars in your bank account. Take it out—”

“All of it?” interrupts Milt, his voice shaking a little.

“Take it out,” repeats the Wiz firmly. “Give it to your broker, and tell him to go to the commodities market and invest it all on what I just wrote down.” He looks up at Milt. “Now, this is important, Milton, so pay attention. He has to buy between noon and 1:00 PM on Wednesday, and he has to sell it between 10:00 and 11:00 AM on Friday morning. If one or the other of you fucks up either end of it, don’t come running to me.”

“And that’ll give me thirteen grand?” asks Milt.

“After my fee,” says the Wiz.

“Oh, of course,” agrees Milt promptly. “Thank you, Wiz.”

The Wiz shrugs. “It’s my job.”

“Your job?” I say. “Who do you work for?”

“I’m a freelancer.”

“Are there any other wizards in Manhattan?” I ask.

“Not to my knowledge.” A brief pause. “I sure as hell hope not.”

“Don’t want any competition, eh?” I say with a smile.

He stares at me with suddenly sad eyes that have seen too many things. “If you say so, Jake,” he says at last.

Milt gets to his feet. “I owe you big time, Wiz,” he says.

“I’ll collect, never fear,” the Wiz assures him. He sighs, suddenly deflated. “I always collect.” It sounds like anything but a brag.

“You won’t be offended if I leave?” continues Milt. “I want to get by the bank before I go back to the office.”

“Not a problem,” says the Wiz. He nods toward a woman who is wearing a dress that just doesn’t belong in a cheap deli, along with furs and diamonds that would be ostentatious even fifty blocks north of where we are. “I have someone else waiting to see me.”

“Nice meeting you,” I say, getting up and trying not to sound too insincere.

“May I offer you a suggestion, Jake?” he says, and then adds: “Freely given.”

“Sure, why not?” I say in bored tones, waiting for him to tell me what horse or boxer to put some money on.

“I have a feeling that you were planning on having dinner at Rosario’s tonight.”

“Now, how the hell did you know that?” I ask, surprised.

“Just a guess.”

“Damned good guess,” I admit. I turn to follow Milt to the door.

“My suggestion?” he says, and I stop and turn back to him.


“Don’t eat there this evening,” says the Wiz.

Before I can answer, he signals the bejeweled lady to come to the table, and I join Milt in the street.

I don’t go to Rosario’s Ristorante that night. I don’t know why. Maybe I just have a taste for Greek food instead. I really don’t think what the Wiz said has anything to do with it.

But the next morning, as I am getting dressed, I hear on the news that Rosario’s has burned down to the ground, and that six diners have died in the blaze.

* * *

I am back at the deli at noon, but he’s not there. I walk up and down 34th Street, peeking in windows, and I finally see him in a bar that looks even grubbier than the deli. He is sitting in a booth, smoking a bent cigarette and talking to someone who looks like a male version of the lady in the furs and diamonds. I don’t want to interrupt him, but I am damned if I’m going to just turn around and go back to the office, so I enter the place and sit down on a bar stool in the corner, right below photos of Mickey Mantle, Joe Namath, Willis Reed, Secretariat, and Tuffy Bresheen, a lady Roller Derby star from before I was born.

I nurse a beer for about ten minutes. Then the well-dressed guy gets up and leaves, but before I can even climb off my stool a tiny man—in the dim lighting I can’t tell if he’s a dwarf or a midget—climbs onto the booth opposite the Wiz, asks a single question, looks damned pleased with the answer, and walks right back out.

“Ah, it’s the Real Jake,” says the Wiz. “I appreciate your patience. Come join me. Bring your beer.”

I walk over and sit down, placing my beer on the stained tabletop.

“What can I do for you, Jake?” he asks.

“How the hell did you know Rosario’s would burn down?” I demand.

“What difference does it make?” he responds. “I was right, wasn’t I?”

“You know you were,” I say. I stare long and hard at him. “Did you set the fire?”

“Of course I didn’t,” he says. “We’re not going to be friends if you say things like that, Jake.”

Are we going to be friends?” I ask rather pugnaciously.

“Absolutely,” he replies. “I don’t do favors for just anyone, you know.”

“No,” I say. “They have to pay you.”

He almost winces. “Did I charge you a penny?” he asks in hurt tones.

“Why me?” I say.

“Because there’s enough pain in the world,” he answers. He stares at me. “I do you a service, I save you from second-degree burns, and I don’t charge you a thing. Why should that bother you?”

“Second-degree burns?” I repeat.

He nods his head.

“Not first-degree or third-degree?” I say.

“No,” he answers mildly but with absolute certainty. “Second-degree.”

“You’re sure?”

“I never lie,” he says.

“So you saved my life …” I begin.

“Not your life,” he answers. “But a considerable portion of your skin.”

“And you didn’t charge me a thing,” I continue. “But you charge people for giving them winners at the track, or telling them what stock to play.”

“Oh, I do more than that,” he says. “I tell actors which plays to try out for and which ones won’t run a week. I tell fishermen where they’re biting and where they’re not.” A sudden smile. “I even tell Tootsie La Belle when to tone down her strip routine because a couple of cops are waiting to arrest her if she goes too far.” He takes another sip of his beer. “It’s much more than stocks and horses, Jake. I’m not a tout or a prognosticator. I’m the Wiz.”

“What else can you do?” I ask.

“What else do you want?”

“Hell, I don’t know,” I admit. “I should be thanking you for saving my life—”

“Your skin.”

“Okay, my skin. But instead, I’m getting more and more frustrated because I don’t understand you.”

“What’s to understand?” he says. “I’m the Wiz. I see suffering, now or in the future, and I do what I can to cure it, or at least alleviate it. People come to me with their problems, just like they go to a doctor or a dentist.”

“Or a priest,” I say.

He smiles. “Well, in this neighborhood, it’s more likely to be a rabbi.” He stares at me. “So what is it that troubles you?”

“You can pick winners. You can pick stocks. You can pick hits and flops. You can probably pick political races. So why aren’t you worth billions?”

“What would I do with billions?”

“You could start by getting a shave and haircut, and maybe taking a bath. You could dress a little better, and live a lot better,” I say. “Hell, you could buy the Empire State Building.”

“Probably,” he agrees. “But what would I do with it?”

“Didn’t you ever want to be something else?” I ask, and the second the words are out of my mouth I realize what a damnfool stupid question it is. After all, he’s the Wiz.

And suddenly there’s a very wistful smile on his face. “More than you can possibly imagine.”

“Well?” I say.

He utters a deep sigh. “It’s not as easy as you think or I wish.”

“Why not?”

“There’s your friend Milton, and a thousand other Miltons,” he answers. “Where would they go if there wasn’t a Wiz?”

“That shouldn’t be your concern,” I respond.

“Oh?” he says curiously. “Whose concern is it?”

“Theirs, of course,” I say.

He shakes his head sadly. “They’re not up to it, Jake,” he replies. “That’s why they come to me.”

“So the noble Wiz saves them all,” I say.

“No, Jake. I can hardly save any of them,” he says. “Look out the front window.” People are walking past, and he starts pointing at them. “Heart attack. Cancer. Cancer. Mugged in the subway. Alzheimer’s. Aneurism. Cancer.” He turns back to me. “I can’t save, or even help, more than one of them, and only if he asks me.”

“There are rules to being a saint?” I ask sarcastically.

“I’ve no idea,” he answers. “But there are rules to the Wizard game.”

“So am I going to read about those seven people tomorrow?”

He shakes his head. “Some of them will live another twenty or thirty years. The man in the blue coat won’t make it past the end of the week.”

“You’re sure of all that?” I say.

“I’m sure.” He lights another cigarette. “I’m sure of something else, too.”

“What?” I ask.

“No matter how it appears to you, it’s not a blessing.”

I check my watch. “I’ve got to get back to the office.”

“Stop by again, Jake. We could become friends. I’d like that.”

“There’s probably a thousand men and women who want to be your friend,” I say. “Why me?”

“Because you don’t want anything from me.”

“No, I don’t,” I say, getting up from the booth. “Keep your millions. I won’t even envy you until I’m back at the office.”

“Never envy me, Jake,” he says seriously.

“Okay, as soon as I’m at my desk I’ll go back to envying LeBron James, or maybe Tom Cruise.”

“What floor is your office on?” he asks.

“The 27th. Why?”

“Can I make a suggestion?” he says.

I just stare at him.

“Take the freight elevator.”

“Why?” I demand.

“Just a hunch.”

“Bullshit,” I say. “Whatever’s going to happen, you know exactly what it is.”

“I don’t want to rush you, Jake, but the lady who just came in is worried about her son, who’s seeing some action in the Middle East. She’s very distraught, and I don’t want to keep her waiting.”

So I go back to the office, and I take the freight elevator, and an hour later Milt enters and sits down at his desk.

“Long lunch?” I ask, though I knew it wasn’t.

“Circuit on the fucking elevators blew,” he mutters. “We were stuck in the damned thing for over an hour.”

* * *

On Thursday I find him sitting on an ancient wooden bench that’s been set up outside a small grocery story on Tenth Avenue, just around the corner from 34th Street. It’s forty degrees and windy, and he hasn’t got an overcoat, but he doesn’t seem uncomfortable. He’s smoking a cigarette, and I sit down next to him.

“Those things’ll kill you,” I say, indicating the cigarette.

“No such luck,” he answers.

“Thanks for saving me from a couple of hours of being stuck in an elevator.”

He shakes his head. “An hour and ten minutes. Hour and a quarter, tops. Depends on which elevator.”

“Milt was stuck in one of them.”

“Poor guy,” says the Wiz, not without compassion.

“If you’re half as good as I think you are, you knew when he visited you in the deli that it would happen,” I say.

He shrugs. “Anything’s possible.”

“Then why didn’t you warn him?”

“He’s going to use up all his extra money just thanking me for putting him in the right commodities at the right time.” answers the Wiz. “And where would I be if I worked for free?”

“But you told me for free!” I yell.

“Keep your voice down, Jake. If we disturb enough people, Homer the cop will chase me back inside”—he indicates a grubby coffee shop three doors down—“and it’s too damned stuffy in there.”

“Then answer me!” I insist.

“It was an act of friendship,” says the Wiz.

“Why me?” I say, and realize I asked that the day before too. “What have I got that Milt and a thousand other supplicants haven’t got?”

He smiles. “For one thing, you’re not a supplicant.”

“That’s no answer.”

“Funny,” he says. “I could have sworn it was.”

“So all someone has to do to be your friend and get free use of your services is to not ask for them?” I say.

“No, Jake,” he says. Suddenly he stares intently at me. “I helped you because I have a feeling that we’re kindred souls.” His cigarette goes out and he pulls a semi-crushed pack from his pocket. “I take it you don’t want one?”

I shake my head. “I had a father and an aunt die from cancer.”

“You won’t die from cancer, Jake.”

“You can see that far ahead?” I ask.

“Just take my word for it.”

“What will I die of?” I continue.

“Most people don’t want to know.”

“I just want to know what, not when.”

“Let it go, Jake,” says the Wiz, and suddenly he looks very old and very tired. “I don’t like talking about the end of things.” He taps his temple with a forefinger. “I see enough of them in here.”

I stare at him for a minute. “I never thought of that,” I say at last. “I guess the Wiz business isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”

“You see?” he says with a sad smile. “I knew you were a kindred spirit.”

A guy who’s dressed even worse than the Wiz approaches us.

“Go away,” says the Wiz.

“Goddamn it!” whines the man. “You help everyone else! I really need it, Wiz!”

“If you’re still here when I count to five, I’m calling Homer over and telling him you’re harassing me.”

The guy mutters an obscenity and wanders off.

“He looked pretty desperate,” I say.

“He is,” agrees the Wiz. “He’s panhandled enough money for a ten dollar bet at his bookie’s. He’s looking for a longshot, and if it comes in, he’ll just spend it on crack.” He grimaces. “Let him learn how to read a Racing Form, or maybe even work for it.”

“So it wasn’t that you couldn’t help him …” I say.

“I have an unwanted gift,” he explains. “I didn’t ask for it, and I don’t want it—but as long as I’ve got it, I’ll use it the best way I can. And that doesn’t include helping a guy cheat on his wife, or a druggie score with his pusher.”

“Did you just wake up one day and suddenly you were the Wiz?” I asked.

He smiles a wistfully sad smile, closes his eyes, and slowly shakes his head. “I asked a foolish question.”

“What question?”

“Better you should remain ignorant,” he says.

The wind starts blowing harder.

“You hungry?” he asks suddenly.

I think about it for a moment. “I could eat.”

We enter the coffee shop and sit down at a table.

“Where are the menus?” I ask, looking around for one.

“Have a burger,” he says. “That’s all they make until evening.”

“Then why don’t we go to a joint with a better selection?”

“This one suits me fine,” he says.

I see we’re not going to leave, so I order a cheeseburger with grilled onions and a beer. He doesn’t even order; the waitress just says she’s bringing him the usual and he smiles and nods at her.

“So how’s the world treating you, Jake?” he says.

“I’d tell you, but you already know,” I answer.

He smiles. “Just making conversation.”

“It makes more sense for me to ask you the questions,” I say.

“That’s what I’m here for.”

“And none of these non-answers that don’t tell me a thing,” I add.

“I’ll answer as best as I can,” he tells me. “And I never lie.”

“How long have you been the Wiz?” I ask. “Surely you weren’t born this way, or everyone would know about you.”

“A long time,” he says with a bittersweet smile.

“Ten years?” I persist. “Twenty?”

“Seventeen years, six months, and eleven days,” he says, and then adds: “But who’s counting?”

“How did you become the Wiz?” I ask. “Is there some wizard’s school you went to?”

“It just happened one day,” he says.

I snap my fingers. “Just like that?”


“Why aren’t you working for the government?” I ask. “I’ll bet the Defense Department would pay a pretty penny for your skills.”

“I’ve already got more pretty pennies than I need,” he answers. “And I help people, not things.”

“Does it make you happy—helping people?”

“It did once.”

“Not any more?”

He sighs. “Nothing ever changes. No matter how many people I help, there are always more—and even with the ones I help, like Milton, the fixes are almost always temporary, not permanent.”

Our sandwiches and beers arrive. I take a bite of my cheeseburger. It’s not bad at all.

“So who do you like in tonight’s game?” I ask, changing the subject.

“Like’s got nothing to do with it,” he replies. “The Bulls are gonna make the Knicks look bad.”

I stare at him. “You know,” I say, “it occurs to me that knowing everything isn’t exactly the blessing it seems to be. When was the last time something surprised you?”

“A long, long time ago,” he says.

“And it’s not just knowing the races and the market, is it?” I continue. “If some woman agrees to go to bed with you, you knew she would before you asked her. Maybe you didn’t have to ask at all.” I look across the table at him. “You never feel surprised or lucky, do you?”

“Or loved,” he adds. “Just … inevitable.”

“I’m sorry for you, Wiz,” I say sincerely.

“There are compensations,” he says. “I get to help people.”

“A lot of them would get through the day without your help,” I point out. “Maybe most of them.”

He grimaces and his shoulders seem to sag. “Probably,” he agrees.

“Is everything predetermined?” I ask.

“Hardly anything is,” he says.


“You have free will, Jake,” he says. “I could warn you about Rosario’s and the elevator, but it was up to you whether or not to take my advice. When you get right down to it, what’s the difference between that and choosing to stop at a corner when there’s heavy traffic and you see a red light?”

“There are two differences,” I answer. “One is that you knew I’d take your advice. You could look ahead and see it. And the other is that the red light’s always there for everybody, and you aren’t.”

“Now you’re going to make me feel guilty,” he says, though he manages a smile.

“I don’t mean to,” I say.

“I know.”

“I’m just starting to realize what your life must be like,” I continue. “I wouldn’t have it on a bet.”

“You don’t bet once you’re the Wiz,” he says gently. “In fact, you can’t bet, because betting involves the element of chance.”

“You should never have volunteered to be a wizard.”

“I didn’t volunteer.” He stares at me. “You have qualities, Jake,” he says. “You ask a few questions, and in five minutes you’ve figured out that the wizard business isn’t quite exactly what it appears to be from the outside. I’m curious to know what you’ll ask next.”

“How about ‘What’s for dessert?’” I say.

He laughs, and suddenly his melancholy vanishes.

We order vanilla ice cream—it’s the only sweet they serve until dinnertime—and then we walk out into the street.

“You didn’t pay,” I note.

“I did them a favor last week,” he replies. “The meal’s a quid pro quo.”

I check my watch. “I’ve got to get back to the office,” I say.

“Thanks for eating with me,” he says, shaking my hand. “And for being my friend.”

“One of thousands,” I suggest.

He shakes his head. “The rest are supplicants.”

“Surely you have some friends, too,” I say.

“Real friends?” A wistful expression crosses his face. “I had one about eighteen years ago.” A pause. “Maybe a little less.”

“Just about the time you became the Wiz,” I say. “What happened to him?”

“I’ve no idea,” he answers.

“Didn’t work out, huh?”

“I guess you could say that.”

I think about the Wiz and his one friend all the way back to the office and most of the afternoon.

* * *

We meet for lunch a couple of times a week for the next month. He lets a few supplicants interrupt us, and he also refuses to talk to some others, and I can never tell by looking at them what the determining factors are. He talks to some bums and sends others on their way … but he also talks to some guys who have their chauffeurs drive them up and sends some of them packing too.

“How do you decide who to talk to?” I ask him.

“I thought I told you,” says the Wiz.

“There’s got to be some gray areas,” I say. “The good ones can’t all be trying to save their families from ruin, and the bad ones can’t all be junkies.”

“Mostly it’s instinct and intuition. Usually I can see what they’re going to do with the help I give them, but even that can be misleading.”

“So you can make mistakes?”

He nods his head. “Yes, from time to time.” He smiles. “After all, I’m only human.”

I stare at him. “Are you human?”

“I’m as human as you are, Jake,” he says earnestly.

“I don’t know about that,” I say.

“Oh?” he replies, arching an eyebrow.

“It’s human to take care of yourself. But you dress like a bum, and you eat all your meals in delis and dives, and if you’ve squirreled away any money you sure as hell don’t use it. Where do you live?”


“Why don’t I think you live in one of these brownstones?” I say.

“Because you’re a reasonable man, Jake,” he answers. “All I need is a place to sleep.”

“When’s the last time you showered?”

“Seriously?” he says. A guilty smile crosses his face. “The last time it rained after midnight.”

“How can you live like that?” I say in exasperation.

“I used to live in a penthouse,” he replies. “Brooks Brothers wasn’t upscale enough for my wardrobe. I had a maid and a butler, as well as a valet.”

“Why did you change?”

“The people who need me the most couldn’t find me there,” he says.

I shrug and turn my palms up. “How can I answer that?”

He smiles. “You’d feel damned foolish trying, wouldn’t you?”


“That’s one of the reasons I like you,” he says. “Not everyone is that perceptive.” He pauses thoughtfully. “In fact, hardly anyone is. I just had a feeling you could be my friend.”

“Your feelings have a way of coming true,” I acknowledge. “But you know something interesting?”


“You’ve never asked me if you could be my friend.”

“That’s not as important,” he says.

I just stare at him. “Why not?” I say at last.

“You have lots of friends already.”

Somehow I get the feeling that that’s as close as he’s come to a bullshit answer since I’ve met him,

* * *

We keep meeting, and we keep talking, and he seems open and friendly, but I can’t get over the feeling that he’s got some agenda I know nothing about. I still don’t know why a reasonably pleasant guy like the Wiz hasn’t had a friend in seventeen years, or why he’s chosen me out all the millions who live on this damned island.

We don’t do anything but meet and talk, occasionally in delis and coffee shops, now and then in bars, once in a while when the weather’s nice just out on a bench where anyone who’s looking for him can find him (though everyone who needs him seems to have no trouble finding him wherever we are).

We never go to the Garden for basketball or hockey, we never see a movie or a play, in truth we never get much more than half a block off 34th Street. He just wants to visit, to talk about almost anything, and he’s always straightforward—or at least I think he is—when we talk about what he calls the Wiz Biz.

“What do you do if someone won’t pay you after you’ve given them a winner, or told them how to avoid a mad dog gunman, or whatever?” I ask him one day as we’re walking down 34th Street.

“I’m the Wiz,” he says. “I know before I help them if they’re deadbeats.”

“That’s a pretty useful thing to know,” I say. “Man’s a deadbeat, you send him away.”

“Not always.”

“Why not?” I ask.

“Maybe his wife or kid is growing a tumor, and he’s not insured and hasn’t got enough to pay for a doctor. It becomes an ethical question: should they suffer because he’s a loser?”

“I see,” I say. “It’s not as simple as it seems at first.”

“Nothing ever is,” he says.

“Why don’t you quit?” I say. “Just walk away from it all?”

“Who’d be here to help them?”

“You’ve seen enough suffering,” I continue. “You’ve done your share. It’s their problem.”

“Just let them all suffer in pain and poverty when I can prevent it?” he says. “Is that what you’d do?”

I think about it for a long moment. “No,” I admit. “That’s not what I’d do. It’s just what I’d want to do.”

“I know,” he says, and I get the feeling he does know.

“When we first met,” I say, “I kind of envied you. I really did. I thought you had the greatest gift in the world. But the more we talk about it, the more I hate the choices you have to make day in and day out.”

“You learn to live with it,” he says.

“I don’t know how,” I say. “There’s so much pain, so much misery in the world. Most people just see a tiny part of it, but you—you see it all.” I shake my head. “What must it be like?”

He comes to a stop and grabs my shoulder.

“Say that again!” he says, and there’s a hint of excitement in

his voice as his fingers dig in.

I stare curiously at him. “What’s it like to see the future?”

“And you really want to know?”

“I asked, didn’t I?”

“Thank you, my friend,” he says with such an air of relief you’d swear he’s just run a marathon. “I have been waiting seventeen years for someone to ask me that.”

And suddenly his fingers feel like they’re dissolving on my shoulder. He seems to grow, not thinner exactly, but somehow less substantial, then translucent, and finally transparent, until there’s nothing left of him but a pile of grubby clothes on the ground and the butt of his still-burning cigarette,

All this happens seven years ago. Sometimes it feels like seven centuries.

* * *

I am the Wizard of West 34th Street. If you’ve got a problem, or a need, or just a question, come by and tell me about it. There is no situation too dire or too hopeless, nothing so complex that it’s beyond my ability to solve. There will be a fee, of course, but you’ll be happy to pay it, and I will never ask for it before you are pleased with the results.

I’m always around. If you don’t see me on the street, just ask one of the locals, or peek into a restaurant or a bar. There aren’t that many of them, and I’ll be in one. Don’t let my appearance fool you. I’ve got a Master’s degree, I have enough money that I’m not going to con you out of yours, and I guarantee that you won’t catch any diseases from me. How I look just isn’t important to me any more.

I’m here to answer your questions, so ask me anything you like.

Anything at all.



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