Apollo Robbins, the TV personality, theatrical pickpocket and self-described “deception specialist,” took the stage at the Society of the Four Arts in Palm Beach yesterday afternoon for the season’s most unusual lecture. It was the sort of lecture in which the invasion of private space and the theft of personal property was not only tolerated but anticipated.
Robbins gained notoriety as a sleight-of-hand artist when he picked the pockets of two of President Jimmy Carter’s Secret Service agents, stealing, among other things, the keys to the president’s motorcade. In the centerpiece of his hour-long presentation at the Society of the Four Arts, he repurposed an old trick popularized by the Amazing Kreskin: He called on a volunteer to place a damaged $20 bill into a small snap-up pouch. He told the volunteer to hide that pouch on the person of anyone in the audience, and Apollo would have to find it.
For the next few minutes, Robbins walked through the crowd and did his thing; shaking audience members’ hands and patting them on the backs and shoulders like a smooth, glad-handing politician while secretly pilfering their watches, sunglass cases, rings and other personal effects, unbeknownst to most of our naked eyes.
Robbins came back to the stage with a jacketful of steals—most of his marks didn’t even recognize their possessions were missing—but not the pouch with the greenback. For that, he asked the pouch’s possessor to open it; there was no money inside. Instead, the money was tucked inside an uncut lemon, which was tucked inside the jacket pocket of the original volunteer. Cue the gasps.
Like most of the audience in attendance yesterday, I have no freaking idea how he pulled this trick off (I saw David Blaine perform a similar mind-bender to Harrison Ford, on a recent TV special), though misdirection on his part and distraction on ours certainly played a big role in it. The first question in the Q&A portion of the program was, “How did you get the money in the lemon?,” which of course did not receive a legitimate answer; Robbins instead provided a joke about smuggling drugs in produce.
The rest of Robbins’ presentation interspersed highlights from his surprising biography—as a child, he had to wear braces on his legs and overcome severe motor deficiencies—with fun, interactive brain games projected onto a screen. Robbins’ knowledge of our brain’s natural blind spots is almost harrowing; he used the analogy of the brain as a security guard hired to watch over everything in our bodies, but that can’t mind the front of the store if he needs to peruse a file in the back of it. We can’t process everything simultaneously (though Robbins himself appeared to be doing many things simultaneously), and it’s all too easy for a skilled criminal team to take advantage of this fact.
What makes us even better marks, he noted, is the atrophying of social awareness by blocking out the world with earbuds or by constantly texting. “We become human speed bumps” and “a nation of marks,” he said—zombies oblivious to the people around us.
It’s no surprise that many of Robbins’ colleagues and inspirations have spent time in prison, because, in the simplest parlance, they’ve used their gifts for evil rather than good. It’s comforting to know that Robbins, however, will always have our backs, even as he takes our shirts right off them.