Meet a Legally Blind Magician Who Got His Start Performing on NYC Subways

Lately, I have been thinking about hope—about the way in which our human experiences are either derivative of hope or fear. A couple months ago, my friend Nancy introduced me to Justin Sight, a legally blind magician from Poland who lives in New York and specializes in “closeup magic that leads to greater understanding.” I’ve always been fascinated by magicians because of the observer’s reaction to them. You can always tell whether they’re driven by hope or something else depending on whether they try to outsmart the magician, or downright reject them. Those who surrender on the other hand, who choose to believe and bask in the revelry, they might know it’s not real, but don’t care either way. Magic is a choice. And as soon as you begin to see it, you also get to live it. Below, an intimate look behind the curtain of a magician’s day in the life.

Magic has the potential to open you up to a greater sense of the magic that is already here. The art of magic is a direct means of challenging one’s beliefs and perceptions about reality. The metaphor I like to use is that it throws a wrench into the cogs of everyday perception. The mind stops for a second and it doesn’t know what to do with the new data, because it goes against everything you’ve been conditioned to perceive. This then offers the opportunity to open you up to something unknown. And when you’re in that state, life has this magical tone to it, I have found.

Justin Sight is my stage name and I’m a magician.

Becoming a Magician

I’m from Poland, but moved here when I was 6: it’s very much an immigrant story. My mom lived in Greenpoint in the 80s, but when she went back to Poland, she saw a big economic disparity. It just wasn’t as easy to, I guess, make ends meet in Poland. The opportunities just weren’t there. She wanted my brother and I to have opportunities, a better life, and Poland wasn’t cutting the cheese, if that’s an expression.

I was turned on to magic when I was 10. I saw it on TV, in a special called World’s Greatest Magic. I watched a marathon of magicians from all over the world doing both stage and closeup magic. As a kid, I had this tendency to go full-in if something excited me and magic was one of those things, so I started learning as much as possible. I am legally blind. I have a condition called Stargardt macular degeneration. It’s a condition that is more common among the elderly. The cells die in the center of the retina and you can’t drive, glasses don’t help–I’ve always been very reserved, very quiet, but doing magic early on helped me connect with people in a way I wasn’t before. It opened this new dimension of social interaction and that probably kept me at it more.

It became my career about 6 years ago after I started performing on New York subways.

Blind Hope and the Pursuit of Independence

After graduating high school, I didn’t want to live with my mom anymore, I wanted to be independent but getting a job was difficult, even entry-level jobs, I just could not see well enough to do most of them. But I did get help from the state’s services for the blind, and I was hooked up with certain jobs—I did door-to-door sales. They would hire anyone for that. I hated the job but it did force me to confront my fear of talking to strangers. Then I did janitorial work at a warehouse where all employees were either mentally handicapped or something else.

In that job, I was suddenly immersed in an environment that forced me to recognize my own judgments. To be able to work with people in a way that was egoless, to be present with them—I mean it’s indicative of society that everyone just gets tossed into this warehouse shut away from society and I did feel that I wasn’t part of society. Like I was tucked away into a corner.

Neither of these jobs helped me become more independent. And then finally I got a job in Norwalk, Connecticut as a doorman at a hospital and during that time I really started to gain independence. I lived in the hospital’s housing on my own, and there was a Metro-North train that went into Manhattan. One day I decided to just go into Manhattan and find a meditation group. Then I started making routine trips to the city and that’s when I really saw the opportunity to pursue magic.

When you’re able to tune into something that you’re “meant to do,” it resonates on a soul level. And once you start taking action, the right people and circumstances come into your life.

It was a very energetic, profound experience. I was like, This is it. I had never felt that energy outside of Manhattan—being here made me think I could actually be a magician. For a while, I would just ride in and say, Today I’m going to perform, but I wouldn’t, I was too afraid. Then my hours got cut at the job I had in Connecticut and this put me in a position where now if I wanted to maintain independence, I had to make extra money. So I had an incentive to start street performing. I’d always wanted to do it, but I was afraid of being judged, of going out and being seen as a bum or something. I came in for three weekends in a row and I couldn’t do it. I was too afraid until finally….

I was at Washington Square Park, this was in October, and the sun was setting. It was cold and I just did it. No one came up to me at all but I was so happy performing, I got this energetic sense again—This is the right thing to be doing. Even just being there for 15 minutes, having no one come up to me—it gave me the confidence to come back the next weekend and set up at Great Central Station. On that day, a ton of people came up.

And that’s when the snowball started, all these synchronistic events unfolded.

I think a lot of people can testify to this, and it does seem to be the way the universe works, when you’re able to tune into something that you’re “meant to do,” that’s something that resonates on a soul level. And once you start taking action on that, the right people come into your life. The right circumstances come into your life. And that’s exactly what happened, it was nothing short of magical.

“Oh, You’re a Magician–Pull a Rabbit Out of a Hat!”

There are a lot of different stereotypes and perceptions about magic that people come with. So, a lot of times people are like, “Oh, you’re here to trick me. You’re here to take advantage of me.” Or they come at you and they’re like, “Oh, you’re a magician. You’re going to pull a rabbit out of a hat.” So there’s this diminishment factor that comes into it and without a doubt, I’ve had experiences where I feel diminished, my ego feels diminished by that. And then there’s a sense of wanting to defend, and then there’s this anger that comes through and the magic stops.

Losing the Magic and Then Finding It

Shortly after pursuing magic full time, I fell into a rut. I thought, Okay, I’ve got to make it. I’ve got to work hard and I got to get noticed. I got to get recognized. And things started happening very quickly but I lost the sense of spaciousness that I’d had at first—the big, revelatory, This is my purpose! had faded and I didn’t take good enough care of myself. I didn’t have the understanding that I needed… I didn’t comprehend fully why I had been so successful in the early days.

I was drinking a lot, and I wasn’t missing gigs, but the quality of my interactions with people were diminished. I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing, and when I was out performing, I started getting symptoms of carpal tunnel. It stopped feeling right.

I got back on track by reading A Course In Miracles, if you’ve ever heard of that. It’s considered a modern spiritual classic. It was written by a professor of medical psychology at Columbia University in the 70s. Reading it made me feel like I was digging out of the mud a little bit, but still not all the way.

And then I got bed bugs, which was a total wake up call, if only because it pushed me to start reading another book—Conversations With God—and that really started changing everything because it put me in touch with understanding why everything was working when it was working. It went deep into the mechanics of how your life unfolds and that brought me back to a place of faith. Suddenly I felt like I could just starting being who I want to be.

I didn’t have to wait to get discovered or anything—once you’re able to notice that nothing you get in this world is going to bring you the peace you’re looking for—that actually there is a way that that peace can be found at any moment, regardless of what’s happening out there—the nature of your pursuits totally change.

But How Do You Find Peace?

You have to look in yourself.

Maybe to make it more practical you ask questions like: what am I really? What does it feel like to be aware? And asking those questions and turning our attention inward and not accepting any mental constructions as answers, but really asking in an inquisitive way, with the intention of experiencing something rather than “getting” a concept, can put you in touch with a reality that’s always been there but has gone unnoticed.

A Day in the Life

Most of the time if I get hired for a gig, I’m walking around for small groups. I’ve also done shows on stage.

A lot of it is card-based magic, but I prefer to work with everyday objects. I borrow people’s rings, I use coins, phones, whatever but for me, it’s really about just being fully there with the person. Then my gut will tell me what the right trick will be.

You could say that being blind has helped. It definitely adds to the mystique of what I do when people realize I’m legally blind but there are definitely methods that are very common in magic that I just can’t use because I can’t see well enough.

One of my favorite tricks is this routine where you have two people standing and facing each other. And the idea is to illustrate the concept of quantum entanglement. You use that as a basis where you talk about how it’s a phenomenon where two particles behave as if they’re one particle. And the metaphor, the implication is that we’re all connected in some way, so you have them look into each other’s eyes and connect with each other. And then you tap one of their hands and ask if they feel anything, and the other person across from them feels a tap in their hand. That’s one of my favorite effects.

There’s another one where a person selects a card, and I talk about the nature of the observer and the observed. How it’s almost becoming common knowledge that they’re not two independent things. That there’s a very intimate relationship between what is observed and the observer. And that until something is observed, it’s not something at all.

So they select the card. I take another card and I draw a bunch of dots on the back and I say, “All these dots and lines, they may seem incomprehensible to you but this represents all the possible cards you could have chosen, existing at once. And if you want to be able to perceive your card, you need to repeat its name in your head over and over.” And as they repeat it, I say, “You’ll notice that there’s an intimate connection between what you concentrate on, and what you begin to perceive in your reality.” And they begin to see the dots and lines move and all of a sudden it spells out the name of their card.

Intended Outcome for the Performed On

Discomfort isn’t necessarily a bad thing for them to walk away feeling. Discomfort and confusion is often the beginning of a greater understanding. If they walk away disturbed, but then later on it leads them down a path to something greater, that’s great as well. I may not know, but I don’t mind.

My intention, again, is to be there as fully with that person as possible. And I trust that whatever they need is what they’re going to get.

As told to Leandra Medine

Leandra M. Cohen

Leandra M. Cohen is the founder of Man Repeller.

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