Bait and Switch
30 January 2003
In Pizza Hut, or Pizza Express or Pizza the Action, something with water features and Formica tabletops, I'm watching a magician.
The magician in question is there to entertain the kiddies while their parents sip flat coke and wish the little fuckers would just stop shouting, while settling for having them shouting at someone else for a change. The guy was Italian, somewhere in his mid-twenties, perhaps a year or two older than my tablemates, and completely out of his depth. Given that most of his audience hadn't mastered bladder control, this was not a good situation to be in, for his self-esteem or his shoes. He juggled, and dropped.
Opposite me, Matt murmured about babies with horse's heads. I think he meant naturally-occurring ones rather than transplants, if "naturally" is the word I'm looking for here. He moved onto horses with babies' heads, which are somehow more difficult to visualise, as he had to draw a sketch on his napkin for the benefit of his girlfriend. I think about how long they've been together, what they will look like when they're thirty, whether he will get fat, whether I will, and remember that my maternal grandfather went bald as the magician shuffles into my peripheral vision. He's come to our table with a Reithian mission, but I think he just wants an audience who'll take pity on him. He gets one; we've been watching and sniggering as he was taken apart by a gang of psychotic oompa loompas, and it's all I can do not to convulse with guilt as he struggles through the trick with the pile of coins and the box. There's a limit to how many impressed noises you can make when a man is making minimum wage before your eyes, but we do our best, and he's caught unawares, I think, because in his gratitude he shows us how it's done, taking Matt's hand, placing it over the metal container and striking it hard on the table to release the magnified coin. Matt isn't a very tactile guy, but he's very good about it, even though he already knows; he knows stuff like that. It's only after the conjuror has enjoined us to enjoy our meal and headed off for a fag break that Matt lets the hand resting on the table uncoil and slide upwards, revealing the other fellow's watch.
Matt's good with prestidigitation. Personally, I've always felt that the nobler specialization is the bait and switch, the matador's trick of stage magic. Rather than relying on speed and dexterity, the bait and switch is a battle of wits. Your subject (the mark) is looking to catch you out. If he or she can just retain enough focus, you will be caught out. It's really that simple. Everything you do from there is an attempt to draw his attention away from whatever you're actually doing. The bait is what the mark believes. The switch is when that object is changed, without the mark realizing a thing.
These days, you usually come across bait and switch in retail. It's when you see a sign offering, say, a digital camcorder for a tenth or a hundredth of the normal price. You walk in, and the salesman tells you that, sadly, high demand for that product has left it completely sold out. However, since you seem to be in the market for a digital camera, sir/madam, a discerning customer like you can't fail to be interested in...
At this point, the smart consumer realises that there was never a cheap digital camera on sale, turns around and walks out of the shop. The dumb customer, or the customer too proud to admit that they were looking for a digital camera on the cheap, is persuaded to part with the readies for a product they didn't want in the first place.
Using a technique so beautiful and powerful for something as limited in scope as retail is practically an insult to David Devant and all his fine work and spirit wife. The bait and switch finds its simplest and most perfect form in the shell game. You know the one - ball, three shells, the bait being the chance to win a tenner, the switch being what you should be beaten with for falling for what is actually the oldest trick in the book, you fucking idiot.
As magic tricks go, bait and switch has far more practical applications than, say, sawing a woman in half. Depending on your lifestyle. Practitioners of this technique have before my eyes gulled bosses into taking the opportunity of an annual performance review to offer them a raise and their daughter's virtue. The faintest suggestion that one might regularly attend the same parties as Robbie Williams has been the bait resulting in more oral sex than you or I could possibly imagine, much less endure.
Ultimately, however, these remain venal aims, and I'd like to say how very, very glad I am to see bait and switch finally taking its rightful place among the mechanisms of our great democracies. Get ready to find the lady, because this is the age of the bait.
We're offering peace and freedom from fear. We want to give you homes and dignity. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance... on every free citizen. Keep your eye on the lady, there, sir. Your home may be at risk. Have you read and understood the End User License Agreement? We may not be able to protect your life, or your children's lives, but life means life means life. And there's always another sucker.
It's the rejection of defeat. You wouldn't play if you couldn't find the Queen of Hearts, or the pea, or if you weren't the kind of person who recognized a quality camera at an affordable price when they saw one. The human animal may generally or severally have faith in justice, or freedom, or love, or liberty. But as soon as it has faith in its own ability not to be deceived, you've got it.
The lady is under the table, the pea is stuck to the side of the shell, and while you were keeping an eye on your watch you have no idea whatsoever what I was doing with my other hand.
George wanted to put a handkerchief over the watch and hit it with a plate, but you can have too much of a good thing. We left it behind the bar.