Spoon Man | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Spoon Man 

Once, just for the hell of it, Uri Geller stopped Big Ben. He says.

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By Rose Spinelli

When most people think of Uri Geller they think spoon bender. I'm no mind reader, but I'd be willing to wager not many think bulimia. Yet just barely into a book signing with the paranormalist, the discussion veers toward Geller's bout with the disease. Then the presentation takes on the flavor of a 12-step meeting, with Geller testifying about how the excesses of fame and wealth brought him to his knees--praying to the porcelain god. One Rolex wasn't enough; he wore two. He traveled with a retinue and 22 pieces of Louis Vuitton luggage--overflowing with gold-encrusted spoons, one would imagine. He threw money out of limos, he owned Lear jets. And he stuffed himself silly. Then he'd excuse himself and...well, you know the rest. A toothbrush played backup when the finger no longer cooperated. No detail is spared, no confessional stone is left unturned. Not so surprising considering the signing of his new book, MindPower Kit, is at Transitions bookstore, the literary house of worship for New Age enthusiasts. I'm just here to see him bend some metal.

The competition for seating was fierce. As the 7 PM hour drew near, a crowd eager for intimacy with the master began creating spaces, wedging chairs between aisles. Some peered out behind bookcases or through slivers of heads. Still, if only out of fear of bad karma, it was a peaceable group. A guy wearing a brilliant red turban, several out-of-towners, my yoga teacher. Many knew that Geller rarely makes intimate appearances--he usually performs in huge amphitheaters or on television. Several were holding MindPower Kit, ready to have their book dedicated and their complimentary crystal fortified with energy by a few seconds' worth of his stroking.

Geller's look can only be described as collegiate; not just his dress--plaid flannel shirt, jauntily unbuttoned at the collar, khaki Dockers--but also his features. Through our applause during his entrance, he suggested in a winsome accent (Israeli, we will find out) that yes, he is using his abilities to slow down the aging process. Throughout his talk, he never quite comes out and gives his age; instead the chronological biography of the twists and turns of a spoon bender's life eventually narrows this down for us. Ten minutes into it my neighbor grabs a pen and calculates 1946. He's 50. We nod reverentially.

Uri. He invites us to call him that, but corrects our pronunciation: it is Er-i, not Yoori. Uri is a kind of gentle soul. Witness his admission that whenever he's been tempted to use his powers to impose evil on others he hears screaming voices in his head. He is so unabashed about his life that even his attempts at discretion sometimes slip. Like a footnote about his detractors, some of whom he's taken to court for libel. One especially roils him. "Oh, I won't even mention names," he says with a dismissive wave, and then continues. "But I took him to court and I sued James Randi, and I won!" We laugh dotingly, but he doesn't seem to catch himself. Uri speaks to us in vivid stage whispers so that despite his sporty appearance one readily visualizes him in gold lamé or a magician's cape. Some of the stories are so fantastic that, to the doubting Thomases, they cry for verification. Yet he maddeningly glosses over the details. At every turn he speaks of discoveries and realizations that take years for the average human to arrive at. His recovery from bulimia occurred in one burst when one day, in a weakened condition, he fell out of his limo. This is how Uri Geller cured himself: "In that moment I knew I had to stop this madness!" While others might turn to fellowship for support, some to psychotherapy, Uri says simply, "One, two, three, stop!" His gag impulse is forever vaporized.

It appears Uri Geller has more than flatware in his bag of tricks. In Defending Your Life, Albert Brooks had to die in a car crash to discover he was only using a fraction of his brain power. Uri stumbled onto this notion at age four during breakfast in his mother's kitchen in Tel Aviv. That's when he bent his first spoon, the trick that would remain his signature shtick for most of his life. He doesn't tell us if his mother fell off her chair in shock or promptly rushed him to a witch doctor or the neighborhood rabbi, only that she offered suspicions that his connection to Sigmund Freud (a blood relation, he says) might account for his unusual skill.

Throughout his life, which began in poverty, Uri continually dazzled himself and others with his wizardry. "I discovered I could amaze people just by using the power of my mind," he says with saucer eyes. And he begins to regale us with stories: At six he wished for a puppy, only to have his father wake him one morning to alert him to a cardboard box on their balcony that served up one brand new puppy, warm and cuddly. At 12 his heart desired a Vespa. Bingo! He walked down the street and found a fistful of cash to buy one. He became a whiz at fixing broken watches, grandfather clocks, and household appliances. He read the minds of his mother's friends. He helped soccer teams win championships. He disliked school so he made the clock jump hours ahead. Once, just for the hell of it, he stopped Big Ben.

Everything Uri touches is earthshaking. Something that might be a singular defining moment in most people's lives happens to him all the time. His litany continues: He emerged as a successful male model--who needs head shots or agents?--because one day the professional guy didn't show up. He performed for Golda Meir. He spied on the Russians for the United States during the cold war. And he made bazillions by searching for precious metals. It's usually done with a divining rod, but Uri just used his will. He tells his stories in swells and ever-heightening pitches, making sure to include statistics. He's read the minds of 10,000 people! He's fixed 2.6 million watches! He's repaired 14 million appliances!

But Uri, I want to scream, time is running out; let's fix some watches here--at least bend a spoon. Eventually--perhaps he's reading my mind--we do get to the visual portion of the show. "Does anyone have a spoon?" he asks. Surprisingly no one thought to bring one (though some of us might have been wondering what harm it would have done to have lugged that broken blender). He produces one of his own but prefers one that has "100 percent nothing to do with me." As he chooses one from the coffee bar, he asks us all to take out our keys and join him in engaging our own mind power. "It's simple," he instructs, "just touch it lightly with your finger." Then he weaves around the room, showing us how he gently strokes the spoon handle while intoning "Bend, bend, bend." Within moments small gasps are heard, heads bob, and people become rattled, not sure where to focus their attention. "Look," he says, "it's starting to go already." Even after he removes his finger the spoon continues to dip downward. "Sometimes it goes all the way to 90 degrees. Ninety degrees!" he cries. And the audience? "Did anyone bend their key?" He asks his humble students, who have all failed the pop quiz. Someone in the audience asks for a clue as she strokes. "What should we be thinking about?"

"Don't think. Command it to bend!"

On to the next feat. He asks for a volunteer from the audience. He chooses a woman who emerges from the crowd bashful but excited. As she approaches Uri begins to ask her a question but interrupts himself and steps back slightly. "I know what you're thinking about me," he says demurely. "Thank you. Thank you." This is Jenny, who by now is beet red.

"Think of a color," he instructs her, "but make it a simple one." Uri warns us that this may not work--the beeping of the store's security bars is distracting him and there are no children present who might aid him. "Children have an enormous amount of energy. When I do this, I usually surround myself with children."

Now Jenny is to write the color she's selected on a board behind him. We are to look at the word she's written, memorize it, and then look into his eyes, sending it to him. Nervously, Jenny selects white. The first try is unsuccessful. We all concentrate harder: white, white, white. Nothing. "I warned you sometimes this doesn't work. It's really embarrassing when this happens on television." Gallantly, he insists on one more try. He touches his forehead, squeezes his eyes, and says, "Wait a minute...it's not really a color though...is it white?" Hooray! We cheer. As if that weren't spectacular enough, he adds a dollop of icing. "Now, I'm not going to punish anyone, but may I ask, was anyone thinking green?" A man shoots up his hand and confesses he was attempting to make Uri think green. But there's no room for sabotage in our group and Uri says firmly, "Don't do it again."

Uri explains his process. "I don't hear the word white. I don't feel white. I see it. I visualize a TV screen with a gray background and a line entering from the right, and it writes out the word white." There's a whole list of questions yet to ask--does that mean you wrote the word puppy? Do pictures work too? What if you don't know how to spell it? But he has been signaled that time has run out. He has a plane to catch, many books to sign, and crystals yet to empower. Ever a crowd pleaser, he tosses us one more feat. He asks us to find our keys one more time and to check them for any signs of bending. It feels a bit like a lottery, everyone checking keys, eager to be the one to end up with a crooked, ruined key. There seems to be no winner at first, but just as we're all about to give up a voice from the back is heard. A discomfited man brings his bent key to Uri. "It's a brand new car," he repeats over and over, clearly swept up in the miracle. Uri asks him to tell us the make. "A BMW," says the man. "Oooh," says the crowd.

He closes with some final advice for us all. He speaks of spreading love so that we might use our newfound power to build strong relationships and good health--isn't that more important than riches? In all of his accounts, he says, in all of wonderworking--and this is what we all want to hear--what we see before us is nothing more than an ordinary man exercising a strong will. He is not special; we could all be conjuring puppies and instantly detecting the desires of those who wish to see us naked. You just have to believe in yourself. The MindPower Kit will help us develop the extrasensory perception we all possess within us. It includes exercises to stop smoking, lose weight, stay younger longer. It contains a meditation circle that Uri personally empowers with positive energy on the first of every month at 11 AM and 11 PM Greenwich mean time. It tells us how to effect dramatic changes in our health and well-being. And Uri is kindly donating some of the profits from his book to Save the Children. So why do I feel so discouraged and inadequate, like when I read a self-help book in which the expert tells us story after story of how he turned his life around? Why am I hesitant to cough up the $19.95? The money disbursed today could be money found in spades tomorrow. This I know to be the working theory behind New Age prosperity. Uri, surrounded by his adoring followers, is not ten feet away from me, yet oceans seem to separate us. The cash register is ka-chinging furiously. I go looking for Jenny for inspiration and to ask her exactly what it was she was thinking about Uri when she was blushing. She is still flustered and babbles something about what a nice man he is, while we both fend off her critics who remind her white is not a color. By the time I leave our group, I can't be sure who is exercising greater power of will, me or the snaking line of people grasping their Mind-Power Kits and waiting to meet Uri Geller.

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