Sodium Polyacrylate (known as “slush powder” in the magic industry) is a white powder that can absorb up to 300 times its own weight in water. Half a teaspoon is enough to solidify a large glass of water, tranforming it into a spongy mass with a texture somewhere between jello and snow.
It’s a fairly niche magic item, being used by maybe 5-10% of magicians worldwide, but it does have a few useful theatrical applications (beyond making slightly rubbery fake snow) that keep it stocked in magic shops for about $10 per four-ounce container. One such container could easily last a slush-powder-using magician several months.
On January 19th, Terry Runyon, Magic Castle member, made a post on the hidden Magic Castle members-only Facebook group:
“In my day job I am an automation engineer. I design and build machines for factories. I just built a machine for a company that mixes slush powder with other powders. They use 5,000 pounds a week. They tried a bag from a different company but they can’t use it because it changes the the formulation with the other powders. They asked me if I can get rid of it for them. I have a 1,000 pound bag of slush powder. I am filling boxes with pounds of powder. I will have boxes piled up in my living room until I find someone who wants some. I come to the Castle about every other Saturday night. I can bring some to anyone who wants a box or two. It’s free. I just want to get it out of my living room.”
The response was explosive. Dozens of replies flooded the thread, with magicians eager to get in on what was realistically a free lifetime supply. Of the magic castle’s roughly 5,000 members, even the 5-10% who cared about slush powder represented a huge number of people. As the responses continued to flow in, Terry adapted to the demand.
“I am packing it in to boxes. They weigh 30 pounds. I will be at the Castle at 5pm Saturday for anyone who wants to pick them up. Let me know.”
Dozens of members replied in the affirmative. The thread had now grown to over 130 replies: a mix of requests, jokes, and people finding the situation so surreal that they wondered if the entire thing was a joke. Terry continued to respond.
“I am still filling boxes. I have about 40 boxes and 30 jars filled. This bag seems to have no end.”
On Friday night at the Magic Castle, the number one topic of conversation was the slush powder extravaganza scheduled for the next day. Even people with no interest in the powder itself were fascinated by the sheer absurdity of the situation. Members considered turning up just to bear witness to it. Employees worried about the logistical impact on Castle operations. Everyone made jokes about magicians being mistaken for cocaine dealers, and turning entire swimming pools into lumps of semi-solid gel.
At 4:50pm on Saturday, Terry pulled up to the Magic Castle in a large and suspicious looking panel van filled with cardboard boxes of white powder. He parked at the far end of the Castle’s large open air parking lot, and started unloading.
The magicians gathered. While each could have just grabbed their box of slush powder and left, everyone sensed on some level that this was a once-in-a-lifetime event, and wanted to linger and watch it play out. Plus, the now vast array of cardboard boxes that Terry had laid out on the asphalt around his van was so hilariously impressive that it seemed a shame to disrupt it. Much like a cake that looks too pretty to eat, the crowd wanted to enjoy the visual of a mountain of boxed slush powder – a substance normally only seen in 4oz jars – for a moment before dismantling it.
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Meanwhile at the LA bureau of meteorology, intern Kevin Wilson watched the weather radar. LA was a dull place to be posted, what with the city being legendary for its temperate – and hence, from a meteorological viewpoint, thoroughly boring – weather.
Today was unusual though. As Kevin watched, a narrow but incredibly rapid low pressure front moved southward across California. It wasn’t extreme enough to warrant flagging it in the system, but it was rare to see a cold front moving that quickly. As it passed Simi Valley at an almost but not quite record-breaking thirty miles per hour, he noticed idly that its front edge was almost perfectly parallel to the Hollywood Hills.
Kevin mused about how if California had more low pressure fronts like this, it wouldn’t have such chronic drought problems. As he did so, the front crested the hills and collided with the clouds above Hollywood. Even with a sky as grey as this one, nobody in LA ever expected rain.
– – – – – – – –
The first few drops barely even registered with the crowd. By the time a few of the assembled magicians had held out their hands and looked up at the sky puzzledly, the flash downpour had already begun.
Being LA residents and hence experiencing rain as a rare novelty, the crowd was so caught up in reacting to the unexpected wetness that it was several seconds before anyone thought about the slush powder. Those several seconds were long enough for a few raindrops to slip between the hastily and imperfectly sealed box flaps and be rapidly absorbed.
Local magician John Wilcox was the first to notice the beginnings of slush blobs blossoming from a few of the least adequately sealed boxes. “Oh shit! Move the powder!” he shouted, as everyone suddenly realised the magnitude of their oversight. Fifteen magicians immediately scrambled to try and move forty thirty-pound boxes under cover as quickly as possible. However, three things got in their way.
Firstly, there wasn’t much cover to move to. Terry had already locked his van, and wasn’t standing close to it when the downpour began. Hence it was fifteen valuable seconds before he could reach the van door, retrieve his keys, and get the thing open to be frantically reloaded with boxes that were now oozing expanding slush gel from every edge.
Secondly, in a spirit of helpfulness, Terry had laid out the boxes in a corner of the parking lot, to keep out of the way of the valet team and other guests. This meant that the array of boxes was flanked on two sides by walls, and on a third by parked cars. Of the fifteen magicians present, only a handful could access the bottleneck at a time.
Thirdly, junior magician Ryan Schafer didn’t know how to lift a cardboard box properly. He bent at his waist rather than his knees, lifted the box all the way up to his shoulders rather than just his hips, but worst of all he grabbed the box by its top flaps rather than its base. As he yanked the box far higher than necessary above the ground, his body soaked with both rain and panic-induced adrenaline, the cardboard flaps gave way. The rain-soaked box fell five feet to the ground and burst open, exploding in what was extremely briefly a cloud of dry powder.
Its surface area now fully exposed, it only took four seconds for Ryan’s box of powder to absorb several hundred times its weight in water. This translated to a growing slush blob roughly fifty times the size of the original box. Ryan and the other magicians reflexively jumped back from the rapidly expanding blob, escaping with only mildly slushed pant legs in the process.
The pressure of the expanding blob, while not high, was enough to push apart the already soaked cardboard boxes next to it. These in turn expanded, unleashing a slush powder chain reaction that began to engulf the nearby cars. By now the rainfall was in full torrential mode, providing more than enough water to keep the mountain of slush growing. The magicians could do nothing but retreat in awed, soaked, semi-slushed horror.
By the time the storm passed, the slush pile was twenty feet in diameter and had engulfed Terry’s van, another six cars, and a decent chunk of the parking lot wall. One particularly nice BMW was visible only by its roof and radio antenna, poking up like a periscope from the greyish slush mass. Fortunately for the clean-up crew, and the members that were eventually indicted by the Castle’s ethics and grievances committee, none of the cars had had their windows open. Slush powder is relatively easy to clean off smooth surfaces, and nothing was permanently damaged. It still took three days though.
A week later, once normal operations had finally resumed, and tales of “The Slushening” had spread far and wide through the entire Magic Castle community, Terry made another post on the members’ page.
“That didn’t go so great last week. Sorry for the trouble and thank you to everyone who helped out. I still have 400 pounds of powder left if people still want it. You have to come get it from my house though.”