The train ride from the summer magic camp was a scene straight off the Hogwarts Express. Students climbed on board with cages full of doves and rabbits. They tested new tricks, plucking cards out of thin air. Colorful handkerchiefs fluttered around the cabins, and a 10-foot pole appeared out of nowhere.
Seventeen-year-old Natan Lefkowits of Columbia remembered the bewildered stares of other passengers during his journey home last summer. But they needn't have worried that wizards were invading Muggle -- aka ordinary human -- territory: The magic camp is in New Jersey. The tricks were merely sleights of hand. And Lefkowits is just a regular kid with a hobby who draws a big, fat line between the illusion of magic and flights of fantasy.
"I'm a hundred percent sure it's all fake," he said.
The reality is that the life of a real, young magician is much more prosaic than that of Harry Potter and his wand-wielding crew.
The sixth book in the series by J.K. Rowling, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," is scheduled for release Saturday. Already, it is the top seller on Amazon.com. The book's publisher, Scholastic Inc., has ordered an initial printing of 10.8 million copies. Bookstores and libraries across the country are stocking up and planning elaborate release parties at 12:01 Saturday morning.
But while Harry and his friends face apocalyptic battles against the evil Lord Voldemort, Lefkowits is content making a red foam ball disappear. He grew up reading the Harry Potter books, and now, even as a lanky teenager, he plans to buy the sixth. But experience has taught him that there is little in the real world that cannot be explained away.
"I'm pretty skeptical," he said. "Most magicians tend to be."
On a recent afternoon, the collection of books and props that make his magic tricks possible were spread across his kitchen table. There were topsy-turvy bottles as well as a squared circle and change bag, which are used to make things disappear. He had a book titled "Prethoughts -- Mentalism" and another by legendary magician Harry Houdini. Also on the table was a DVD called "The Self-Levitation Video," which Lefkowits dismissed as not worth the effort.
Instead, he placed a red foam ball into a visitor's hand and another into his own. With a wave of his fingers, his red ball vanished and magically appeared in the visitor's palm next to the other ball.
It's a simple effect, Lefkowits said, but popular among children when he performs at birthday parties and other events. More complicated tricks can take months to perfect.
Lefkowits became interested in magic during an after-school program in elementary school, about the time that he began reading the Harry Potter series and other fantasy books. Learning magic seemed like a natural next step for a shy kid with long afternoons to fill.
Ellen Miller of Odenton, who runs the Maryland chapter of the Society of Young Magicians, said it was hard to judge the effect the Harry Potter books have had on club membership. But she often overhears the kids chatting about the series during monthly meetings. Even she owns all of the Potter books -- in hardcover, no less.
"Certainly it hasn't hurt the general profile of magic," she said. "Kids know that they should tie into whatever is out there."
The Maryland chapter has 16 members ages 9 to 17. There are also two Virginia chapters: one in Hampton, the other in Lynchburg. All are offshoots of the national Society of American Magicians, which claims more than 7,000 adult members worldwide.
Lefkowits, who joined the club about six years ago, said it fueled his interest in magic and helped him develop his skills. By sixth grade, he was performing at birthday parties and charging $30 for half an hour.
"I get completely lost in it," he said. "I don't even think while I'm doing it."
Ezra Deutsch-Feldman, a 17-year-old from Bethesda, fell in love with magic after receiving a magic set for Hanukah when he was 6. Soon he had a full-blown business that he dubbed Ezraldo: Magic 4 Kids By Kids.
Deutsch-Feldman formed the company after appearing at a birthday party at age 9. As Ezraldo, he sometimes wore glittery, gold suspenders and a top hat while he performed his illusions.
But he got rid of the hat after a judge at a magic competition told him it looked silly. The sparkly suspenders -- and eventually the business -- fell by the wayside once Deutsch-Feldman entered high school.
"School got really hard," he explained.
Such is the problem with young magicians: They grow up. Deutsch-Feldman once loved reading the Harry Potter books and has a signed copy of "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets." But now he dismisses the series as a lame rip-off of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings."
"I'm a really cynical person. It's hard to believe there are things without a method to them," he said. But, he cautioned: "I'm a disillusioned teenager."
For Lefkowits, many of the hours he spent practicing magic tricks are now taken up by driving lessons, listening to his iPod and trying to master algebra. It seems that for ordinary Muggles, magic loses its luster when you don't need it to fend off an evil wizard who obliterated your family.
But Lefkowits's mother, Kathleen Sheedy, said she would be satisfied if her son could learn to perform just one more trick: "I wish he could come up with a magic spell to clean up his room."