'A magical world'

Published: Wednesday, July 30, 2003

A magical world
Cooperative house an island in a chaotic world

by Grace Rauh

At dusk the twang of a country song filters through the screens of an Oxford Avenue home. The sun lowers in the Saturday night sky and friends arriving to the house kick off their shoes and groove in bare feet. The monthly dance party at Magic, a cooperative-living house in Palo Alto, has just begun.

The overgrown foliage in Magic's front yard conceals the sprawling property that is home to six adults, two 4-year-old twin girls and a steady stream of Stanford interns and visitors -- who choose to live simply in this alternative household, free from commercial and material influences.

In a fast-paced world in which e-mails all too often replace personal contact and workaholic kids and adults are too busy for a shared meal, Magic -- a registered nonprofit corporation since 1979 -- sits quietly beside the speedway. Its members, the Magicians, spend their days planting trees, preparing food, spreading their ecological message and enjoying music, conversations and each other.

David Schrom, who co-founded Magic in 1972, is the house visionary and started the group when he and his friends tried to open a post office box in Palo Alto. They were told that only relatives and organizations could share a space.

"And I said, 'We're Magic. This is going to be the Magic box,'" Schrom said.

What began as a community of friends who experimented with drugs, sex and non-traditional lifestyles evolved into an organization committed to living an ecologically sound existence. Magicians reach this goal by taking a scientific approach, using trial and error and past experiences, to make daily and long-term decisions that reflect their values -- preserving the environment and humankind, eating well, exercising regularly and just slowing down to talk with others.

These are not dread-locked hippies or impoverished idealists. The Magicians are remarkably well educated -- hailing from Stanford and Yale University with engineering degrees to boot. They have chosen to pursue a life of public service and environmentally sound practices.

Magicians work full-time on service projects, ranging from tree planting and teaching life-planning workshops, to math tutoring and swim lessons. Stanford University has contracted them to plant and maintain trees in the foothills and on campus and they are occasionally hired to lead corporate workshops.

They have given up cars, television and cut excessive waste from their lives. Corporate and personal expenses for the Magicians usually total less than $25,000 per year.

Magic receives approximately $70,000 a year in cash income -- approximately half from gifts and half from fees for service -- and in-kind gifts valuing approximately $50,000. In 2002, donations and expenses rose significantly after Magic purchased the home beside their current Oxford Avenue headquarters. Magic owns three houses on Oxford Avenue. The new house is currently being renovated.

On a recent Wednesday at midday, seating at Magic's dining room table was elbow-to-elbow. A few old friends stopped by for lunch and helped themselves to the diced tomatoes, lettuce, lemon-tahini dressing, fruit salad and brown bread. The entire meal came from local markets that donate food they would otherwise discard.

Days begin when the Magicians rise -- anywhere between 8 and 10 a.m. Residents talk casually about their plans for the day. Someone must bike to JJ&F Market and Country Sun Natural Food to pick up old produce, bread and anything put aside for the house. Others will head out to water and plant trees. Some will work on the new house and others on the daily household tasks -- laundry, food preparation and cleaning.

Magic provides a refuge from the hectic day-to-day existence from modern-day society. A neighbor stops by to drop off their day-old copy of the newspaper. Community leaders sit with college and high school students around Magic's table to discuss the house's future plans. And a couple -- newcomers to Palo Alto -- join their Saturday night party to check out the house and the community.

The sky is dark now and the music slows down. At Schrom's call, the party guests form a tight circle -- their arms wrapped around each other. They sway in time with the music and when it stops, they sway all the same.

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