Medium, Well Done

Crossing over with psychic John Edward at the Nob Hill Masonic Auditorium

If you've grown up along the California coastline, it's a safe bet that you've had some sort of psychic interlude: Someone's read your aura, your chart, your palm, your cards, or the bumps on your scalp; you've been told about past lives, future loves, dead relatives, or lost trinkets. If you were a child like me -- living with adults endlessly interested in metaphysical truth -- psychic phenomena may have become idle childhood amusements, as commonplace as matinee movies for your father's generation.

"Should we go roller-skating in the park," I might ask a friend on any sunny Sunday afternoon, "or get our tarot cards read?" We'd tumble out of the colorful storefront, laughing and talking about the ridiculous possibilities our futures might or might not hold, and go roller-skating anyway.

As I got older, the price of the future went up, but so did the entertainment value. On one occasion, I convinced an Englishman to see his first psychic. I let him pick a name from the phone book. The spot he chose was one of those Mission District parlors that double as living quarters for seven. The family was sitting down to dinner when we arrived, but the grandmother waved us in anyway. Two of the elder sisters shoved forkfuls in their mouths and grudgingly tossed their napkins on the table. They escorted us to separate corners of the room, lighting candles and mumbling prayers as they swallowed their bites. My reading was pretty standard fare: "You are a creative person." "You will do a lot of traveling." "You will be successful." "The man you love has a dark secret. He will leave but he will come back." "Someone who is envious of you has placed a curse on you and your family. Your family will suffer great hardships if you do not lift the curse. Come back tomorrow, and I will prepare a protection spell."

The woman was clearly distracted by her cooling steak, hardly glancing at me at all to find the "tells" that most hustlers depend on for clues. But the whole key to enjoying a psychic reading is the voluntary suspension of disbelief, and I was tickled to be a creative, successful traveler in the future with a dark, mysterious companion.

Sadly, my friend was not feeling similarly buoyant. In the car, he was uncommunicative and morose. I asked about his reading, and he wouldn't tell me. His psychic had told him not to discuss it with anyone. Ever.

"Did you get a curse?" I asked. He looked startled. Like me, he was also a creative traveler. (His psychic went so far as to suggest his creativity might be aligned with visual arts -- not exactly a limb, given his appearance, but still.) He had definitely gotten his money's worth: the terror caused by a curse that might kill his family; the confirmation of envy he had long suspected; the secret thrill of being the target of a diabolical scheme; the tremendous relief of being safe; and the humility that comes from being taken.

Better than the movies.

But not better than TV.

For almost a year, psychic medium John Edwardhas been communicating with the dead in front of, and for, live studio audiences on the Sci-Fi Channel. His no-nonsense, fast-paced, dressed-down, often funny, sometimes sarcastic approach to mediumship has turned his show, Crossing Over With John Edward,intothe highest-rated late-night program in the channel's history. (It's being picked up by KTVU in August.) Two years ago, while peddling his autobiography, One Last Time, Edward appeared on CNN's Larry King Live,accurately stating that a caller from Salem, Va., had buried her husband with a brand of cigarettes that was not his own. Larry King seemed convinced; the caller was beside herself. Edward's autobiography made it to the New York Timesbest-seller list with ease. His third book is already on its way. There is over a year's wait for private consultations. Edward's sellout live appearances are excellent targets for scalpers. Which is exactly how I get in to his appearance at the Nob Hill Masonic Auditorium.

Aside from a few rows at the edges of the room, kept purposely clear, the 3,000-seat auditorium is at capacity. There is a family of four, three rows above my balcony seat, that has traveled from Washington to speak with a sister/daughter who died in a car wreck; one section over, I find two parties who flew up from Los Angeles because they couldn't get tickets to Southern California dates. I'm seated between a 28-year-old stay-at-home mom from Ventura and a 35-year-old clinical research associate from San Jose. In the lobby, I meet a 42-year-old woman from southern Arizona whose interest is Edward, not her family's dead. (The woman is not alone in her adoration: There are a lot of flower bouquets walking through the doors, and it's not Mother's Day.) The crowd is an enjoyable cross-section of humanity -- gruff ex-servicemen sharing armrests with natural-fibered New Agers; hair spray and sequined denim coexisting with Prada and pashmina wraps -- and everyone is talking about ghosts, God, and the hereafter.

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