Keeping Psychics Honest

Only in San Fran, Part XXIX


Time was, a self-respecting augur or necromancer could ply her trade in San Francisco without the long arm of the nanny state reaching into her pocket for money and the right paperwork. No more.

As of August 1, fortunetellers of all stripes (including but not limited to crystal gazers, cartomancers, and interpreters of coffee grounds) are required to obtain a $357 license from the city, post their prices prominently, and issue receipts. The licensing requirements include proof of government-issued identification, five years' worth of employment and residential info, and a criminal background check, with fingerprinting. If the soothsayer has been convicted of two relevant misdemeanors or a single felony, the application will be denied.

So is a famously tolerant city now trying to squeeze out its eccentrics? Not at all, insists Laurel Pallock, a consumer fraud investigator for the district attorney's office and the driving force behind the legislation. "I mean, San Francisco prides itself on this sort of thing," Pallock says with a hearty laugh. "So we're not trying to say you can't do it."

Pallock became a psychic-regulation enthusiast after seeing fragile people open their hearts to fortunetellers, only to have the information used against them and be told that their families would suffer terrible curses unless the oracle received much more cash.

"I kind of liken it to elder abuse," she says. "They are victimizing some people who are not able at that point to help themselves out of a jam….I have felt so sorry for victims who didn't know who they were dealing with."

Before becoming law, Pallock's crusade had to climb a formidable hurdle: Baghdad-by-the-Bay's famous identity politics. Gypsies, who account for a disproportionate number of local palm readers, complained that the new rules singled them out for persecution because of a requirement to report their Social Security numbers.

"The last time they submitted to national identification," Romani Association representative Robert McCarthy told the Baltimore Sun, "the Third Reich slapped little tattoos on their wrists and murdered 600,000 of them."

The requirement was dropped at the last minute, and now fortunetelling will take its place alongside pushcart-peddling, massage, and junk dealing as a fee-paying, city-vetted business. And, Pallock swears, the $357 price tag is a one-time fee to cover administrative costs; renewals will be closer to one-tenth of that.

"The interesting thing is that …all over the country, there are fortunetelling laws," she says. "We have Pennsylvania, Florida, unincorporated Sacramento, San Carlos; a lot of places actually have regulation about this. But what we did was we tried to make ours really comprehensive, and I think compared to other cities or counties that have passed legislation, ours goes into a lot more detail."