SAN FRANCISCO - Now that she's moved to San Francisco, it's easier for Danielle McGee to tell people about being a witch. Her talks with dead people? Just one more quirk in a city that loves the alternative.
"A lot of people here think it's cool," the Midwestern-born psychic says over tarot cards. "San Francisco is one of the most relaxed communities about this."
But recently, this clairvoyant-friendly city has become less blase about its abundance of palm readers, crystal gazers, astrologers and other soothsayers. After a yearlong effort by city law enforcement officials and a handful of lawmakers, new licensing requirements for San Francisco psychics have become law.
The fight over the fortuneteller regulations has pitted law enforcement officials against some lawmakers, exposed fault lines among the city's psychic groups and raised concerns about ethnic insensitivity. Some people still want the courts to overturn what they believe is an unconstitutional law.
But in the days before Mayor Willie L. Brown Jr. signed the bill Friday, many who were at first opposed to the regulations said they were satisfied, in large part because the bill had evolved in a fair, culturally sensitive, Bay Area type of way.
"This was a process that was a classically San Francisco process," says Robert McCarthy, a San Francisco lawyer and lobbyist representing the Romani Association - a group otherwise known as gypsies - during the fight. "Fortunately in San Francisco we have people who are particularly sensitive to cultural diversity. We're a different type of place."
Laurel Pallock, an investigator in the San Francisco district attorney's consumer protection unit, was one of the people who started the process to license the city's fortunetellers.
She says it was a way to fix a problem she and police officers have noticed for years: a steady stream of frauds committed by "psychics," and the consumer protection complaints that accompany them. In recent years, she says, she saw victims duped of tens of thousands of dollars by unscrupulous fortunetellers.
"It's usually women in a very vulnerable time in their lives who, on a whim, go to a fortuneteller," Pallock says. "They are walking by a place with a girlfriend, and they think it's going to be fun. It starts off innocently."
But after the woman comes to trust the fortuneteller, Pallock says, the fortuneteller convinces her she is cursed. And fixing that curse costs hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars. Too often, Pallock says, the woman pays. "Months later, they say, 'Oh my God, I don't know what happened to me. I must have been having a nervous breakdown,'" she says.
But because of the transient nature of many fortunetellers, the victim - if she is not too embarrassed to come forward - can rarely identify who told her about the curse, Pallock says. There are rarely receipts, and no way to prove how much money was paid.
Last year, the district attorney's office asked Aaron Peskin, a member of the city's Board of Supervisors, to introduce legislation requiring licensing. Among other things, the law would require fortunetellers to give receipts, register with the city and submit to a criminal background check. Peskin obliged, and the debate began.
The curse scheme is well-known in the San Francisco psychic community, some of which welcomed the legislation.
"I hear all sorts of horrible stories," says McGee, the self-proclaimed witch. "I had a lady who said they told her she had to pay $5,000 or her daughter would die."
McGee works at the Psychic Eye Book Shop, a brightly painted shop a few blocks from City Hall. Besides a staff of psychics offering all varieties of readings, the store sells incense, herbs, and books such as Psychic Pets and Spirit Animals. It has branches across California, and has been in its San Francisco location since 1996, according to the store's psychic manager, Angelique Royce.
"We help people with energy work," says Royce. "But nobody is going to come in here and have someone say, 'There's a curse on you.'"
Royce and McGee say they have no problem with the regulations, although they are not so thrilled about the $357 one-time licensing fee - a new source of revenue for the financially strapped city.
They post their rates, they say, and do not mind providing identification to the city. They hope the fee and the regulations will help clean up the profession.
A psychic at the bookstore urged a visitor to make an unannounced visit to one of the psychic shops that dot San Francisco's streets with their neon hands in the windows. Those are the illegitimate "gypsy" fortunetellers, she says.
Hence, a visit to Yama's Psychic on Market Street.
In small room, a woman who calls herself Jessica sits on a dirty couch across from an old television set with a pink hairbrush resting on top. She asks to see her visitor's palm, and a $20 bill. After a short conversation, Jessica declares the visitor's aura to be "dark."
"There is a curse," she says. "All that will be left are your tears."
That is, of course, unless the visitor pays an additional $120 so that Jessica could pray for nine days in front of nine candles 9 feet tall.
Much of the debate around the regulations focused on the idea that bad apples should not taint a profession. As originally drafted, says McCarthy, the lawyer, the regulations were biased against the Romani population, fitting with the prejudice that all "gypsies" are swindlers. The regulations at first deemed fortunetelling inherently fraudulent, which McCarthy says was labeling Romanis as frauds. And, he says, the regulations insensitively asked fortunetellers to supply Social Security numbers to the city, even though Romanis do not believe in identification numbers.
"The last time they submitted to national identification, the Third Reich slapped little tattoos on their wrists and murdered 600,000 of them," McCarthy says.
Word of this alleged pressure against the Romanis caught the attention of city politicians.
Supervisor Tony Hall still sees problems with the law. "It goes beyond the bounds of good consumer protection," he says. "It's profiling one group of people.
But Pallock rejects the accusation of profiling, for there are many kinds of fortunetellers with many ethnicities. There are tea readers who are typically Chinese. There are coffee ground readers who are usually Arab. And there are people like McGee, from the Midwest.
But San Francisco is nothing if not culturally sensitive. So after a series of political debates and public forums and revisions -the Romani Association was finally satisfied - the licensing regulations passed. They apply to more than two dozen forms of psychic activity, from mind reading to cartomancy (predicting the future through cards) to telepathy to palmistry, and will likely go into effect by the first week of September. That means the psychics at the bookstore need to come up with their $357 fee. Some of the smaller shops may move elsewhere.
While there is still debate about how effective the licensing will prove, for Pollack, the passage is a clear victory. "It's been an amazing sojourn passing a law like this," she says. "I didn't predict it, that's for sure."