18 November2014

There was a long article in the New York Times Magazine recently about The Amazing Randi, an illusionist, who some claim is a mind reader, a psychic, a paranormalist, a supernaturalist, a diviner, etc. Randi, to his credit, claims only the illusionist part. All the other claims that hint of paranormal activity or extrasensory powers he, rubbing hands together with a skeptic’s certainty, set about debunking. But for those of us without knowing the illusionist’s craft, we can’t believe what we see, if not for the aid of divine intervention. So it was comforting, being told that all things are explainable, all mysteries solvable and that psychic surgery is, thank God, a fraud.

There was a time, many years ago, that my wife and I went with friends to the Magic Townhouse in New York in a blizzard that kept most of the night’s patrons away. It was dinner and close-up magic and only one of eight large round tables was filled. But the show did go on…one magician doing card tricks, another, sleight of hand. etc. The last one to perform came out with a manila envelope which he casually taped to an armoire next to our table. He was a ‘mentalist’, telling us he studied the ‘dark arts’ in Paris for a number of years, learning how to harness his paranormal energy. Evidently spiritual forces are easier to conjure with croissants close by.

He began asking questions. One person he asked for a favorite color, another he asked for a three-digit number, another the year he was born, etc. And finally he asked someone for the last four digits of her Social Security number. And all the while, all of us agnostics had our eyes riveted to the manila envelope…where he wanted our eyes to be. Only after the questions did he refer to the envelope taped to the armoire. “You saw me tape an envelope to the armoire”, he said, “when I came out. Would you sir”, pointing to my friend, “get it for me. Now, please open it and take out the cards inside.” There were two five-by-seven cards stapled to one another completely around the edges. The outsides of the cards were blank. “Now, please separate the two cards,'” which took time…there were staples enough to have protected nuclear launch codes on a submarine.

Finally separated he asked that the contents be read. The cards had been brought to a CPA in Brooklyn a week before, verified with a notary’s signature and the date. “Now please tell us if there is a color listed…and, if so, what it is.” There was a color and, of course, it was the color offered. And so on, down the line; the three-digit number, the date-of-birth…even the partial Social Security number. The jaws of all us unwashed (but recently-fed) greenhorns fell open. Who could explain such a thing without ESP or something extrasensory?

Well, Randi can and, reassuringly, related that in 1949 he had done the same ‘trick’, predicting the outcome of the World Series a week before it was played, which was then read after the fact, just as the results of our little séance were read that snowy night in New York…evidently with no ESP and nothing paranormal needed.