We were sitting around a circular table trying not to eat the bread.
“You put out food that gives off a nice smell, like fresh-baked bread or soup,” said our hostess, a woman in her mid-60s who had invited the group of us to her house for a seance. “It invites the spirits in.”
This gathering was not strictly an October occurrence. She does these seances at least once a month, if not more, from her house on the East Side, nestled between Cooke Street and Newman Road.
Sometimes she hosts friends, but most of the time it’s strangers, and the notion of having people she’s never met before crowding up her first floor doesn’t seem to bother her at all.
“People come from all over,” she tells me, cutting up some apples. “They say I have a gift. My father was the same way as me. Some people get it from their mother, but I got mine from my father. He got his from his mother, and I don’t know about before that. But lots of people have this. Some don’t know they have it. That’s too bad. It means it’s special but so is being like my friend Joe who’s good with math. I’m terrible at math. You want an apple?”
The apples are for eating, but the bread isn’t. I was not the only one who made the mistake of assuming there would be a full meal before the seance. The owner of the house and the self-described “Communicator” strikes you as the sort of person who would enjoy feeding others, like a Brooklyn mother in a spaghetti commercial. In reality, she barely feeds herself.
Her kitchen is mostly empty aside from a few pizza boxes and a stack of tuna cans near the sink. She tells me that she eats like a college student, and that she has a woman who comes in and cleans on Thursday mornings.
“I told her where to find her grandmother’s wedding ring,” she says. “It was in a box in the basement of her aunt’s house. Now she cleans my house and won’t charge me. People are very grateful when you help them in this way.”
Her accent is unplaceable, but it has the effect of making you want to repeat everything she says as soon as she says it. It might be fabricated. So much of her seems meticulously constructed. I suppose it could be the theatermaker in me, but I felt as though as I was in the presence of a performer.
When I mention this to her, she says–
“All of it’s performance,” and she holds her frail arms out as wide as they’ll go. “Most things are. But actors are not my kind. I like dancers though. Good strong legs. That’s what you need.”
She said that three minutes before she had all six of us, her guests, moving a giant round table from one room to the other.
“It doesn’t belong anywhere permanently,” she yelled at us, as we sweatily carried what had to be a three-ton table from one living room into another, larger living room. “But I like to keep things moving. Not good to let things sit.”
The woman next to me confides that she and her husband met the Communicator at a farmers market, and when she invited them to her house for a seance, they thought it would be a fun little nightly outing they could put on their joint Instagram.
“There’s nothing fun in this house though,” she bemoans. “I thought she would have a crystal ball or something, but there aren’t even that many candles.”
In other words, nothing Instagramable.
One of the benefits of writing a Man About Town column is that sometimes people message you and say, “Hey, you need to check out my friend’s neighbor. She does seances and she’s a #$%-ing character.”
Characters are fun, but #$%-ing characters are my sweet spot.
When I contacted her and asked if I could sit in on one of her evenings, she said that would be fine provided I felt I had a strong spiritual center.
“Yup,” I lied. “No problem there.”
Now here I was holding hands with two strangers, eyes closed, wondering if anything is ever as good as it is in the movies. The proceedings lacked any sense of drama, and even though I wasn’t expecting blood to pour out of the walls, I was hoping for the elephantine table to give a little rumble at least. We’d been holding hands for what felt like half an hour, but was probably only a few minutes, while the Communicator repeated short words and phrases over and over again like “Sure” and “That’s fine.”
If I didn’t know I was at a seance, I might have thought I was listening in on a bunch of friends trying to decide between Applebee’s and TGIFriday’s.
There weren’t that many candles, but the three placed in front of us were giving off a lot of light and what felt like a bit of heat as well. In the corner of the room under a window was a radiator that looked like it might explode if you tried to employ it, so I knew the warmth had to be coming from the dangling flames, but that seemed strange. Unfortunately, that was the only thing that did.
The Communicator made it clear when I arrived at her home earlier that evening that under no circumstances was I to refer to her as a “Medium.” She didn’t explain why she dislikes that term as much as she does, but it was the only condition she had to being featured in this story, so I agreed to respect her wishes.
Now, she was telling me — and five other people — to think of someone we’d like to speak with as we sat there wondering if the soup she’d laid out for the spirits was more of a light chili.
At least, that’s what I was wondering.
One of the guests asked to speak with their brother who had passed away several years ago. As the Communicator began to reach out to the brother, I was reminded of my undying passion for John Edwards when I was a teenager. (The psychic, not the politician, although you could argue that both had their…issues.) I would watch his syndicated show every day after school, convinced that he really could speak with the dead.
As I got older, my atheism began permeating even the toughest parts of my optimistic imagination, and soon I gave into the idea that the living talking to the deceased was just what every skeptic said it was — a parlor trick.
The difference between me and most other cynics is that I don’t particularly find anything wrong with this sort of thing, provided you’re not bilking people out of their money or pretending to heal their eczema.
Here in the Communicator’s little house, nobody had paid an admission. We were not asked for any contributions, and when someone brought up making a donation, they were promptly — and somewhat abruptly — scolded for even suggesting such a thing.
I have no way of knowing how this woman affords to live, but then again, I could say that about 30% of just about everyone I know.
When my focus returned to the room, there was allegedly one more person there as well.
“Your brother didn’t like your father,” she says to the person sitting diagonally to my right. “He was a heavy drinker, but he didn’t die from it.”
This was the part about seances and ouija boards and communing that I always found odd. I get that it’s important to prove yourself, but what’s the point of telling me something I already know?
I want to hear about the Afterlife.
I want to find out how painful death is.
I want to know what Prince is like.
But the person hearing from their brother seemed more than satisfied to engage in what amounted to nothing more than brief chitchat, and truthfully, I doubt they could have handled anything more substantial anyway. As soon as the Communicator said that the brother’s spirit had exited the room, his sibling had a total breakdown. In fact, we had to stop so that they could collect themselves, and when the Communicator excused herself, the Instagram husband piped up with a bit of mutiny.
“I don’t buy any of it,” he said, seemingly oblivious to the weeping believer still seated at the table. “It’s all educated guessing and body language. They did a thing on John Oliver about it. It’s harmful. These people do a lot of damage, let me tell you.”
His derision didn’t seem to affect the rest of the group, especially not the Sibling.
“My brother was here,” they said to whoever looked at them, an uncontrollable smile on their face, and tears that cut their skin like wax. “My brother was here.”
All of this was starting to seem a little perverse. A little manipulative. I chastised myself for going down this road just so I could have a column that lined up with Halloween. Nothing about this was scary. It was just a dinner party with no dinner, and three candles — two of which looked as though they were purchased from Bed, Bath, and Beyond with the labels removed.
When the Communicator came back into the room, I thought about excusing myself, but I wanted to give her a chance to talk with me once the seance was done so I could voice some of these concerns.
As if sensing my discomfort, or maybe because she felt I needed a direct connect to give the piece I was writing a little oomph, she looked right at me and said–
“There’s someone here who wants to talk to you.”
The point of this column isn’t — and never was — to make you believe in anything other than that life is infinitely more interesting out of your house than in it.
I’m not trying to protect my own privacy when I refrain from telling you what the Communicator told me while claiming she was speaking with someone no longer of this earthly plane, but I feel that maybe by omitting specific details, it’ll steer you away from trying to play a guessing game with yourself that you’re bound to lose either way.
Here’s what I’ll say instead:
She spoke for exactly seven minutes, and I know this, because my eyes were open at this point, and I just happened to look up at the clock to her right when she began to speak.
She told me about someone I can’t claim to have lost, because they were never really mine to begin with in any way whatsoever. That’s just my way of saying they were someone I cared about but never met.
Someone I admired, but was also intimidated by.
Someone I spoke with less than seven times over the course of five years who died nearly five years ago at the same age I am now.
She told me things about him I knew, things I didn’t know, things I believe, things I didn’t believe as she was saying them but later bore out, and things that were wildly off-base. Laughable, even.
If you’re the kind of person who thinks that even one wrong detail given to me by this woman would indicate that I was being conned by someone who perhaps just enjoys the attention that comes from having a group of people over her house once a month, I would argue that most of us — if forced to convey who someone was to another person when they were alive — would make a few big mistakes as well, even if they had access to the dead person’s point of view.
People who are alive often get things wrong about themselves. Why should the dead be any different?
Admittedly, I also felt a performance take hold during certain moments. I could sense her filling in gaps that weren’t hers to fill in, and making reasonable assumptions that only led her further away from the spirit she was trying to keep in the room.
Does she simply do this because she’s lonely and wants the company, some of you may be wondering. That’s a good guess, but she doesn’t seem to like people all that much, although she isn’t cold to them either. She’s welcoming, but not hospitable. It makes these evenings a mystery not just because of their content, but because of their sheer existence.
The last thing I’ll say in regard to my own supernatural contact while sitting at her table is that while it may have been my mind playing tricks on me, there was a moment where I would swear I smelled a kind of cologne that hadn’t been there a second earlier, and at that very same moment, the heat coming off the candles seemed to disappear.
There was no denying that I had some kind of experience in that room. Whether it was surreal or simply theatrical is hard to say, but it landed somewhere in the back of my rib-cage and has been stuck there ever since.
Now I wonder — just what was all that for?
What needed to be communicated to me?
What message could be so dire that someone who’s been gone for five years would drop back into the physical world just to relay it to me?
Nothing much anyway.
Not according to the woman who fed me apple slices, and who, after the seance was over, told me I could ask her anything only to find out that I had nothing to ask. I think she was as surprised about it as I was, and you journalists out there probably want to wring my neck, but remember, I’m not a journalist.
I am, however, still a skeptic.
Yet it’s funny how you can disbelieve something and still be affected by it.
I guess that’s why we still go to movies — especially the scary ones.
According the Communicator, the spirit that came into that room only wanted to wish me well. That was all. And tell me that it missed me, that he missed me, or rather, missed our talks. Asked about a play I gave up on years ago that only he would know I had even begun. Told me to go back to it. That it was a good play.
Is all that spooky enough for you?
I, myself, found it very touching.
Funny how you think that the best thing that could possibly come out of a seance would be levitation or the location of a buried family treasure, and what ends up affecting you the most is something as simple as “Every time you think of me, I’m there.”
That wasn’t a sentiment that was expressed verbally, but it was what I took with me when I left. The idea that it isn’t so crazy to assume someone can summon the energy that used to exist in a living form just by requesting its presence. Maybe the crazy thing is assuming that it takes three candles, six strangers holding hands, and a loaf of rye bread to do it. Maybe a seance and a prayer aren’t all that far apart, if all you want to know is that your brother didn’t like your father very much, but that he loved you and still does, and he wishes you’d quit smoking and finally take that trip to Italy instead of just saying you will.
Or that a writer you admired thought your work showed potential, and he wishes you’d stop being so damn afraid and really make a go of it.
Or, as the doubting Instagram husband found out before we wrapped for the night, that his father would like it if he visited his mother more often, because he’s worried about her being alone so much.
If I believe that dead people were in that room with me, then it seems like their only mission was to say, “Hey assholes, you’re still alive. Act like it.”
To lightly reprimand us for not living the life we want to live.
To point out that we don’t have as much time as we think we do, and it’s silly to spend it in the past when even the ghosts have moved on.
The Communicator told me that one time a man asked to speak with his dead wife who’d been gone for almost 10 years, and when she came through, all she wanted to say was that she hated his new couch.
Apparently, death doesn’t make you all that profound.
“No big surprises here,” the Communicator says, as I put on my coat and made my way down her front steps. “Just what you already know.”
She gave me some apple slices for the road.
I think she wanted to make sure that no matter what I left believing, I could still take something with me.