An International House of Pancakes at three in the morning isn’t the first place where one might expect to witness a test of paranormal abilities. It isn’t often that one hears someone sitting at an adjoining table declare themselves as possessing psychic powers. Rarer still are those occasions when such a declaration is met with a challenge. Specifically: “You have psychic powers? I have psychic powers, too!” And yet, that’s exactly what I beheld one March night in the center of Texas.
That late at night, an IHOP is usually a place where one’s night winds down, accompanied by comfort food that slices days or weeks off your lifespan. After hearing this exchange, though, my pulse picked up. I’d wandered into the IHOP looking for a way to end the night; instead, I realized that I wouldn’t be falling asleep any time soon.
Alternately? Accidental eavesdropping is the worst. I spend a lot of time alone in coffee shops and bars, whether catching up on reading, working on a piece of writing, or jotting down notes for some future project. In recent years, my brain has become more and more attuned to the conversations around me: I zero in on minute details, unable to turn away and terrified that the information will consume me, like some sort of doomed former agent in a Cold War thriller who can’t quite shake his instincts. I overhear personal details and try my best to ignore them. But when the possibility of psychic warfare looms one table away, it’s hard to focus on anything else.
It was on a Saturday; specifically, the last night of the 2008 South by Southwest Music Festival. I’d been in town for about a week by then, first for work and then simply to relax, to wander a city I’m fond of, listen to music, and catch up with friends from all over the country. I’d spent most of the night at an Irish bar on Sixth Street, where the showcase for Flameshovel, a now-defunct label run by good folks out of Chicago, was taking place. I found it to be a fantastic night of music, even though I drew the ire of one of the bartenders due to a particularly ecstatic frenzy of movement during a set from the band Bound Stems.
When the show wound down, I didn’t particularly want the evening to end. I sought out friends, both those gathered at the bar and at other venues. I tried to glean plans, find access to other spaces, somewhere conversations could continue before Sunday brought with it trips to the airport and airlines bound for a half-dozen disparate cities. I had no luck. And yet I still felt energized — maybe not enough to sprint through the streets of Austin until sunrise, but enough that I knew that attempts to sleep would lead to ninety minutes’ worth of staring at my hotel room’s spackled ceiling.
The city’s bars were closed. I knew of one place that would still be open, however, and it happened to be on the walk back to the hotel. Specifically, a twenty-four-hour International House of Pancakes — a landmark I’d passed almost every day on the walk from said hotel to watch music on Sixth Street. I hadn’t set foot inside on this particular trip, but now seemed to be the appropriate time.
The parking lot, not surprisingly, abounded with drunks, some of whom were trying to get into their cars. Police patrolled the lot; I can only imagine that, for them, it was the reckless-behavior equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. I felt a momentary surge of late-night anxiety: were the police controlling access to the IHOP? Was I going to end up having a particularly awkward conversation with one of Austin’s Finest at 2:30 a.m. explaining that, no, I seriously had to have some sort of breakfast food at this hour; that it was an urgent matter, that I absolutely had to be let inside.
I shouldn’t have worried. There were no police restricting access; I got in fine, was given a table and a menu, and placed my order. Shortly after my food arrived, the night’s surrealism began.
Before me sat cheaply made decadence: pancakes and eggs and sausages, with cheese and some form of fried potatoes on the side. I picked at it slowly with one hand; with the other, I held up the book that I was reading and slowly made my way through it. After about fifteen minutes, I began to hear the voices of two women coming from the table behind me. I couldn’t tell at first if they were old friends or had just met. They seemed to be discussing businesses, comparing notes — one of them was discussing the troubles she’d been having with tenants on some property that she owned or managed. My attention to their conversation drifted in and out. Then the woman who had recounted disputes with her tenants went on to detail another conflict in her life. I caught snatches of the conversation: something about a court case, I believe. And then, I heard her say, “Well, I went blind for a little while there. I’d put bleach in my eyes.”
The other woman almost snorted in disbelief. “Why the hell would you do that?” she asked.
The first woman was defiant. “I wanted to change their color. I thought the bleach would turn them blue,” she said. “It didn’t really work.”
If there was a point where my accidental eavesdropping began to lose its passive quality, it was there. But still, I tried to drown it out; I tried to continue reading my book and eating my pancakes, now saturated with maple syrup and crumbling as they sat on my fork. But the talk behind me kept intruding; the second woman asked why the first would have done such a thing. Well, she explained, she had to do something — there were too many people trying to take advantage of her.
And then the declaration happened: “I have psychic powers, you know.”
Right here, my eating came to a complete stop.
“Hey!” the second woman said. “You have psychic powers! I have psychic powers, too!”
“Oh, great!” the first woman responded. “That’s great.”
“Tell me,” the second woman said. “What number am I thinking of?”
“No, no,” said the first dismissively. “They aren’t that kind of psychic powers.”
There’s a danger implicit in eavesdropping on psychics. From this point on, even as some part of my brain rationalized that I was probably not in the presence of people possessing any sort of paranormal abilities, my childhood love of the Mysteries of the Unknown series of books, to say nothing of the X-Men, kicked in. What if, all of a sudden, one of them started to read my mind? What if I heard one of them say, out of nowhere, “Tobias Andrew Carroll — it is not polite to eavesdrop. Also — now we know where you live.”
What if I turned around to look at the table and found that there was no one sitting there at all?
When I finally got up to leave, I saw the participants in the conversation seated at the two tables behind me. Both were normal-looking women in their early forties; they had the posture of people who had just met. More curiously, though, was the man sitting beside one of them. I’d had no idea that he was there; during this conversation about self-inflicted blindness and psychic powers, he had remained entirely silent. You never know where you’ll find a fellow listener. And I can only imagine what stories he might have to tell about other encounters in IHOPs across the state of Texas, and beyond.