The reader was reading me, the ancient tarot cards spread across the table in the same way they have been for hundreds of years. But to call this a simple fortune-telling parlor would be to ignore the Fortunoff-plus ambience of the surroundings, the marble steps leading to a second story, and the decorative glass embossed with the medium’s name: Zena. Few of New York’s ubiquitous storefront reader-and-adviser establishments can match Ms. Zena’s hep Village location (she owns the building and is thinking of expanding next door), her frosted blonde coif, or her elegant manner (according to her business card, when not reading palms on lower Seventh Avenue, she can be found in Cannes or Palm Beach). Nonetheless, there was a familiarity in Ms. Zena’s assessment of my prospects, both imminent and long-range.
Noting the placement of my death card, Ms. Zena said my life would be long, into my eighties. I was an honest person, a loving person, looking to do good things for others. But there was a problem. Something was standing in the way of my total happiness. No matter how much I tried to move toward my goal, I was held back, thwarted. I had heard similar things before, from a dozen other readers and advisers: news of a darkness in my aura, a blockage in my soul, the influx of negativity sullying potential success and contentment. None of this was my fault, or God’s. It came from other human beings, people out to get me. This was the critical point in my various palm, face, vibration, tarot, aura, and chakra consultations, when the reader stared into my eyes and offered to intercede on my behalf, to root out the mendacity directed toward me.
Various remedies were prescribed. Ms. Carol of Madison Avenue recommended I carry a pair of protective crystals she would provide for the nominal fee of $100. Ms. Selena of Brooklyn also suggested crystals, but better ones, for $160. Ms. Ann of midtown said I should write my name and date of birth on a piece of paper, which she would meditate upon with the help of burning candles. These were not just any candles but “special” ones, capable of divination, $50 a pop.
Ms. Zena put forth a more nuanced analysis. She posited that the negativity that stalked me might not be a product of this life but a karmic echo of a previous existence. Like Orpheus’s guide, she proposed to lead me through a regimen of past-life-regression therapy. It might take three sessions, it might take as many as five or six, but the problem would be found out. As for the price of this action, we could discuss that later.
Hearing that I needed to think it over, Ms. Zena shrugged. My fate was my responsibility, she said. But I shouldn’t tarry too long, because the cards were sending another alarm. There was someone who meant me no good, someone trying to impede my progress.
“I see two initials,” the psychic said. “I see an M … I see a J. Do you know anyone with these initials?” “Er … Michael Jordan?” I joked weakly. I hadn’t told her my name, not my real one anyway.
“No. Someone close. Very close. This person is looking to take advantage of you … Think about it. The letters M and J. Watch out … ”
Back out in the bitter winter-evening cold, taxis honking down Seventh Avenue, my mind reeled. No doubt the psychic game, a carny grift older than the hills, was rigged. But just because the overturned rock might be fake didn’t mean revelations—or nightmares—found beneath it couldn’t be real.
Watch out for the M and J … I always suspected I was my own worst enemy.
Among the neon-lit ephemera of storefront and second-story businesses in this ratty city—the nail parlors, ambulance-chasing lawyers, gold buyers, walk-in podiatrists—none covers as much real estate as the reader and adviser. This is due, in part, to the fact that the vast majority of these establishments (perhaps 200 in the metro area) are owned and operated by Romani—a.k.a. Roma or Rom, people better known, pejoratively from their point of view, as Gypsies.
Self-imagined to be descended from the stars, fiercely unassimilated into the gadjé world through which they perpetually travel, few groups have inspired such ire, awe, misconception, and mystery as the Rom. Called Gypsies because they were erroneously thought to have come from Egypt, the Romani (the preferred p.c. spelling is Rroma, the double r scuttling confusion with Romania and Rome, two notable Rom oppressors) claim to trace their origin to the Rajput princes of India. Resident throughout the globe, there are a roughly estimated 1 million Rom Ameriko—those who reside in this country—about 100,000 of whom can be found in New York.
There are Rom lawyers, Rom doctors, Rom musicians (Django Reinhardt, the three-fingered guitar wizard, was one), a whole Rom middle class of sorts, but for the most part, the Romani remain apart, with their own rules and moral structure, in which disputes are still adjudicated by a kris romani (a Gypsy court) presided over by a rom baro, whom some refer to as the king, as in King of the Gypsies. It is a hidden world of people with names like Harry the Nose, Sissy Steve, Pizza Yonko, Sammy Cheese, Black Charlie, and Big Pete Costello. What we gadjé see, at the street level, at least, are the psychics. When you enter those doors and the lady pen dukkerin or drabardi (Rom for “fortune teller”) asks you to put a $20 bill in your hand and make two wishes—“Tell me one and keep the other to yourself”—you’ve entered an outcropping of twenty centuries of otherness.
This doesn’t mean the typical reader and adviser is not looking to relieve the credulous tarot client of considerable cash. People wonder about storefront psychics, how they survive, since no one ever seems to be inside having his fortune told. The answer is, it doesn’t take very many customers, provided they are the right ones. Listen up in various Rom hangouts, late-night Little Italy clam bars, and Bayard Street Chinese restaurants, and you might pick up tales of the hokkani boro—the big con. Notable rumored scores include quarter-of-a-million-dollar fleecings of a lovesick Brooklyn rabbi and an Upper East Side shrink. John DeLorean, he of the gull-wing car, was supposedly taken for hundreds of thousands by a local card reader.
Key to the big hustle is the idea of curse removal—i.e., someone has put a curse on you, and this is causing all your problems. The severity of the curse is established in a number of “tests.” Once the reader has decided you are a live one (as a result of your snapping up the prayer candles or crystals), she may ask you to carry around an egg for three days, then return it to her. The psychic holds the egg against your forehead or chest, substituting another egg for the one you’ve brought. When the egg is cracked open it will be full of rotten meat wrapped in rat hair, or some such disgusting item, graphically demonstrating the impurities the curse has transmuted into your body. A similar trick involves a jar of water, which suddenly turns blood red after a sleight-of-hand infusion of cherry Kool-Aid. The reader, your personal spiritual warrior queen, will then pledge the use of her time-honored esoteric talents to exorcise the evil, a tortuous process that has been known to run up some serious expense.
All this is against the law, of course. Fortune telling for money (rather than purely for “entertainment”) runs contrary to section 165.35 of the New York State Penal Code. But except in truly spectacular “curse” cases (and other alleged Rom specialties such as slip-and-fall insurance fakery, odometer rejiggering, and the emptying of lonely elderly men’s bank accounts—known as a “sweetheart swindle” or “cruising for willies”), few arrests are made.
Since most readers also live where they tell fortunes, it can be an instructive voyeurism to walk into their storefront and second-story apartments. Some are ornate, such as Ms. Grace’s sprawling digs on West 48th Street, with their catering-hall-style chandelier and big-screen TV, in front of which, when I visited, sat half a dozen portly Rom ladies watching (so help me) Wheel of Fortune. Ms. Sylvia’s parlor, up a flight of rickety stairs in downtown Brooklyn, is more modest. The front room, bathed in a sickly pink from the giant neon outline of a palm hung in the window, featured a naugahyde love seat on which slept two children. A pile of laundry occupied one corner. Apologizing, Sylvia said she would have cleaned up, but she was suffering from a bad cold.
“I will tell you what I see—it might be good and it might be bad, but it is what I see, so don’t be offended,” began Sylvia, a thirtyish-looking woman with striking dark eyes, in the detached yet staccato cadence common to most readers. “You are good man. You don’t want to hurt no one. You are generous. But people are trying to stop you from success. You take one step forward, and then you go two back. You are at a standstill … being kept from happiness … ”
It was the same spiel I’d heard around town, nearly word-for-word, somehow even more desultory in Sylvia’s presentation. Maybe it was because she was sick, or perhaps it was the presence of the man in the next room waiting to continue the argument I’d heard as I walked up the stairs (the women make the money, but often it is the men, the “managers,” who wind up with it). Whatever, there was an awful weariness about her. She could barely summon the energy to pitch me the crystals that she dolefully declared came straight from “the holy mountains of Jerusalem.” With those piercing eyes, orbs that could—and no doubt had—convinced gadjé and Rom alike of many things, she seemed to say: Help!
Not that this was an option, at least not from me. First off, Romani women do not have anything to do with gadjé men. To do so would be to risk being declared marimé, in a state of spiritual pollution, which can lead to excommunication from the community. Living within the Rom code, with marriages often still arranged among the various extended families, is not easy. But to be cut off is the ultimate calamity. No, it was not likely Sylvia would be taking a swell job as a legal secretary anytime soon. She would remain a psychic, no matter how rotten she appeared to be at it.
Still, I was becoming a sucker, a Gypsy’s fool. Not quite curse material, I began to look forward to forking over $20 for a palm reading, $45 for a full tarot deck. It was fun sitting with Dee, on Rivington Street. Since her spot is located a couple of doors down from the feminist sex emporium Toys in Babeland, Dee’s customers often arrive with shopping bags full of double-pronged dildos and glow-in-the-dark condoms, which may add a rakish touch to her readings as she cajoles you to purchase the “spiritual work” you so desperately need.
Linda, a younger, rapid-fire tarot reader who cheerfully admits to making her own “holy crystals” and keeps a large-print King James Bible along with much Christian iconography in her second-story place near the Port Authority Bus Terminal, operates with a different business plan. For $240 for the first month, and $8 a day subsequently, if she is not busy praying for one of her clients, Linda will answer your call at any time of the day or night to advise you about a troubling matter. To me, this seemed an excellent offer, way better than those of most shrinks, maybe even better than Prozac. There was only one catch. During this process, Linda cautions you not to see other readers. This will “conflict with the energy” emitted by the angels she has summoned on your behalf and result in her being forced to “pull the rug out from underneath you” without warning.
A strange thing happened soon after I visited Linda. On the F train, I saw a woman, an older black lady, whom I’d seen earlier that day in a psychic’s office. Recognizing each other, we smiled and held up our open palms. Like: You never know.
That was the core of it. On one hand, I justified giving money to these fakers as a form of grifter tax, a perverse appreciation of the long-running, ritualized con. But there was more to it than that. Hunted by the Nazis just like the Jews, the Rom might weight the wheel for the gadjé, but that didn’t mean they didn’t believe, totally, in the all-encompassing vagaries of chance and fate, or what they call baxt. “Baxt is everything,” one fortune teller told me. In fact, if you want to shake people up, sign on to a Romani Internet chat room (they exist) as prikaza, which means “bad luck.” You will be told to leave immediately.
As with a Coney Island ring toss, knowledge that a game is fixed doesn’t stop the urge to play anyway. It didn’t make sense, but there it was, beckoning me in. That’s what these ladies offer with their bogus candles, crystals, and cheesy maps of the palm: an escape to a world of old-style irrationality, where baxt is everything.
I was thinking of this as I drove out to see El Indio Amazonico, a storefront psychic who sports a full Amerindian headdress and a large white feather through his nose, and who refers to himself as “el mejor … guia espiritual,” no small claim on Roosevelt Avenue in Queens, where the 7 train clatters overhead and the parasicologia y metafisica parlors are thicker than spinning spits of pollos a la brasa. Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude tells of gifts Gypsies would bring to the Colombian countryside, but El Indio Amazonico, late of Bogotá, drew a blank when asked if he was Rom. Then again, he could have been fibbing, since the walls of his waiting room (along with the large-screen projection TV playing Mexican soap operas and the piles of supposedly discarded crutches) were plastered with promises to cure problems of love, luck, and business through testing by huevo, agua, and other Romani staples.
El Indio, who looked to be any age over 150, spread my tarot across a table covered with the green felt cloth usually found on a roulette table. Even in Spanish, the findings were not unfamiliar. I would live a long time, 98 years exactly. I was a good person, an honest person, I wanted to do good things for others. But there was a problem. I wasn’t totally happy. Things could be better. Here, El Indio added a Latin macho spin to the proceedings: My sexual activities had led to a dropping-off of potency. Placing a sandy substance that appeared to be cornmeal on the table, El Indio said he could arrest this decline. But it wouldn’t be easy. First I would need a major overhaul, a “spiritual vaccination.” Asked how much this inoculation would cost, El Indio wrote “$1,000.”
“A thousand dollars? Es muy alto!” I replied.
El Indio smiled sheepishly. He’d been around forever. He knew a live one when he saw him. Likewise, he knew the tourists, the dabblers, the ringers. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a foot-long piece of rope with seven knots tied in it. He told me to untie one knot on successive Fridays and make a wish. These wishes would come true.
But what about my sexual potency? I asked.
“Oh, you’ll be fine,” El Indio Amazonico said, waving in the next client.