SOLDIER OF FORTUNE: HOW I CALLED ON TEN MANHATTAN FORTUNETELLERS IN FORTY-EIGHT HOURS AND THE GOOD FORTUNE I DISCOVERED

© 1995 John Borek

Every year thousands of people come to Manhattan to seek their fortunes. I was no different. Well, maybe a little different. Instead of looking to the want ads, the universities, the boardrooms of this great city, I was determined to find my future in Manhattan’s palmists, tarot readers and crystal ball diviners. I would know my destiny first and then I would prepare to meet it.

I needed a few ground rules. First, I would choose a limited period of time. I didn’t want the stars to dance too much. Two days seemed right, a Sunday and a Monday. A Sunday because it was a day of rest during which my fortune could assemble slowly and awake to brunch. A Monday because the usual frenetic weekday activity of the city would energize my aura. Second, I would wear a uniform of sorts both days: a short-sleeved Polo shirt, khakis, my wedding ring, tortoise shell glasses, a Swatch artist edition watch and loafers. Third, I would ask for the least expensive psychic experience no matter what that might be. No sense in paying for a Cadillac when you can get there in a Ford. And, finally, for pragmatic reasons, if I were asked to make a wish, I would wish for a happy life. And if I were asked to extend a hand, I would always give my right one.

And so, thus steeled, I walked into fortune’s arms.

Fortunetelling and an immigrant outsider community are first cousins. Questions are more desperate; hope is more important; change cannot be self-willed. When you’re playing the lottery of the streets, seeing into the future becomes a necessity. Such were my thoughts when I introduced myself to Pat of READINGS BY PAT (73 Second Avenue between 4th and 5th Streets). If Pat was a seer, she was cleverly disguised as a very downtrodden domestic oracle. Her window exhibited two stylish plaster Deco figurines that perhaps betrayed Pat’s hope that eventually Fred and Ginger would find their way downtown. If they ventured this far, they’d better bring along washcloths and some gentleman’s hankies to sit on. Pat I’m afraid is truly farsighted. She sees the future and misses the dust.

Pat in her housedress welcomed me. I took my place on the dirty lawnchair in her stifling office which was really the first four feet of her ground floor storefront apartment while a little girl finished sweeping the walk outside. There, various curious street people assembled while I asked for the $3 palm reading. With the well-rehearsed good humor of a planetary comedienne, she asked for a hand. I gave her my right. She asked me to make a wish. And then her reading began. “You will live a long life. You will die of old age, not sickness. 9 and 10 are your lucky numbers and Sunday and Wednesday are your lucky days. You will get good news in a month and 1996 will be your best year. “ Her expression changed. She peered more deeply into the crevices of my hand for detail work. “You have been unhappy for the last three months and not using your potential. Thank you.” Ninety seconds after entering her domain, I was on the street. Pro-rated, Pat cost about as much as an uptown psychiatrist. But a shrink would never promise me a long life. and give me a tip for the racetrack. I walked away; the little girl was summoned and all memories of me were swept off of 2nd into the gutter.

JACY (343 W. 14th Street, 691-3630) advertises as a psychic, horoscope and tarot card reader. She can take away suffering, sickness and bad luck from your home and body with results in 3 to 9 days. Her work is guaranteed. She has a little handbill that states she gives a charm with each reading. Very customer oriented, I thought.
Jacy was holding court in a lawn chair on the sidewalk. A woman in her late thirties, she had a seriousness of purpose. Surrounded by two children and several neighbors, she stood up and escorted me into the usual storefront/partitioned dining room. I sat down and almost immediately was subjected to a clever assault similar to a shell game. There was the two palm reading for $15 which today was $10. Then there was the $35 tarot reading during which I could ask two questions which today was reduced to $25. There was a tarot reading with no questions asked for $25, today $10. We spiraled down and sprang up in price over and over again. I held out for the cheapest reading–the $5 reading advertised on her sign. This was finally, after implorings, threats, and cajolings, accepted. I opened my right hand. She clucked over the amount of confusion she saw. If it were her choice, I should have a two palm reading. She didn’t know what she could do with such a disturbed single palm. As I looked into my own hand and tried to determine where she found the storm fronts, I lowered my eyes and said, “I’m sorry. I’m on a tight budget.”

She asked me to make a wish. The reading began. She saw a pyramid. I would have a long life and not die of illness or accident. “Make a wish, but don’t wish for a long life.” Why would I waste a wish on the question she had just answered? “You are stubborn and demanding.” She was undoubtedly basing that on my negotiating skills. And then, she played her trump card: “ You’re the kind of person who helps other people, no questions asked. But when it comes time for you, there’s no one there.” She looked up triumphantly. There was a long pause during which I sensed I was being expected to agree. Poor me. I nodded my head. Once I nodded in agreement, the reading was over. I had verified what she saw in my hand. I was a schlimazel. Jacy wanted to rejoin her family and friends on the sidewalk. I was three blocks away before I realized that SHE HADN’T TOLD ME IF MY WISH WOULD COME TRUE. She also hadn’t given me my free charm.

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As twilight enveloped the city, I grabbed a taxi up to MRS. LEONA’S. Mrs. Leona (28 West 48th Street, 921-2178) is smack dab across from the southernmost limit of Rockefeller Center. She can foretell the usual human concerns: marriage, love, what the year will bring. She also advertises, as a special concession to the neighborhood, “If you will gain your lawsuit.” I had a vision of dark suited denizens of midtown pouring out of their offices and lining up on the stairs to Mrs. Leona’s second floor aerie. Tell me, Mrs. Leona, will I be successful in my action against Amalgamated Enterprises? Will my case drag on for years? Will it be televised? Perhaps she even does legal referrals, I thought; perhaps she herself wears a business suit: I was sure that with all these legal questions, she had to present herself as less of a gypsy and more of a spiritual accountant…a trusted professional.

You can see Mrs. Leona’s space from the street. It’s quite impressive. A second floor in a townhouse in midtown. My only moment of trepidation was when I rang the bell and realized that I was staring into an erotic XXX. Mrs. Leona’s professionalism was struck a blow. A porn shop had opened next door.

I was buzzed in and began my ascent up a long, whitewashed hallway. I was greeted with the VH-1 of fortunetelling. Mrs. Leona was a cosmic duality. Two gorgeously dreamy exotic young women, one in a slit red gown and one in a slit black gown. Experienced Doublemint twins for my palm peering pleasure. My head swam.
The space was loft-like, carpeted in white with metal and leather furniture and a super sized TV monitor in a throe of commercials. There was a table at the window, so close to Rockefeller Center you could feel the power. But when I asked the Mrs.’s Leona’s where I would have my fortune read, they pointed to a small table in the center of the room, not visible from the outside, too intimate for three. I thought of the triple X’s downstairs; I glanced fearfully at the metal and leather furniture. Where was the plastic lawn stuff? The plaster figurines; the room divider that separated the kitchen? I told myself , rightly or wrongly, that I was in trouble. I asked how much a reading was and Mrs. Leona red gown told me $25 or $30. I happily told them about my pitiable financial condition and fell over my feet running down the stairs. Once on the street I wondered, would it have been worth it?

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Now completely in the dark I made my way to MRS. MARIE M., Spiritual Reader, on Christopher Street (113 Christopher Street between Bleecker and Bedford, 989-8831, nestled between The Leatherman and The Hangar ) . Just before I entered the Divine Miss M.’s, I broke rule number two and varied my appearance. I removed my wedding ring. After all, it WAS Christopher Street.

Mrs. M’s turned out to be the eclectic , Villagey sort of place you would expect. The window, which is directly on the street, sports sculptures of a cobra, Confucius and an apple with a worm in it. Behind that window, the whole street could clearly see a man and a woman on a sofa in the midst of a warm, engaged conversation. Ah, a satisfied repeat customer I thought, my face pressed against the glass. I walked up to the buzzer, and pushed it to gain entry into this friendly spiritual circle. Neither the man nor the woman moved or gave the slightest response to my buzzing. They must be deep in to a reading, I concluded as I stood there. And stood there. I became acutely aware of my psychic isolation. People were passing behind me and watching my attempts to get in. Did I look like a spiritual voyeur, staring enviously at a couple who had found soulful communion? I was in Psychic High, suspended in my embarrassment. I almost walked away, but I rang the buzzer again. At this, the true Mrs. M, emerged–petite, young and sharp. She let me in and it was only at that moment that I noticed the spirit world had to share its space with an absolutely gigantic gas barbecue grill.

Mrs. M. offered a budget reading–one half palm for two dollars. She also did the usual full palm and two palm but also could do two palms and a face. I took the low road–one half palm.

“Which hand do you write with,” she barked.

I gave her my right palm. She looked at it for a moment, shook her head and said, No, give me the other one.” She took a deep breath to prepare for her journey and then her phone rang and her answering machine clicked on. She turned down the volume so I could not hear the caller and waited for the message to end. We resumed. Suddenly, there was a tapping at the window, three inches from my cheek. It was Mrs. Marie M.’s great friend. “Can you excuse me so I can go talk to my friend?” she asked as she left me in the window on Christopher Street between the Leatherman and The Hangar.

When she returned, she never looked at my palm again. “Your chakras are not together. The devil has been in your love life for five years. When you think it’s going well, it’s not. Don’t trust anyone financially. I see a financial setback, legal problems, but it will be resolved.”

She started to ask me questions.

“What’s your biggest problem?”

“Financial.”

“Where are you from?”

“New York.”

“Have you ever been to a psychic.”

“Yes.”

“When?”

My mind went blank from psychic duplicity. I couldn’t possibly say forty minutes ago. “I can’t remember, “ I fudged.

“Did you ever go back to that psychic? “ she demanded in professional fury.

“No.”

She paid me back in spades. “You have a dark aura. I’m getting bad vibes. You’ve lived many past lives and are paying for something you did to a loved one in a past life. We’re going to put you back together. You need healing.”

“How much is healing. I’m on a tight budget. It’s been a tough year.”

I work for tips. Come back when you have money. Your lucky day is Friday. Are you satisfied?”

And out I went.
Monday morning began with a cup of coffee and The Yellow Pages. Let the fingers attached to my palm do the walking. First, a call to India’s Gifted Psychic ANNA, ESP tested with 86% accuracy and a spiritual ordained minister. I dialed 879-1452 waiting for my life questions to be answered.

“I’m out right now. Please leave a message. If you are a new caller, I’m not making no new appointments til December.” Beep.

My hopes shattered, I retreated to MORRIS FONTE TELESPYCHIC “as seen on nat’l and cable TV” (685-0477). Morris Fonte Telepsychic has one of the most bewilderingly complicated personal answering machines I have ever encountered. After being chided by a recorded female voice for not leaving an audible message, I made my way to selection number four for urgent messages. Was this urgent? No children were missing; no jewels were misplaced. Fearing the word urgent, I hung up.

ADIVINADORA SORINA, psychic reader (684-0250) did have grudging time for me though. That day, if I came in a half hour. Otherwise, who knows when. A psychic tarot card reading was $65. I pleaded my usual insolvency but could not get a lower room rate.

I closed the phone book and headed for the mean streets.

St. Mark’s Place. VERONICA KASLOW, psychic reader, is a nice woman. Her space is above St. Mark’s Deli next to Smash CD’s and Rocket Rags (31 St. Mark’s Place, 228-9042), and it’s air conditioned. There’s a diploma on the wall and books. Veronica greeted me and did not try to up the ante when I asked for the featured $3 reading. She also offers Angel readings (presumably interpreting messages from the angel standing next to you) for $1 a minute. Probably more expensive than a certified U.N. translator, but, hey. Veronica took both my hands as
I looked into her round, motherly face. ‘I’m not going to say nothing to embarrass you.” I was thrilled because this I felt was the psychic equivalent of not wearing dirty underwear in an accident. So reassured, I heard, “You have a rainbow in your hands and that means a long life. You have intelligence, happiness and financial security and you have done very well.” This is too good to be true, I thought, and at that very moment Veronica took a long pause and the recidivism began. “You always feel you’re on the outside looking in. You’re waiting to start your life. You can’t make a commitment. You are confused. Be careful with a business associate. Go with the flow.” And the pauses! As if she were furiously editing to keep her nigh unto impossible promise of not embarrassing me. Despite the depressing summary that followed that gangbuster beginning, I still liked Ms. Kaslow. She had a lot of moles on her face and no vanity. Her wind up pitch was “You must leave the past to be successful.” And then she offered to help me through specially prepared healing and meditation oils that she could whip up in a jiffy on her stovetop alchemy lab.

“I’m on a tight budget,” I intoned yet again. And then she asked me for five dollars for the reading that was supposed to be three.

MRS. RAE (682 Lexington at 57th Street, next door to the Laredo Grill, 980-2040) is part of the phenomenon I call The Spirits Go Shopping . There are lots of psychics around and above Bloomingdale’s. Mrs. Paulina is at 796 Lexington; Vandala, Psychic Advisor, plies her cards at 972 ; Lisa Psychic Astrology is at 1016 and finally the upper reaches of the Shopping Spirits culminates in India’s Gifted Psychic Anna (remember, no appointments until December) at 1219 Lexington.
But Mrs. Rae has a one inch ad in the phone book and has been established for 30 years, so it’s off to Mrs. Rae I go. Mrs. Rae, who if she’s been established that long, started out in utero. is a truly beautiful, delightful, energetic woman . She greets me at the entrance to her apartment. I walk in and nod toward her family who is watching television. “ Not there, “ she says protectively, separating family from palmistry, and then herds me into a pantry that is so hot that I wonder if sweaty palms can obscure life lines. In this little hot box are more representations of Christendom than in a cathedral: a statue of Christ, holy water, the works. I am clearly in the presence of a believer — the St. Theresa of the Shopping Spirits.
We quickly negotiate a ten dollar fee. Mrs. Rae reaches over and really touches my hands. This is the first time I am conscious of having my hands examined as living organs and not just as abstractions. She spreads both of them out as if she’s reading the Sunday funnies and begins, “I am going to tell you whatever I see good or bad.” I gulp. “You are going to live to be 91 years old, but life is what you make of it. You are going to have three children. I see confusion, change and a strong character, You were meant to be a boss. Trust no one. GET READY FOR THE REFRAIN: You help others but others are not quick to help you. Your lucky numbers are 5, 9, and 7 and your lucky days are Friday and Saturday . There is a pause and when we are through I again see her extraordinary beauty. effectively presented by a jeans dress with a slit up the side. Amidst the Christianity and the heat I start to reel, but not before I am stood up, ushered out and told to “Have a nice day.” I am back on the street.

Twenty years ago, my wife and I went to the GYPSY TEA KETTLE when it was in one of the most beautiful spaces in all of New York–on the second floor in the building kitty corner from the New York Public Library. It is one of the rare psychic experiences of my past life. We were just married and my wife went to have her tea leaves read. Her reader Vi, a matron in her fifties with a blonde beehive and enough powder blue eye shadow to prevent sunburn at the equator, sat down my young, perfectly complected, completely un made-up bride and told her fortune. “You have been recently married, “ Vi intoned with the wisdom of the Sybils. And Honey, take my advice, fix yourself up, do something with your hair, wear a little make up and you’ll have a long and happy marriage.”

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Exhausted by fortune, I decided to look up Vi and see if she was still at the Tea Kettle. The Tea Kettle has moved to a cramped space on the second floor of 56th Street ( 137 East 56th Street at Lexington, 752-5890). There is a cashier who looks like a bus conductor, and assigns the customers to a reader. There is no reader named Vi; however, I am informed for a fee of $11, I can have my tarot read. I am assigned to a pleasantly intense woman in her late thirties named Jeannie who is one of two gypsies at The Tea Kettle that day. Jeannie asks me my name, my day and month of birth. I choose seven cards from the tarot deck and we are off on a wild ride through fortune’s warehouse. “You are a Gemini man. You’re life is on hold; there will be tremendous changes from September through April. You have creative artistic expression–once you know where your next 27,000 meals are coming from.” I choose seven more cards. “ You do not have children. You could, but you would need medical intervention. Don’t tell your wife. It will upset her. Your mother is having a tough time and will have to make a change.” Seven more cards. “Your life is divided into 23 year cycles. You are starting your third. Your second cycle was dominated by something you built with two others. You will need to go back to the classroom to fulfill your talent if even for one class. Geminis thrive on change. You will write something very visual –a screenplay or a drama. You have learned in the last 23 years what you are not. And by the way, you have a long and happy marriage. Congratulations.”

I was silent. Next to Jeannie there was a small tip tray with a sign on it that said “Your tips are my salary” and a $5 bill nested on it. How impressed was I by Jeannie’s reading.? Well, I broke rule number three and left five dollars. She thanked me. I asked her when people came back for more. “Three or four months, if you want,” she said without trying to get a contract signed. She was clearly enthusiastic that she had gleaned so much. How right was she? Well, I walked out onto Lexington Avenue and did a little dance that the planets were sure to see. The Gypsy Tea Kettle never disappoints.