It was a brisk and sunny afternoon in January when I was waiting for my brother to finish his appointment with a new hairstylist. I had time to burn, but the streets of New York City looked uncomfortable and unwelcoming. Looking around, I didn’t see much in the way of entertainment. I browsed the corner Starbucks and felt the temptation to shoplift a coffee scoop from the clearance shelf: it would’ve been an extremely simple matter of dropping it into my shopping bag, the action covered by the winter coat draped over the same arm that was holding said bag. I decided that I was above such petty theft and left the store empty handed after deciding that I didn’t need to purchase any more coffee beans.
About a block away, a dark red awning caught my eye: the word PSYCHIC, fashioned in a very typical sans serif font, was plastered across it in white. I was intrigued and walked across the street towards it. I took a long look at my watch. It would be at least another half hour before my brother would be finished with his haircut. I turned my head left, then right: there were no book stores or quiet coffee shops, no venues that would keep me occupied without costing much. It occurred to me that perhaps there would be something a little farther away. I walked past the psychic’s awning, glancing inside without seeing much. Looking ahead, I saw that there were mostly large residential high rises. So much for finding a quick shot of entertainment, I thought to myself. I turned back around in hopes that there would be something in the other direction. As I walked past the psychic, I slowed down to a halt. I cast my eyes at the space under the awning. Set at the bottom of some very short steps, the glass door beckoned me. The intrigue of going to a psychic drew me towards it. My curiosity compelled me to take action, and I walked right up to the door. Words like “psychic” and “spiritual healer” were stenciled in red against the glass. I gently tugged at the door, but it did not open. With bright daylight against my back, I peered in through the chipped letters and glimpsed nothing but a brownish red carpet and a couple of steps. I stepped back and noticed a door bell, so I rang it.
A slim young lady with olive skin came to the door and let me in. Without so much as a glance or a smile, she turned, and I followed her to a little rickety card table. She sat down and faced me. Her face told me she was probably from Trinidad. Her smallish hand waved me an offer to sit in the sad little white lawn chair, the rental type that show up at cheap summer weddings. I plopped down in the seat, put my shopping bag between my legs, and draped the my coat across my lap.
“So, what do you want today?” she asked in an incredibly neutral tone. Apparently, this pretty young girl was a psychic. I realized that I didn’t know exactly what I wanted her to do. It felt ever so slightly awkward, not unlike a college freshman’s very first visit to a prostitute in a seedy motel located in a shady part of town.
I cracked a crooked grin and explained that I actually have never been to a psychic before and don’t know what she had to offer. As she broke down her pricing scheme, I realized that I was actually sitting in the foyer of some old building. The orange-brown floral pattern wallpaper was aged and worn, the wooden banister of the stairs leading up to what were presumably apartments looked as though it’s core were rotting ever so slightly. The table we were seated at was positioned under an old wall sconce shaped like a tulip that had opened up a little too much. I wondered how much rent she had to pay the landlord to run her little game here.
After she was done reciting the prices for her services, and after I had finished asking clarifying questions, I opted for a palm reading. It would be the most interesting $20 I ever spent.
In the last couple of years I have picked up the hobby of magic: the art of illusion. Frustrated with the limitations of sleight of hand and refusing to rely on gimmicks, I decided to dip my toe into the waters of mentalism. It was during that time that I had a cursory education on the truth behind the abilities of so-called psychics. I learned about the Forer effect and Barnum statements, cold reading, and became exposed to the general methods by which these psychics ply their trade. Over the years, I gradually became more educated to the psychic toolbox.
So considering all that I knew about psychics, I was curious as to how our little interaction would play out. I removed a twenty dollar bill from a thick stack of money held by my expensive money clip and returned the bundle to the pockets of my bespoke suit pants. I was wearing a white French cuff shirt with black tie and a white pocket square. Putting the money in a little box by the wall, she thanked me and asked me to hold out my palms.
Without much effort on her part, the psychic told me that I was going to live a long life, that I would die of old age at 80 or 90 years. That was welcome news. She kept staring into my palms and told me a bunch of other things related to what lay ahead in my life. She asked me if I there was a woman in my life whose name started with the letter A. As I wracked my brain, she told me that this woman had very strong feelings for me. I told her that I couldn’t quite think of anyone. To this she replied, as expected, that this woman is in my future. I noted in my head this was a miss. Moving past it, she said that in my career I would be most successful in law, medicine, or something with computers. I took this with a great deal of skepticism: I have no patience for the minutiae of law, the rigid systems of medicine, or the mathematics involved with advanced computer science.
And then things started to get interesting. The psychic began to tell me that she sensed some things about me. She said, “I sense that you have never truly been happy in your life.” When I heard this, I kept my poker face on. I kept my eyes cast low, staring into nothingness, maintaining my rate of breathing and relaxing my shoulders. I was determined not to let her see that she was so damned accurate in her statement.
She asked me if I was in a relationship at the moment, and I replied that I was not. Continuing on, she told me that I was not the type of person who wanted to date a lot of girls. In fact, she told me that I wasn’t the kind of guy who chased after girls with “big breasts, long legs, the kind of girls who looked like models.” She told me that I just wanted a woman to love, a woman who would be loyal and devoted, who would love me back as much as I could love her. She saw in me that I had a good heart and a strong spirit. She told me that I was not destined to have many girlfriends, that I would meet one special woman and that I would marry her.
I was floored. I was absolutely flabbergasted. I didn’t let it show, at least not at that particular moment. My eyes remained glued to that nondescript patch of carpet in the lower right field of my vision, my posture was the same as it was when I started the palm reading. But in my mind, I was speechless. I wondered just how it was that she read me so easily. How could she see my innermost desires, my dreams?
My composure maintained, I sat there listening and analyzing intently. The psychic told me that I was surrounded by jealous people in my life, but I didn’t let her know that she was off the mark. I barely have anyone in my life, and I couldn’t imagine that those who were indeed around would be jealous of me. I did however, find an odd comfort when she said that I was meant to have a good “strong” life because of my good heart. What she meant by a “strong” lifeIcouldn’t quite divine, but it certainly did mirror my own feelings towards my life from a larger perspective.
She paused momentarily, presumably to check my reaction to her statements. This young girl from Trinidad certainly had a gift. And I was dumbfounded at her skill. I could not deny her the respect she deserved. I broke and a grin crept up on my face. I nodded slowly, confirming all of the things that she said with such great confidence.
There was more. She told me that she sensed that there was a spiritual blockage in me. In no uncertain terms, she declared that in my life I have always felt this blockage. Whenever I met people, there was something in the way. I could never make that connection. By now, my defenses had been worn down, and I chuckled. I recounted to her a recent improbability that I experienced. A girl who had expressed interest in me suddenly ceased communication. Several weeks later, I received a reply to my asking her out. She apologized and in the kindest way told me to fuck off. But the funniest thing was the reason why she couldn’t get in touch with me sooner: her father had apparently had a heart attack on New Year’s Eve and she had been spending time dealing with her family matters and catching up with her schoolwork. This was, as I have said many times before, an example of how my life was a series of statistical improbabilities. And in this case, it was also my interpretation of the psychic telling me of this spiritual blockage that she sensed.
I could not hold my tongue any longer and revealed to her that I was aware of the methods, techniques, and tricks that psychics used. “You know, you’re not like those other psychics. They use these general statements…you know, they sound like horoscopes. But you…I don’t know…you didn’t use any of that,” I said to her. Perhaps in an attempt to seal my conversion, she told me that in a previous life I was meant to be a spiritual healer, that I have a psychic gift. I was reminded of the time that I smelled a faint odor of oranges and then a waft of the smell of a freshly lit match just twenty minutes prior to a fire breaking out in my high school. As much as I preferred to believe in her, and in the possibility that I also had a psychic gift, I brushed off her ruse.
Psychics are not philanthropists. They do what they do for money. So it came as no surprise that she smoothly segued into a way for her to monetize our little interaction. She claimed that there was something put on me. She never used the word curse. Rather, she let me come to that conclusion of my own accord. Roping in her mark, she explained to me that someone may have put something on me, through food or drink (or even through my mother) and that she could remove this spiritual blockage for me.
How much would it cost me? A whopping two hundred twenty dollars. I wondered if she quoted a large number like that because I was dressed in a very expensive suit. But before I could react to that number, the psychic told me that she understood that it was a lot of money. She went on to tell me that she was not here to sell me on this idea, that she was merely offering me a way to improve my life and to finally get a chance at happiness. I was impressed that she was able to resist the hard sell. Then again, if she was such an acute observer of my nature, then she would also know that I am not the type who would ever succumb to a hard sell. She asked me if I was Christian, to which I replied that I was not. Trying to appeal to a sense of honesty and trust, she claimed that she was Christian and that she wouldn’t cheat anybody, that she was only here for people as a spiritual healer. I was feeling a little dubious about whether or not God would approve of anyone’s belief in spirits, the occult, or the supernatural but just let it slide.
I asked her what it was that would be done if I decided to go forward with this “spiritual cleansing”. Apparently, the money would be used to buy materials. After burning candles for four days, and after giving me something to place under my mattress to sleep on, she would be able to find out exactly who put the spiritual block on me.
This intrigued me greatly. If I were to obtain a name, one that I recognized, I would most certainly be impressed. That would provide me with a target, someone whose ass I could kick. She said that she could not only tell me who it was, but when and where the curse was put on me.
The truth is, I had enough money on me to pay her. It was fortunate that I wasn’t carried away by all the supernatural gobbledygook, that I still had the benefit of critical thinking. I decided that I would sleep on it, and asked her if she had some kind of business card. She handed me one of those cheesy little psychic flyers printed on glossy postcard stock. I thanked her for her time and told her that I would most certainly be thinking about her offer and left the little foyer.
So did I ever go back? I certainly would like to see my life improve, especially if all it takes is $220. But no, I never went back. I can’t really explain just how that girl was able to fool me. I was plenty well-informed on cold reading techniques and the like. I was well aware of the dangers of subjective validation and Barnum statements. Yet I was almost taken for a fool and was nearly parted from my money.
The damnedest thing is that she never spoke in generalities. She always spoke in definites and with great confidence. Absent in her reading was spiritual nonsense to get me to believe in the occult. She didn’t use any framing techniques like a cheesy crystal ball or anything of that sort either. Yes, she got some things wrong. But how did she get the most important and most specific things about me correct? She barely asked any questions, and I barely gave her anything to work with. The two questions she asked me were my age and whether or not I was currently in a relationship.
The only observations she could’ve made were from my physical appearance: age, height, weight, style of clothing, accessories. From such superficiality she was able to speak directly to my deepest wishes, to provide me with a temporary comfort and confidence in her. She said that I was never really truly happy in my life, and this is true. Even in my childhood, my tumultuous family life was a source of intense distress to me. As for when she spoke about my love life…I gave this some thought. I thought that perhaps one might guess that if I were wearing a very well cut suit (in three-piece configuration no less) at my age, with slicked back hair, that I have a particular nostalgia for times that are long gone. This would indicate a high likelihood that I adhere to “good old fashioned values”. Following that logic, one might say that I value being a one woman man. But to describe to me my perfect ideal of a relationship…she must have an uncanny sense of intuition.
I’m very wary of falling prey to one’s overconfidence. It is said that the easiest people to con are those who believe that they cannot be conned. But I did not go into that psychic reading thinking that I was impervious to her tricks. I went in merely understanding what was possible. I listened with open ears and as clear a mind as one can have during a reading.
This will certainly puzzle me for the longest time. It is my drive to become even more well-informed and educated on the methods that so-called psychics use. As convenient as it may be to pay $220 to have my life magically improve, I am not so sure that I believe that real psychics exist. Admittedly, I do believe that there exists things unseen, undetectable by today’s science. I do believe that there is some greater force out there, whether it is some deity or spirit or something more abstract like the Tao. But was that girl really psychic? Did she really have some insight into the spiritual world?