I have always found it hard to like Philadelphia. Cheesesteaks disgust me. That bell might be cool if it weren’t cracked. Ben Franklin was a badass, it is true, but he has been dead for 200 years. Philadelphia seems to have given us a Constitution and retired to pointlessness.
My antipathy toward Philadelphia was not set in stone, however, until two weeks ago. That was when I learned that its reserves of brotherly love are not quite sufficient to encompass fortune-tellers. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the city’s department of licenses and inspections was recently alerted to an obscure law making it a crime to “pretend for gain or lucre to tell fortunes or predict future events.” The department then proceeded to shut down at least 16 soothsayers. When the city solicitor advised that the ban “seemed better suited to fraud prosecution than to regulation,” the department backed off — but one city official ominously noted that Philadelphia retains the right “to inspect and cite fortune-telling establishments in violation of other city and state codes.”
Let us decline to ask why the unhappy 16 did not foresee these woes and take up residence among friendlier peoples. Let us rather lament that another little outpost of the imagination has come under bureaucratic siege.
Now I do not believe that fortune-tellers have any special insight into the present or the future, but I recently acquired a gratitude for their work. On a Friday evening as the clock approached midnight (surely the best hour for the black arts), my friends and I walked past a Manhattan apartment building with a sign in a first-floor window advertising a special on Tarot-card readings. One of my friends expressed interest, pressed the doorbell with the word “clairvoyant” written next to it, and, lo, Betty buzzed us in.
Betty was, I am sorry to say, a visual disappointment. I don’t mean that she was unattractive: She was vaguely Mediterranean-looking, aged somewhere between 35 and 45, and pleasant in demeanor and appearance. But this was just the problem. What fortune-teller worth her salt showers daily? I wanted turbans and missing teeth, Gypsy garb and weirdly wrought jewelry. At the very least a Romanian accent. Instead Betty spoke old Brooklynese: “Hey, come in. So what do youse want?”
“Aren’t you supposed to know that?” I almost replied. Fortunately I held my tongue long enough for Betty to offer up her menu of services. Oh, but we had options! Tarot cards, palm readings, Reiki healing, horoscopes, crystal balls. Then there were the “deep techniques,” on whose nature Betty did not expound, but whose very existence made me shiver.
The bravest of my friends opted for a quarter-deck of Tarot cards. Betty escorted us to her “reading room” — an ecumenical place decorated with a painting of Jesus, an image of some many-limbed Hindu god, and a scattering of pentagrams. She lined up her cards on a table and instructed my friend to make two wishes.
“Done?” she asked.
“Good. Now tell me one of them.”
“To meet someone special,” said he.
Betty looked at the cards and rubbed her chin. “I feel you’re gonna get involved with someone in the short term,” she finally said. “I’m seeing the letters ‘K,’ ‘M,’ and ‘R.’ Now is there anyone ya like whose name starts with those letters?”
Indeed there was: a certain Kirsten.
“Well, I’m sorry to say it ain’t gonna work out with Kirsten. Youse gonna have something, sure, but it’ll just be a good time is all. But I can tell ya that after that — three years, tops — you’re gonna find the one.
“Now I can also sense that you were in a relationship that ended bad maybe five years ago, and you’re still getting over it. But don’t worry, ’cause it’ll all work out. You’re an artistic type, real creative, and I’m happy to say that your career is gonna be steady and successful. And you’re gonna have a nice long life into your late eighties. At least. Thank you.”
Ten dollars. Next?
My friend, a pianist whose marriage ended in divorce roughly five years ago, looked a bit startled by the accuracy of his reading. (He would spend the rest of the night brooding silently.) After another friend took her turn, I was up. My mind still held to the most rigorous scientific skepticism, and yet, for no obvious reason, I was uneasy about the presence of my friends. They kindly left the room — and then Betty’s magic began.
What did she tell me? That, O my reader, I decline to reveal. I do share with you the bad news that I will live to be somewhere between the ages of 84 and 86 — at least two decades too long, in my opinion. Betty also discerned that I have a hard time opening up to my friends. (One supposes this is why I asked them to leave the room.) And my chakras are lamentably out of balance. I know not what a chakra is, but take comfort in the assurance that Betty has art enough to rebalance them. (For this, another visit is required.)
There followed other, more specific, more intimate observations, many of them eerily accurate. So accurate, in fact, that I left Betty’s apartment slightly shell-shocked. Retrospectively, I have devised ways to explain away her apparent powers. Nothing she said fell beyond the bounds of reasonable conjecture, given the starting assumptions she could have made (e.g., that I value privacy) and the responses I offered to some of her initial, vague statements. But this reasoned conclusion of mine is not quite potent enough to quell the rebellion of inveterate superstition.
Nor, to be honest, would I want it to. It can be salutary from time to time to feel in your guts — and against the protests of your head — that there are mysteries which can never be explained, realms of experience inaccessible to the pitiless light of logic and science, strange forces that play above and below this vale of tears. I do not argue that there are such things; I say only that, when one has lost the capacity, in unguarded moments, to feel that there are, life and imagination are the poorer for it.
This feeling has a checkered record, let us admit. It has burned rather a few witches. But it has also breathed life into much of what is best in our art and history. Take it away and you have Israel without its prophets, Greece without its Delphi, a landscape in which every oasis of longing for the transcendent is desiccated by the dry winds of reason.
In the modern age, one inevitably makes long and arduous sojourns across this desert. Betty, in her simple and unpretentious way, offers fifteen minutes of shade and a sip of water, all for the price of a very cheap dinner. That is no fraud, my dear Philadelphians. It is a bargain.