Fortune Tellers

(Photo: Lauratompkins/Dreamstime)
New York’s resident psychics are a part of the city’s character

We honor our late former colleague, D. Keith Mano, by sharing over the next weeks several of his acclaimed columns, which were published in National Review every fortnight from 1972 to 1989. The following piece was first published in the June 8, 1973 issue.

Torrents backed me into a storefront doorway. Red Hook, Brooklyn: lousy place for strange doorways. I was 17: a rookie cement salesman. Something closed on my leg. I leaped, spastic, half-rooted, one foot in the air. Scared. It was a nude male child, tongue out, bare feet standing on my salesman’s shoeshine: bronzed and grotesque as a suburban lawn ornament. But what disconcerted me—I was abruptly in a living room. It alarms the senses: to be, unaware, immersed in someone’s personal ambience and so eerily close to the neutral street. I smelled it: strange foods: furniture brought to redolence by the damp. She took my elbow from behind, hand encrusted with dangerous rings; a slap meant 15 stitches. “Your fortune, yes? Yes.” She held another child: Rather, it stood muscular on her elbow, some climber in a tree’s crook. Rain made deep pocks on the sheet wet pavement. The child below was trained, a shill. I understood the shape of my calf from his tough hands. She led me inside. I walked, a baboon parent, kid on my leg.

She sat me defenseless. I’m short: I’ve ridden comfortably over the wheel of life. The pillow chair disappeared, disappeared under me. Knee caps rose above my head.

“Two dollars. Know the future. Know the past.” I removed my wallet. She took it.

“Hey, don’t—”

“I blow on your money. Brings good luck.”

“No thanks—”

A man parted curtains at the room’s end. I saw an unmade bed. He was half shaved. Straight razor made an obtuse angle over one hand. He smiled at me.

“She blows good on your money.” He sat: one foot against the door, “Luck. One dollar. Hunnert dollar.” Blow: Hell, she played my wallet like a harmonica. The nude child piggybacked me suddenly, pulled my vision upward by the neck. The man laughed. He picked up a pack of cigarettes with his feet. Shook a cigarette out, put it in his mouth, toes casual as thumb and forefinger. “Good, huh? My arms broke sometime. I got special feet now.” The woman returned my wallet. She held two dollars.

“Don’t look in. Magic goes. You got credit cards? I blow on your credit cards. American Express makes very good luck.”

“No cards.” The man shrugged.

“You go now.”

“My fortune?” She smiled.

They’re all over the city: living rooms that domesticate the street. All over all cities. All women.

“You leave safe. Yes.” The man nodded. I went.

They’re all over the city: living rooms that domesticate the street. All over all cities. All women. The fortune-telling aptitude is perhaps hysterical: that’s to say, womb-inspired. And they look consistently like the horrid mechanical Penny Arcade torsos. Mother Constella, or Aunt Olga, who, for a penny once, a nickel once, two bits now, flex broken plaster fingers and a metal bar that hyperventilates the bosom: producing dumb gender-crazy cards for me: “You will marry a tall dark gentleman.” I visited half a dozen living rooms. I suspect my Red Hook adventure was atypical. These are bureaucrats of the unknown.

Sister Kae’s home is deep: an ex-grocery store. Four empty chairs sit out front; old Life magazines on an end table. The waiting room of a failed dentist. There is Babbitry about the place. The sign states: “Spiritual Adviser. Est. 25 Years. Guaranteed to solve Problems. For Prompt Action Call ST 4-7181.” She is fat and badly bloused, blowzy. I think she sticks on false moles and false hairy wens: The supernaturally accurate are super ugly. The children watch: in pajamas at noon. Her husband stomps through the mystery with a six pack of beer: no special feet. I’d love to see their joint return. Sister Kae is businesslike, bored. No paraphernalia of magic: Nothing hyperventilates her bosom.

“Five dollars for the palm. Five for the cards.” The spiritual is inflated. I cross her palm: She opens mine. Sister Kae has the gall to read there; “Yes. You will have money. Yes. But you spend it foolishly.” I nod: goddam perceptive.

She takes out the cards: a $2.95 commercial Tarot deck. Would you believe, instructions are written on each card. After being Est. 25 years. Sister Kae still needs a crib sheet. She begins her cross-examination: I should tell my own fortune. “Bad luck,” she says. I nod. “You’ve had more than your share of bad luck.” No. More than my share of good luck. She reads the instructions again. “Wife,” she says. I nod. “You are married.” Right on. “Two children.” I nod: The statistics are with her. “Either two boys or two girls.” I wait. “Or one of each. Yes.” Which? I ask. “Two . . . “I nod. “It could be girls.” My left eyebrow goes up. “Boys,” she says. Made it under the wire. “But you will have a third child. Either a girl or a boy.” I frown. “Any questions?” I ask what kind of contraception the cards recommend. Sister Kae ignores the question. “Tell me your problems.” I shrug. No problems.

To read a palm they must touch the band. It’s the confessional without authority, without penance. And momentarily you are a guest.

The future is more available to her. “You will have a letter. It will bring great, good fortune. On the 15th or 16th.” Of May? “On the 15th or 16th.” Of July 1994? “The 15th or 16th. And someone will die. It will shock you.” An acquaintance? “Yes. Otherwise how would you know he was dead?” Got me there. She senses skepticism. Sister Kae shows me a fan letter. “I told this woman her sister would die. She had terminal cancer.” I read: sure enough, dead. “I also burn candles for people. What are your problems? Tell me your problems.” No problems.

That’s my problem. Fortune telling is not pertinent. Sister Kae, all the Sister Kaes, are a spiritual advisory. Ears. Mothers. The living room is a paid friend’s living room. I ask Sister Kae how she got into this line of work. “I am a Gypsy. AH gypsies have the gift.” Nice: a racial stereotype that holds. Even if some blacks have two left feet. Even if only one of my five cats is graceful: The other four fall down a lot. Why do they come? She shrugs; She doesn’t much care to be questioned. Then: “It’s cheap psychiatry. I had a man here last night. He likes to wear women’s clothing. His wife doesn’t understand. It makes her mad. She is also the same size.” What did Sister Kae tell him? “I say—do your thing. Be free. I tell him: In your past life you were a woman. He is happier. He understands then.” How’s business? “Up and down. It’s the economy. Twenty-five years ago you got only foreign people. Now anyone comes. Specially kids. The younger generation . . .” She thinks. “In my day the younger generation used to be older.” Wise enough.

Dial a gypsy. Their foyer is the city itself: And they thrive. To read a palm they must touch the band. It’s the confessional without authority, without penance. And momentarily you are a guest. There is household traffic: They aren’t officed and remote. They serve, as they have served for a thousand years, the unshaven, the troubled. With great discretion and a kind of long, ethnic patience.

— D. Keith Mano was a TV screenwriter and author of ten books, including Take 5, recipient of the 1987 Literary Lion award, and columnist at National Review magazine for 17 years.

D. Keith Mano was a TV screenwriter and author of ten books, including Take 5, recipient of the 1987 Literary Lion award, and columnist at National Review magazine for 17 years.

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