Walk across Jackson Square and you’ll see the psychic readers perched behind card tables where crystals shine in the sun and tarot cards are arranged like a fan. Until last summer, I had never paid to have my reading done. Despite the lure of the presentation, I wasn’t sure if I was a believer in the metaphysical arts.
What I didn’t understand is that psychic readings are not fortune telling; rather, a way to clarify.
Readings can open a closed space by delivering a way of thinking about something in a fresh way. The stereotypes I had were not cleared up until I began a seasonal position at The Bottom of the Cup tea room in the French Quarter. There, I became friends with readers who had been doing their work for a long time, and most not in the comforts of an air-conditioned (or heated) shop. The things I learned went beyond colorful tarot cards and crystal balls, it went deep into what the life of a person trying to earn a living as a psychic in this city might entail.
My first day at the Bottom of the Cup I met two readers, Charlie and Whit, who graciously welcomed me aboard as a fellow employee. Charlie’s introduction was to take a deck of tarot cards out of his pocket and ask me to cut it in half. After a few more deck cuts and card selections, Charlie examined the ones I chose and smiled.
“Don’t worry, the visionary Aquarius nature in you is strong and has led you to the right place. You’ll do fine here but won’t be working here for very long. Great things lie ahead.” He snapped the deck together with a rubber band and shook my hand.
“Hi,” he said, “I’m Charlie, and I’m an Irish gypsy.”
After work that day, I had drinks with Charlie and a few of my other coworkers. They indulged my nosiness and shared about their lives before working at the shop. A reader who used to work in Jackson Square recognized Charlie and joined us. He sipped Sprite and answered a few of my questions.
“I lead tours during the evening, and read for strangers only on certain corners,” he told me. (What some would say is superstition, psychics would say is common sense.) “I’ve sat in bars until closing, reading customer’s palms and sharing my tarot deck when they’ve requested,” he says. “I can make upwards of three hundred dollars on a weekend night.”
A reader named Bee shares how she always knew she had the gift.
“Ever since I was a child, I knew, and my parents did too. They’d ask me about what to do about friends who were sick or if it was a good time to travel. I always knew, but I didn’t understand what it meant then.” I asked her to elaborate and she continued, “I’d watch my grandmother brew tea and read palms for people. We grew up in Chicago, and tea-leaf readings were always popular because it was so cold. Both my sister and I picked it up quickly, but she never took it as far as I did.” Bee pauses and holds the amethyst that rests at her throat. “I used to pull long hours in Jackson Square. It’s sweltering in the summer and most people just want to be entertained. They don’t really want to see what the cards reveal.”
Whit is an astrological reader; he provides insight based on the situation of the cosmos. While working at Bottom of the Cup, I’d glimpse him reading books about astronomy in between customers. Over a decade of studying has made him an expert in consultations that involve the current planetary movements. It’s a passion he’s hoping to turn into a full-time career, and a dream that’s brought him to New Orleans.
Others have been providing readings in New Orleans for decades, long before they realized it as a career choice. Some have night shifts at various shops that have lasted until dawn, while others hold intimate readings in the privacy of different homes. Charlie knows all about how to turn ordinary objects, like a single dime, into a talisman of protection. He tells me that he learned it from fellow Irish gypsies and demonstrates at the table that certain candles can protect against negative energy. A daily salt-water bath and a hematite stone by your bedside is enough to keep the energy vampires away.
I ask about money, and it’s clear the hustle is real. When I ask the group why they wanted to do this despite the difficulties, their expressions are dubious.
“Why? It’s who I am,” Gideon replies. “There’s no other way for me to be.”
Most psychic readers live paycheck to paycheck, and like the majority of service industry jobs, tips are based on customer satisfaction. The balance between satisfying the customer and remaining true to one’s art is not a foreign concept. Artists have been struggling with this issue for centuries, and the psychic reading community is no different.
“I once had a customer storm away from a tarot reading I was giving her because she didn’t like the cards she selected.” Bee takes a sip of her drink and continues, “It’s rough because you don’t know where people are coming from, and you really do want to help them, but you never know how they’ll take it.” She sets her drink down. “I just stay as true to the art and listen as best I can.”
I ask Charlie to see what my cards reveal and he obliges. He takes them from his back pocket and relights our candles.
“I’m feeling generous tonight,” he says while arranging the cards across the bar. We have attracted the attention of other readers by this point, friends of Charlie and Whit, who frequent this bar often. As they gather round our table to examine my cards, I admire their sense of community. The passion for their craft is blatant, and I feel touched by their dedication.
Gideon’s brow is furrowed as I flip over a card that reveals a three of cups, and there’s a stifled gasp from Whit when my next card illustrates a black devil with red horns. Charlie is quick to reassure, “The devil card does NOT have anything to do with the devil! All it means it that there can be some difficulty lying ahead, or some inner thoughts to work out, or a place that you’ll occupy for awhile.”
He flips over the next card, a white duckling that swims through a rainbow pool.
“I wouldn’t worry, Jennifer. There’s a lot of brightness and optimism here too. And you know that tarot cards are just like any other belief system.” He shuffles the deck from one end of the table to the other, swooping them into his palm and snapping them together with a rubber band.
“What they reveal is only real if you believe in it. Ultimately, the power will always be in your hands.”