The Glow of Psychic Storefronts
I look for the signs and the storefronts, those beacons in the night that glow and whisper in voices of deep neon, “Come in. I can help. I know what you need. Come in.”
Nobody goes to a psychic with a peaceful mind. I don’t go to psychics, but I have friends who do and I can tell you one thing - few happy people visit a psychic. There is usually a pressing, current problem, but sometimes it’s the accumulation of many setbacks all at once. Even when things get rough for me, a visit to a psychic would be my last resort. My first impulse is to take a nap, then to call a friend. After that, a sandwich or some pasta is in order. By that point, I have usually calmed down and can think about actual solutions to my problems.
I am sure that some people who visit psychics are simply curious. There may be some who go in groups on a lark - just like those who went to Ouija Board parties in the 1920s. That kind of pastime may be extinct, though, in the age of Google and the app-based world. Other people may be seekers, tourists of the future, but they cannot afford their own rocket ship or time travel machine, so they see a psychic.
The majority of people who visit psychics, numerologists, seers, fortune tellers and astrologers have something that weighs on them. Any answer is preferable in the face of chaos and calamity. Give me a road map, they think, even if it’s one you make up on the spot. I would rather believe in some homespun bullshit than the terrible reality of a breakup, death, financial problem or sickness. Denial is a powerful sedative and if a psychic fuels that engine, it might be worth a few bucks.
When I was younger, I went through a period where I had more belief in the supernatural, in the ability to divine answers from cosmic equations. I had gotten divorced, then went through a bad breakup two years later and found myself wandering the streets of Manhattan every night, howling at the moon, disaffected, wondering what was going to happen to me. I found myself drifting to Tower Books every evening, that long-gone oasis on 4th and Lafayette Streets.
I would head to the astrology section and plop myself down on the floor, where I’d read about what it all meant, trying to figure things out based on my birth, moon, Venus and rising signs. I delved into some really arcane branches of astrology. I found a book of runes that came with a bag of rune stones - they were made from baked clay and came in a little velveteen pouch with a drawstring. I eagerly took them home and followed the directions, threw the runes and looked up their meaning in the companion book. I kept notes in a little notebook. I would have used a Magic 8-ball if I had had one.
I must have gotten some solace from it. I told my friend Marina about it. She began to call me up and say, “Throw the runes for me, Paul.” She was going through her own romantic nightmare and would call day and night for direction from the runes. I considered buying her a copy of the book and the rune stones, as well, but I was lonely and welcomed her calls. At this point, I had a brief career going as an unpaid psychic. I kept doing readings for her. I don’t know if the runes or the astrology did anything for me in the long term, but they got me through many long nights.
When I had doubts about all that stuff later on, I rationalized that, at the very least, the astrology and the runes and all that stuff was a good way to reflect on oneself. A form of therapy. Anything that makes you look at your own actions is useful, right? The under-examined life is not worth living. Neither is the over-examined life. I kept the books, but they began to gather dust on my shelves. I may have internalized some of it. At the very least, astrology was a good way to meet women. When someone told me their sign - no matter the sign - all I had to do was say, “Oh wow!” and they would perk up.
I’m not much of a believer anymore. I don’t throw the runes. I stopped reading horoscopes years ago and now see astrology mainly as a conversational diversion. But I can’t close the door completely on the supernatural. I had a mystical Greek grandmother who read the future in the patterns of sludge at the bottom of a Greek coffee cup. SHE believed in fortune-telling and she would do things like call up my mom and say, “Don’t let Paul go out today, I had a dream. My eyelid was twitching all night.” We all had a certain respect for her powers. She was magical with plants and she could cook up a storm, as well, but I digress.
It’s all fun and games until your bank account gets emptied out. I have had friends who were addicted to telephone psychics. They were powerless to stop themselves from making the call and racking up another credit card charge. They would write to tell me they had sworn it off again and again. They were one good phone session away from temporary solace, but they also knew their lives had become ruled by hocus-pocus. Denial lasts for only so long. It’s actually a shitty drug.
I had other friends who were chronic supernatural relapsers. They could not pass by a psychic’s storefront without stopping. Those places are all the same. A woman - it’s always a woman, young or old - sits in the tiny, walled-off front section of a storefront with a small carpet, two chairs and some accessories. They wait for you to come in. I passed one years ago on Christopher Street, in Greenwich Village, lost in my obsessive thoughts, and looked up to lock eyes with an old woman in a dark shawl. She looked like the Wicked Witch of the West and crooked her bony finger towards me, slowly pulling it towards her face. This freaked me out and I sped up, but I had friends who would weaken as they walked by.
They wanted answers on this or that issue - relationship, money, loss, premonition or dream - and the pull of that doorknob was irresistible. They would go in, hand over the money, and then listen. Psychics satisfy the human need for answers. It’s much more difficult to live in the uncertainty of life. This is why people turn to religion, the internet, TV or gossip.
Some people need to know about the future, others the past. My friend Josie went through one break up after another. She began to wonder whether she would ever fall in love again and would ask her psychic why the last romance had blown up. This is slippery territory and it might be better left to a therapist or counselor, but that never stopped Josie and it never stopped the psychics. They told her all kinds of shit. They would ramble on and my friend found some temporary solace.
Everybody is looking for meaning and interaction, especially now, when everything is mediated through a smartphone. Most people are distracted all by day their TV, phones or computers. They don’t sit with their thoughts and feelings any more. All the time that would normally go towards thinking, worrying and dreaming is sucked away by digital distractions. It’s hard to develop inner resources in the twenty-first century.
People want to know the answer. They want to know what’s coming. They want communion. Like therapists, hookers, and service workers at counters, psychics are a place where you can get some real human interaction. As a bonus, the stuff they say feels important.
Nobody wants to sit with uncertainty. Religions and schools of philosophy address this stuff. So does art, for that matter. And modern religion, like psychics, relies on a constant pile of single and five-dollar bills changing hands in order to keep the door open. It’s a service. Some people have supernatural gifts. Or they believe they have gifts. Or they get YOU to believe they have gifts. And if they can show you the future with these gifts, well, okay - they should be compensated, right?
Those storefront psychics need money to pay the rent, to have the pricey neon signs made, and to feed the hungry family. I used to think they were all money-laundering operations, but I don’t believe that anymore. I do know that some psychics take advantage of the power dynamic and scam customers, bilk them for boatloads of money. That happened not long ago with a local psychic. Her victim eventually took her to court, but she’s still in business.
Seers have been around for a long time in one form or another. Some eras have been more dangerous than others for purveyors of the occult. People who claim to know the future fill a deep need in the collective psyche, as well as the individual psyche. Otherwise, we would not tolerate their existence, let alone allow them to operate as a business. I have no answers, as usual. In fact, THAT is MY stock-in-trade - I know nothing nor do I claim to know anything. I can barely remember the past, let alone divine the future.
I should open a sort of reverse psychic business. I can welcome someone into my front room, take their hand, sit in silence for a moment, then say, “I don’t know what to tell you.” I could offer them some tea and usher them out. Maybe it’s just another way for lonely people to find companionship, however brief and fake. It may not be as honest as prostitution, but it’s probably less dangerous.
Am I being too caustic? Too cynical? Too judgmental? I actually like that we have these people scattered around, even if I don’t like that they swindle vulnerable people. What I like best, though, are the signs and the storefronts, those beacons in the night that glow and whisper in voices of deep neon, “Come in. I can help. I know what you need. Come in.”
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Paul Vlachos is a writer, photographer and filmmaker. He was born in New York City, where he currently lives. He is the author of “The Space Age Now,” released in 2020, “Breaking Gravity,” in 2021, and the just-released “Exit Culture.”