Search “psychic” in New York City on Google Maps, and you’ll be flooded with addresses of not only psychics, but astrologers, tarot card readers, palm readers, and others invested in the business of the esoteric. This is a city where the supernatural thrives, where even in the midst of skyrocketing rent prices, a psychic – like a bodega, walk-in med clinic, or smoke shop – can be found in every neighbourhood at the drop of a hat. But why, exactly? What are New Yorkers so avidly looking for, and are they finding it in the business of the supernatural? We decided to investigate the current state of psychics and the like in the city, not only to understand how they’re thriving, but who the mystics are behind those beaded curtains in 2019…
I buzz our first psychic’s door in the late afternoon, when the golden hour light gives every building in the East Village a dreamy, molten glow. “Reading By: Honeybee; Past, Present & Future” is printed on the awning. The windows enshrine a table with a crystal ball and scattered with tarot cards, and we half-expect Honeybee to emerge looking like the Oracle of Delphi. When she swings the door open, she’s smoking a cigarette and dressed in grey sweats, and kindly gestures to a seat without making eye contact when I say I’ve got a few questions. When I tell her I’m doing an article on local psychics, she just as kindly – and quickly – shows me the door.
When I tell her I’m doing an article on local psychics, she just as kindly – and quickly – shows me the door.
That about sums up the experience of going door-to-door to learn about psychics in the city: they’re not too keen to be photographed or questioned. So we decided to go undercover. I make an appointment over the phone at a place in Williamsburg and our psychic who shall remain nameless, manages to squeeze me amongst her other clients at 5pm. She also tells us prices start at $15 for a basic tarot reading, and increase upwards of $60 for readings on your past life, your future life, energy cleansings, etc. Later, at my appointment, the price somehow goes up to $30 for the basic tarot reading (not including tip, and a $5 fee if I’m using card). No matter, I think, I’m here for the full experience.
But tip number one: be extremely clear with your psychic on how much you will be paying. Then, enjoy the ride.
She actually looks a lot like our first psychic who refused to answer any questions in the name of research – also dressed in sweatpants– and tells me she’s been living in New York for a while (she has some family in Romania). Like most of the storefronts we saw, hers was decked out in neon lights and cheaply printed posters of planets and sacred geometry. The inside looked like many college dorm rooms I’ve seen: riddled with Starbucks cups, incense, more crystals, and filled with the distant sounds of a sitcom behind a curtain. She asks a few initial questions: how old am I, what’s my job, what do I want from my reading, etc? I tell her I’m a writer, and I just want to “check-in” with my energy. “Your health is good,” she says, after I pull four cards from the deck, “But I’m getting a lot of confusion and negativity around your chakras. Very unbalanced.”
I got goosebumps when she said I moved here about 11 months ago (it was actually 10.5, but still, impressive). I like New York. I did date a difficult person who keeps coming in and out of my life (haven’t we all?) but I don’t want children as she inaccurately predicted. As for being “unbalanced” and “stressed”? Show me a writer who isn’t. She wasn’t completely right, nor was she wrong. Regardless, it was fascinating to observe the way she so confidently dealt out advice – and praise – about attributes she was certain I had, despite having just met me.
Towards the end of our 25-minute session, I was genuinely feeling concerned about my jumbled chakras, and asked how to unblock them. “So I do a cleansing package, between three and five sessions, that are guaranteed to do that,” she says, “the prices are a bit higher. But the results are guaranteed. Or your money back.” Suddenly, I understood why even the most level-headed of folks shell-out money for this. It’s addictive. It’s like binge-watching a TV-show on your own life, but you have to cough up the money to get to the next season.
It’s addictive. It’s like binge-watching a TV-show on your own life, but you have to cough up the money to get to the next season.
Our Williamsburg psychic, along with Honeybee, falls into the first of two categories we discovered: “the corner store psychic”. Think of their enterprises like those hot dog trolleys you see on NYC sidewalk. A staple of the city. Iconic. Worth it in the heat of the moment? Absolutely. The best place your money could’ve gone? Debatable.
The majority of news reports under the keyword “psychic” highlight the city’s strained relationship with mystics over the past century. In the New York Times: “Man Who Gave Psychics $718,000 ‘Just Got Sucked In.’” In The Guardian: “She didn’t see it coming: psychic arrested for $800,000 fraud.” Historically, the fraud’s been so intense that a law was passed in 1967 prohibiting fortune telling as a class B misdemeanour. Perhaps that’s why none of the corner-store mystics we spoke with were interested in being interviewed for our article.To exist, they have to classify themselves as pretty much anything else (entertainers, life coaches, etc.) and are legally required to present a disclaimer to clients that clarifies the readings are part “of a show or exhibition solely for the purpose of entertainment or amusement.”
“People always, only ever want to talk about themselves.”
This psychic who told my fortune (and accepted payment via Square Space), didn’t give me a disclosure speech, but did give me a card upon leaving that read “Williamsburg Psychic Life Coach, Reader and Advisor on all matters of life”. There was no mention of being part of a show for the purpose of amusement, and if the setting was meant to provide an entertaining experience, the bar was pretty low. On a voyeuristic and narcissistic level, however, it was more entertaining; as our psychic told me, in perhaps the only time she broke from a more engaged attitude, “People always, only ever want to talk about themselves.”
But that’s just one end of the spectrum. On the other, you have NYC-based mystics, psychics, astrologers and the like, who are more than happy to be interviewed and discuss the misconceptions about their craft. Their costs are usually upwards of $100 for a session, as opposed to say, the $35 rate of the corner psychic we consulted. A bit of vetting is done on potential clients for security reasons, as sessions are often held in the psychic’s home (otherwise, they’re often done by phone or Skype).
I spoke with three of the top people in the upper echelon “mystic” business: a psychic, astrologist, and palm reader, who’ve built up solid reputations in the city and beyond, starting with Betsy LeFae, who’s been in the business for over a decade. “To make a long story short, I will say that I have always been extraordinarily sensitive,” says Betsy, who has been featured by NPR, The Sunday Times, and other publications. She studied psychology in college, and was a professional social worker for a decade. A near-fatal accident led her to reconsider her spirituality, and the discovery of a preexisting medical condition that meant she could die at any time. “A hole in my spinal cord,” she says. The accident was how she literally and figuratively fell into honing her psychic practice.
“I had never been exposed to any of this, ever … but one day I was sitting in church and there was a flyer that said you are psychic and I’m like ‘Yeah, right’ and then all of a sudden I got this memory of my pre-cognitive dreams that I’d had a couple of times, so I thought, well, maybe there is something to this… I had no idea I’d be one of the top-ten psychics for close to a decade.”
“Pretty much all services I provide have the same angle, and that is for whoever I’m providing this service to, to trust themselves. For them to eventually not need someone like me.” Sounds like a therapist. Her sessions last an hour by phone, or video chat. She does offer a 3-month package with a weekly, one-hour session that “includes a lot of breathe work.” She also started a six-week, in-person class called “Trust Yourself: Intuitive Development Through Awareness.” Today, thanks largely to its success, she’s moved it exclusively online.
“[There’s] the “Old School” and “New School” psychics,” Betsy says, about the divide between corner store psychics and herself, “There are some psychics, particularly in big cities like New York who will just tell you your future”. She has many long-term clients who testify to the accuracy her predictions, but “I don’t do enabling straight-up or entertain questions like ‘when will I meet my soulmate,’” she says. “All of [my services] aim for having someone learn how to trust themselves. It’s always honoring free will.” Those Betsy says she respects in the industry, stand by the same principles.
“I don’t do enabling straight-up or entertain questions like ‘when will I meet my soulmate,’” she says. “All of [my services] aim for having someone learn how to trust themselves. It’s always honouring free will.”
Take palm reader (as well as astrologist and tarot specialist) Mark Seltman, who’s been in the business for almost half a century, and read “tens of thousands of hands” (including those of Martha Stewart, Katie Couric, Maurice Sendak, and others). He’s been spotlighted by The New York Times, and examined hundreds of mentally unstable criminals’ hands at a forensic psychiatric hospital in New York City over a two-year period. Today, his business is also operated online. “Illuminating the ancient science and art of palmistry and making it real for the masses has been like prying a glimmer of light from a 5,500 year old rusty dungeon door with a pen light and a pair of tweezers,” he says, “Unfortunately, a lot of readers doesn’t mean a lot of good counsellors. It’s an easy avocation and many people are gullible. Truly helping people is the driving force behind what I do.” Like Betsy, he focuses on how his work with a client can help them become their own driving force for understanding — and get them to a place where they don’t need their services. They’re words that ring very much against the kind of dependancy that was encouraged by our corner-store psychic.
“Astrology is a pseudo-science,” she tells me in her floor-to-ceiling pink East Village apartment, decked out like a cosmic peacock.
Now, in matters of astrology, we were one of the few to be welcomed inside the home of Angel Eye, a world-famous astrologist, tarot card reader and performer – not psychic, mind you – who chalks her wisdom down not to the supernatural forces, but a simple (and by simple, we mean very complex) charting of the stars. “Astrology is a pseudo-science,” she tells me in her floor-to-ceiling pink East Village apartment, decked out like a cosmic peacock as she hooks up her equipment to give us a taste of her singing performances.
She got started in the business, as she says, “Over some dumb guy. He was an asshole. I read this book, Secrets of a Stargazer’s Notebook, and I realized it told me so much about him that I was like, well, ‘wow, what else can it tell me about myself, and about getting along better with others?’ A lot it turns out.” The first few years of her stepping into astrology were wild. “I was singing and painting as part of the Rivington School,” she says, “It was an art movement throughout the ‘80s where we erected these huge sculptures in the lower east side and east village out of trash, y’know welding, using hairspray. I’d cover my body in silver paint, wear a diaper, and a wire hanger on my head, and spout performance art. I almost died ten times, and it was worth it.” The blossoming of her artistic career meant she had to trust her instincts, and be honest with herself — traits that are absolutely key to her practice.
As a Pisces, she says, it was only natural she should have a dually spiritual and artistic career (Pisces=two fish, hence duality). On the question of what folks are seeking when they come to her? Sex and companionship come up. So do questions of money, and whether or not a client is living in the right place. In fact, the latter “geographical astrology” is her specialty. “People wanna know if they’re in the place that’s best for them,” she says, “literally.”
We’re drawn to their neon signs for same reason we’re drawn to places of worship, or therapy – even the red light district.
What did Betsy have to say about the corner store psychics? “Living in New York for a long time, yeah, I see the neon signs. I’ve never been to one. I’m trying to speak out of respect, but at the same time I know a lot of people who’ve been burned by every corner psychic with a $5 tarot sign.” It surprises her, she says, that they even exist in 2019. She says she has yet to meet a person “who is cursed, or has an entity attached to them” that can only, as many corner-store psychics will say, “be removed for $11,000.”
At the end of all our mystical research, it’s suddenly quite clear why psychics – of all walks of life – flourish in this city where rents continue to rise. We’re drawn to their neon signs for same reason we’re drawn to places of worship, or therapy — even the red light district. We’re looking for a shared, often empathetic experience, but also we’re looking for someone to tell us what to do next in a city where “anything can happen”. New York City is the place where some of the wildest schemes and dreams thrive, a place where all the quirkiness and diversity of our planet has been squeezed into one fine, tangy concentrate. After centuries, the industry is not only still alive but as resilient as ever, growing stronger and more accessible in a digital age. And as long as humans have questions, they’ll be waiting with answers – both online, and next to the late-night bodega.