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​How Do Psychics Survive in New York City?

Even as Manhattan becomes more and more unaffordable, fortune tellers—and their ubiquitous neon signs—have flourished in even the wealthiest neighborhoods. How are they hanging on?

by John Surico
Mar 11 2015, 4:00am

Photo via Flickr user Mike Licht

Psychics are still all over the place in modern New York City. Photo via Flickr user Mike Licht

"What's in California for you? I see California. I see Florida. I see Europe. A lot of positive energy. Let me tell you what I see."

Two narrow flights up, in a drab apartment near Times Square, a young woman named Deanna was describing my future. We were in her tiny kitchen, seated in front of a blood-red curtain and a crystal ball, but not too far from the refrigerator. She told me I had 89 years to live, would be married once and a father to three children. Even a book deal could be seen in my sweaty palm. "All good things are going to come," she teased. "No obstacles. Everything is with your heart, your strength, and your energy."

Maybe it was my facial expression, unknowingly exposing doubt, or just a trick of the trade—to leave the customer always craving more. "And I also see you have a question you want to ask me. Something is blocking you in your success."

And she was right: I did. The day before, I had visited psychics all over New York City, presenting myself as a reporter and asking them if they'd talk to me about their professions. I struck out five times—learning quickly that the phrase "I'm a writer" isn't a crowd-pleaser when it comes to New York's psychic community. None were interested in talking to me, nor did they want me to stick around.

So I chose a different path, posing as a possibly prospective psychic, who wanted to be mystified and demystified. Deanna quickly responded to a question that has been biting at me since I first moved to New York City six years ago: Has it been hard for me to live here? "No."

If you type "psychics' into a Google map of New York City, dozens of red dots soon litter the five boroughs. And that's just online—a few of the psychics I visited, who were all female, weren't even listed. The only indication of their existence was a universal sign left on the street: a palm, an arrow pointing up, and a line that read, "$10 special: Walk-ins welcome!"

But what's more fascinating is that these psychics pop up in some of New York's ritziest neighborhoods, from Central Park West to SoHo. Five-star restaurants, department stores, and landmark institutions fold, but clairvoyants' doors are still wide open on Fifth and Lexington. Deanna's apartment itself is squeezed in between a Planet Hollywood and a Broadway theater built in the early 20th century.

The average price of a two-bedroom apartment in her area? Upwards of $5,000 a month.

The futures industry is not only recession-proof but also, apparently, city-proof—which is to say remarkably resilient given that New York's cost of living increased by 20 percent over the past five years. But in a city that is pricing out everyone but the rich, how the hell do psychics—or, some might argue, merchants of misinformation—manage to stay afloat? Can reading palms, scanning tarot cards, or performing the occasional chakra reading actually pay the bills? What am I missing here?

Deanna couldn't give me much of an answer. Like her predictions of my future, her comments steered toward the vague and ambiguous. Yes, she has a laundry list of clients, she told me, and no, it's not her main occupation (she wouldn't tell me what the other job was). So how does she afford the neighborhood rent? "My husband. We work together."

Since 1967, the act of " fortune telling" has been effectively banned in New York State's penal code, punishable by 90 days in jail or a $500 fine. The definition of a psychic is anyone who makes money off "claimed or pretended use of occult powers, to answer questions or give advice on personal matters or to exorcise, influence or affect evil spirits or curses." As Michael Wilson of the New York Times wrote in 2011, "A law that protects evil spirits: only in New York."

As a result, psychics must (legally) present themselves as entertainers, with a disclaimer that clarifies the readings shouldn't be taken too seriously. Throughout my experiences, I never once saw that provision—only that our readings were private and confidential. It's just one of the many ethical gray areas in a profession that walks the fine line between play and fraud.

Due to this legal status, a spokesperson for the State Department of Labor told me that psychics, in the New York tax structure, are lumped under the "other" section in the larger " Entertainers and Performers" category. People belonging to that classification earn a mean hourly wage of $25.69—but there's no specific data on what psychics make.

That makes sense: Clients come and go, prices vary, and it's not clear if this is reported income or under-the-table cash. There are no psychic unions to speak with, or major bodies of ESP governance. Who even knows what kind of hours psychics work? Many of the psychics' doors I knocked on weren't home during normal business hours.

Deanna herself was out shopping when I first arrived. But after she showed up, she made an easy $35 in 15 minutes. The $10 special got me two or three minutes of palm reading, so I upped the ante with a $25 reading, which tacked on another ten minutes. For me, the purpose was to make her comfortable enough to talk, but for other customers, I can imagine that the $10 special is a guaranteed way to pique their interest. "Yes, I want to know more, and, look, I have money!"

So when I visited the next psychic's first-floor flat in Greenwich Village, just feet away from NYU, I wanted to know more. Here, the average rent of a two-bedroom is an estimated $4,600. A friend of mine lived in this very same building and paid nearly $3,000 a month for a similar apartment.

Carla, an older woman of Eastern European descent, played the psychic novelty up well: She was visible in her living room from the outside window, lying on her couch and smoking a cigarette. (In post-Bloomberg New York, psychics may be the only people who use secondhand smoke in their own homes as a marketing tool.)

Contradicting Deanna, Carla told me New York was my place. As a ConEd team loudly jackhammered a pipe outside, she said I need to live more in the moment, not be concerned with my career ambitions, and, for shit's sake, call my parents more. Then, after asking me whether I had a girlfriend, said, "She's very beautiful! You hold on to her." I'm not sure what would've happened if I said no.

Carla has been in the business since she was 12, and a resident of the Village for only a few years now. And, like Deanna, Carla had some help: Her children support her. But Carla was a bit more self-aware when I asked about making ends meet.

"Yes, it's hard to make a living," she said. "A lot of people don't believe in it."

When I mentioned that I was considering the occupation (to beef up my credentials), she quickly responded, "If you've got a good job, keep it." So I asked her how other psychics manage to have apartments on Fifth Avenue. Do they have side jobs? Are their hourly rates more? Some psychics I saw online charge nearly $300 an hour. "They're probably doing it another way," she said. "You're not gonna get rich on it, that's for sure. You've got to be successful."

I left Carla with more questions than ever. Even if she knew the psychic business wasn't a moneymaker, she still lived in Greenwich Village, a neighborhood now notorious for its rising condos and closing cafés. (My time with Carla was cheaper than the reading Deanna gave me; the 20-minute meeting cost me $20.)

My last visit was a psychic named Stephanie, who lives in a second-floor apartment in Sutton Place. The small riverside neighborhood is also one of the most expensive in the city: Victorian homes line the quiet streets, and your average two-bedroom goes for $4,500. For the confidential $20 palm reading, we sat on collapsible chairs in the first-floor hallway of the thin building. The chairs were already there when I arrived.

To her credit, Stephanie was the most believable of the psychics I visited, if that means anything. We spoke for more than a half hour, and she didn't ask me any Crossing Over with John Edward–style leading questions. Instead, she went on longer speeches about chakra readings and garnering her energy, offering proverbs like, "You're like an archaeologist: You like to dig down deep, and then examine the bones, so to speak. It's not really a bone you're examining. You're examining your spirit, from the bones. Bones are bones. But who carries these bones?"

She also said my place was in India, or at least that I had the movements of the subcontinent. And as much as I enjoyed marveling at what Stephanie had to say, that prediction was more potent than her financial logic.

"Sometimes when you're doing something to help people, God makes a way," she told me. "People help you. You help them. You make a difference. I'm making a difference. I'm empowering people. Helping people strengthen themselves so they can get back on their feet. I'm very strongly into that."

Telling peoples' future was her only occupation, she said. In this case, God was her supplemental income, but even He cannot pay rent. Having heard Deanna say something similar, I pressed Stephanie, and she hit back with her own dose of authenticity.

"I don't think you have to look at the monetary value of it," she said. "I think you're trying to understand that. It's not even about that. I mean, not for me, but I don't know how other people feel about it... I think you're looking at it financially, and it doesn't matter what's in your wallet because it can be gone in one day. It matters what's in you to make that."

I recounted that conversation over the phone to James Randi, who, at 86, is an illusionist and the recent star of the documentary An Honest Liar—and one of the world's leading skeptics. This is a man who, in 1964, introduced the Million Dollar Challenge, in which he agreed to pay any psychic that lump sum if they could prove to him that what they're doing is actually real. (That challenge remains active; no one has ever satisfactorily demonstrated supernatural abilities.)

So, of course, he wasn't surprised at all by the lack of explanation. "They won't give up their secrets to you," he told me. "Psychics specialize in being devious."

But it wasn't some sort of underground, Mafia-like tactic, he said, that's keeping them in their apartments. It's just simple demand: "They're definitely getting clients, because they're abundant," he continued. "People want these things, these forecasts of their future. And when finances are low in a community, that's when psychics flourish."

Randi's response conjured up a short video that the New York Times did back in 2009, just months after the financial meltdown. Unemployed New Yorkers were flocking to psychics, using the little money they had to find out whether they'd be getting that job they applied for, and whether fortunes would be more favorable for them in the near future. In the video, a psychic honestly tells a client to invest in clean energy and infrastructure (which were not bad ideas, as fate would have it).

"Psychics flourish whenever things are bad, with the economy or during a war," Randi explained. "Desperate people who have some money to spend go to a psychic to find out what to invest in. I mean, it's all false information, but psychics love it. That's their territory."

For an example of this phenomenon, Randi referenced the bubonic plague, a crisis that brought out the "quacks," all of whom had their different solutions and visions. "They won't work," he said, "and neither do psychics. But they flourish, and they do well."

From voodoo-wielding shamans to weekly History Channel specials on Nostradamus, mankind has long been obsessed with knowing what the future holds, and entrusting that knowledge to a particular few. It's why the Mayan 2012 prophecy is still talked about three years after the supposed apocalypse, and why the media started discussing 2016 the minute Obama was re-elected. And it's this same desire to predict that applies to spiritual mediums—better known as clairvoyants, tarot readers, seers, seance holders, fortune tellers, or psychics.

So even if their reasons (family help, extra cash, divine intervention, etc.) are as scattershot as my futures are, the psychic community might honestly just be fucking crazy enough to eke it out in New York. When each one of the psychics told me, "Come back and I'll do your tarot cards," I got the sense their clients actually listen, and do so, with some frequency.

When I asked Randi how psychics manage to afford New York, he shot back with an even more big-picture analysis: How have they stayed in business over the past 500 years, let alone the past decade? New York is expensive, but so is everything else.

"They're the ones who will survive," he said. "The psychics always manage to."

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