My Love Life According To 3 (& A Half) NYC Psychics

Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
There are a few things I’ve never done in my 10 years as a New Yorker: I’ve never had a hot dog at Gray’s Papaya; I’ve never gotten a foot massage at one of those basement spots in Chinatown; and I’ve never popped into any of the countless psychics and clairvoyants who keep shop on every corner. Until now.

In Los Angeles, expensive and in-depth readings are all the rage (or so I'm told), so why waste an opportunity to potentially prove that New York does something quicker and cheaper? If all it takes for a little validation from a crystal ball — or tarot deck, or my own palm — is $10, well, that’s way cheaper (and faster) than therapy. So, last week, I decided to take a few Lower Manhattan psychics for a test drive.

I start my journey on an easy and kitschy note, with Zoltar, the Fortune Teller Machine off of St. Mark’s Place in the East Village. I’ve always been curious about the side-show-esque arcade psychic made famous in the movie Big, but have never actually let him work his magic. That is probably because, as I learn, it’s hugely embarrassing to block pedestrian traffic on Second Avenue while you listen to an animatronic, vaguely (probably offensively) Eastern European doll soothsayer.

After 15 seconds of rambling, Zoltar spits out a card that says that I am temperamental (okay), have a brilliant mind (that checks out), and that a friend who is trying to harm me will soon disappear from my life (alarming, but glad that’s getting taken care of?). Other than that, I’m going to be “very happy.”

Amused, and only two dollars poorer, I’m ready for my first real reading.

My friend Fia and I trudge through the East Village, in search of a human psychic. Naturally, it doesn’t take long for us to find a sign that reads “Psychic Readings Special $10" outside a completely ordinary-looking walk-up. We ring “2F,” as instructed, and are led to the 3rd floor, where a 20-something girl in an American Eagle sweatshirt opens the door. I have just met my very first psychic.

PSYCHIC #1
The psychic instructs Fia to wait outside in the stairwell and ushers me into the corridor of her apartment, where a little table is set up. I decide against the $90 crystal ball reading, though I was tempted, and opt instead for a $15 palm reading. She takes my hand in hers (It's weirdly intimate, like a manicure) and launches into a bracing assessment of all aspects of my life, from friendship to family to romance. I expect her to ask me some basic questions (“What kind of work do you do?” “Are you seeing someone?”), but she doesn’t.

“Who’s Michael?” she asks me out of the blue. I take stock of the Michaels in my life: They are few and far between.

“Uh — I have a writing mentor named Michael?” I tell her, thinking of a family friend to whom I turn for career advice.

“I sense romantic feelings there,” she accuses. I meekly tell her I don’t think that’s the case. (I feel weirdly guilty contradicting her — I don’t want to be difficult. Maybe I should consider romantic feelings?)   

She moves on.

“You’re surrounded by a ton of guys, but they all just want to have fun; they’re not looking for anything serious. You just need to focus on work right now, and the right one will come along.” I nod at her. I happen to be in a serious relationship right now, but this advice would have been true for probably 90% of my adult life. It also surely rings true (or is at least comforting) to most single women who seek her advice. I can see how this line works, but so far, nothing she says is on point.

“I see a move in your future,” she says. I perk up.

“Yes! I’m moving!” I tell her, excitedly. I am in fact moving in with my boyfriend later this spring.

“I don’t mean moving house,” she clarifies, “I mean moving environments completely.” Close to an actual insight, but no cigar.  I thank her, and send Fia in.

In the hallway, I sit on the steps and try to asses the accuracy of what just occurred. I feel fairly unmoved by the whole experience, but maybe I should have been more forthright about my relationship status? (But, then again, why wouldn’t she ask whether I had a boyfriend? Did she take one look at me and think, single?) I decide to give my future psychics a bit more direction.

Fia finishes her reading. “She told me I’d get married in three years!” she reports. In fact, Fia has been married for a year now.

Later, I’m walking home by myself when I see a psychic sign near Union Square. I buzz what seems to be another otherwise-ordinary apartment in an otherwise-ordinary apartment building, and I head upstairs. This time, there is no curtain separating the psychic-reading area from the rest of the house — I am led right into a family home, where a table for readings (and, presumably, eating meals during non-business hours) is set up in the kitchen, and am invited to take a seat.

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Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
PSYCHIC #2
“Hi!” I say. 

“PLEASE don’t put your purse on the floor, that gives off a really negative energy!” I am immediately reprimanded. 

This is an important exchange, I think, because Psychic #2 (a casually dressed woman in her 40s) and I get off on the wrong foot. After I am scolded for my apparently grave purse error, I do not feel particularly happy to be in a stranger’s incense-filled apartment. I think this must, somehow, show on my face — uh oh, because this time I splurged on a palm-and-face reading. The psychic's comments on my “really negative energy” don't let up for the entirety of our (frankly stressful) reading. 

“I’m sensing a lot of hot and cold in your love life," she says. "What’s that about?” 

“I’m not sure...I have a pretty serious boyfriend.”

“I still sense hot and cold though.” 

“Hmmm...I dunno!” I say, feeling guilty. “I feel pretty steady about him.” 

“Maybe it’s not from you. Frankly, I feel it’s your negativity that’s caused it.”

This psychic doesn’t mince words. 

It’s a really weird thing, to be in an apartment, essentially holding hands with a stranger who is telling you — based on nothing, literally nothing — that your beloved boyfriend actually feels hot and cold about you, and that it’s your fault, you negative, exacting bitch. 

“How old are you?” 

“28.” 

“I feel like you’re four years behind in life — in EVERY respect,” she says, looking me unblinkingly in the eye. “Work, money, and relationships.” 

At this point, I actually laugh out loud. It was such a startlingly terrible thing to say to a complete stranger. This woman doesn’t know my life. Would a woman who was four years behind romantically be moving in with her boyfriend?  Would a woman four years behind financially have gone to SoulCycle twice in the past month? I think not! Psychics are bullshit, I decide.

“You’re a writer, aren’t you.” she accuses, with enraging accuracy. 

For the rest of the session, I smile politely while she gives me prescriptions for a happy life. Then, at the first possible moment, I fork over $35 (never have I passed over money so unwillingly), and flee. I thought I’d be told how many kids I’d have, whether it would be a good year for work, or whether the guy I was with was "the one." I was not expecting a cursory assessment of my life to date, based on, what? My appearance? A bit scraggly, sure, but doesn’t everyone look like shit in New York in January? 

Nevertheless, I vow to get a manicure before I visit another psychic.

PSYCHIC #3

Three days later, I enlist my friends Clare and Stella for a third reading in Chelsea. We’ve selected a glitzy-looking storefront psychic this time, still with the ubiquitous "Psychic Reading $10 Special" sign. (Nota bene: The $10 special is a myth to lure you in. It does not, in fact, exist.)

This time, I’m prepared. I wear contacts. I’ve gotten a manicure. I actively try to look like someone who is completely on-schedule in life, work, money, and relationships. Dress for the job you want, right? I also insist that one of my friends go first, in case a casual “I’m just accompanying my friends to a psychic, this is just a lark” vibe would somehow get me a more positive reading. Positivity! I don’t even care about accuracy. At this point, I just want some positivity.

The psychic — 30s, cool in a My Cousin Vinny kind of way — takes my hand. 

“I’m seeing a lot of past lives here,” she tells me. “It looks like in your past lives you were very, very successful in work, but completely unsuccessful romantically.” Uh-huh, sure, but what about my current life? 

“I feel like your energy is really blocked, romantically.”

“I dunno, I actually have a boyfriend!” I say, guiding her. 

“That’s good! That’s good to hear. But I sense that you’re holding back, sexually.” I giggle. "Are you holding back sexually?” she asks. 
Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
I say something vague. It feels weird to talk about my sex life with a complete stranger in a window on Eighth Avenue. She goes on to talk about work (fine), family (fine), and money (fine). I nod, placidly. 

“Do you have any questions for me?” she asks at the end. I decide, at what I imagine will be my last psychic reading ever, to go for broke and ask her a direct question. I feel sheepish even asking it, this very personal thing — seeking approval from a woman whom I’m paying to tell me what I want to hear.

“I’m moving in with my boyfriend soon, and I guess I just sort of want to know if you think that’s...a good thing?”

“Oh, definitely!” she beams. “I think this is the best thing for you. This will force you to really open up, and that’s going to be so good for you. This is good. This is really good.” I smile and hand over my $25.

It doesn’t matter that I didn’t connect with or respond to anything else she said in the reading — I had finally heard what I wanted to hear. Psychic readings are sort of like a Magic 8 ball; it's bullshit, but you can’t stop shaking it until you get the answer you want.

Afterward, Clare, Stella, and I retire to a nearby bar to compare notes. “She offered me a cleansing,” Stella reports. “She says I need to come back for a full reading, and I actually think I might take her up on it,” said Clare. I tell them that the psychic hadn’t tried to upsell me at all. “Wait, she didn’t ask you back?” They seemed concerned, but to me, this made sense. After all, at this (probably short-lived) juncture of my life, I’m not actually searching for answers. I walked out of my sessions pretty skeptical of the psychics' abilities — but, maybe the truth is I wasn’t giving them much to work with.

Sometimes, when things are rough, when things are stressful, as they so often are for anyone living in New York, a little extra guidance is nice. Maybe these psychics, with whatever intuitive gifts they may have, are skilled and practiced at gently guiding someone through their issues, or merely confirming that, yes, this is a shit time, but it will get better. Or, maybe they’re "real" psychics whose gifts can't just be harnessed on a whim, for $15 a pop. Or, maybe they’re wrong 99 out of 100 times, but the 100th reading is so dazzlingly, incandescently right that it’s worth all 99 failures.

Or, maybe they are all charlatans. This is New York. Sometimes, it can be kind of hard to tell.
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