Tales from the Dark Side

In man' attempts to rise above the common bug, he' dubbed himself the Talker, the Tool-User, the Artist. The Murderer. And, of course, the Image of God.

Man is full of it.

The map of the human genome shows that we hold 99 percent of our genes in common with weevils. By posturing above our station, we stir up an ontological fuddle. Man is nature' William J. Bennett. He is the Hypocrite.

Consider the usual examples of religion and war, of thundering judgment that wears no pants. No other animal would swoon around the Athenaeum with a collection of Bertrand Russell essays, then pick its navel while gawping at the latest episode of The O.C. We build castles of silicon, then carelessly toss our souls down the logical vacuum of Red Sox Nation. Or of fortune-telling

Psychic phenomena. Tarot cards. Spirit summoning. They sound like Victorian parlor games over which tea-stained dowagers might drip their buttered crumpets. But people as sophisticated as the ancient Romans — or indeed the ancient Reagans — gave astrology thorough credence. Countless millions read the daily horoscope. Others frequent psychic hotlines, dialing away their paychecks to glean a lucky number.

Why would reasonable Americans — and Bostonians, of course, are arguably the most reasonable Americans of all — condone this sort of mental flatus? We carry pagers. We use fats sparingly. We study contracts before signing them.

To find out, and to see what the appeal might be, I visited six Boston-area psychics, astrologers, mediums, and spiritualists. Now, it should go on record that I am as skeptical as a dried cod. (Not in the original Greek sense. The philosopher Pyrrho of Elis took healthy disbelief to the extreme of walking off cliffs in the certainty that pain was unreal, broken bones a debatable matter of perspective. I am no such idealist.) But as the old joke goes, if God doesn't exist, then blasphemy is useless. If He does, it's just asking for a thunderbolt.

Lynn Robinson, the Wellesley HillsÐbased author of Compass of the Soul and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Being Psychic, says intuition is the light inside the crystal ball. “I think [tarot, tea leaves, etc.] are helpful tools. Intuition is intangible. Having a concrete tool makes it feel more real.”

And what, then, is intuition? “It's insight that doesn't come from the logical side of our brain,” Robinson says. “We get it through images, the proverbial gut feeling. Some of us get it through dreams. When we diagnose the intuitive, it really helps guide us in our lives. What's sad is that in our culture we tend to discount that intuitive information, especially in the Boston area where we're so logical and rational.”

The evidence of MBTA bus schedules to the contrary, she has a point. Prying my mind open as far as its prejudices would allow, I went to see Alex Palermo, owner of the Tremont Tearoom in Downtown Crossing.

The Tremont Tearoom lies on the third floor of a noisome, peeling edifice on Winter Street. Since 1936, it's been a headquarters to Boston's psychic community, providing readings and Reiki classes to devotees, and bringing pagan rituals to Boston Common. I was struck by its dizzying astral ceiling mural, its incense, and its encrustation with New Age trinkets. On the Friday afternoon of my appointment, the front room was empty save for a courteous, gray-haired psychic who requested payment up front. He preferred cash and thanked me for returning to the street to get it.

Palermo then emerged from a back room. A large man with heavy eyelids and a florid T-shirt, he ushered me to a card table in the corner, not far from a stereo that was yowling show tunes. After watching me shuffle a tarot deck, he sized up my oxford shirt, my drone's haircut, and my worker-ant khakis. “You're logical, not emotional,” he said, adding that he didn't get very many logically oriented customers. Ah.

When we spoke earlier, Lynn Robinson had expressed uncertainty as to whether psychics could predict the future. “For me, that's up for grabs,” she said. “I don't believe that the future is etched in stone.” Palermo put that to the test by throwing down cards like a Vegas dealer, talking as his fingers unmasked cups and swords and pentacles. At once, he wrongly guessed the length of my marriage, but added that it would soon end in divorce. “I hope I'm wrong,” he said, shaking his head.

“You have . . . two siblings.”

“I have one.”

“No, you don't. The other was born . . . in 1962 or '63. In Spain.” It's true that my wife is Spanish, and she has brothers, although they're both children of the '70s. Even though I had no reason to believe him, I was beginning to feel uncomfortable, as if a stranger were fingering my family pictures.

Palermo correctly stated that I'd suffered a loss. “Parent?” Yes. “Mother?” No. At this point he called upon the spirit of my father, waving his hands as if parting steam.

“What happened to his head?” he asked me.

“I don't know.”

“His head is missing.” It took a moment before the spirit reattached the offending part, and Palermo continued his forecast. Renovations in my basement. Unexpected career directions. An invitation to either Lexington or Concord. “Nick” would telephone me on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. At one juncture, Palermo chided me for being “a logical asshole.”

I didn't think this was going very well.

A half-hour and $50 later, I left, his card tucked into my pocket with a book recommendation (Love Is Letting Go of Fear by Gerald G. Jampolsky) scribbled on the back. I felt oddly deflated, as much because of Palermo's “channeling” of spirits as for his morbid predictions about my marital fate. In fairness, he had tried to give me comfort. But I was offended at the pretense that my father, who was a stately man and a subscriber to the New York Review of Books, would lower himself to mouthing platitudes in a fortune-teller's den. This was a genuine emotional nerve, and I disliked its being picked. My skepticism remained intact, even when a friend named Nick telephoned before Thanksgiving. (It was the Tuesday.) Perhaps Nancy Garber, a psychic medium with an active practice in the Boston area, would fare better.

Due to unforeseen snowfall, she conducted our session by telephone. “Normally, I wouldn't do this for clients inside Massachusetts,” she said, explaining that the disjoint might impede a spiritual connection. An hour before my appointment, she had “tuned in” and made notes, which she then read aloud, probing me for their relevance.

“Is your father a spirit?” she asked at the beginning of our talk. I agreed that he might currently be. Over the next two hours, she introduced me to a succession of the disembodied: a portly, balding gentleman with bad knees. A quiet, middle-aged man who had lost weight before death. A home-cooked grandmother. An ancient pianist. A young man of watery demise. A beautiful woman. Then, most ostentatiously, a World Trade Center victim. Two we even ventured to identify.

Garber's method demanded feedback. She cast out bait like, “Do you know somebody named Tom?” and my reply funneled the conversation. Sometimes this led to backtracking or admissions of uncertainty.

She told me there are many spirits that demand expression, but a shortage of mediums. Thus, the airwaves tend to clog, and the appropriate ghosts don't always find their audiences. She did, however, describe my father's death scene with broad accuracy: Three people had stood at his bedside. Or they had when it wasn't two people. Or four.

The spirits had not been generous, so I moved on to the firmer discipline of astrology. This, after all, was once considered science. With its rigid charts and formulas, I imagined it would provide a steadier hook upon which faith might hang.

The 9th House is a holistic health center in Arlington run by astrologer Elizabeth Hermon and her husband, a chiropractor. Their offices evoke those of solid suburban doctors. Hermon is an elegant, well-dressed woman, as brightly professional as a newscaster, but lacking the vapidity. She services an international set, about half of them by telephone for the price of $165 per hour's consultation.

After typing the coordinates of my birthplace into her desktop, she began sketching out the planets, her ruler hopping, her pencil crafting the geometry. “Let's see, you've got Pluto squared. Saturn. You've got a strong Mercury, too. Venus is in the Fifth House. You've got some nice triangles.”

Hermon is a true enthusiast, enamored of astrology's shapes and process, of the star chart's numerical solidity. Her reading harbored no pretensions to the psychic. “I can't say, 'Oh, yeah, this guy's going to get married,'” she said. “But I can say, if you are, then this is what's happening.” As for specifics, she saw a great deal of international travel in my life, which was true. She pinpointed an existing health problem. She correctly named a significant date. I felt gratified by the portrait she drew of my character, while her predictions were wholly pleasant. She recommended the use of turmeric and fish oils.

Intrigued, I moved on to the next astrologer, Karen Thorne. She, too, is an elegant woman, attractive in middle age. When not consulting for celebrities on Park Avenue, she keeps an enviable house in a leafy nook of Lincoln. A fresh Mercedes commands the garage. Two adopted dogs, Mary Margaret Petticoat and Sweetie, roam a kitchen that's midwestern in dimension. Her refrigerator photos show daughter Callie, who was an actress on NBC's Homicide, and James Gandolfini, a family friend. Among the esoterica in her parlor, which includes Minoan-style pottery, crystals, and books on Maud Gonne, she flaunts snapshots of the more famous elbows she's rubbed. There's Naomi Campbell. Kate Moss. Chris Noth from Sex and the City. A Saudi Arabian prince. The Clintons.

Thorne is not, however, solely an astrologer. “Unless you combine the psychic and the metaphysical,” she said, “it's my perception that it doesn't bring a healing. Astrology can bring information, but if you don't feel better . . . ” She shook her head.
Making you feel better is Thorne's forte. Her specialty is relationship advice, especially readings for couples, and she cast my wife's horoscope in conjunction with my own. Her first observation was that if I hadn't been writing this article, I wouldn't be consulting her. At $175 an hour, this was patently true. Impressed, I listened further.

“Situations have come up over the course of the year where somebody is abusing their power with you,” she told me. “At work, there's an issue you've been wondering whether to take a stand about.” I nodded, reflecting on editorial abuse and dental plans.
Thorne's reading was specific. She, too, commented on my frequent-flyer past. She foresaw self-employment and said, “In this lifetime, you're supposed to make money.” She offered relationship advice like “You should ask and give with complete honesty,” and “Buy her little gifts all the time.” Her enthusiasm about my future was infectious. I left determined to conquer the world and to communicate honestly with my wife about home decorating. We even hugged.

Back to Arlington I went, to the grand Victorian that's home to Unicorn Books. There, among bright rooms full of gongs and Shivas, bath salts, journals including Goddessing Regenerated and the Mountain Astrologer, and banks of scents, I met the store manager. Chris Giroux is a tall, ginger-mopped spiritualist, bespectacled and besweatered. He reminded me of an outsize Harry Potter, or maybe Andy Dick.

Upstairs, in a drafty reading room, Giroux spread the cards and began a rapid-fire talk about the tarot, about my Saturn return, male and female principles, and a great deal about Leo, our shared sun sign. He told me Leos are the fixed organizers of the fire signs, although we tend to discard structure. “We're going downhill like this,” he waggled his arms. “Woo-hoo! We're taking out trees and old ladies and shopping carts! We may never get to the bottom because we're having so much fun in the process.”

Giroux took me on a long, detailed reading of the tarot, describing each placement in the spread and peppering his talk with metaphor. “God put a seed in the palm of your hand. You plant it, you mulch it, you water it. Up comes a seedling. You grab your little botanical book, and you go, 'That's an apple seedling.' You take $100 and put it into an apple pie factory. Twenty years later you get your first apple, and it's a freakin' red delicious. You can't make apple pie with red delicious apples! You have to make applesauce!” He also used eggplants to fine metaphorical effect.

Giroux doesn't call himself a psychic or a fortune teller. Poised over a card, he said, “If I was Mamma Rosa, at this point I would tell you you're going to get pregnant.” Instead, he spoke broadly, throwing out lines that I could seize and pursue, or let wash past. “I believe that the cards are going to go down in a pattern that's relevant to you. My job is to interpret that pattern, but it's important that you apply it to yourself.”

The reading told me my perceptions were generally accurate, that I had already surpassed my unconscious goals, and that I had to overcome a pesky Knight of Pentacles. He also gave me a brisk mental rubdown on centeredness, self-compassion, and why Scorpios are annoying.

Next was an unreformed psychic, MaryLee Trettenero. She received me in the kitchen of her Charlestown flat, within a feasible spitting distance of the Naval Yard. Originally a hotel executive, Trettenero often performs for corporate functions, giving five-minute readings at Christmas parties. One of her more spectacular successes was predicting the exact name of the man her client would later meet and wed. A new specialty is playing the market. In the company of two partners, one of them a Harvard Business School graduate, she's taken to picking stocks. The portfolio indexes she showed me are blessedly capitalist. “We have been able to double the market return with our picks doing it completely intuitively.”

Eschewing traditional methods of stock analysis, Trettenero puts the names of potential buys into blank envelopes, then holds them in her hand until she receives an intuitive signal. “I hear something, or I'll get a sensory experience.” She gave me the index for a portfolio that she had opened six months previously. “This one is up 46 percent.”

But Wall Street is a brave new conquest. Trettenero's meat and potatoes is intuitive tarot readings, usually the standard combo of love with a biggie-sized career. “The majority of my clients are women,” she said. “Let's say, 70/30. But my client base is anyone who believes in intuition as a guiding principle.”

Sixteen miles to the north, a community of such believers lives, works, and offers aura photography to tourists. As the culmination of my psychic journey I visited Laurie Cabot, one of the architects of Salem's occult rebirth and arguably America's premier witch. In 1977, Governor Michael Dukakis bestowed upon her a state award for her work with special needs children and dubbed her the “Official Witch of Salem,” which she's proudly emblazoned above her waterfront “witch shoppe,” the Cat, the Crow, & the Crown. I entered through a tinkle of bells and a press of expensive breakables — charms and crystals and lushly attired dolls. Cabot was waiting for me by the grand, blue canvas of a picture window. She was splendid in her black robes, with a windblown mane, violent sweeps of eye shadow, and a mysterious blue spiral stamped on her left cheek. She looked entirely capable of summoning tempests. Instead, she led me to a cozy, pink room laced with doilies.

Cabot's approach to the psychic arts was surprisingly clinical. “A psychic experience happens when you lower your brain waves to an alpha state,” she said. “You can train your brain to receive information unknown to you. It's because of light, which travels at 186,000 miles per second and enters the pineal gland in the darkest part of the brain. Just below the butterfly bone. Light gives us information.” She recounted how alpha brain waves allowed her to predict the first Gulf War. “This is a science, and it can be tested.”

Cabot used no tools, but simply concentrated for a few moments, then correctly described my recent attempt to hang curtain rods. Then came predictions about family and relocation; she even placed me in a past life, fur-clad, in a forgotten Alpine snow.
As I retraced the cobblestoned streets to the train station, I passed a slew of bauble shops, locked against the dry spell of winter. Each door wore a sign inscribed, “Tarot Readings No Appointment Necessary,” “Handwriting Analysis,” or “Se Leen las Cartas.”

There are charlatans in every business from mutual funds to mufflers, but in my psychic dabble I had seen no curses, no illicit bilkings. Instead, each one of the “intuitives” had given me untrammeled attention, had been engrossed by my emotional warts. An accredited therapist would have done no less. But would a therapist have assured me I was the center of the solar system?
You get what you pay for.