The Awful Truth

The Beautiful and the Damned: Spiritualists of the Lower East Side.

Published March 23, 1996 9:40AM (EST)

The Lower East Side of New York is a "colorful" neighborhood. It's the kind of
place that causes people, when informed that you live there, to scrunch up
their faces and say, "oooh, yikes, I'm sorry." I try to explain to them that the
heavy heroin traffic really keeps the violent crime down. The dealers need a
place where they can operate without excessive heat.

Heroin can be bought
with the same ease down here as a popsicle. Lower East Side heroin comes in
these little decorator packages with a rubber-stamped brand name on it. The
favorite for a while among my drug-dabbling friends was a white powder smack
known as "Lion King," which came in paper packages sealed in colorful blue
plastic, with the face of an adorable lion on it.

"Packaging is a big deal,"
said H., one of my aforementioned friends. "If it's a good package, it's probably
good dope. If it's a tacky package, you're probably getting burned." There were
lesser brands around that people knew to avoid: "Swamp" and 'Fuji Power"
were known on the street to achieve the same effect as smoking a Hershey bar.

Like heroin, the spiritualists of the Lower East Side can be
identified, quality-wise, by their packaging. A clean, well-kept shop
with good furniture implies that the "psychic" is probably right every once in a while. Then there are the others.

My girlfriend M. and I were out drinking recently on Ludlow Street, where trendy bars
such as Max Fish and Cafe La Luna sit side by side with strange furniture
stores full of fake Louis XIV bedroom sets covered with dust, tiny thrift
stores with bad sculptures of naked black women in the windows, and here and
there the storefronts of various seers.

"Let's go see Nova! "said M., after our eleventeenth margarita -- because we are, after all, avid seekers of mystical truth.

The storefront windows of Nova's shop were filled with ceramic cats with big rhinestone eyes, dirty teapots, old radios, weird little fetish-y carved heads wearing costume jewelry, and scraps of velvet with fluorescent astrological signs painted on them. Sauced to the gills, we pounded on Nova's door at
11 o'clock at night, leaning on each other for balance. Nova and her other
psychic friend, Theresa, answered the door in stained terrycloth bathrobes,
blue from the light of the television. M. was led to a big damaged couch in
the middle of the room for her reading, while Nova pulled me behind a loosely-slung black curtain to stare at my hands.

After attending a
few of these consultations, I have realized that most people who frequent psychics are either trying to win the lotto or are nervous about
some impending legal action. Invariably, in the filthier parlours of metaphysics, the "psychic" will glare into your eyes and say "The court case will
be decided in your favor..." or "You have been changing your numbers too often --
use the same set of numbers for nine straight days."

They are also very involved
with jealousy. "Someone is very jealous of you, and has placed a voodoo hex on
you! I can help you get rid of it for $20." If you look the psychic back in the
eye and say, "No, I never play the lotto, I have no impending court case, and
I've never had anyone be jealous of me," the psychic will unerringly say "Ah!
Then it is a sister, perhaps, or a friend that you love like a sister, who has
these issues," or "I am speaking of the future!" or "It has happened, and you
are unaware!"

The only reasonably accurate statement Nova uttered was that I was too drunk to fully appreciate the enormous spiritual impact of her reading. M's reading was similarly fruitless. We had wasted $40 on whatever faulty and confused gods perch on Nova and Theresa's shoulders and feed them bogus tips.

Out of a deep desire to comune with the higher forces of the unknown, I decided to try somebody else in the neighborhood when I was sober. Through a local "botanica," one of the stores which sells Santeria implements -- candles, oils, herbs, baths, and big plaster statues of black Catholic saints
and American Indians -- I was referred to Ruben. Santeria is a widely-misunderstood religion in which Yoruban deities are worshipped in the syncretized form of Catholic saints. Most white people think of it as a scary cult devoted to possession rituals and animal sacrifice, but I had known a bunch of devotees throughout my life and they all seemed to feel enhanced by their involvement with it, so I was open-minded.

I came to Ruben's house at
10 a.m. on a Sunday morning, pumped with religious vibrancy and ready to be pummeled with Truth. There was no doorbell on his run-down apartment building,
so I called him from a pay phone on the street. "Uuuuh, you haf to wait, two
meenute" he told me, then abruptly hung up. I guessed that the guy was
still asleep. When he finally appeared in the doorway, he was a tiny older
Latin man wearing a stained polyester dentist shirt with half of the buttons
undone. I followed him into his home, which was an amazingly cluttered installation of dirt-encrusted religious icons, tiny scraps of paper with people's names on them stacked on dirty plates, carved icons piled high with
beaded necklaces, and an irate-looking pigeon which flapped about
furiously near our heads at different intervals throughout the reading.

Ruben took out a dog-eared deck of divination cards not unlike the tarot. He shuffled
them haphazardly, then told me to cut the deck into threes. This would determine my past, present and future. Ruben was relentlessly wrong about everything. "Oh, you have so much death around you, so many piple die. You will
not let go of the piple, but you gotta let them go. You got the court case,
coming. Money is in the way. You have an old fat woman who die, who follow
you, with gray hairs. You have a friend who come to see you, and she is the
hermaphrodite. A woman place a hex on you, three year ago. You take her husband
away..." on and on, with outstanding inaccuracy.

I stared at him with good will,
listening to him flounder about in his bizarre fiction. At the end of the consultation, he told me my aura was dangerously unclean and that I needed to
go to the botanica and buy some anti-hex oil and a "bao," which is a
Palmolive-like substance that one spreads over one's body to clean up any impure aura dinge. I was really disappointed, but I figured
that I'd go through with his rituals out of good faith towards the
unrevealed force in the universe, even though I had serious reservations about
the efficacy of burning black candles on Tuesdays and Fridays and all of the rest of the quasi-pagan sub-voodoo he told me to perform.

While I was in the botanica picking up Ruben's prescribed ointments and combustibles, I began talking to the
guy behind the counter about the tragic lameness of the reading I'd had. He mentioned
that he knew of a local "babalawo," a high priest of Santeria, who was supposed
to be really good and speak perfect English, but he didn't have his number and
didn't know anybody who did. At that moment, this young handsome Fonzie-like
character walked in, bought a hundred dollars' worth of beads, and proceeded to sing
an elaborate prayer in a rich foreign language to the enormous plaster statue of
St. Lazarus with his wounds being licked by dogs. "Hey! That's the guy!" said
the man behind the counter.

The babalawo and I were introduced. He immediately
had me put back all of my Santeria groceries, clucking with annoyance at Ruben
for so ignorantly doling out that sort of thing, and suggested that I come to his
house for a reading that night.

I met him later and went through with it. I expected the guy to be right, but I didn't think he'd be scary right about absolutely everything in amazing detail. In an hour-long consultation that involved much elaborate ritualistic stuff, he nailed me so hard and so accurately on every issue that I actually forgot I'd never met him before. I felt like I was talking to somebody I grew up with. It wasn't until the next day that I got the raging collywobbles. He read me like a cheap airport novel.

So, after slogging through the Swamp and the jive Fuji Power in the Lower East
Side, it is possible, occasionally, to make contact with the Lion King. And if you can find the right stuff, it is undeniably divine.

By Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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