Rachel Sofia Uwanawich, who is also known as Gypsy Rosa, observed me with the cold, fierce glare of a chicken hawk and said, "Put $20 in the Bible." It was delivered in a tone not meant to encourage debate. I reached into my pocket.
"I only have $11," I said.
"I charge $20 a reading!" she replied menacingly, half rising from an old couch in one corner of her candle-lit storefront parlor. Incense wafted through the room. Two ceramic angels looked down from a shelf.
I explained to Gypsy Rosa that I did not want a reading, I wanted an interview. This did not sweeten her attitude. Though 75 years old and only 4 feet, 10 inches tall, she was not one to be pushed around.
"Put in what you have," she snapped. "It will help the spirit powers."
I placed $11 in the pages of an old Children's Bible on a table next to a crystal ball. Nearby was a dead Shasta daisy plant in a flower pot, an American flag and a poster that said "God Won't Be Late in '78."
"Do you tell fortunes?" I asked.
"I knew it," Gypsy Rosa said, clapping her hands in frustration, "a cop! "
I am the last person on earth to argue with someone who sees all and knows all, but I am not a cop. I showed her my newspaper credentials. She studied them and then said, "I knew you'd come." I like a seer who bounces back.
I was there to find out what a fortune-teller did. My interest was triggered by an ongoing debate in Culver City on whether astrologers are fortune-tellers. While Gypsy Rosa's parlor was not in Culver City, it was close. I asked her again if she was a fortune-teller.
"I see many things," she said, closing her eyes.
I realized in the sudden silence that I was hearing faint voices and then music.
"What's that?" I asked in a whisper.
Gypsy Rosa opened her eyes and looked at her watch. "Bonanza," she said. Her television set had been left on in a back room.
She would not reply directly to the question of whether or not she was a fortune-teller, but instead explained she had been arrested two years ago for telling the future, which is illegal in Los Angeles. She had been fined $100. The judge told her she was a liar and a thief.
"What am I supposed to tell if I can't tell the future," she demanded, "the past? Weathermen on television tell the future, but they won't let me. You know what the cop who arrested me wanted to know? How his sex life would be." She assumed a look of indignation. "It will be terrible, as it should be."
Gypsy Rosa has been reading people for 50 years. Her mother and her grandmother both had the gift to foretell. She is able to read by sight, touch, signature, numbers or stars. "No cards," she said. "I don't like cards."
I asked her for a demonstration and she had me write my date of birth on a sheet of paper. She studied the paper then peered at me as though I were something she had found under the sink. She was silent for several minutes.
The Cartwright family went through its televised paces in the background, and I studied Rachel Sofia Uwanawich. Her hair was dyed a burnished copper. A bright pink bow sat in the middle of her head. Her dress was a flowered pink. Her shoes, lipstick and nail polish were blazing red. A Gypsy tradition or an old lady costumed in the cosmetics of youth? I wondered.
Finally there came an expression of great realization. She studied the sheet of paper again and nodded. I waited with anticipation for $11 worth of spirit-powered truth. She said, "I have a son two years older than you."
"That is hardly a revelation," I replied. "I expected. . . . "
"I have nine sons and six daughters and 32 grandchildren," she said, ignoring me. "I don't see them much anymore. My husband died in 1971. I live alone on an old-age pension."
When she was 16 her family sold her for $5,000 to be married to an older man. "Usually," Gypsy Rosa explained, "the price was only $1,500."
"You must have been a knockout," I said.
She shook her head no. "I was the only girl around." The snap had gone from her voice. "I was never pretty. But I have had a good life." A pause, then softly, longingly, "We lived in Pasadena once!"
Gypsy Rosa doesn't have many customers. Those who do come in hear only "good things." She won't bring anyone bad news. "Life is too short," she said.
The neighborhood is dangerous, but in the 17 years she has been on Venice Boulevard no one has bothered her. She lives behind the parlor in a large, heatless room with a concrete floor. The plaster in the ceiling has fallen away where the roof once leaked.
"They love me around here," Gypsy Rosa said, straightening her pink flowered dress. "They rob the liquor store every week, but they never touch me. Sometimes they ask me if they'll find work. I say Oh, yes, you'll get a good job and make a lot of money! I get a kiss on the cheek. They just need good news sometimes."
I asked Rachel Sofia Uwanawich what she saw ahead for me. "Oh," she said, "you'll be big, you'll be very big!" There was a twinkle in the eye of the old chicken hawk.
I gave her a kiss on the cheek. She kept the $11.