Life is a trip south on the 405 Freeway .--Tarotologist Eileen Connolly
Let's call the man Caleb.
It's not his real name--not in this life, anyway--but somewhere along the tarot trail he decided it had a nice gnothological ring to it.
Caleb didn't know what gnothology was either, not when he started out (it's an arcane name for numerology, the upshot of which is that all our names are numbered, not to mention our days). He didn't need a tarotologist, though, to tell him that given names can alter one's entire personality, and vice versa. (To this day, for the several hours it takes to get used to a new haircut, Caleb feels like a "Charles." The feeling usually passes after a good night's sleep or a vodka and tonic, whichever comes first.)
Having Cards Read
Whatever, Caleb decided a couple of months ago to have his tarot cards read. An ordinary, down-to-earth guy, he was not well versed in the occult or the mystic. Caleb, in truth, wouldn't know a psychic if it bit him on the gnoth.
But while he didn't believe in the tarot cards--those prophetic pasteboards bearing the likenesses of allegorical angels, devils and go-betweens--he certainly did not disbelieve. He determined to keep his mind open to the point of vacuity (in truth, not that difficult) on the theory that tarot, unlike nature, adores a vacuum.
Like everyone else, Caleb was curious about his future. Consulting a variety of tarot-card readers couldn't hurt, could it?
It could hurt.
$75 for Openers
It could hurt $75 worth, for openers, or $10 for those with a lower pain threshold, or all local stops between, depending.
On the upper scale, he found, are the professional consultants, many of whom have plumbed the "occult arts" for years, some of whom insist they are emotionally drained after a serious reading.
On the lower scale are the assembly-line readers who work in volume at psychic fairs or seaside piers, dispense good news as quickly and colorfully as a gum-ball machine, and call themselves Madame Rosetta.
Is there a discernible difference in results, Caleb wondered.
Absolutely, he concluded: $65.
Nevertheless, they are a many-splendoured lot, the tarot readers. For the most part, they are bright, articulate, opinionated and seem genuinely interested in improving the parlous human condition. If their methods vary wildly, they share at least one trait: an unshakable faith in their own infallibility, even in the face of egregious error.
Among Caleb's favorites, and a fair cross section of practitioners in the Los Angeles area (fees in parentheses):
Most upbeat: Jeanne Solloway, Sherman Oaks ($40).
Most accurate: Jessica Fairmont, Los Angeles ($75).
Best informed: Eileen Connolly, Malibu ($75).
Most fun: Spencer Grendahl, Los Angeles ($75).
Most exotic: "Sophia the Reader," Venice ($15).
With permission, even encouragement, most sessions were taped, partly as a bung to a porous memory, partly as a means of monitoring short-term predictions. (Caleb was disappointed that he didn't get rich in February, delighted that he didn't get divorced in March, relieved that he wasn't betrayed by a close colleague in April, and is anxiously awaiting "the fulfillment of your talent as a painter in May." Caleb is hard put to draw a straight line, but his wife has been after him since March to touch up the patio furniture. On second thought, divorce seems imminent.)
Call It 'Interpretation'
In hindsight, then, Caleb was able to make some wild generalizations about foresight:
--Do tarot-card readers equivocate?
Does Betty Crocker fudge? In any given reading, there are more hedges than the Grand National. (Of course, the readers don't call it hedging. They call it "interpretation.")
Jeanne (on the prospects of Caleb's son): "He has to make up his mind, to set his goal, and in April or May he will produce. Or not produce. That remains to be seen."
Spencer (on Caleb's alleged "love life"): "I don't know what you've been up to, friend, but you've been up to something. Either you and your wife are very estranged and you have a lover--or vice versa."
--Are tarot-card readers accurate?
One can base an assessment only on what a reader can tell a client of his past. (The future obviously is a lot trickier: Who can say with absolute certainty that he will not become president of Libya in 1992?)
There was a general consensus that Caleb had had a rather strict upbringing, that he was a "self-made man" and that he had married late after quite a bit of dillying and even some out-and-out dallying.
All of this was true, a little disconcerting but possibly attributable to a face as furrowed as a 1936 road map of New Jersey.
A further divination, however, was downright spooky. Each reader had Caleb pegged as a writer, despite his having made his appointments under an assumed name or two. On appearances alone, one might guess the profession of a chimney sweep, or even a hairdresser, but a writer? Perhaps it's the vacuity. . . .
--Can the layman understand a tarot reader?
By and large, tarotologists are very direct. (Jessica: "I am seeing a trip to Mexico." Sophia: "Your friends and family really don't wish you too much good.")
At other times, the syntax rollicks like that of the late, great Dwight D. Eisenhower. (Eileen: "Someone's wanting you to be sensitive. I don't know, it's like a gem, a jewel. It's beautiful, and that's the outcome." Spencer: "You need to realize that one of your great strengths is that you do not seek that common denominator that is the cosmic soup we're in, and from that derive great meaning and great joy.")
--Are tarot readers sly?
Let's just say that they are extremely sensitive to the vibrations of a client. Jessica: "The outdoors is very important to you." (Caleb, just returned from an assignment, has a deep tan in January.) Sophia: "You have problems with your legs." (Caleb, having fallen out of a pomegranate tree the previous day, is limping noticeably.)
--Are tarot readers invariably flattering?
Yes and no. On the one hand, "You are very kind, very loving, very genuine" (Eileen) or "You've got a well-shaped Mount of Neptune" (Spencer). On the other hand, "You are an old soul, a friendly hermit" (Jeanne) or "Your aura is brown" (Sophia) or "Mr. Perfectionist, ha! What're you, Thor, the god of Thunder? Jeez! I bet your home is a mess!" (Jessica).
--Are they fun?
Hoo boy! Especially Spencer.
--Are they for real?
Caleb the Vacuous has his reservations.
And yet, and yet. . . .
--When Jeanne returned his call (he'd asked for an appointment on her answering machine, under a pseudonym), the first thing she said was: "Hello, this is Jeanne. You're an editor, aren't you? No, a writer, I think." (Come on, now. What does a writer sound like?)
--Two months (!) after his consultation with Jessica, Caleb had jotted down several questions he'd planned to ask her. Diverted by other business, he had placed the pad under his telephone. Ten minutes later, Jessica called to ask if there was anything she could help him with. . . .
Keeping an open mind then, a quick reading on Caleb's favorite tarotologists, in order of apparition:
Jeanne Solloway is washing the dishes with her teen-age son as Caleb draws up. Most unlike a psychic, he thinks. It is before he has learned that psychics come in all sizes and guises.
Jeanne's guise is that of a friendly family counselor--a counselor who is able, she later says, to call upon her "divine light" to screen unpleasant telephone calls ("Shady characters can't get through").
Jeanne's forte is accentuation of the positive. ("What if you see something dreadful in the cards?" she is asked. "I don't see it," she replies. "I'm not a negative reader.")
Before the reading on her dining-room table, Jeanne puts on a soothing record (Michael Jones' "Seascapes").
"I'm wondering if I can read you today," she says, "because you're so strong." Caleb bets she says that to all the boys. "No," she insists, "you have a very high vibration. Are you a water sign?"
Caleb is a Leo--apparently a "fire sign." He is slightly chagrined to have to confess that he does not know where his moon is. Somewhere over Miami, he ventures.
Jeanne has Caleb cut the cards three times, then pick them individually for her to "spread."
There is some preliminary generalizing: "You've had your share of disappointments and rewards. . . . The past was fluctuating. . . . I see constant travel, almost a nomadic life (Good, thinks Caleb). . . . I feel that you're from the East (maybe the accent?). . . . You went off on your own at an early age (yup). . . . "
Little Fuzzier Future
The past was pretty well read, the future a little fuzzier: "You will be going deeper and deeper into your soul. . . . You have the gift to write. . . . But I'm going to get really upset with you now: I don't understand, with all your knowledge and background, why your head's in a fog. (Touch of the flu.) Blow the fog away. . . ."
Somehow, there is a discussion of Sartre ("He was so deep he gave me a headache"), a false start ("Do you fear competition?" "Nah, I revel in it") and a non-sequitur promise: "By the time you leave me, you are going to say, 'I am an artist'--even if you carve a turkey at home. My father-in-law butchers it."
There is some discussion of Caleb's children--Jeanne has them mixed up, personality-wise--and a reference to an "ex-wife." (Caleb has been married for 20 years; just once, as far as he knows.)
At length, Caleb disagrees with Jeanne's appraisal of his character. "Well," she huffs, "if you don't want to face reality . . . . "
The reading is a stand-off.
Jeanne was born in China, lived in Russia, was educated in Israel and England and says she knew she was a psychic at the age of 3, "when I could see people's colors." At 10, worried about a difficult exam, she slept with the textbook under her pillow and divined "all the questions and answers. I got an A. From then on, I never studied. I never had to."
The phone rings as Caleb leaves. He assumes it's good news.
Jessica Fairmont foresees troubles as well as triumphs, an appropriate mix from a resident of Pandora Avenue.
Slim and pretty, she works with an intensity that belies her casual attire, ignoring the sneak attacks of a radiant white cat that obviously thinks the whole business is a load of Purina.
At times uncanny, occasionally outrageous, always provocative, Jessica lays Caleb's first spread on a sofa, then spills it over onto an adjacent coffee table.
"In three months' time," she says (this is January), "things will be lifting. You will be getting help from a friend with brown hair, hazel eyes. A successful businessman. He is far away. I see New York. No, just north of New York. I see the woods and the sea. . . ."
(Caleb gasps. His best friend, a successful businessman with brown hair and hazel eyes, commutes to New York from his home in the woods in coastal Greenwich, Conn.!
(In April, the friend calls. Caleb holds his breath. Is help on its way? "Hey, buddy," says the friend, "I wonder if you can do me a little favor. . . .")
"I'm seeing more woods. A trip. Up north. It could be Colorado, but maybe . . . the Bay Area. Cooler weather. Woods around." (A week previous, Caleb had interviewed a man in Placerville on the subject of Arbor Day.)
"Now I am seeing you writing."
Caleb can't believe it. "How could you possibly know that?" he demands.
"Shhh!" says Jessica. "I'm doing my work."
The reading peaks, then levels off: "You are a late bloomer." (True.) "You have a passion for collecting old things." (False.) "April looks good, a lucky time. You're a man who needs to be stinking rich." (April turns out to be a financial Armageddon.)
Jessica sees Caleb's future tied in, variously, with an Indian, an artists' community, a boat and a woman "whose name could begin with an R, or an H, or maybe that H is an A. Whatever." All of which remains to be seen. Right now, he is involved with a woman whose name begins with a J, and she is a handful-and-a-half.
An Abused Body
"You've abused your body. . . . You have not been forthright in your relationships. . . . You're much too stubborn, too independent to actually live with someone. . . . Who do you think you are, the King Bee?"
In spite of the abuse, or maybe because of it (it sounds just like home), Caleb senses a soupcon of authenticity.
"I've been reading for 16 years," Jessica says later. "I see myself less as a prophet than as a servant, a vessel. I feel good about it."
Is she psychic?
How does she know?
"I just know. I don't think it. I don't feel it. I just know it.
"When I was a child, I figured everybody was like this, and I was surprised when the kids started calling me the strange one, the weird one.
"I remember--it was about the seventh grade--a teacher giving us mimeographed names and asking us to pick one and tell what the person was like.
"I picked Elizabeth Barrett Browning--don't ask me why; I was only vaguely aware of her--and told everything there was to know about her. Even her sex life, and believe me, I didn't know what sex was . . . . "
Caleb is convinced, or at least he will be when he takes a cruise to Tanglewood and meets an Indian called Rosalie. . . .
Spencer Grendahl starts with the palms before the tarot cards. He is also adept at the mandolin, the guitar, the flute and the recorder, and probably could pluck a partridge out of a Panama if he had to.
Spencer is half showman, half serious reader. He prefers the latter, but is much in demand on the party circuit and, "Hey, when you've got a car payment you can't be picky. You just say, 'What time do you want me there, lady?' "
In a private reading, he is amusing, astute and a metaphysical Houdini when it comes to wiggling out of wild guesses.
"You can do things with your hands," he tells Caleb, "with tools, paintbrush--but probably with writing instruments. Yeah, you have the emotions of a writer. Kind of moody. Very restless."
On the other hand, "You have an exceptional memory." (Would you mind repeating that?) "You have a real desire to be a mystic." (Huh?) "You hate to fire people, but you're going to have to." (Caleb has never employed anyone in his life.)
There are Ike-like lapses ("It's through the finer essence of our experience that we are able to experience something that goes to the core of experience. If we were fish, we'd never know land.")
But there are times, too, when the affable reader can be blunt as a mallet: "I must warn you right away that there's some kind of calamity looming. A kind of mini-death. Don't panic. It will not be entirely without cause or purgation. Besides, you've lived tough and you can draw on your stoicism, your acerbity. . . .
"Watch for the signs--not the entrails of the ancients, but say you're at your girlfriend's house and a white dove lands and goes tweet. Maybe that's a good sign, a synchronistic sign.
"You can choose to see it or not. Some see the handwriting on the wall but they can't spell. . . ."
In the main, Spencer is that most endearing of raconteurs--one who will weave his woofs around the personalities of his audience--as well as a canny keeper of the keys.
Tarot reading began, he says, when the ancient mystics, threatened by organized religion and anxious to pass on their secrets, chose playing cards as a medium. "They said, 'If we wrote a book, they'd ban it. If we made a gambling device, it would last forever.' "
Spencer, too, seems to meld wisdom and wit, though he makes his main living on the latter.
"I'm very good at parties," he says, "one of the best in town. It's not a great living, but it beats punching a time clock, and it's meeting a lot of fascinating people."
Sometimes too fascinating.
"I'd like to have an office, with maybe a bodyguard," says Spencer, who works out of his apartment. "A guy came in once with a scheme to smuggle gold, diluted in petroleum. Another guy wanted me to find the spider that was living in his chest.
"Mostly, though, they're good people looking for counsel. I give it.
"For one thing, I have something like an advanced kind of shaman ability. For another--let's be realistic--I'm a nice guy."
Sophia the Reader is in a hurry. A chilly fog is probing her patio on the Venice Beach Boardwalk, dinner is sizzling in the back room, and $15 isn't going to last forever.
Dogs prowl the sidewalk, sharing their karma with a couple of moochers. Splendidly indifferent to ruckuses and roller skates, Sophia practices her craft with calm, if distant, assurance.
Her news is not all that good, about what one might expect from a reader whose father is Egyptian, whose mother is French and German and who is chatting in Sanskrit as a stranger looms out of the fog.
"Whether I see good or bad in your cards, is it all right if I say?" Sophia asks politely. "Go with the flow," Caleb says.
"Physically you're strong, mentally you're strong, but spiritually right now you're very weak," Sophia says.
"There's lots of negative energy around you from the Earth sign, from Virgo. This person is very jealous of you. This person is at your work." (Caleb makes a note to put a tail on the office Virgos.)
"I pick up a lot of papers around you. Do you write? Yes. But your abilities are being blocked.
"I see that you have had many womans in your life, but there is one man surrounding you that you feel very close to. Be very careful of this man."
Sophia, who has preternaturally long and lovely fingers, switches to palmistry. "Don't worry," she assures. "I am holding your hand only to pick up your energy." Who would worry in hands like these?
"Your aura was originally pink, light blue, gold; very strong, very positive. Right now it is kind of brown. (Caleb shudders at the thought.) This is why we should work together.
"I can remove this blockage. I can put a shield surrounding you, build walls. I will work with my holy candles.
"Will you come and see me?"
Caleb says he will certainly think about it very seriously.
Somewhere a dog is barking.
Eileen Connolly does not see a brown aura besmirching Caleb's psyche--mainly, she says, because there is no such thing as a brown aura. Auras, she says, are in a state of flux, depending on the ever-changing state of the spirit. Caleb's, at the moment, are mostly pastels, with a red corona indicating energy.
Eileen ought to know. She has seen auras--of people, animals, even plants ("Just look at that daffodil!")--all her life. Further, she is a thoroughgoing professional, a renowned expert not only on tarot but on the other two major branches of the arcana: astrology and gnothology.
She is a teacher, lecturer and author: "Tarot--A New Handbook for the Apprentice," sometimes used as a textbook; "Earth Dance," which she calls "a romance of reincarnation--there's patricide, matricide, suicide and a movie option," and a forthcoming book on gnothology.
Her tarot instructions are precise: Keep the cards wrapped in silk, sit the client to the south, and never, never permit a Vegas-type shuffle ("It's too abrasive esoterically").
Eileen, moreover, ventures to say that when it comes to consultation, she is never wrong.
What, never? Or hardly ever?
"If you're psychic," she states categorically, "you're 100% correct; if it's 99.9, you're not psychic. Otherwise, what are people coming to you for?
"I'm good. Everything I tell you is accurate. Believe me."
A woman with the disposition of a late-spring zephyr, Eileen is loath to blow the whistle on her fellow practitioners--"I'm no martyr; I don't pretend to be the only tarot reader in the world"--but she stops just short of using the word phony , allowing in a weaker moment that some readers are "despicable."
Caleb, of course, is sorely tempted to try his luck. Eileen offers a consultation. Guaranteed 100% accurate.
He hesitates. Too often, he has learned that George Washington never got near a cherry tree; that the war didn't really make the world safe for democracy; that "Old Ironsides" had wooden sides. What's next, he wonders, Lainie Kazan?
Caleb declines the invitation, but there is a last nagging question: If a tarot-card reader can foresee disaster, can't it be averted with a warning? And if it is averted, won't the reading turn out to have been inaccurate?
"Life, or rather destiny, is like the 405 Freeway," says Eileen. "Let's say going south is your karma, your direction, the plan of your life. But you have free will within that destiny.
"Suppose you have to stop for gas, or a friend suggests you pause for a while at a particular coffee shop. So you stop for a while, and that accident that may have been up ahead never happens. You're moving into another karma."
Leaving Eileen's, Caleb, heading south, prudently stops for coffee. Lingers, in fact, musing over his close encounters with destiny, as translated by his tarot readers.
A thought keeps recurring. In retrospect, it makes little apparent sense, but at the time is it pervasive:
"Faith can move mountains, but a bulldozer couldn't hurt."
On the way home, there are no accidents.