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What They See : is what you get

Times Staff Writer

The Gypsy fortuneteller relaxed on the sofa, looking decidedly unexotic, even with her long, white, lacquered fingernails.

She curled against a pillow, chatting easily about the psychic trade, as if she was a peddler of ice cream. A pearl necklace hung loosely around her throat. Her piercing brown eyes were warm and comforting.

Diane Adams most definitely is not the Transylvanian-accented crone of TV and movie legend.

No incense-choked storefront shop. No heavy shawl drawn close around the shoulders. No low lights or flickering candles either.

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There was even a whiff of disinfectant in the tidy room, as if some compulsive hygienist had only moments before sprayed the place.

“I feel (my powers are) my gift from God,” said Adams, proprietress of Psychic Readings by Diane in Fullerton. “It just comes naturally, like the way you see or breathe. Most of the people I read for are hesitant at first, because they don’t know about it. But once they come in and understand, there’s no fear whatsoever.

“It’s the unknown” that frightens them, she said.

People are bothered by the unknown, no doubt. But one of the lingering mysteries to many in modern times remains these olive-skinned Gypsy women who purport to see the future. Her mother had the psychic gift too, Adams said, “and I know one of my daughters will get it. It has never really failed. My mother, grandmother, great-grandmother. It just carries on.”

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Unlike many Roma--as Gypsies prefer to call themselves--Adams is not at all reluctant to claim her heritage from this clannish group with its origins centuries ago in northern India.

They are a people who have remained almost fervently aloof from the non-Gypsy--or gadjo-- world around them, shunning publicity. Theirs is a history of persecution and moving on. And some traditions, such as secrecy, die hard.

(One fortuneteller refused to allow a tape recorder in the room or to have her picture taken. “It takes away the energy level,” she said. “It weakens the power.”)

But it wasn’t the past that concerned Adams recently as she led a visitor to her reading room past an oddly out-of-place pay telephone. It was the future--specifically, my future.

Nailed above the reading room’s door was a horseshoe, a gift from a frequent client, Adams said. Then she laughed: “I’m not too superstitious.”

A picture of Jesus stared down from the wall. On a bureau stood a white candle from Germany carved with a likeness of John the Baptist. A statue of St. Nicholas flanked the candle.

After seating me at a glass-topped table, Adams asked me to think hard of two wishes, cradling my palms in her hands. I was told to repeat the wishes aloud before she began. Curiously, they were never mentioned again.

She read my palms, making a prediction, then pausing to hear my reactions to it. “What does that mean to you?” was a question she asked often, encouraging long and thoughtful replies.

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It is an entrancing experience, having one’s life described by a stranger--an exercise as seductive as looking at a photograph of one’s self. At the very least, what a visitor buys here for $20 is an attentive listener and guilt-free self-absorption.

And isn’t that the function, at its heart, of analysts, psychiatrists and psychologists? Isn’t it possible that what we have here is the poor man’s analyst? Armed with skepticism, or informed superstition, is the fortuneteller’s client really worse off, contrasted with analysis?

In visits to four randomly selected county fortunetellers and in telephone conversations with several others, some as a declared journalist and others incognito, I found nothing particularly shady or suspicious--nor anything more enlightening than what could be found in a fortune cookie.

“You have a winning way. Keep it,” said the cookie from a Chinese restaurant.

“You try to comfort people,” said Diane Adams.

Just as a jumble of cookie fortunes pulled from a hat might reveal some astonishingly precise and concrete perceptions about a person, so too will a half-hour interview--especially if the interviewer is a lifelong student of human behavior, as most fortunetellers are.

Studying human behavior is, after all, their job. Adams said she began as a small girl in her mother’s fortunetelling shop.

But the fortuneteller’s advantage over a cookie, other than lack of calories, is not so much prophetic powers as personal contact with the visitor. How many people enjoy the undivided attention of another sympathetic person for up to an hour? To a skeptic, that seems to be the psychic’s most tangible service.

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“It’s like getting motherly advice without your mother,” one psychic’s client confided in Seal Beach.

So long as a visitor knows not to leave a bag of money behind to be exorcised of any curse--an old scam of unscrupulous fortunetellers--a little introspection seems the only consequence.

“Sure, some people are fakes,” Adams admitted. “And there’s good psychics and bad psychics, just like any business.”

But as to comparisons of her “powers” with psychoanalysis or therapy, she just smiled.

In keeping with the county’s emerging cultural diversity, Adams’ year-old shop in Fullerton shares a one-story office building with Tseng’s Acupuncture Total Health Center.

Like many fortunetellers in recent years, she is a relative newcomer to the county.

Of course, fortunetelling has probably existed here since the first Europeans arrived, but for many years much of it was illegal. Some sweeping local ordinances even prohibited foretelling the future, even at no charge.

But Los Angeles lawyer Barry A. Fisher argued in a landmark 1985 case before the California Supreme Court that such bans were unconstitutional violations of freedom of speech and religion.

Many fortunetelling laws were so broad that they could be construed to include Bible readings, newspaper horoscopes and even weather forecasts, he said.

Fisher, who frequently represents Gypsies and fortunetellers, prevailed. The court’s ruling ended longstanding bans on fortunetelling in many California cities. Among those whose bans were struck down were Laguna Beach, Fullerton, Brea, Yorba Linda, Huntington Beach and Costa Mesa.

“Look at Nancy Reagan,” said Fisher, recalling the court ruling. “She is not alone. Astrologers, palmists in touch with the spiritual world, it all goes back to the beginning of time.

“In a more sophisticated sense, people consult their religious leaders--prophets living and deceased. People go to church and try to live their lives based on prophecy. It gets to the heart of what church and religion are about.”

Even people who go to fortunetellers simply for the entertainment value, Fisher added, are exercising their First Amendment rights to free speech.

It didn’t take a clairvoyant to predict that business in the spirits would pick up after the court ruling, even as some cities redrafted their laws to require permits and even photographs and fingerprints.

“I think cities recognize today that you can’t prohibit the activity,” Fisher said. “They are licensing the activities in increasing numbers.”

Indeed. Fisher’s client in the 1985 Supreme Court case out of Azusa, Fatima Stevens, has since resettled in Anaheim. She advertises herself as “The World Famous Mrs. Stevens” in the telephone directory. Apparently preferring a less famous media profile these days, Stevens declined an interview.

In some areas of the county, the clairvoyance competition is heating up and even turning nasty. A Gypsy family moved into Newport Beach from Texas 2 years ago and created quite a stir in the already-entrenched Romany circle working the waterfront spiritual trade. Rebuffed, the newcomers complained in a civil suit of harassment and threats to their shops. The case is pending.

The financial stakes in crystals and Tarot cards can be high. A north county seer motors around in a new Cadillac with a cellular telephone and a vanity license plate that reads PALMRDR.

One Anaheim psychic advertises a shuttle bus service to her parlor from Disneyland and convention-area motels.

None of the fortunetellers interviewed for this story, however, were willing to disclose their incomes.

Diane Adams of Seal Beach Psychic--who is not related to Diane Adams of Fullerton--shook her head no when asked if her work pays for her stylishly decorated shop with its crystals and huge ceramic palm in the display window.

“My husband is in real estate,” she said with a broad grin. “This is part-time work.”

(There seemed something supernatural in the name coincidence. The mystery only deepened when both women--who do not resemble each other--also said they prefer to go by the first name of Ann. But secular curiosity got this visitor no closer to an explanation.)

Based on an unscientific Times survey, it appears that most psychics charge similar rates for similar services. The cost increases depending on how far backward or forward one wishes to look.

No one hesitated to quote a price over the telephone. In fact, fortunetellers prefer that clients call ahead to make an appointment.

As things can be with the ethereal world, it is best to be flexible in trying to schedule an appointment. One clairvoyant could not be reached for a week, her husband said, because she was meditating to restore her powers.

Anyway, a typical palm reading runs about $20 in the county. With that, one buys a look at what’s supposed to happen in the coming months, sometimes up to a year. Palmistry would appear to be based on fairly concrete rules of reading. Life, fate and prosperity lines are set in the flesh.

Each of the four fortunetellers I visited told me to expect two children, that I would live into my 80s and that I would be prosperous and marry twice. That latter detail was a little distressing to my first and only wife. Even though any insurance actuarial chart has about the same expectations for anyone my age, she plans to have her own reading. Alone.

Of course, one can buy any of dozens of books on palmistry to try at home. The illustrated pages make it all seem easy, but in fact it’s a lot like reading an automotive repair manual to fix a carburetor: The pictures and text are all there, but somehow the pieces don’t fit back together. Without the mechanic present, one never knows what went wrong.

Prices escalate when cards, crystals and tea leaves are called upon to reveal their secrets. Tarot card readings cost $30 to $45. Psychometry or psychic readings go for $35 to $60 (here the seer holds a frequently handled item such as keys or a watch, things that supposedly radiate the client’s energy).

Crystal balls, those ubiquitous glass orbs that Hollywood favors, are generally the most expensive readings. They can cost $150 and more, telling the visitor of things to come 10 years away. Crystal balls also reveal stories of other people in one’s life, or so the psychics claim.

“If a person wants to know a lot of things, a palm or psychic reading is not enough,” said the Seal Beach Adams. “Most people who come in know what reading they want. Most come for the crystal ball. They like to know a lot of things.”

Fortunetellers also follow certain unwritten rules. For example, they generally ask before a reading whether a client wants to hear bad news too.

“But most people say don’t hide anything,” Adams said.

Also, they never tell their own fortunes, “because when you’re psychic, you’re supposed to use it for others,” she said.

And they do not pick the daily double--at least not for customers.


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