When Seeing May Not Be Believing

Posted: January 14, 1986

"I took my troubles down to Madame Ruth.

You know, the gypsy with the gold- capped tooth.

She read my palm and she made a magic sign.

She said what I needed was . . . Love Potion # 9."

''Love Potion # 9,"

sung by the Clovers

I am an honest person, friendly and generous. I never turn my back on anyone who needs help, but my kindness is not repaid. I have a quick temper, but my anger doesn't last long. I like fun and music and

have good luck with women, except for right now. I don't like working for other people. I was meant to be my own boss. Although my luck has been bad lately, it soon will get better - especially if I help myself by buying magic candles.

Don't take my word for all this. Ask the fortune tellers.

Equipped with a hidden tape recorder, I visited four fortune tellers in different parts of the city to hear their versions of my past and their predictions for my future. Only one had a gold-capped tooth.

Two of the four claimed to be gypsies. One said she was an American Indian. The fourth was a "Roumani Indian," she said, from a "land far, far away." In sessions lasting from 10 to 20 minutes, and costing from $15-$25, they ''read" me, either by palmistry or tarot cards, and were prepared to ''help" me, for fees ranging from $5 to $179.

The one with the gold tooth (and the only one with the traditional dangling gold earring) was Mother Temple, in the 800 block of North Broad Street. Mother Temple said she is "an American Indian, from Florida, near Miami."

Mother Temple, along with her three supernatural sisters, is breaking a century-old Commonwealth law that prohibits fortune-telling, according to Joseph Casey, chief of the district attorney's economic crimes unit.

If it is a misdemeanor, why are dozens of storefronts around the city occupied by women who say they can read the past and predict the future?

"It's a matter of enforcement . . . so are the police going to catch a purse-snatcher or arrest a fortune teller?" Casey asked with a shrug.

The D.A.'s office gets involved "only in instances where a fortune teller gets into somebody and wipes them out."

Going to a fortune teller as a lark can be fun, but the serious side emerges when a troubled person, driven by misfortune, turns to such an ''adviser" for serious guidance or mystical relief. If they are in a frame of mind to believe, that's a green light for a "reader" to draw them into the web of a "bujo," gypsy for a "big score."

The typical victim is a woman, but it's always someone drowning in sorrows, someone who will clutch at any shred of hope extended by a fortune teller.

In 1981, a family of three Canadian gypsies pleaded guilty to defrauding 20 residents of Saskatchewan out of $350,000 over two years. Sixteen of the 20 victims were women.

Locally, a Montgomery County gypsy was accused of bilking $30,000 from 10 dupes over an 18-month period starting in 1982. Nine of the 10 victims were women.

On Dec. 17, Madame Mary, who operated out of Clementon, N.J., pleaded guilty to theft by deception after a South Jersey woman told police the gypsy hoodwinked her out of $500.

"These things are very rarely reported, because if the victim finds out it was a ripoff, they're too embarrassed" to go the police, said Det. Santo Bocchinfuso of the Philadelphia Police Department's felony investigation unit.

A 20-year police veteran, Bocchinfuso says he's frustrated by victims' unwillingness to talk and by the gypsies' family structure (similar to, but tighter than, the Mafia's) that makes penetration by outsiders almost impossible. There are 1 million gypsies in the U.S.

Police sources in other states recently told Bucchinfuso "there was a big score in Philadelphia," but he's been unable to get any local leads.

"If they can nickel and dime people, they can make a very good living. I don't think there are very many" huge ripoff artists in Philadelphia, he said.

During my readings, the quartet of soothsayers agreed on several psychological "themes" - that I am somehow being "held back" from life's rewards, that I am surrounded by jealousy at the office and false friends in my personal life. It is a neurotic's dream, a feast for anyone with a persecution complex.

"You got people working against you. You got people working to put you down. Somebody don't want to see you get ahead," said Mother Temple, a 60ish woman with a gold earring and deep, brown bags beneath her eyes. She was reading my right palm for $10, but after 10 minutes said she needed to "see" more. She then read my left palm - adding very little to what the right palm told her - and got to "see" an additional $10.

"But you was made to be something, you was made for people to work under you, not for you to work under people. God have create you for people to work under you, not for you to work under people."

The other three agreed that I was "made" to be the boss. All four spoke with accents and a less-than-Oxfordian command of English.

Fortune tellers are likable people. They smile. They seem to really care about you. They are wonderful psychologists and manipulators, firing such a broad fusillade of observations that some are bound to hit the bull's eye and have the ring of truth.

Mother Temple peered at me intently during the reading, taking long pauses between phrases.

"They can tell so much about you without you realizing it. They interrogate you," said Det. Bucchinfuso, no stranger to interrogation techniques. "Especially a troubled person, who is telling so much about themselves without them even knowing it . . . They pick their marks well. Out of 200 or 300 people that come into them, they'll pick only one."

I was not a typical mark, said Casey. "You're too sharp, too hip, you ask too many questions."

"Every time you try to get ahead, something's always pulling you back," said Maria, a woman in her late 40s or early 50s with dark eyes and a face draped with deep folds of skin. Maria has a choice location, a storefront on the busy strip of restaurants and bars on 2nd Street between Chestnut and Market streets.

After entering through a glass door, I was escorted into the living room to have my tarot cards read - $15 for 10 minutes. I sank into a sagging, bottomless sofa as Maria dragged over a mirrored coffee table and the cards.

Elsewhere in the room, a radio was tuned to KYW Newsradio.

"If Maria can predict the future," I thought, "why does she need a radio to get the news?"

Returning to my problems, Maria said, "You have two friends. In front of your face they good to you, but behind your back they're jealous. They don't like to see you happy. They don't like to see you successful."

That would be Jim and Ed, my best friends.

So I called Jim, who laughed when I told him what Maria said. To prove his friendship, he took me out and bought me a lot of drinks.

He's clean, I thought.

So I called Ed, my other best friend, and asked him why he's jealous of me, why doesn't he want to see me be successful.

"Ha ha ha ha," Ed laughed in a rich baritone. "All right, I've got to admit it. I just want to see you out in the street. What are you talking about?"

I explained about the gypsy.

"Maybe it means you have more friends than you think you have and it's somebody else - or the gypsy is dead wrong," Ed said. A likely story.

Success with money or business, or good luck, are the most common "help" fortune tellers offer, although romance also is high on the list. Each made reference to a failed romance - which was correct - but less than startling when you understand that everyone has had at least one bad romantic experience.

I asked Sister Sara, a plump, 30ish woman with neatly coiffed hair, who operates out of a storefront at Broad and Lombard streets, for advice about my love life.

For $15, she turned over tarot cards on a table between us. Burning candles and pictures of Jesus decorated a side table. Religious art festooned the paneled walls. Sara's children were entertained by "The Pink Panther" cartoons on a 25-inch TV set in the next room. The C bus rumbled by outside.

"You been disappointed in love affair in the past through someone you care about. You been separated. There is someone you feel for, that person one minute good wit choo, one minute changeable wit choo," she said, describing many contemporary relationships.

"There's someone you care about, there's someone that is involved, there's someone that's also coming between you. There's another person in the middle of this relationship. It's like a triangle."

It turned out to be worse than that.

"In your past life, you was a woman in your past life, that's why you very sensitive now, that's why you get hurt easy, that's why you get offended easily. You was a woman so you have very sensitive feelings and . . ."

"Did I have more than one past life?" I asked.

"Yes. Yes, you did," Sara said. "You was a woman in one life, and I see another life you did a lot of hard things, a lot of wrong things. There was a lot of sin in your past life, that's why you see a lot of tears, a lot of suffering now."

Sara was the only fortune teller of the four to ask my name - and my birthdate. At the start of the session, she asked me to say them aloud, along with my occupation. For this story, I was Steve Baker, a salesman of greeting cards.

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