Apparently I have lots of company. Thousands of people pay money to readers seeking answers to such questions as, ``Am I in the right job? Relationship? Country?''
Some call those psychic 900 numbers at 3 in the morning. Many others go for one-on-one, in-the-flesh readings, and meet some pretty entertaining people while they're at it.
For years, my only experience with psychic readings was with my sister, Bridget, who reads tarot cards for me. It's always in fun, and I've always considered it her way of giving me advice without lecturing or sounding too big-sisterish.
I decided it was time to see what the pros had to say. They would cost more than my sister - from $10 for a reading of a single palm to $130 for an in-depth, hour-long look at your life - but perhaps their predictions would come true!
Could there be a better place to find tarot card and palm readers than South Street? Apparently, yes. Riding my bike up and down this hip part of town, I found one place, and it was closed at 2 p.m. on a Friday.
I trekked over to Roxborough. That is where Valerie Morrison, who is a pretty big name in her field - she had her own radio, show for many years, has appeared often on television, and says she has some well-known clients (she won't name them, citing confidentiality) - lives and works.
Valerie's not exactly the neon-sign type (she doesn't even use a crystal ball), but I figured I'd make an appointment - she's booked several weeks ahead.
Entering Valerie's house, where she maintains her office, I was surrounded by Oriental rugs and bold, rich colors. In almost every corner, there were statues of angels. Valerie is warm and spiritual; I immediately felt at ease.
After the ring question, we talked about my marriage for a bit and she was glad to hear that I am still friends with my ex-husband. Valerie, who considers herself almost a counselor and uses no oracles to access her predictions, said she was getting a ``feeling'' about the name Michael around my ex. I told her that is his middle name. (OK, Michael is a very popular name and everyone is bound to know at least one Mick or Mike. Still, I found it a little freaky.)
Valerie also said she got the image of a young blond girl that was close to me, which she found weird since I have dark hair. I told her I have a niece who is very blond. That explained that. She also told me that working at The Inquirer was not the end to my career. She said I probably would write a novel, but, even more, she said I should pursue a career in writing for television. (In fact, I want my own sitcom.)
She also predicted that I would be engaged by this time next year (God help me) and asked if I was considering moving (affirmative).
She wrapped things up and told me to keep in touch to let her know if her predictions come true.
I left intrigued. Could there be something to this psychic stuff?
I made an appointment with another well-known psychic reader, Mary Chew. On a recent evening I arrived at one of her two offices, this one in Merchantville. It was not as decorated at Valerie's, but I didn't let that inspire any skepticism.
Mary directed me to write down my full name and birth date, and also the names and birthdays of anybody else I wanted to ask about. She took what I had written and started calculating on an Astro - a handheld electronic gizmo that is used to determine your ``number.'' She said my number was 8 in destiny and love. Translation: I am a real go-getter and truthful when it comes to love, and expect that same truthfulness from the ones I love. I'll buy that.
She asked if I was engaged and I said no. She looked at me and said that she had a strong feeling about it. Arrgh.
I suppose that since I am in my mid-20s, it could be a safe guess that at some point in the next few years I will indeed have a nice rock on my finger. So I didn't pay much mind to her feeling, no matter how strong. But Mary did hit on some other details of my life.
``Are you a mime?'' she asked.
A mime? No way. Oh, but I am involved with a comedy troupe. She said that explained why she was seeing me on stage, ``making goofy gestures and faces.'' She told me later that I really must pursue show business, no matter what it takes. Her feelings were very strong about that.
I had written down the names and birthdays of four people and showed her pictures of three of them. She did the old number calculation and looked at their photos. She told me about each one, with surprising accuracy.
Unlike Valerie, Mary does use tarot cards. After I shuffled them, instead of pulling a specified number out, Mary just started turning the cards over one at a time and reading them. She dealt out the whole deck and talked about the lives of my people as she went.
She also came up with Michael (still a popular name), but wasn't sure how it played a part in my life. Mary also asked if I had any plans to move (keep count, that's twice about the moving thing). She asked if there were six children in my family. I told her there were five. She asked if my mother had a miscarriage. She had.
Mary also wondered if my mother was having problems with her legs. I told her she recently had been diagnosed with degenerative arthritis in her hip.
I felt it was time for a different kind of reading. Like palms.
I chose to visit Vivienne McCarthy at Psychics Extraordinaire in Mount Airy.
In addition to reading my palm, Vivienne did a tarot card reading, numerology, and made up my astrological chart (sweet deal).
I am indeed a number 8 in numerology.
Vivienne is a no-nonsense kind of psychic: None of the chattiness I had experienced with others. She got right down to business, examining my entire right palm with a magnifying glass. She commented on my lifeline (long, I will live a full life); the shape of my hand (square, I'm traditional); and my money lines (in good shape).
According to Vivienne, I like power and attract money. (Oh, right.) It also turns out that I am a double Virgo (yikes). I'm not sure what that means, but her husband, Kevin, who greeted me at the door and got my date, time and place of birth, said it with some dismay. In a nutshell, I'm a real perfectionist (so when you throw your money at me, don't make a mess).
She also said I'm a lateral thinker, I will make a sudden move to the West Coast, pregnancy will be easy for me (woo-hoo), and I will have two boys. Oh, and, delving deeper into the future, one of them will make a living in sports and the other will be a banker. Father of said boys: unknown. She didn't even mention a Michael.
The only psychic I found simply by walking up the street and spotting her neon sign was Sylvia Ely, who occupies a storefront on Chestnut Street called Readings by Sylvia.
I stepped into Sylvia's shop with a bit of skepticism. Off the front room, there's a small room with a round table and two chairs on either side - pretty much the image that comes to mind when someone mentions a fortune-teller. I sat across from Sylvia, who works with her daughter, Sister Hope, and she explained what sort of readings I could have: psychic, palm, tea leaves or tarot cards (full- or half-deck options). Half a deck is half the price ($20), and that's what I chose.
I shuffled the deck, chose 10 cards, and placed them in a stack face down. I was told to make three wishes to myself. Sylvia then turned the cards over and studied them. After a few minutes of reflection, she said that she would say whatever she saw, good or bad, and that when she was correct, I should tell her.
You are a good and honest person, she said. I agreed. She also said that I am quick to do things for others. Sure. But when I need help, she continued, I feel that others aren't as willing to assist me. Yep.
Sylvia also believed that the last three years have been difficult for me and that I have had trouble sleeping. Yeah, I suppose - although not the sleeping part. She predicted I would have four children (I like Vivienne's two better, with the easy pregnancy). She said that I'm not happy at work (who is?) and that I have bad luck surrounding me (there were three black tarot cards facing up). That can't be good. To banish this negativity, Sylvia was willing to light nine candles for me (at $20 bucks a pop). I politely declined.
FIRST, YOU HAVE TO UNDERSTAND THE LANGUAGE Psychic readers interpret a person's character and offer advice on major and minor issues. Some use oracles (such as tarot cards), others just use their own intuition. Many go beyond the old fortune-teller stereotype, considering themselves to be counselors with a twist. Some definitions:
Tarot cards. A deck of 78 illustrated cards, each with a specific meaning (the death card, for instance, signifies the dying away of old habits, fears or relationships). After dealing the cards, the reader interprets each - using the order in which they fall, as well as where they end up in relation to each other - and can answer questions.
Palmistry. The reader uses the lines in the palm, the mounts (the raised fleshy part of the hand), and the shape of the hand and fingers to interpret a person's life. For instance, a square hand is believed to signify traditional and hard-working. Rounded fingers indicate a love of beauty or harmony.
Intuitive/clairvoyant. Images, visions and feelings come to the reader without the use of any oracles.
Numerology. The digits in your birth date are calculated to determine your ``number'' - and from that, your personality, strengths and shortcomings.
Crystal ball. Gazing into the crystal, the psychic sees a single image and interprets it. These aren't the crisp images of the movies. The crystal is more likely to contain clouds. Ascending clouds indicate the answer to a question is ``yes.''
Tea leaves. The subject drinks a cup of tea, leaving some liquid, then swirls the leaves around the cup and the liquid is drained. The reader examines and interprets the images created by the leaves.
* Academics who specialize in the study of parapsychology (telepathy, clairvoyance, psychokinesis) don't report much difference between the oracles - they tend to think either that all psychic claims are nonsense or that there is something to them that is difficult to measure.
Terrence Sandbek, a psychologist in Woodland, Calif., who has studied the scientific literature on parapsychology, says readings are total baloney. The psychic asks general questions, picks up on body language and emotional behavior, and then runs with it. Sandbek says tarot cards and crystal balls are just props: ``How could they mean anything?''
And yet, both local and federal law enforcement agencies, as a last resort, have turned to psychics for help in solving crimes. Valerie Morrison is frequently consulted by the police in kidnapping and homicide cases, and says she helped discover the identity of the New York serial killer known as Son of Sam.
Such reports are why other experts refuse to rule out the existence of psychic powers. ``You can't apply the scientific method to it,'' says John Sappington, a psychology professor at Augusta State University in Georgia. Sappington says studying psychic abilities is similar to investigating pain: ``You hear anecdotes and other people's experiences.''
PSYCHIC SAMPLING Finding a psychic can be a little harder than finding the nearest dry cleaner. Most don't advertise, and we found that many who do had gone out of business just a few months later. Quite a few work out of their homes. Below is a sampling of psychics who have been around for a while. Prices vary widely. Hours are by appointment only unless noted.
Mary Chew Blackwood, 609-627-8281. Intuitive and tarot card readings, numerology.
Linda Rose Hallowell Media, 610-891-9306. Intuitive and tarot readings.
Cynthia Joba Ambler, 215-542-8746. Intuitive readings.
Patricia McMonagle South Philadelphia, 215-463-2440. Intuitive readings.
Valerie Morrison Roxborough, 215-483-8881. Intuitive readings.
Mrs. Lee 1742 Sansom St, 215-567-9822; hours 10 a.m.-9 p.m. daily. Intuitive, palm, rune stones, tarot, and crystal sand reading.
Psychics Extraordinaire Chestnut Hill, 215-247-5484. Tarot and palm readings, numerology and astrological charts.
Readings by Rose 357 N Main St, Glassboro, 609-863-9345; hours 9 a.m.-9 p.m. daily. Tarot card readings.
Readings by Sylvia 107 Chestnut St, 215-922-8890; hours 10 a.m.-midnight daily (appointments recommended). Tarot, palm, crystal ball, tea leaves and psychic readings.
Susan Samans Center City, 215-925-7728. Tarot and intuitive readings, numerology.
Soothsayers Psychic Entertainment Jenkintown, 215-572-8426. Tarot, palm, intuitive readings.