She shuffles into the corner store in her slippers. She is big, overweight and bra-less; her t-shirt, which was once white, is graying and stained. She carries herself beyond her weight, however, I realise that she actually has a rather small face, small dark eyes, and mushy lips that come together in something less formed than a frown. Her hands and mine are about the same size, and I recognise their betrayal: small skeleton, big presence, but she doesn’t see me.
Instead, she’s asking about Spaghetti-O’s; she’s asking if Amin has a can opener. Does he have a spoon? Can she use the microwave? What’s wrong with him? It’s not quite anger in her tone, but a bluntness that feels rude and almost comical. Two children are peeking in from the street. I assume this can of food is for them. Amin waives her away hostilely and she leaves, grumbling. I’ve only seen her on the street, never in the corner store before, but Amin says to me “that lady is always in here… she’s no good.” “Do you know her?” I ask. He doesn’t, he tells me and shakes his hand in the air dismissively. “She has the shop a couple doors down. She’s no good.”
Amin doesn’t like, or want to be bothered by, the storefront psychic and it’s true that her manner, up close and personal, is less than pleasant, although the words “no good” feel heavy. Both Amin and Salah, his partner and co-owner, are two men from Palestine who have been called this and worse by their customers. But this isn’t a case of hatred or fear, more like an act played out in the minor key of annoyance. The storefront psychic was impolite—too blunt in her phrasing, too aggressive in her demeanor—to be afforded the pleasantry of placating her. Beyond this, though, it seems no one is quite sure what to make of a woman who sits in a storefront window all day, talking on the phone, occasionally waving her hand to passersby on the street, offering a reading, a reading, a reading…
It is true that I have only known this woman from a distance. I pass her store almost everyday, and when she catches my eye she has called me to “come in… come in…” This invitation makes me wonder what she would say if we were to talk. What would I want to talk about with her? To be honest, I wonder why anyone would choose to get a reading from this woman.1 Years before she took up the space next door to Amin and Salah, she had a shop across the street. One night a candle caught a curtain on fire, burning out the storefront window, and she had to close down the shop. My husband used to laugh that she was a pretty bad psychic if she didn’t know the fire was going to happen. I would shrug and think to myself “accidents happen.” How much can even a psychic be expected to know in advance? By what measure can she prove herself? Still, her shop—which is barely a shop, but more like two chairs and a small table half- heartedly displaying some worn tarot cards and an ashtray—doesn’t inspire much confidence.
In 1925, Robert E. Park, a key figure in the Chicago school of sociology, wrote, “the clairvoyant,” among other figures, is a “characteristic product of the conditions of city life.”2 The psychic has a long-standing place in the urban division of labour, particularly as a form of women’s informal labour—which reaches back to the mid-nineteenth century and the rise of spiritualism, as well as to the history of Roma immigration to American cities. Her past, however, is often obscured by the myriad forms the psychic takes throughout the informal economies of the city, ranging from storefront psychic to executive “psychic” life coach. In this regard, psychic shops are only one type of psychic space in the city, or one node in a network of “psychic” spaces, each producing differently sanctioned forms of talk and intimacy. Yet, within this network of spaces the storefront psychic remains suspect. She is the purveyor of “illegitimate” conversations. Nonetheless, her store and her ubiquitous signage co-author the visual text of the city and inform the texture and feel of life in this environment.
While the stores invite an in-depth ethnographic analysis of their role and function in the city, its denizens are continually interpreting the stores—even if this means to overlook them, using our bodies to avoid them on the street, making up stories or urban myths about what they must do to “pay the rent” or speculating about their clients. The psychic’s shop window is a screen that we project our own fears and fantasies onto, but occasionally a person peers back from behind that screen. Blurred is the window’s ability to act as a boundary: calling you in, perhaps annoying you, bumping you out of your routine, moving you in or pushing you away. Either way you go, the psychic has affected you, even if just for a fleeting second. What does it then mean, the subtle modifications of ourselves in the presence of the “no good” services of the storefront psychic?
When you live in New York City, you walk. Michel De Certeau and my feet will assure you of this.3 Walking draws you into the scenes of ordinary, everyday interactions between people, as well as between people and their environments. It is through walking and, more often, wandering that we learn not only where things are, but how things are. Still, I always think that when I bring the camera along, I’ve turned this sort of innocent and poetic notion of walking into something more rigid, with photos fixing in time the dynamism of the street and its lived experiences. But, such an act—to walk with the camera—is what I did in order to explore the meaning of the storefront psychic, and the feelings her presence provoked. And what follows below are the notes and photos that emerged from these walks, as well as the maps I eventually made in order to see the distance between stores.
I realised as I walked through my daily routines, that the neighbourhoods I trafficked in reflected E.B. White’s conceptualization of “three New Yorks,” each with their own pace and relationship to the city. But because these texts emerged out of personal, day-to-day experiences, they reflect me and my own classed, raced, and gendered movements through the city.4 As such, they are very limited. They are zones of familiarity for a white woman in her thirties, enrolled in a PhD programme in sociology, wandering around at weird times of the day and night because she doesn’t work regular hours (and doesn’t have much money in the bank), and who carries a camera and a notebook. What follows are notes from this “fieldwork,” and they the types of fragmentary observations one makes while walking.
Greenpoint is a working class Polish neighbourhood, and I have heard it referred to as a “hold out” against the cosmopolitanism of “the city.” While the neighbourhood does move at a pace much slower than parts of Manhattan, this description misses the dynamism of the place that comes from a mixture of long-standing residents. Many are Polish “settlers” who have become “natives,” as well as white, working class families who speak their own form of “Brooklynese,” who refer to Manhattan Avenue as “the Ave,” and who pride themselves on how long they have lived at a particular address. The description also misses the number of immigrants to Greenpoint—not only of Polish descent, but Hispanic families and the white “post-college” set—who are drawn to the relatively inexpensive rents and the neighbourhood’s proximity to Williamsburg, an east coast magnet for “creative types” and those who can afford luxury rents.
In Greenpoint, there are five psychic shops within walking distance. Starting on Manhattan Avenue, you will walk past two shops. The first, “Readings by Sofia” is located above the OTB and the Radio Shack in a building that looks like it might fall down at some point. Orange curtains fill the large window that Sopfia occupies and her signs suggest that she speaks Polish and Spanish, with one suggesting she is a “Curandera.” I have never seen anyone come or go from Sophie’s shop, although once I did see a young boy sitting outside her doorway, passing out flyers for her services. I think I startled him when I accepted his offering.
Further down on Manhattan Avenue, there is another shop whose sign is less personable. It merely reads Psychic Reader and Advisor, and she is situated between a laundromat and a Mexican restaurant. The woman who has the shop next to the laundromat is almost always in her window, sitting there with her cat, her cigarettes and her phone. She is almost always on the phone. It seems as though she lives, at least part-time, in her store. I also see her walking on the streets and occasionally in the corner store. If she makes eye contact with you, she will call to you with her finger, “come in, come in, for a reading. Only five dollars…”
Walking on McGuinness Boulevard, on the way to the Enterprise Car Rental, I noticed another psychic shop. This one is new—it wasn’t here last summer. Red, velvety curtains and two neon signs proclaiming “psychic readings.” It’s an odd place for a shop because McGuinness has four lanes of fast-moving traffic and it’s really not hospitable for walking. The shop doesn’t look open.
One night we went for a walk on Nassau Avenue and there she was, the woman from Manhattan Avenue, sitting with another woman who has opened a psychic shop next door to the liquor store. Perhaps all the psychics know each other. The woman that she is sitting with is very large, with grey hair. It’s New York’s hot summer outside and they are sitting on plastic chairs, watching the people walk past on the street.
No one seems to pay much attention to these psychics’ shops, except that everyone is aware of their presence. When they bring their chairs out into the street they seem to become seamlessly part of a neighbourhood that is already full of characters—the old men passed out on stoops, the “hipsters” in their extreme fashions, the Polish women in their sizable hair-do’s and heavy make-up.
The psychic shop on Greenpoint Avenue was only open for a few weeks. I wonder where she went?
Physically, Midtown is the home to some of the worlds greatest buildings, and is the commercial zone of the city. Existentially, however, Midtown is the great beast of nothingness at the center of the city. You get trapped there on your way to an office building, a temp job, or the unfortunate need to brave the crowds at Herald or Times Squares. It’s tourists and business suits, one not knowing how to navigate the city, the other trying to push past the naïve sidewalk occupiers. In order to appreciate this section of the city ,you need to get off the main Avenues and wander through the side streets, where localities and neighbourhoods within neighbourhoods open up: Korea Town, the garment district and the outdoor vendors on the outskirts of 34th street, the theater district, Times Square—itself is its own world, all the architectural beauty that you can find on the east side.
Officially, Midtown sprawls between 14th Street and 59th Street, and lasts the entire width of the city, from water to water. But even the beast has a heart: from about 30th to 59th, between Third and Ninth Avenues.
It’s substantially hot today, but the sun is setting and I am determined to get a reading. I’ve set out to find a reader on 48th street, but I can’t find her. Maybe she closed? Maybe the listing was bad? It seems like the shops in Midtown come and go with more frequency than in other parts of the city. Then again, there are also established shops, like the one in Times Square, that seem like institutions. Giving up on the first reader, and as luck or the city would have it, I wander directly into a psychic sign and two open chairs on 9th Avenue. I ring her bell for a reading, but no one answers. I feel defeated by the psychics of Midtown. I wonder if she is next door eating a burrito.
Later, I would find another psychic shop. It is quietly, emptily biding its time on 47th Street, a mostly residential street. I thought the simplicity of the sign seemed to add a bit of peace to the street. Since there wasn’t anyone around it seemed like the sign was simply announcing an idea, a suggestion; offering a moment to contemplate what the word psychic means.
Everyday, on my way to the Graduate Center, through the heart of Herald Square, I pass this psychic whose shop sits above the hardware store. Her neon sign is light purple, and you would barely notice it unless you look up. Her sign blends almost perfectly into the signage of the street: O’Reilly’s Restaurant, Café Rustico, Karaoke, the Playwrite… In the daytime her lights are off; in the evening, when I’m leaving school, her lights are on. The psychics work the night shift, but since I leave this area by 9:00pm, I can’t tell how long that shift is or who else is out at that time. Perhaps the romance of Café Rustico leads tourist lovers to her doorway? Maybe the purchase of a hammer sends New Yorkers in need of construction or decorating advice? I’m being facetious, but this one makes me wonder the old question: how does she pay the rent here? I also appreciate the oversized Egyptian statues in her window.
In Midtown, there are so many signs that the psychic shops seem to just blend into the surroundings. Even Rosemarie—if that is her name, it is the name on the sign—who sits in Times Square, must easily be two hundred pounds and is one of the most intimidating women I have seen in a long time… even Rosemarie blends seamlessly into the space of the street, the crowd, the advertising, the signage, the souvenirs, the smiles…
Every once in a while, though, New York can’t resist. The signs that invisible suddenly stand against and with other signs of life in the city. On 45th Street, the psychic competes for attention with a Judaica store and an old-time Italian grocery. In this regard they are equal, no more or less strange than any other sign to denote the presence of a service tailored to the needs of a people. A culture, a tradition. What is the tradition in New York that keeps them alive?
Greenwich Village is both the romance of bohemian history, and the contemporary morass of tourism and residential luxurification. It is at once quiet and relaxed, as its old buildings are human-scaled, yet bustles with the energy of college students and sightseers who have come for the history, the charm, the bars. While the East Village competes for the nightlife of the college students and tourists and certainly outweighs Greenwich Village in terms of density of bars, the latter still has a pulse that gives the neighbourhood an eccentric feeling. The feeling that you might meet a character, spot a celebrity … or perhaps meet a “real” psychic.
While other neighbourhoods have psychics, the Village has a dense four within two blocks of each other and yet more even further west. Walking east on West Third Street, you’ll need to be careful not to miss the “The Village Psychic” on your right. Her shop is tucked below “The Best Back Rub,” which might divert your attention. But even if you try to look in, a thick red curtain will block your gaze. The Village Psychic doesn’t seem to want your business.
When you get to Sullivan Street, turn right and you’ll pass a Spiritual Reader and Advisor who sits below a red neon sign. Today, a young woman is sitting inside having her tarot cards read. She’s white and looks maybe twenty years old; brown hair, casual clothes. You don’t dress up to see a psychic. I wonder what they are talking about. If the signs have any indication, it’s probably related to love, money, or health, although remembering my twenties, it could be any number of things, conflated into one consuming anxiety, like which courses to take, whether or not to move home to your parents, how to figure out whether your friend is really a good friend. That was a time of much confusion. A question worth investigating: maybe the psychics here operate as informal therapists to the nervous college set?
On Houston, to your left, there is a ‘fancy’ looking psychic, whose curtains are gold and whose window is clean and inviting. I think of this place as a boutique rather than a psychic shop. Her window also has an elegant image of a palm, done in red and gold. She must appeal to the shoppers of the neighbourhood. Or maybe to the newcomers who want the city to sparkle, to be luxurious, to match the interior of the sleek condominiums that are being built throughout the city. I wonder how the down and out shops, like the Village Psychic will fare. Maybe tourism can keep them alive, people in search of the ‘authentic’ city, who in effect are keeping the old bourgeois tradition of ‘slumming’ alive. Or, perhaps the psychic who can’t afford the gold curtain and artistic displays merely packs up and moves to a new location. These are questions I can’t answer from the street.
There is a rather romantic notion that the city is a place that brings people together—a terrain of intimacy metered out through the maintenance of social distances—but I would offer that the storefront psychic challenges this romance. The social figure of the psychic easily mingles with historical stereotypes of ‘gypsies,’ ‘con artists,’ and ‘witches.’ The woman who sits behind the window, however, remains a stranger—watching us, and probably knowing more about our lives through the ordinary powers of quiet observation than through psychic power. We are left with stories, or what Elijah Anderson calls “folk ethnographies,” that can work to explain the presence of the psychic and set the terms for our social interaction with them.5
If you listen to these stories, you will hear that “psychics have powers,” “psychics are scams,” and “psychics are involved in illegal activity.” And, often these descriptors overlap, with the most common explanation being “the scam.” This, however, does not rule out the possibility of metaphysical powers or illegal activity on the side. Those who see the psychic as having a power are the most likely to modify their behavior on the street by avoiding the psychic physically, for example by crossing the street, or by modifying their gaze or ignoring the psychic as they pass. I have been told by several women that they “fear” the psychic, who they believe could curse them (“you never know”) and/or might, if they were to interact them, “see something and say something,” meaning that she feared the psychic would give her a troubling prognostication.
Those who conceive of the psychic as a con artist also work to avoid the interaction, but these individuals tend to be sceptics who feel that they themselves will not be scammed by the psychic and “feel sorry” for those who do seek out services. Here, I have been told that “psychic prey on the depressed” and that they might even “threaten you” for money. In this regard, these individuals feel it is best to “just avoid” the psychic who will only cause problems. Expressing a variant of that sentiment, a Greenpoint blogger wrote in regard to the closing of the Manhattan Avenue psychic shop “some of you might have noticed the rather abrupt departure of the psychic…I have no idea as to her whereabouts (nor do I care to know: that woman was obnoxious).”
Finally, those who believe the psychic is a cover for illegal activity (prostitution and drugs are the most common links), tend be most willing to accept the presence of the psychic, even if they don’t condone the activity. Depending on the location of the psychic, for example in Greenwich Village or the East Village which cater to young people and have an active nightlife, the assumption that the psychic is involved in selling drugs seems to cause less concern or suspicion. One individual claimed, in regard to the psychic close to his East Village apartment, “it’s just what’s going on. I never see anyone in there. What else can it be?
While individuals will admit that they cannot be sure what activities the psychic is engaged in, everyone I have spoken with has a working, personal theory that explains for them the nature of the psychic in the city. These theories come to inform the way individuals will interact with both the shop and the psychic herself and these theories are mingled, often unwittingly, with a history of racial and class-based discrimination. As Anderson and numerous others have described, the more threatening we find “others” in the urban environment, the greater we will work to create social distance from those individuals.6 However, unlike those Anderson writes about, I have found that this social distance is not only maintained by and through “fear” of the other, but also through a curiosity that cannot be resolved, which creates an uncertain, liminal space on the street. As we walk the street, the psychic storefront—through its signage, its neon lights, and its occasional city character—offers the opportunity for us to wonder about what’s going on and a chance to re-interpret the city. As we move and manage ourselves to accommodate those meanings, we circulate a contemporary mystery and, in doing so, keep alive a bit of urban enchantment.
All images belong to the author
1 A year ago a friend of a friend was hit and killed while riding her bike in Manhattan. Her partner told me at a party that after her death he went to this psychic because she was there and he was sad and curious, but that she was “awful” and that she could not offer him any consolation
2 Robert E. Park et al., The City (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1925)
4 Elwyn Brooks White and Roger Angell, Here is New York, (New York: Little Bookroom, 2000)
5 Elijah Anderson, The Cosmopolitan Canopy, (New York:W. W. Norton & Company, 2011)
Karen Gregory is a PhD candidate in the department of Sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Her dissertation, entitled “Enchanted Entrepreneurs: Negotiating Precarity through Spiritual Practice,” is an ethnographic account of the labor of psychic practitioners and is drawn from two years of work at an esoteric school in New York City. Karen is an Instructional Technology Fellow at Hunter College and is also a photographer. @claudiakincaid