To read or not to read, that is the question. Have I got what it takes to perform in the big leagues? Tarot card readers are a fairly common sight on the streets of New Orleans. Indeed, the few blocks surrounding Bourbon Street in the French Quarter may very well contain the highest concentration of professional psychics on the planet earth. I am not a professional psychic but I do know how to read cards. One of the characters in my very first novel (1995) was a tarot card reader and I researched the subject in order to write the character. Once I learned how the system worked, I made my own deck and started doing readings for people. At first I was surprised at how well my home-made, poorly drawn, not very artistic cards worked. Especially since, I’m not even a psychic. But for reasons that are hard to understand, they really do work well. All I do is lay the cards down in a pattern and describe what each card means within the context of the tarot system. Inevitably, the person for whom I am reading associates the meanings in the card patterns to circumstances in their life and the flood gates open up. Almost always, my tarot card readings transform into a kind of informal, free-associating session of psycho-analysis. I don’t really predict the future. Instead, I have very deep and extensive conversations with the people I am reading for about important issues in their life. Practically speaking, the cards give people a framework or metaphor for talking about subjects that are otherwise difficult to talk about.
I’m not a professional though because I have never charged money for a card reading. I think of card reading as a free service that I occasionally provide to people in need. Most people do give me something of value in exchange for a session. But usually it’s food, whiskey or weed instead of cold hard cash. True; I have sometimes fantasized that it would be fun to go on the road as a traveling tarot card reader. A question for the alternative universe: could the cards alone sustain my wandering ways? But in reality, I almost never read cards while traveling because it’s a very awkward service to advertise. “Hello total stranger. Would you like me to examine the dark recesses of your heart and soul?” This past year, however, my stonework business scraped along at the bottom of the bankrupt economy and I have way less cash on hand than normal. Accordingly, the thought occasionally occurs to me. As we stand here on the corner of the main plaza in the French Quarter, there are a colorful collection of characters with tables set up making prognostications for tourists. “What do you think Ms. B.? Should I set up a table and try to make a little cash?”
As our low budget, Gulf Coast road trip continues, we arrive in the pleasant little city of Ocean Springs, Mississippi and it is an oasis of economic sanity on this cluttered coastline of corporate development. We stay in the Davis Bayou Campground a few miles outside of town and travel back and forth between our tent, the beach and the very pleasant downtown area on bicycles. It’s only 90 miles from New Orleans and we consider making the final drive there in time for the Fat Tuesday Celebrations. But Ocean Springs is so pleasant that we don’t want to go rushing away. There are art galleries and coffee shops, local restaurants and a food co-op. The people are nice and the atmosphere is laid back. It’s the kind of place we could hang around for an extended period of time. In contrast, New Orleans for the peak of Mardi Gras might just be a little too intense. Do we really want to plunge head first into that much excitement and chaos? Maybe we should just stay here for a while…
We finally make it to New Orleans on Ash Wednesday (the day after Mardi Gras) and the whole town seems to be suffering from a massive hangover. The party has ended and the Catholic Holy Season of Lent has begun. The devout people wear ashes upon their foreheads to remind them of the dust they will become and the boom/bust cycle of sin and forgiveness makes another rotation. In other words, the party has significantly mellowed but it probably won’t be mellow for long. We can’t afford center city accommodation so, like usual, we find a nearby campground. Saint Bernard’s State Park is only 15 miles from the French Quarter and we can set up our tent there for only 16 bucks a night. Not exactly a steal, but considering the proximity to the action, it’s certainly not bad. Hot showers, free wifi, and biking distance to the French Quarter, yes Ms. B. I do believe we have found the perfect budget headquarters for an exploration of one of America’s most interesting cities.
Seriously, I love New Orleans. As cities go in the USA, it gets two thumbs way up for culture, charm, character and originality. I also like it because it reminds me of a Third World City. Not Third World in the dark, depressing, poverty-stricken sense; but “Third World” in the different, non-civilized, “neo-primitive” sense. When I tell friends or write in my travelogues that I am on a journey to discover “Third World USA,” many people tend to misunderstand and think of the term “Third World” as pejorative. As if I’m some kind of masochist who wants to suffer in misery and poverty. For me, however, nothing could be further from the truth. In the last 14 years, I’ve spent four or five months a year traveling in “Third World” countries. I enjoy “Third World” countries. I sometimes wish the USA could be more of a “Third World” country. Then, at least, it would be affordable to live here.
What is the main difference between the “first” and “third” world? It’s a lot easier to live without a job or money in the Third World because the natural economy…the real free market… effectively flows. In the First World, there are no real free markets because everything is owned. You can’t even shit unless you pay the owners of the toilets. And the basics of food and shelter cost a bloody fortune. These environmental factors force people to find “jobs” to earn money instead of allowing people to interact with their world and provide for themselves. In the “third” world, ownership exists as a concept but it’s not taken as seriously. And that very important factor makes it a hell of a lot easier to just get by without having a lot of cash on hand.
I’m complaining now especially because I had a very slow stonework season last year. Accordingly, I have a lot less money for this winter’s wander than I usually have. I will survive until stonework season begins again in the Spring but it sure would be nice if I could make a little extra granola while traveling. To that end, I brought some of my self published travel books with me on our trip. I thought maybe I could find some free markets somewhere, set up a temporary little book shop and sell a few copies. But free markets are hard to find in the US. Indeed, real free markets are almost impossible to find. To sell my books in a bookstore, they want a 100% markup. In other words, there are profits for the printer and the store, but no earnings left for the author…what a system? To sell my books on the street, I need a Peddler’s license or permission from the city or town. And who wants to buy books from a crazy street person anyway. To sell my books at a show or fair, I need to rent a booth or space and apply weeks or months in advance. Everywhere I look, the answer is always the same. You have to pay money for a chance to earn money. Real free markets only exist in fantasy land (or third world countries).
We see the tarot card readers in the plaza near Bourbon Street. It’s Thursday afternoon and we are walking around the French Quarter pretending to be tourists. Well, okay, we are tourists. But tourists are supposed to spend money and we don’t really have much. So what can we do instead? Maybe I could read tarot. I’ve never read for money before and that might be a problem. Theoretically, at least, charging money for a tarot reading violates a fundamental rule of the tarot system and thereby renders the reading a fraud. A story not freely told cannot be trusted… or something like that. Yeah, I know, but that’s a technicality. And in the modern capitalist world, technicalities can be ignored. I wonder how much I should charge for a reading. I also wonder what the rules are for setting up a table and going into business. There are about ten of them set up here in the plaza. Do they all have permits?
I approach the last table on the right. A rather large woman with long flowing dark hair is in the process of setting up her display. She has crystals and cards and colorful tapestries arranged beneath a large shade umbrella. It’s practically a salon right there in the street. Obviously, she has done this before.
“Excuse me,” I say, as I attempt to exude the persona of a professional psychic. “I’m a tarot reader from New York and I’m here in New Orleans on vacation. Can I ask you a question?”
She looks up from the crystals and smiles. An aura of new agey niceness comes forth from her and she sort of seems to glow. It’s a wonderful presentation. “Welcome,” she says, “what can I do for you?”
“I’m only in town for a couple of days and I’m thinking about setting up my table somewhere (as if I have a table). I’m curious about the rules here. Do I need a permit? Where can I set up? I don’t want to steal anyone’s space.”
“We don’t need permits here,” she says conspiratorially, as if all us tarot readers are part of the same team or family. “They tried to run us off a few years back but we took them to court and won. Tarot card readings are free speech and this right here is federal property. As long as you suggest a donation instead of charging a fee, they can’t stop you from speaking.”
“Suggest a donation?” I question.
“Yes,” she says, “it’s a word game. The end result of our court case. Our lawyer said it was just like campaign contributions. If you sell the service of fortune telling, you are not protected by the constitution. But if you speak about your spiritual beliefs and ask for donations to your cause, your actions are protected. In reality, it makes no difference. I “suggest” a donation of 20 bucks before I start reading and people always pay.”
“That’s interesting,” I say,”kind of reminds me of Citizen’s United and the superpacs.”
“Huh?” She says.
“Politics,” I say, “not important. But if I’m not mistaken, the same rule must apply to the entire country. As long as I read on Federal Property in a public space, they shouldn’t be able to stop me.”
“I don’t know about that,” she says, “I only know about New Orleans.”
“And what about other tarot readers? Are places reserved or can I set up anywhere?”
“First come first serve for tarot,” she says. “and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Vendors of commercial goods need permits and have to reserve places but free spiritual speakers in search of donations can go anywhere they want on Federal property. Get here early and choose your spot.”
I thank the woman for her helpfulness and go back to Ms. B. who is waiting for me over by the street musicians. Nevertheless, I decide to not read any cards this day. I have no table or sign or any of the necessary accessories. This is something that is possible, but I’m going to have to think about it and prepare before I go ahead. Instead, we amuse ourselves watching people and photographing the unfolding scenes on the streets of New Orleans. Mardi Gras may be over but the constant carnival continues. We immerse ourselves in the festive world.
I don’t read any tarot the next day either. We take a break from the city bustle and head outwards on the peninsula towards the wetlands and Gulf shores. Trailer homes jacked high on stilts provide a reminder of what has been and what is yet to come. Mother Nature fights back against the onslaught of civilization. If I’m really a psychic, I foresee a future that is rather gloomy. Karmic storms upon the horizon will hit my home country hard. But I’m not a psychic, so there’s nothing to worry about. I’m just a tarot card reader… a tarot card reader who could use a little cash. Perhaps I’m just procrastinating because I don’t want to do it. Am I afraid? Maybe, I’m not sure. But something seems wrong with the whole plan and I’m not sure what it is. Is it really my destiny to read tarot cards in New Orleans? How far will I stray from my ordinary world? The only way to find out is to try…
Tomorrow, I promise. I’ll do it. I’ll read tarot cards for strangers on the street. Maybe I can make some money and at the very least it should be an interesting story…