I should have smoked some weed and drank some whiskey before I started. But stupid me was trying to be professional. The whole thing is a disaster from the get go. My set-up is comparable to a Charlie Brown Christmas Tree. I have no routine, plan or script to work with. And I’m as nervous as a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. Ms. B. lets me do a practice session on her but then she wishes me luck and scurries away to go stroll around the city. I think she wants to be as far away from this train wreck as possible. I am left alone to perform solo. The jugular of my soul is exposed to the universe. Here I am, Pat the Prognosticator, on the streets of New Orleans.
My sign says, “Not Your Average Tarot Reading.” Ms. B. was kind enough to make it for me and it’s really quite nice. As a matter of fact, it’s probably the single best feature of my skid row, low budget tarot display. I don’t even have a table. Just a plastic tub turned upside down with a sarong draped over the top and couple of camping chairs from the dollar store. Compared to the impressive insta-theatres of the many maestros on tarot card row, my meager little venue is really quite pathetic. But what can I do? I had to work with the variables at hand and this is the best I could come up with under the circumstances. Afraid of the competition, I also don’t set up on tarot card row. I choose an out of the way spot in the same plaza but separate and distinct from the central tarot card area. There are artists and a hoolah hooper over here but no other tarot readers. Maybe I’ll get some spillover from the main readers or maybe no one will notice me at all. But my little fish operation is definitely not ready to swim with the giant sharks yet. If no customers come to me here, I guess it’s just not meant to be…
But the first customer arrives almost immediately.
“Are you one of those tarot card people?” says the woman who approaches me. She’s about 50, on the plump side, dressed in a business suit with dyed dark hair and wire framed glasses. Probably an office manager or an administrator of some sort.
“My cards are a bit unusual,” I say. “But yes I read tarot. So I guess that makes me a tarot person.”
“How are they unusual?” she asks politely.
Now, if I was smart, and good at this game, this would be my chance to reel her in. My cards are not only unusual, they are special. They are not like any other cards in the universe. I made them myself using my own weird “neo-primitive” style. I color outside the lines and lots of the characters are stick figures. Ms. B. describes it as “folk art” but really, they kind of look like they were put together “folks” who were six years old. Not only that, my images on the cards were derived by taking the traditional tarot ideology and shining it through my own slightly twisted and cracked, very non-traditional lens. While a normal tarot deck uses the four suits of: cups, wands, swords and pentacles, my “neo-primitive” deck uses the suits of: booze, drugs, weapons and money. The meanings of the cards in my deck match up with a traditional deck but the pictorial representations are very very different. Indeed, the combined effect of the crude drawings and bizarre images can be rather shocking. And I’m not sure, but I think that shock is important to how the cards function. It is perhaps the key which unlocks the door to real communication. Normally, I have the questioner look through the whole deck at the beginning of a session and that opening perusal sets the stage for everything that unfolds afterwards. But that is not what I do this day in New Orleans. And it is my refusal to hand over the cards at the beginning that fucks up the whole reading.
For reasons that are hard to explain, I’m feeling horribly self-conscious at the moment. Maybe it’s because of my Charlie Brown Christmas Tree totally amateur tarot display. Or maybe it’s because I didn’t drink whiskey or smoke weed before I began. Or maybe it’s because I know in my heart that a street corner in a big city is the absolute wrong setting for a true tarot session and I’m only doing this for money instead of because I want to. I don’t know why I’m self-conscious, but my self-consciousness ruins my performance. The fact of the matter is; I don’t want to show this strange woman my cards and invite her to sit down and join me in an intense personal exchange. I just want to hustle her for some cash
“My cards are unusual,” I say, “because I made them myself instead of buying them at a store.” I really should hand the cards over and let her look through them but I don’t. I’m afraid she’ll think they are too bizarre and walk away. So I break the fundamental rule of a real session and hold my cards close to my chest instead of exposing them for a full pre-reading view.
“Do your cards work,” she asks, “do they predict the future?”
“Find out for yourself,” I say, “sit down and have a reading.”
“How much do you charge?” she asks.
“All payments are voluntary donations,” I say, “you can give me five dollars or fifty dollars. I read the cards and you decide what its worth. You can even give me nothing if the cards don’t work at all.”
“Okay,” she says, “I”ll try it.” As she lowers herself into the flimsy chair, the earth seems to shake beneath her. “But I’ve never done this before,” she says, “so you will have to explain. How does it work? What do I do?”
Again, I screw the whole thing up. Tarot cards are fascinating. I enjoy talking about them. Give me a joint, a whiskey and the right setting and I will extemporize and theorize about the application of historical myth and metaphor to everyday existence for hours and hours. But I have no joint or whiskey, it’s not the right setting and this woman doesn’t seem like she’s very interested anyway. I am way out of my element. So I keep my explanation short and boring and easy to understand.
“For the next several minutes, I’m going to shuffle the cards. While I shuffle the cards, I want you to think about the issue you want the cards to resolve. Ask the question in your head, but not out loud. It can be a question on any subject: your love life, your work life, your spiritual life, your intellectual life or even your physical life. You can ask about situations or relationships or people or problems. You can ask about anything. But try to concentrate and focus all your attention on the issue you want the cards to resolve while I shuffle the cards.”
“Okay,” she says, “I have my question.”
“All right then, I will begin shuffling. You concentrate.”
But my shuffling is a disaster. My cards are oversized and difficult to shuffle to begin with. My hands are literally shaking with nervous energy. And my awkward dollar store plastic tub substitute for a table set up has an extremely difficult surface to work on. I drop several cards in the first minute and lose control of the entire deck in the second minute. By the time I have re-assembled the cards into an orderly pile, my client has lost all faith in my abilities. It’s like some king of giant practical joke; amateur hour on the tarot card stage. Nevertheless, I continue bravely forward and attempt to pretend like the chaos which just manifested is all part of the process.
“Now cut the cards,” I say, placing the neat and orderly stack down in front of her.
She looks at me like I’m crazy. And looks at the cards as if she is afraid of them. But she does lean forward and divide the deck into two piles. I put the piles together and deal out the Keltic cross pattern on top of my plastic tub table. And then I read her cards.
It’s a very shitty reading. Probably one of the worst readings I have ever done. Damn shame too; because she has a very interesting card layout. The Mother Earth in the center is crossed by the marijuana card. The food stamps of poverty are in the overview and the self sacrificial hanged man is at the foundation. There is some revolution in the past and the emperor in the near future. This woman has a hell of a lot going on. What we should do, is go somewhere, get a bottle of whiskey and some weed and have a long conversation about the fine line which separates selflessness from self-sacrifice and the various and sundry complications that arise when a person crosses that line. But we don’t have time for that. I’m just a nervous fool trying to make a buck in the plaza. I cut the explanation short and only hit the high points. I must be somewhat persuasive though because the woman perks up and focuses intently on what I say…
So now it’s time to flip the final four cards. She gets the big money card at the bottom, the other woman Queen of Booze card in the surrounding environment position, the Death card in the hopes and fears department and the Lovers for the grand finale. My god what a lay out. I could probably talk about this one forever. The death card in the Hopes and Fears position is issue enough for a book. As a matter of fact, I think Dostoevsky already wrote it. But I don’t have time for such explanations. I have to cut it short. I am not having a deep dialogue with a real person. I’m turning a trick for cash.
The woman seems satisfied but not impressed by my faltering, hesitant, slightly discombobulated explanation. “With the Lovers at the end,” I conclude dramatically, “you are about to embark upon a brand new journey or quest. You are going to leave the ease and comfort of paradise in order to discover something new.”
“You’re right,” she says, “I am going to write that novel even if I do have to quit my job. My kids are old enough to take care of themselves.” She reaches in her purse, pulls out a ten dollar bill and hands it to me.
“Thanks,” I say. As I accept the bill and shove it in my pocket, a cold shiver runs through my soul. A line has been crossed. There’s no going back now. “Do you have any more questions?” I ask.
“No,” she says, “everything was answered. You started out a little shaky because you were nervous. But you finished pretty good. You gave me some useful information. Thanks a lot and keep it up. With practice you will probably be good at this.”
After she is gone, I feel slightly nauseous. The whole experience was rather unsettling. Nevertheless, I am determined to carry on. I did make ten bucks in fifteen minutes. That’s not a bad rate of return. Yeah sure, I do feel a bit like a used up whore after an all night party but that which does not kill you makes you stronger right? This will get easier with time. After a few more warm up sessions, I’ll have a routine and a rhythm. Before you know it, it will be a piece of cake…old hat. I could earn a living this way. We could move to New Orleans, rent an apartment and I could work the plaza. My stonework business is dying in the broken economy anyway. No one wants to buy my books. Perhaps, I’m pursuing the wrong path. Maybe my true destiny is to be a tarot reader on the streets of New Orleans. Yeah right, what a depressing thought.
But no other customers come to see me. The first one was a fluke. My pathetic display and out of the way location is a bad marketing strategy. If I want to play this game for real, I should move over to tarot card row and compete with the professionals… But the truth is, I don’t want to play this game for real. I do enjoy tarot card reading. The cards are a wonderful tool for facilitating meaningful conversations on important subjects. If anyone ever wants a reading from me, all they have to do is ask. But selling readings on the street for money is not my cup of tea…bowl of broth…or tumbler of whiskey. In a way, it’s like selling books instead of writing them, or contracting stonework instead of doing stonework, of practicing law for money instead of justice. It’s the business side of things that always bothers me and I wonder why that is. Perhaps I should do a card reading on myself?
I only sit around for an hour or two before I get the boot. Apparently, my out of the way place is against the rules. An official member of the community art board informs me that the location I am in is reserved for real artists with permits. She’s very polite, tells me she respects my beliefs and does not want to interfere with my right to express them. But I really should go over to the area set aside for tarot people and leave this area for artists who pay good money to show their work.
I think about arguing with the woman. Standing up for my rights. Obviously, no artist is using this space at the moment or I wouldn’t be here. The woman just has a chip on her shoulder because the group she indentifies with (artists) have to pay to sell their stuff and the group she indentifies me with (tarot people) doesn’t’. But I don’t want to argue. As a matter of fact, I don’t want to be here anyway. I take the interruption as a sign from the universe and shut down my display
Thankfully, Ms. B. shows up to check on me shortly thereafter. So we end my little tarot experiment and continue on our merry way.