Card Sharks 

Why are tarot-card readers drawn to the intersection of Telegraph and Channing? Must be in the cards.

Out on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley earlier this fall, a 48-year-old tarot-card reader named Wizard sat alone at his folding table, his skinny legs crossed at the knees, long feet dangling. He wore a black velvet top hat, and his hands were folded in his lap as he watched the flow of college students, tourists, and gutter punks pass him by. Wizard had been sitting outside the Mrs. Fields cookie shop for the better part of five days since his last client sat down for a reading. Now, around 3 p.m., as the wind began to pick up, a group of teenage dudes approached, dressed in a uniform of baseball caps, cargo shorts, and dime-store flip-flops.

"Hey, dude," said one of the teenagers in a hooded sweatshirt, "how much?"

Wizard paused for a moment and looked at the kid, unsure if he wanted to waste breath with someone who clearly wanted to yank his chain.

"Fifteen," Wizard said.

"Fifteen dollars," the kid shot back to the cackles of his buddies. "You better read my future for fifteen dollars, dayng."

The kids stood at the corner, waiting for the crosswalk light at Channing Street to turn green.

"Hey," another kid said, "if you're psychic -- what's my name?"

The kids laughed, and leaned in for Wizard's response. But their elder paused once more, and shook his head. Wizard has been reading cards at this intersection for more than thirty years, and now this cowlick, the one with the smarmy mouth who stood before him, acted as if he were the first dude in history to ask such a question.

Wizard looked at him and asked back, "Does the sign read 'Psychic'?" Then he slowly turned his head toward a sign next to his table that reads, in capital letters, "TAROT READINGS SINCE 1970."

The kid mumbled, "M'no," then blurted out, "Hey, you don't know my name!"

Wizard smiled, momentarily pleased that he'd stumped another gang of skeptics. Then, to put the finishing touch on his dismissal, he turned his head away and looked up Telegraph toward the campus for what seemed like no good reason at all.

The crosswalk light flashed green, so the kids left Wizard behind and headed toward Rasputin to flip through a bin of CDs. As the boys disappeared into the stream of bodies, Wizard turned back and said, "It takes a lot of patience to sit here day in and day out and not lose your mind."

Directly across the street, at the very same time, another tarot-card reader named Charles sat at his table, which is shaped like a cafe table and has a softball-size crystal ball placed in the center. Charles has long pointy fingernails and long black hair that he parts down the middle. He usually wears snug black jeans, a black leather jacket, and a pentagram necklace. Charles arrived with his cards at this intersection about four years ago, and despite his kitty-corner positioning to Wizard, which seemed to mirror the Starbucks business model, Charles said he picked the corner for its unique spiritual force.

"The energy of this intersection is just appealing to me," he said one day. "The breeze that comes up toward the hills, it's like ... an energetic jet stream. There's a lot of positive vibes flowing right here."

Charles, who walks with a cane, tapped the tree behind him with his stick. "And this. I feel grounded to this tree."

To Wizard, however, Charles represents just the latest in a long string of readers who've come to Telegraph to get a piece of the mystical action. Unlike the street vendors who sell hemp scarves and anti-Bush bumper stickers, tarot readers don't need a permit to set up shop, so anyone with a deck and two chairs can read energy, as it were. Wizard has watched them come and go, from the dedicated to the fraudulent. Some show up for a weekend or two, sling gibberish -- "You'll live five more years!" -- and walk off with a tourist's easy money. Wizard says there were as many as eight readers along the stretch during the heyday of late '80s and late '90s, but now it's down to two men, and sometimes three. Depending on which day you catch Wizard, and how many clients he's read for that day, he's willing to allow that Charles, of all the competitors, is alright.

"We're acquaintances," Wizard said one day. "He's okay."

Still, the tension between the two appears in the pricing. Wizard, who considers himself a lifelong student of the craft of tarot, asks his customers only for a donation in the spirit of karma -- "Whatever they offer I can accept." Usually, they offer fifteen bucks, he says.

Charles, by comparison, charges a perfectly affordable $1 per card, and a thorough reading consists of at least ten cards, sometimes fifteen.

But passersby on Telegraph are more likely to pay five bucks and listen to Charles read than to sign up for a complete reading by Wizard. The varying rates charged once led Wizard to consider starting a group called the Telegraph Avenue Tarot Readers Association, to set bylaws for professional standards and prices, but he found it difficult to put together.


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