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.
"Some readers don't play well with others," he said.
Now, with the long-dwindling economy that has kept so-called disposable income off their tables, both Wizard and Charles compete for customers -- although neither likes to put it in such blunt terms. Wizard is homeless, and says, "Everything I make on this table I have to live off of." Charles, who is not so dependent on the readings for food, has a softer view of their relationship.
"Me and Wizard are friends," Charles said. "We look out for each other out here."
Wizard usually arrives at the northeast corner around 8:30 a.m. Charles shows up at the southwest corner an hour or two later. Since Charles' left leg has atrophied, it takes him thirty minutes to set up, "clear his energetic meridians," and situate his blue Tarot sign next to his grounding tree. Across the street, Wizard unloads his square table and two chairs from a dolly, which he stores in a locker on Bancroft for $58 a month. He uses a green tablecloth and points it north most days, the direction he says is best for monetary compensation. Once seated, both men say they'll usually wave to each other, or at least nod.
Wizard arrived in Berkeley in the summer of 1968. As a boy in Florida he'd played around with magic and palm reading, but as he became a teenager he studied witchcraft with a woman who told him he possessed "incredible intuition." He left the South, and headed west.
"I was a so-called 'runaway,'" he said one day, using his fingers to quote the word. "But the reality is, my mother was an alcoholic and her boyfriends were abusive. ... I said, 'Mom, I'm outta here. I'm going to California.'"
Once here, Wizard learned to live on the streets, sometimes landing an apartment for months at a time and sometimes sleeping in parks. Regardless, he followed his intuition to study the tarot.
To some, tarot is simply a deck of 78 cards that, depending on which card you pick, helps guide you toward answers in life. But to Wizard, studying the deck's characters and possible meanings has consumed his life. "This," he said while tapping his deck, "is what I've devoted my life to."
Many people have fallen in love with the story of the cards. It's difficult to say when tarot cards were invented -- and experts debate forcefully about its origins -- but according to historian Tom Little, a member of the American Tarot Association, the first deck most likely appeared in northern Italy between 1420 and 1440, born from the creative experiments of the early Italian Renaissance. The original deck was meant for a game comparable to modern bridge, Little theorizes, and it took another 150 years before the cards were linked to witchcraft. By then, poets and artists had used particular cards as inspiration for verse and song, attributing a sense of romance and mysticism to favorite cards. Of course, this sort of high praise toward objects other than religious icons was objectionable to the Church.
"The early Italian Renaissance, which gave birth to the tarot, was a time of great intellectual diversity and activity," Little writes on his Web site. "Hermeticism, astrology, NeoPlatonism, Pythagorean philosophy with roots in Alexandrian Egypt, and heterodox Christian thought all thrived. Any or all of these may have left their mark on the design of the tarot. Although it should be remembered that all of the symbolism of the tarot has close analogues in the conventional Christian culture of the time, many scholars today believe that these philosophies, which are foundations of occultism, were important in the design of the tarot."
Nearly six centuries later on Telegraph Avenue, Wizard uses a slightly esoteric version of the deck called the Golden Dawn. Still 78 cards divided into major and minor arcana and the court cards, each one tells a story of archetypes, loaded with tangential meanings: Pull the Death card, and instead of that being a sure sign of your demise, perhaps you're actually "concluding one journey" and headed toward another -- be it a job, a relationship, or an intellectual pursuit. Pull the Hanged Man, and perhaps you're in a state of suspension -- or maybe it represents a state of martyrdom -- or else it's telling of a self-sacrifice ready to be made. Draw the High Priestess, and delight in her serenity that has been bestowed upon you. Draw all the cards, and instead of coming to your own conclusions, have a reader help sort it all out.
One day on Telegraph, a high-school student sat in Wizard's chair, picked ten cards, and watched Wizard flip them over in Z formation for the first four cards, and then an X formation until all the cards were facing up. Most readers flip in a Celtic cross pattern, but fighting the wind and fast-moving delivery trucks, Wizard's spread is meant to stay on the table. He's also known for his specific answers.
The kid wanted to know: Will I go to college?
Wizard studied the cards. "Do you want to go to college?" he asked?
"Yes," the kid said.
Wizard took this into consideration.
From there, Wizard noted the kid's Hermit card had landed in the "near future" position of the draw. This card, Wizard later explained, is a card of wisdom and learning. Based on the position of another card, Wizard could see that the kid's "authentic career choice" would require higher education.
So Wizard said to the kid, "According to this, yes, you'll go to college."
The next day Wizard was nowhere to be found. Charles noted it was rare for Wizard to miss a day, much less a few in a row. By Sunday, three days later, still no Wizard. Even Charles began to wonder what had happened.
"I think he's been upset recently," Charles said. "It can get hard out here sitting around waiting for a reading."
With only five years under his belt, Charles is still considered a relative piker in tarot-reading circles. He keeps a clipboard at his table listed with card symbols and suggested meanings. Some cards are decorated with kabbalah characters, and Charles is still learning their translations. Compared to Wizard, who enjoys answering specific questions, Charles' readings lean toward the vague.
The role of a reader, Charles says, is not to read the future per se, but to give his client guidance. He calls himself a "spiritual therapist." Before Wizard went missing, he had echoed this line of reasoning. "I'm telling people things that will catapult them out of their fear cycle," Wizard said. "I'm telling them positive things and helping them view the world in a positive manner. I provide a service that helps people."
In one case a few years ago, Wizard says a woman asked him if she was ever going to sell her house in Walnut Creek. According to Wizard, the woman was worried since she needed to sell before she left for the East Coast. The cards showed him she would sell within 72 hours of the reading, and she left his table invigorated with the possibility. The woman returned to thank him months later, Wizard said. It happened just as he said it would.
Even if Wizard "sees" particular danger in the cards, he euphemizes the situation and casts it into a sea of generality. For instance, he said he once was overcome by a strong image of his customer crashing her car. Instead of relaying this scenario, he told her he saw her "in a collision, or part of an impact." Wizard doesn't like giving details to clients, if only to save the client from manifesting the power of suggestion.
"I didn't want her to get in her car thinking she was going to crash it every time, because she probably would."
One day after Wizard's disappearance, a high-school couple from Martinez had driven to Telegraph to find Wizard, but settled for Charles. Jenelle was pleased that her boyfriend Grant finally agreed to sit for a reading. While Jenelle was all smiles, Grant wore his San Francisco Giants baseball cap askew, and had the disinterested posture of a seventeen-year-old jock.
Jenelle negotiated a price of five dollars for six cards, and Charles had Grant shuffle the cards. "Hmm," Charles said when he flipped them over. "Okay, this looks ... good ... this looks interesting ... okay."
Grant looked up from under the cap's bill, curious.
Charles asked him, "What do you like doing?"
"Yeah, what do you like to do with your time?"
"I dunno," Grant said. "I'm seventeen. I just like ... partying, playin' sports ... havin' fun."
"You're at an intense time in your life, I see."
Charles explained the orbit of Saturn, a 28-year journey. Grant was only seventeen, Charles noted, but he was at a crucial point in the voyage, and was preparing to make decisions that would affect his adulthood. Choices Grant made now, Charles said, would have an impact on what Grant looked like when he was 28, when yet another phase of life was ready to begin.
Grant chewed his gum and nodded, and attempted to factor this information into his life. He was about to graduate from high school, he said. What did all this mean?
Charles pointed to a card and told him he was about to leave some friends behind.
Grant and Jenelle instantly looked at each other as if they immediately thought of the same friends who'd get left behind.
Charles took another look at the cards. "Now, this one here," he said. "This may be disappointing."
Grant refocused his attention.
"This card, this is a reminder card that tells me, there's someone out there you think is better than you. It's not true, though. No one is better than you, but for some reason you think they are. This card is reminding you -- you don't have to think other people are better."
Grant continued to chew gum, but now he'd crossed his arms.
"Now, this Chariot card is telling me you're ready to take your true path. At the same time, it's in the air, and these guys down here" -- Charles pointed to men on the ground attempting to corral the chariot with ropes -- "they're the ones trying to hold you back."
Again, Grant and Jenelle traded glances, surely thinking of friends who were destined to stay in Martinez.
From there, Charles repeated variations of the same theme: Grant was ready to make important decisions, and he'd need to leave some people behind if he wanted to follow his true path. After ten minutes, Grant and Jenelle thanked him and headed up Channing to find their car.
The two were hardly impressed. "He kept repeating stuff I already knew," Grant said. "He didn't tell me anything I didn't already know."
Jenelle was more disappointed. She'd persuaded Grant to come to Telegraph for a reading, and now they were returning without an experience.
Jenelle said she hoped the "other guy" would be out here. "He's really good," she said of Wizard. She tugged at her boyfriend's waist. "He told me I was about to get into a relationship ... and the next thing ..."
It took nearly a week, but Wizard finally returned. On the afternoon after the presidential election, he wore his familiar velvet top hat and was found sitting legs crossed, hands in his lap as usual, but in good spirits. Experience told him that the Halloween weekend, oddly enough, didn't bring much business to his table, and the wet and cold weather wasn't helping, he said. On a recent Friday, he'd been hired to work a Cal alumni banquet, where he did twenty readings in two and a half hours.
"People had fun," Wizard laughed, aware that his role at the banquet was more for schmaltzy entertainment value than serious prognostication. "I put on my cape, my wizard's hat, the whole bit."
Wizard chuckled at Charles' belief that he'd gotten depressed recently. "It's not that I get depressed," he said. "It's that I understand the flow out here. If I feel like it's going to be worthless to sit out here, I won't."
About thirty minutes later, one of his regular customers arrived, a secretary from Cal. She comes about every two weeks and pays him $20 for a reading.
A few days later, on a Sunday afternoon, Wizard sat on the eastern side of Telegraph, not in his usual spot. The previous day the Cal Bears had hosted the University of Oregon in a nationally televised football game, packing eighty thousand souls into Memorial Stadium, and many of them spilled onto Telegraph. Regardless, a day after the game, Wizard was still frustrated -- he hadn't flipped one card on Saturday. Earlier, a passing teenager had heckled, "Hey, what's my future?" and Wizard responded coldly, "You got one."
This day, Wizard admitted he was fed up, and now his immediate goal was just to make it to June 2, 2005 -- his 35th anniversary on Telegraph, a date he remembers easily because it happens to be his mother's birthday. He was hoping to do gangbuster readings in the coming months so he could save up money and purchase a vending license to make and sell jewelry and get off the streets for good, his perpetual goal.
But business had been so slow, he'd been forced to lower his price for a reading to $10. He dropped the idea of a "donation" for now, and wedged a small yellow cardboard sign above his table to announce the new price.
"He's killing me," Wizard grumbled, shrugging a shoulder in Charles' direction, who happened to have a client at his table. "He doesn't even need to be out here. He's on disability. ... As far as I'm concerned, the guy's a butthead."
Wizard eyed his competitor and pulled an already half-smoked cigarette from his coat pocket, then launched into a monologue about how others on the avenue are ripping off people. There's a woman down the block who does psychic readings over the phone; there are gutter punks who hold out a cup for change, and use the money to get drunk all day long; there are the cops who don't ticket the punks and let them get away with it.
"I'm not out here putting curses on people or telling them what's in their future," Wizard insisted. "I'm a businessman making an honest living, helping people, giving them advice and genuine insight into their lives. I'm not doing it just for the hell of it, or just for fun. You have to gain a certain amount of credibility with people, and I've got that because I've been out here day in and day out for nearly 35 years. I'm not someone who's going to flip over a few cards, take your $10, and take off for eight years."
Then Wizard complained about Ali, a reader who sometimes shows up on the weekends, and how that weekend warrior had "one person right after the other, practically lining up," on the day of the football game. He chalked up Ali's wealth on the day of the game, and Wizard's lack of business, as a surge of energy that went Ali's way.
"The energy fluctuates day to day," he said. "The energy was on that side of the street yesterday."
Wizard calmed himself down, then gave Ali a pass because he helps his aunt pay for groceries and rent. "At least he's using what he makes to help another person," he said, again casting a glance across the street.
The sun was coming out, but sprinkles of rain started to fall on the sidewalk. The street got steamy and humid. Wizard looked up at the clouds and figured it was about to rain hard anytime now. He'd call it a day. He had to get his table back into storage, and then he still had to come up with another place to sleep, a dry place.
He put his cards in his coat pocket and folded up his table, while across the street, Charles flipped another card.
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