Card Sharks 

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

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"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.


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