Let's get this out of the way: I don't believe in psychic abilities, extrasensory perception, or any kind of paranormal phenomena (though I inexplicably remain a devoted viewer of Ghost Hunters)—nor do I imagine that the lines in my hands have anything meaningful to say about my past, present, or future.
But I'm fascinated by the art of cold reading, whether practiced unscrupulously by charlatans like John Edward, or purely for entertainment, by illusionists like Derren Brown.
On a recent Saturday I decided to seek out palm readings from five different storefront psychics (four in the Village, one on the Lower East Side) in one afternoon.
I was eager to see what the mediums would come up with and to what extent their predictions would overlap. My skepticism aside, I was genuinely hoping to be bowled over, if not—please not—utterly terrified.
#1: Village Psychic, Third Street and MacDougal Street
It's a gorgeous afternoon, but I trade the sunny, busy sidewalk for a slightly grimy stairwell that leads me down below street level. Corey, an attractive, dark-haired woman in her forties, is talking on the phone and smoking when I enter. She smiles at me and puts out her cigarette.
"I'm going to do a reading," she says into the phone. "I'll call you later."
We're in a narrow entryway with a small folding table, covered by a gold filigree placemat and Corey's pack of Marlboro Reds. At the end of the hallway there's an open door, beyond which it sounds like there's a television on. She explains her price points—a palm reading covering "character and personality" for $10, more if I want to hear about my future. I agree to the basic palm reading and she asks for my right hand. I'm a little startled when she pulls it towards her with some force.
"Who's the J?" she asks abruptly. I tell Corey that the only J in my life is my mother, Judy. "There's tension there," she informs me. I answer truthfully that there isn't—we're close. "She's been going through a difficult time, then." Well, my mother had just wrapped up a stressful week at work, and I say as much. Corey nods impatiently, as if frustrated that I've wasted her time. "That'll come to a close soon." Technically, it already had.
My life line is long, I'm told, with many years ahead of me. (I'm in my mid-twenties and I look my age, so, sure.) "You're creative, artistic, and you help people," Corey recites, then asks outright, "What do you do?" I'm a writer. Without skipping a beat, she launches mechanically into a list of cliches:
"You're sensitive, emotional, moody. You're a little jealous in love but you try not to be possessive." (Now we're just quoting directly from the encyclopedia entry for "writer.")
"You need to focus and concentrate. It's time to bring a project you've been working on for a long time into reality." (See also: "writer.")
"You're experiencing an emotional blockage in love. There's someone you're thinking of." (This statement may be designed to have broad appeal, but I can dismiss it: I'm in a boringly happy relationship, with no blockage to speak of.)
We're done within five minutes. "God bless you," Corey calls up the stairs after me.
TWO ALTOGETHER ANTICLIMACTIC CRYSTAL BALLS OUT OF FIVE.
#2: Mystic Visions, West Houston Street and Varick Street
Mystic Visions sits directly atop the 1 at Houston Street, and right next to a Subway, should your reading awaken in you a desire for a $5 Footlong. At first, the place seems deserted, but after repeatedly ringing the bell, I'm buzzed inside. I climb up a flight of stairs to meet Tina, a diminutive woman in a long blue dress and hoop earrings.
She leads me into a much bigger space than Corey's, a room with framed quotes about love hanging on beige-patterned walls. We take a seat in two comfortable, lived-in armchairs. On an endtable between us, a visibly scratched miniature crystal ball rests precariously on top of a pencil cup holder. Tina smoothly upsells me from a $10 palm reading to a $20 palm and face reading. I don't even mind, in part because I like her, in part because, what the hell is a face reading? (She gives my right palm a quick onceover at the beginning, but neglects to point out what she's learning from my hand and what, if anything, she's learning from my face.)
Tina is unusually personable, working lots of terms of endearment into our conversation—I think this is the first time anyone north of the Mason-Dixon line has ever called me "darling," and I don't dislike it. Once again, I learn that I have a long life ahead of me. I'm lucky in many ways, but not lucky in other ways I feel I should be. This is a great example of what's known as a "rainbow ruse," in which a reader credits her client with one trait as well as its opposite: "Sometimes you feel shy, but other times you're the life of the party," for instance.
Like Corey, Tina brings up a man whose name begins with J. I ask her where she's getting the letter from, and she says she sees it in my palm. It's a miss, but she recovers from it so gracefully you might not notice her air ball at all. I learn later that the most popular first initial for boys is J, as it has been for most of the last century.
I also hear about an M-named man ("He's a red X, stay away") and an L-named woman ("Jealous of you professionally")—both common initials, but unfortunately for Tina, both misses. She doesn't discuss my health, except to ask, "Is your period okay? Any pain?" (I'm fine, thanks.) This turn of events actually does pique my interest—I don't volunteer it, but there's a history of ovarian cancer in my family—but Tina moves on.
"You just moved?" Tina asks. I had, two weeks earlier. That's a hit, if not a particularly compelling one—ask a randomly selected group of New York City residents if they've just moved (especially in the summer) and you'll hear plenty of yeses.
"You're going to travel somewhere warm soon, Florida or California." I internally roll my eyes at this, because it's August, prime time for vacations. I tell her I'd just returned from a trip to Texas. I expected her to seize on this ("Oh, yes, that must be it" or a similar rationalization), but to my surprise, she shakes her head. "No, I'm not getting Texas." I like that she embraced the miss rather than grasping at straws—counterintuitively, it lends her a sense of credibility.
As a general rule, Tina abides by the golden psychological principle that flattery will get you everywhere. I have a positive aura, I'm a jack-of-all-trades, a go-getter, a leader; I'm also creative, artistic, intuitive, and "a little bit psychic." I say things, good or bad, to people's faces. (I would love it if this were true, but it isn't. I thank God every day that I'm alive in an era of email and text messages.) Someone from my past is thinking about me, and this person will try to make contact with me soon. (I imagine this gambit only gets more effective with every passing high school reunion.) Who wouldn't want to think positive descriptions like these apply to them?
Tina also asks me a lot of friendly, girl-talk questions, which make me open up in spite of myself—which, I'm sure, is the point. "You want to talk about marriage?" she asks, and before I can respond, she chummily answers for me: "You're a woman, of course you want to get married."
She asks if I have a boyfriend (I do), asks me his name (Sam), and asks me how long we've been dating (three years). Tina declares that we are meant to be. I can expect to be married within the next two years, later to give birth to one son and one daughter. Considering the median age at first marriage for American women is 25.9 and the U.S. fertility rate is 1.9 kids, this doesn't exactly floor me.
Overall, I had a great deal of fun with Tina—I wasn't impressed by any of her insights, but I don't feel cheated. She, too, bids me farewell with a "God bless you."
If Tina wanted to hang out sometime, I'd be down.
THREE AND A HALF MILDLY SCUFFED CRYSTAL BALLS OUT OF FIVE.
#3: Zena Clairvoyant, Seventh Avenue South and Bleecker Street
I've noticed Zena's shop many times before, and I bet you have too. She has a ridiculously prime (and no doubt ridiculously expensive) location in the West Village: a tiny, gorgeously decorated two-story building nestled into the corner of Bleecker and Seventh. Even from the sidewalk, the atmosphere is inviting—lush floral arrangements, stained glass details, sumptuous curtains—and you might not realize what went on inside if not for the neon "PSYCHIC" sign glowing in the second-floor window.
I'm greeted at the door by Zena herself, who wears a colorful ankh pendant. She has chin-length gray hair and an impeccable, blood-red manicure. Unsurprisingly, her prices are nose-bleedingly high, up to $100 for a horoscope reading. I choose the cheapest of her offerings, a $25 palm reading.
We face each other across a table arrayed with mystical paraphernalia: a mysterious crystal rod, a candle, tarot cards, and a crystal ball front and center (this one, unlike Tina's, is large and pristine). "It [the ball, that is] answers questions for you," Zena explains. I bump into this table twice early in the course of our session, and self-deprecatingly over-apologize both times—this may have set the tone for my reading.
As Zena sees it, my long life line suggests I'll live into my late 80s or early 90s, and that I'll never be physically or mentally dependent on anyone. (Way to go, me!) She's the first reader to comment on the sheer number of lines on the palms of my hands, which I like, because it feels like a genuine, off-the-cuff observation. This, she tells me with a smile, proves that I'm an old soul, having been reincarnated through multiple past lives.
Zena stares intently at my hand for more than five minutes and speaks with a theatrical Katharine Hepburn accent. She says that I'm not the same person I was three years ago—I've become more independent, and I value that independence. (Show me a person in their mid-twenties who doesn't relate to this description and I will show you a person who is lying about their age.) Like Tina, Zena claims that I would rather say something to someone's face than talk behind his or her back. She tells me that I'm stressed, which may have manifested itself as pain in my lower stomach, lower back, or possibly—echoing Tina again—in "gynecological" form.
From there, things take a slightly depressing turn. Sometimes I won't trust or open up to people, because I've been "disappointed" before. I worry about being too sensitive. That's why I have plenty of acquaintances, but alas, only three or four true friends. These lines are Barnum statements, another staple of the cold reader's arsenal.
Named for showman P.T. Barnum, they're specifically crafted to apply to just about everyone, though they may seem deeply personal. "Being liked is very important to you," perhaps, or most anything you'd read in a horoscope or fortune cookie. They work like a charm, because we humans, as a species, are gullible narcissists. (I'd also add that "three or four true friends" doesn't actually sound so terrible—especially considering that, in 2004, the average American reported having only two close confidants.)
I've experienced two romantic betrayals in my life, she says, one much, much worse than the other. Nope, but Corey mentioned something like this, too—I'm guessing they were both inspired by the fact that my heart line splits in two. Zena looks up from my palm and directly into my eyes. This is her money shot. "How long ago was that one?"
Yikes. I could really only think of one set of circumstances that would remotely qualify, and when I faltered to think of another, she prompted me: "Maybe something platonic, which you wanted to turn romantic?" My skepticism must have flickered across my face, because she pressed me for more. "Have you related to what I've been telling you so far?" I feel a little bit guilty that, largely, I don't, but I offer affirmation that I do feel like I can be too sensitive. "What about the rest?" Zena asks. Uh, yes—I do have more acquaintances than friends. That seems to satisfy her, and we forge ahead.
She asks me if I'm seeing anyone, and for how long. "This is the one," she says. "You don't need to suppress your emotions anymore." (Note that both Tina and Zena waited to hear how long we'd been together—and, most likely, to observe the way I delivered this piece of information—before making a prediction about the future of our relationship.)
Zena warmly invites me to come back in for a reading of my other palm in the future, but I don't think I can afford to take her up on it.
Say what you will about Zena, but she certainly looks the part.
THREE WAY-OUT-OF-MY-PRICE-RANGE CRYSTAL BALLS OUT OF FIVE.
#4: Palm & Tarot Card Readings, Rivington Street and Suffolk Street
When I used to live in the LES, I'd walk past this place at least once or twice a day. I descend the stairs from the sidewalk, past a man fiddling with two iPhones, to find a woman sitting alone, in a relatively large, relatively empty room.
Brandy, who's worked as a psychic for 27 years, is a sweet lady. She wears a flowing white dress and has heavily lined her striking eyes. I opt for her $10 special palm reading—though I'm not sure a special really counts a "special" when there are multiple permanent signs advertising it in front of the building. At less than three minutes, it was definitely the shortest of the day's readings, as well as the most disappointing.
I'm a leader not a follower, born for success, but I worry too much. I'm giving, but others take advantage of my generosity. I've had a stressful year that wasn't what I expected, but the last months of 2014 will be better—not "amazing," but "better."
"Love will come, give it time," she offers, but changes her tune in the next breath (my facial expression may have given me away): "You're definitely around the right person."
Et tu, Brandy?
ONE BORDERLINE INSULTING CRYSTAL BALL OUT OF FIVE.
#5: Psychic Readings by Elaine, Prince Street and Sullivan Street
I seek out Elaine on the advice of a friend who lives nearby, but don't end up meeting her at all (too bad, considering I'd now be only two degrees of separation from Lindsay Lohan). Instead, I find baby-faced Summer—who tells me she's given readings for five or six years, though she looks like a teenager—sitting outside and playing with her phone. She seems nervous, which is adorable.
We settle in at a sidewalk table scattered haphazardly with crystals, feet away from people dining outside at The Dutch next door. Summer takes my left hand, and—after a day of readers specifically requesting either one palm or the other—I feel compelled to ask if there's a difference between the right and the left. "No," she says, "I just like to do this hand."
Summer's five-minute reading ($10 for, again, "character and personality") is in large part a long string of Barnum statements: I'm an outgoing person, but I sometimes feel detached. I have a good heart. I give to other people more than I should and they take advantage. I have a friend who secretly says terrible things about me behind my back. "Do you know who that person might be?" she asks. I don't, which is mildly unsettling.
To Summer, the many lines on my hands mean I'm a worrier—past lives don't come up. She asks if I want kids, and once she hears the answer is yes, she tells me that I'll have "three healthy babies." Romantically, I'm already with the person I'm supposed to end up with (Summer, too, asked the length of my current relationship before making this prediction), though there will be ups and downs.
She asked me if I had any questions for her, which I didn't expect. I asked what I can look forward to for the rest of the year, particularly in terms of my career. She tells me I should consider owning my own business. "Have you ever thought of that?" (I haven't, but I tell her that I have, because I like her.)
"Well, that's it," Summer says, smiling sheepishly.
I hope Summer earns a palm reading scholarship to the Division I school of her choice.
THREE UTTERLY ENDEARING CRYSTAL BALLS OUT OF FIVE.
Four hours and $75 later, I was finished, though a little disappointed. I'd hoped that the five sessions would turn up at least one unexpected insight, whether by a reader's keen powers of observation or even by sheer chance. No such luck. Some might argue that you get what you pay for, and I didn't pay for much. It's possible that if I'd shelled out for tarot cards or sentient crystal balls, my readers would have put on more of a show—but of course, that's where things get dark. Some mediums are notorious for preying on the vulnerable. Sylvia Mitchell, who worked out of Zena's shop, was convicted of grand larceny last year after stealing more than $100,000 from her clients.
All this isn't to say that my afternoon wasn't interesting. After my third reading, I wasted almost an hour wandering the East Village in search of no less than four now-shuttered locations I'd been recommended by friends or seen positively reviewed online. It gave me a sobering picture of the transient nature of storefront psychic parlors.
What overlap my fortune-tellers' predictions did share could generally be traced back to the basic principles of palm reading (my life line is long, yes, but you'll have to check in with me in 60 years to see if that actually means anything) or assumptions based transparently on my appearance. I understand why my readers felt compelled to focus on love and marriage with me, a twentysomething woman without a wedding ring, but at heart I'm a mildly death-obsessed hypochondriac. If Tina had sternly warned me that my kidneys were on the verge of failure, I might very well have taken a cab to the hospital, just in case.
Molly Fitzpatrick is a writer and editor from New Jersey.