Psychic up-sell

I blame the Village People. If they hadn’t canceled last week’s concert, I’d be writing about those macho, macho men. Instead, I wound up locked inside that strange shop above Pancho’s Cocina Mexicana on Broadway.

You know the place. It has no name, but the neon sign is always on—advertising tarot cards, “aura,” candles and charms above a phone number and a row of credit-card logos. It’s been there forever, but you don’t know anyone who’s been inside. Well, now you do.

When I called the number on the sign, a woman answered on the seventh ring. A radio and the sound of children playing competed with her voice as she quoted me $25 for a tarot reading and $45 for a tarot reading and a psychic reading. “A psychic reading is where there’s no cards, and we just tell you the answers,” she explained vaguely. I chose the combo package, and she offered me a one-hour appointment the next day at 2 p.m., cash only.

I climbed the staircase next to Pancho’s and rang the doorbell. A young woman wearing a long skirt and fuzzy blue slippers ushered me inside a small apartment crowded with display cases holding candles, angel statues, crystals and tarot decks. Like the front window, the cash register bore several credit-card logos. Odd, considering the cash-only policy.

We sat at a table that held a deck of tarot cards, a crystal ball and a wizard figurine. Per her instructions, I shuffled the well-worn cards and handed them to her.

“What do you want to ask?” she asked.

I drew a blank. The few times I’ve had tarot readings, the reader simply laid out the cards and interpreted them after I shuffled. “Can we do a sort of general life overview?” I hedged.

“No,” she said. “You have to ask specific questions.”

“Well, I’ve been busy with work lately,” I offered. “It’s taking over my life. How can I balance my time better?”

She asked what I did for a living, where and for how long, and then she turned over several cards. She told me I’d been working hard and felt like it was taking over my life—essentially what I’d said—but added that my work would pay off. The exchange took one minute, tops.

We sat silently. I struggled to think of another question. “How about my love life?” I said.

She asked if I was seeing someone. I said sort of, off and on. She wanted to know how long, what he did, if we fought and if I thought he paid enough attention to me. Then she turned over more cards and said my love life was on again, off again. She encouraged me to buy a $10 candle that would make this man my steady boyfriend and $5 incense to clean the negativity from my aura.

“How does that work?” I asked.

“It gets rid of negativity,” she repeated.

I just stared at her. I wasn’t hearing any information I hadn’t offered, and the up-sells were off-putting. Resorting to small talk, I asked how the cards—to which she never seemed to refer—conveyed her answers. “We sell books on that,” she said.

I cut my losses after 20 minutes, without the psychic reading. She asked again if I wanted to buy incense or candles. “No, that’s it,” I said. “So, it’s $25 for a tarot reading, right?”

She insisted on $45. When I protested that we hadn’t done the second half, without the cards, she said she’d done both at the same time. “$45,” she repeated.

Reluctantly, I handed over the money and hustled to the door, which I was surprised to find locked. “If you’re still not getting along with your boyfriend in a month, you come back and see me,” she called, as I fumbled with the latch.

“OK,” I said unconvincingly, feeling both poor and foolish. I’d have felt much less silly dancing the YMCA with middle-aged gay men dressed like cops and construction workers. Would a $10 candle bring the Village People back?