Time magazine - February 22, 1999


In a metropolis of psychics, the question is,
How can fortunetelling be illegal?

I have met destiny, and she's a woman.

She lives in a fourth-floor studio apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Destiny is her spiritual name. She was born Linda--Linda from Long Island--and for 75 bucks, she'll sell me the future.

Her resume is impressive. "I knew when all the pets were going to die six weeks in advance," she recalls of her youth. She pauses and adds, "I just know stuff."

She must know then that 24 hours earlier, I was getting the lowdown on her profession from two of New York's Finest. Over a late lunch at the Tick Tock Diner, Detective Ralph Aiello briefed me about his undercover work for Operation Crystal Ball, a crackdown on exploitative fortunetellers. "They're like vultures on the African plain," says Aiello. His boss, Lieutenant Robert Groth, in a sleek blue suit and crisp haircut, puts it simply: "They're professional con artists."

On Groth's watch, nearly a dozen psychics have been arrested on charges ranging from fortunetelling, a selectively enforced misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail, to grand larceny, a felony. One clairvoyant allegedly convinced a client that rubbing her body with raw eggs and bathing in special potions would lift a curse. The cost of that exorcism? About $500,000. A similarly inventive psychic encouraged an undercover cop to buy 90 candles, at $55 each, to fend off evil spirits.

So just how do you spot a shady soothsayer? Pump her for lottery numbers and see if she gets them right? Not quite. According to the New York State penal code, a person is guilty of fortunetelling if he or she purports to be "able, by claimed or pretended use of occult powers, to answer questions or give advice on personal matters or to exorcise, influence or affect evil spirits or curses." Now, that would seem to apply to the horoscope in the back pages of, say, the New York Daily News. There is, however, an exception. Fortunetelling is legal if it's for entertainment. Confused by the distinction, I decide to consult some experts in the field.

Miss Leena, my first psychic, ushers me into a tiny parlor plastered with paintings of angels and cherubs. Her expression is brooding, her dark hair upswept, as she ponders my fate as revealed in a $40 reading of the tarot cards. My prognosis is good: successful writing career, marriage, long life. But, pointing to a card of a bushy-haired man waving sticks, she adds grimly, "There's something in the way of your good fortune." She offers to meditate further with crystals and candles.

Sure, why not? Then she puts a price on her prayer--$190. And I just paid the rent. Miss Leena is angered by my stinginess. "I see God on one side of you and negativity on the other." Negativity wins out.

Stephanie and I get off to a more promising start. She spends several minutes effusing about my good character. She looks barely out of her teens, but she's more sensitive than Miss Leena. "You're a writer?" she inquires nervously, adding, "I have a spiritual gift. If someone writes about it... ell, it just doesn't help." I excuse myself.

After a few more disappointing forays into the paranormal, I find Destiny.

She takes my hand with calm assurance and begins feeling for vibrations. The bottom section of my left palm yields results. "O.K., more hydration, more vitamin C," she reports. After a while, I press for a stock-market tip. She directs me to smartmoney.com.

Next she cleanses my aura. She circles around me, making shooing motions with her hands. "I'm kind of pulling stuff off your aura," she explains. "I feel tingles. Do you feel it?"

Not really, but this is definitely funkier than a facial.

"It's totally legit," she assures me.

I'm convinced. But will Lieutenant Groth be?

Copyright of "I See a Policeman In Your Future..." is the property of Time. This article originally appeared in http://www.britannica.com/bcom/magazine/article/0,5744,256625,00.html