It was a muggy Manhattan afternoon in August, and I was between movies.
Not because I didn’t have air conditioning, but because I needed to distract my angry, heartbroken self, and movies, carefully spaced, were my drug of choice.
I had seen La Ultima Baci at the Sunshine on Houston Street and was on my way to whatever was playing at the Loewe’s on 19th and Broadway, when I saw a man sitting cross-legged on a blanket on the sidewalk with a well-worn deck of Tarot cards neatly centered before him.
His salt-and-pepper hair was side-parted and feathered, and he sported a matching moustache. If it were 1978 and he were wearing a silk zippered jacket, flared jeans, and vinyl dress boots, he could easily have been a star in one of Warhol’s aren’t-people-doing-nothing-fascinating films.
I walked past, then circled back and stood looking down at him, not sure where to begin.
“Have a seat,” he said, pulling folded shopping bag out of nowhere for me to sit on. Then he introduced himself as Joe.
I settled myself on the ABC Carpet and Home bag and still couldn’t think of anything to say.
“What’s your question?” he asked, slowly shuffling the cards in the cadence of a train pulling out of the station.
I paused and looked up at the sun-drenched Roman façade of the building across the street. I wanted to keep it simple. “I wonder whether I should go to Maui with this guy that basically has issues with other women, although deep down I don’t think that’s really his issue.”
Joe paused his shuffling and looked at me directly. I prepared myself for an illuminating insight. “Is he paying?” he asked.
“I already bought my own ticket.”
Joe looked down and started shuffling again. “I haven’t been anywhere, so I’m biased,” he said, shuffling faster now, “but I think you should go. What could be so terrible in Maui? I can’t think of anything.”
“What’s happened in the past two weeks would’ve been terrible anywhere,” I said.
“Yeah, but that’s already happened.” He cut the cards and began laying them down. “Oh yeah, you might as well go. You’ve just started with this guy. You’ve got a long, long way to go.”
I scanned the Loewe’s marquee, ready for a fix, then looked back to Joe. “That’s what I was afraid of.”
“Nothing to be afraid of. He’s not letting you go, and you’re not really ready to cut it off either. You’re going to have to deal with it. You might as well deal with it in Maui.”
Joe was right. The road was long.
A friend of mine claims she is afraid to have a Tarot reading. Other people I know dismiss the whole thing as outright ridiculous. My feeling is that there is nothing to lose in turning over cards that have archetypal images on them and that have been passed down through generations to see if they illuminate anything happening in your own life.
Every single card, every day, applies in some way. Sure, some days it feels extraordinarily attuned—you’re in the middle of a breakup and you get the Lovers card, indicating you have a difficult choice to make—but most of the time it requires more internal interpretation. You draw the Chariot card, for example, and it might suggest that you’re barreling the last 100 yards toward a goal, such as a promotion at work, or maybe you just bought new wheels.
Everyone possesses the energy of a king, a queen, the sun. People are constantly making new starts (the Fool), enduring lightening strikes that shake their foundations (Tower), sliding-away on a run of good luck (Wheel of Fortune) or a particularly bad one (same card, drawn upside down). The cards merely offer a flashlight for shining inward, for lighting up darkened corners of the present moment.
In short, Tarot cards confirm what we already know, what we are already experiencing. Of course, sometimes we don’t really want to know what we are experiencing. And that’s why Tarot cards are feared by some and dismissed by others. What we don’t know can’t hurt us, we tell ourselves. But it can. Ambiguity about how we feel or what we are experiencing makes us anxious and uneasy. At its worst, it makes us depressed or just exasperatingly unhappy.
Joe has helped shed light on my professional dreams, my relationship values, my very nature, all of which is knowledge I’ve held since childhood, but it’s knowledge that gets obscured by my mind trying to negotiate with the expectations of society, family, lovers, and friends and my own long-held mental images of achievement, beauty, and security—the stories we tell ourselves about what successful living means.
Two years later, I’m on the N train, heading out to Queens for a reading with Joe at his local Starbucks. It’s early June, the weather unable to settle on summer. Yesterday was cool and wet; today the sun is hot, and I’m overdressed and sweaty. I see Joe sitting at a table next to the wall. The sight of him feels almost as great as the air conditioning.
“Hey, kiddo,” he says. “Go ahead, get a coffee. Take your time.”
I’m back in New York visiting after eight months in my new home in Los Angeles. I’ve come a long way in two years. I don’t need Joe to tell me this, though he does. What I really want to know is whether I’m almost done with the Maui guy.
“You’ve got a round left. Maybe only half a round. Then it won’t be driving you, you’ll decide. You’re almost there. Just follow it the way you do everything—to the end. You’ll know just what to do. You’ve been doing it all this time.”
Joe pauses and looks at the cards he’s just lay down. “You’ve got a big opportunity coming up anyway. That might decide it all for you. Something with work. But there’s travel involved, long distance travel.”
I’m no longer surprised by the accuracy of his insights. “I’m up for a job in Paris,” I tell him. “But, I don’t know, I just moved to a new city. I don’t know if I want to pull up stakes again so soon, especially when I don’t know anyone there. I don’t even speak French.”
“You should go,” Joe says. “What do I know? I’ve never been anywhere, but I think you should go. I’m studying German right now. Why? I’m not sure yet. But this book, Instant German, it’s great. Go buy Instant French. Just try it. You don’t need to know much to start out. You’ll learn when you get there.”
His last phrase echoes in my mind, and I realize I’ve been doing that very thing all along. Learning when I get there. So why have I been looking for direction by having at least half a dozen Tarot readings with Joe over the past two years?
Here, in Queens, over the phone from Maui, in cafes on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and most recently from my car, sitting in traffic on the 101?
Because his voice is one I recognize deeply. He’s saying things that somewhere inside I’ve been saying to myself.
I just haven’t yet said them loud enough for me to hear.