Unforseeable Future

April Fools! This is the real cover ...

STOP THIS PSYCHIC BEFORE SHE "SEES" AGAIN! That's the call of various government entities across Florida. They do everything from banning psychics outright to soaking practitioners with so-pricey-they're-punitive licensing fees.

In the case of Miss Cleo of TV infomercial fame, Florida's attorney general's office even went so far as to subpoena her birth records. The G-men's motive: An unsuspecting public deserved to know whether she is really truly a Jamaican shaman. Somebody call for backup! Florida's puny police powers weren't powerful enough to properly pursue Youree Dell Harris of Broward County, a licensed contractor working with Psychic Readers Network. The Florida Attorney General's Office and the Federal Trade Commission have filed lawsuits against the company that operates Psychic Readers Network, accusing the company of duping customers.

If government regulators had only given big fat Enron such scrutiny.

Somehow Miss Cleo, who is not Jamaican, doesn't look like a person who'd be shakin' and quakin'. But, truth be told if not foretold, in communities throughout Florida, many psychics are just one government raid away from being jobless.

OK, get it out of your system. Make some joke about how the psychics should have seen it coming.

****

Victoria Angela took my hand and looked deeply into my eyes. We had just met, but already she knew me. She told me things about my work, my mental state, my life. As weeks went by, the thoughts — messages? predictions? — she shared with me came to pass.

A job site newly top-heavy with males underwent a corporate shakeup, and my career path changed. My parents' continued health was assured. Other, more subtle progressions occurred in relationships in unexpected ways that she could somehow foresee.

I have known this extraordinarily intuitive woman for more than a year. I find myself reaching out to her in periods of uncertainty, grief or stress. I call her in angst about job offers. A new home. A close friend's health. The things she tells me — things she says Spirit tells her — invariably help me cope.

Victoria Angela is no garden-variety psychic, though like many with what the Irish call "the gift of sight," she startled grown-ups around her as a child with her way of knowing far-off things and mastering new skills with preternatural ease. A trained counselor, she has both masters and specialist degrees from the University of Florida in mental health/marriage and family counseling. She is soon to be licensed as a massage therapist. She uses music and sound in her work, based on the ancient view of vibration as a healing force. She was the first performing artist in the Arts-in-Medicine program at Shands Hospital in Gainesville, where she worked as a shaman in the early '90s.

And yet in one vital way she is not so different from many of the others. Many who do readings, whether on a hotline or under a tent or in a storefront, invoke Spirit, the energy or voice or heartbeat of the universe or whatever it is. Spirit. The name is spoken almost casually, like the nickname of an old friend.

"Spirit" comes up again and again in interviews with psychics in Tampa, Sarasota, St. Petersburg and that venerable old Florida psychic town, Cassadaga.

This new breed of psychic Victoria Angela represents is educated, genteel, dedicated to offering spiritual guidance to people who somehow walk away with a better understanding of what's up in a way that might make for better choices as things go down. The new psychics, a.k.a. spiritual advisers, are as different from yesterday's gypsy fortunetellers as genes are from genomes.

She has thought much about educating people on "How to use a Psychic."

"Don't ask me if you are pregnant. Get a pregnancy test. If you want to know who your boyfriend is sleeping with, hire a detective." The best clients are those "willing to let go of needing to control everyone." They seek to know the spiritual meaning of a relationship or want insight into a partner's nature and motives beyond where deduction or psychology can take them. And, of course, if you want a peek at your destiny — "then ask a psychic," Angela says.

The resulting empowerment is supposed to affect your choices and interactions.

"A wonderful reader once told me that if a person leaves a reading feeling weak, fearful or disempowered in any way, that the reader has not done her job. I always pass that on to my clients. You should leave my company feeling stronger. Anyone who uses their gifts to frighten you is messing with your head. Many of my clients see me just once. I hear from them years later with thank yous; they didn't need to come back again. And people who work with me across time learn to trust their own intuition more and more. They mature psychically themselves and become independent."

And yet governments around Florida rely on an old tool to keep the intuitives in check: the handy-dandy fortuneteller ordinance.

"They are not allowed in the city," says the Temple Terrace clerk's office. In Tampa, "there's no city law saying they can't exist," says Gail Garcia of the downtown clerk's office. She does a quick check and comes back with the information that the license to do business in Tampa costs $551.21 a year.

The city of Bradenton smiles on psychics. One recently applied for a license to read at a private house in the city. Her vital stats were put on record. No fee was charged.

Hillsborough County regulates psychics, clairvoyants, numerologists and the like under a 47-page occupational-license ordinance updated in 1995. It seems a bunch of spiritualists or readers or Tarot card-types were springing up in Brandon, creating a sort of woo-woo ghetto.

"I remember that Commissioner Jan Platt was surprised that this was coming before the board," says a county employee. "We used to joke with Commissioner Joe Chillura that someone had put a curse on him."

Rosemary Tel is a Tampa native who gives readings under the name Mystic Rose. With a partner, she owns Angel Heart Gifts at Kennedy Boulevard and Himes Avenue. She and two or three other psychics give readings. She estimates that Tampa and Hillsborough licensing requirements — plus a bonding demand — cost her between $1,000 and $1,500 a year.

By far the most entertaining story comes out of St. Petersburg.

About a year ago, the Pinellas County Commission drafted an ordinance the local American Civil Liberties Union would have battled in a heartbeat, according to lawyer and ACLU board member Bruce Howie.

"The authority basically was trying to stamp out the so-called fortuneteller. They apparently had visions of gypsies with wagons, dancing around the campfire. The idea was they wanted to stop everyone who was taking a fee in exchange for telling the future. We thought that would apply to any number of occupations, including stockbrokers."

Not only was a the psychic supposed to be licensed, but also he or she "had to permit law-enforcement officers to enter your business any time during business hours to examine your financial books." Psychics, readers, mediums and others couldn't set up shop within 500 feet of each other. "Apparently they are concerned about a red-light district for fortunetellers," Howie says.

Some of the soon-to-be-regulated sought Howie's help. They shuttled back and forth between Howie and the county attorneys, relaying the ACLU's First Amendment objections to the government lawyers. Challenging the ordinance seemed like a slam-dunk.

"If anything, they were a bit heavy handed, wanting to inspect their books as if they were already guilty of a criminal offense."

One possible avenue was to object to a clamp down on religion. Sometimes a knee-jerk reaction to a religion that is "nondeistic is to think that something must be wrong with it," Howie says. "If it (the psychic operation) conducts itself as a church, would it be a First Amendment violation to license it? We (the ACLU) were in the background still researching and trying to decide how to approach it when we learned they had revised the ordinance. I think they realized that the ordinance was too broad and, to their credit, they corrected it."

Howie's spiritualist constituency left happy because the newly revised ordinance left them a loophole. As long as they accepted a donation rather than charged a fee, they would fall under church-and-state protections.

You don't need a crystal ball to know the ACLU in Florida stands ready to take up the cause of the next psychic who falls on the wrong side of a local licensing law.

This might be a good place to talk about the metaphysical pecking order.

Spiritualists, clairvoyants, palm readers and others who offer guidance for the greater good are several cuts above the reader who tells a boiler-plate fortune and seems to care only about the money. Some hotline psychics don't pretend to do more than metaphorically hold your hand and say flattering things as you let off steam.

But there are subtler distinctions.

In Cassadaga (Florida's famous spiritualists' camp near Daytona Beach), I recently got a taste of office politics in the spirit world. If you ever wonder what psychics say at the water cooler, it goes something like this: "Spiritualists and mediums think they're the only ones who are real and are so much better than psychics." I won't go into any more detail, because I don't want to get on the bad side of any of those folks.

Bad apples do exist. One spiritualist who asked not to be named said she went around Florida surveying "a few places with hand signs on the street." Sure enough, at three different places she encountered readers who provided a generic past-present-future spiel, then followed up by offering, for $500, to remove the curse they saw on her. Fees would escalate along with the fears the fortunetellers would try to whip up.

Theme park psychics will never stir up fears. Universal Studios and even good old mainstream Disney World offer up short readings to entertain the masses. Chances are good the death card has been removed from the Tarot deck. Nothing like impending doom to ruin a family vacation.

At the Purple Rose Native American and Metaphysical Stuff Store in Cassadaga, readings are $30 for 15 minutes or $50 for 30 minutes — roughly the going rate throughout the state. The Rev. June Benjamin, who spawned a matriarchy of intuitives, has owned the store for 15 years. She gave readings herself until five years ago, when congestive heart failure slowed her down.

"It takes an awful lot of energy to do readings," she explains. In her younger days, "my guides would contact your guides and give me what you needed for today. No palms, no cards, no crystal balls."

Her late daughter owned a similar store in Indiana. Her granddaughter, Tina Green, is also blessed with a gift. But Green runs her own computer repair business and limits her Cassadaga contribution to doing the store's books.

Benjamin is surprised to hear that licensing and laws are an issue.

"I have been in business 15 years and nobody has ever given me a question."

Of course not. Florida is all about tourism. And Cassadaga is one of those quaint places that put Florida on the map. No one in his or her right economic-development mind would drive the spiritualists out of business.

Benjamin is musing about meatier matters today. She has been doing research. She had always thought spiritualists, mediums and psychics were essentially a one-of-a-kind deal. Not so, it turns out.

"A medium will bring in things other than Spirit," she says. "One day I was reading for a lady from Iran. Her nephew was killed in a jeep accident. She had cared for his wife afterward. She asked a question through her interpreter, and I started getting this weird language in my head." She prayed that the messages would come to her through Spirit so that she could make sense of the interpretation. Sure enough, the language switched to English and she was able to convey the nephew's thanks to the woman, who left in tears.

Florida psychics have hurdles to jump beyond government regulation: the attitudes that spawn the legal reproofs.

"In this part of Florida, it's shunned because it's the Bible belt," says a Sarasota psychic who has worked throughout Florida. "A lot of people have been told that it's the devil's work. And yet it's commonplace for people in the Mediterranean or Middle East to sit down and have a cup of tea and read the leaves. I have lived in other places where this is a daily ritual."

Prophecy and dream interpretation are as old as snow on mountains or the sound of bells, to steal a line from Thurber. "People a little more evolved are given things we could share," says the psychic, who asked not to be named because she has much at stake in her business, which books psychics for big-name, publicity-shy theme parks. Psychic ability "gives a bit of the godlike quality, to be more like God and to share it with others. We can tap into that energy and use it for the highest and best for all concerned."

She travels the psychic high road. But she, too, is concerned about vagabonds, con artists and frauds. As Victoria Angela puts it, "We don't have any protection for the public. I think a lot of these ordinances are a desperate attempt to create protection."

Most of the draconian laws are based on the premise that a reading is inherently fraudulent. In California, the Association for Astrological Networking put that lie to rest. The group won a case in the California Supreme Court, which upheld an appellate court's overturning of a city ordinance. The appellate judge wrote: "One need not have a scientific basis for a belief in order to have a constitutional right to utter speech based on that belief."

So what do we need? Vocational schools for psychics? A board of ethics?

Yes, Angela says, even though "most psychics are incredibly sensitive, sincere, gentle people — that's why they're psychics."

Just like massage therapists or chiropractors, psychics could organize to create a legitimate profession. Students could learn communication skills, principles of psychology and the art of compassionate listening, for starters. And most important: screening out their own biases and agendas so as not to impose them on others.

"I have turned around so many negative predictions made by irresponsible psychics for people," Angela says. "I have had negative predictions made for me by irresponsible psychics. It's hard to shake that kind of thing off, even when you know about it. And people will give a reader the power to help them or hurt them. Readers have to be careful how we use that power."

Don't think the test of a good psychic is that she tells chapter and verse, however. Too much advance knowledge is counterproductive. For humankind, knowing everything that's going to happen isn't, well, in the cards.

Angela: "If we knew everything that was going to happen, we'd never develop our characters."

Freelance writer Andrea Brunais lives in Bradenton.

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