Bewitching New York (2008)

mysterious keepers of valuable millennial secrets tell you more about you than you know yourself

A thin embroidered curtain separates the rest of the kitchen from Maria's "office." On the stove, a pot with yellow rice sits unattended while she consults Carmen, a middle-aged woman with an uncontrollable problem. Instead of a desk, Maria sits in front of an altar crammed with statues of saints, a fruit basket, candy, half-smoked cigars, honey, glasses filled with red wine, candles in varying colors, fresh flowers, a jar with money, and other offerings. Most of her clientele are women. And although many of them are in search of lost loves or answers to why their relationships have soured, Carmen is unhappy because her 21-year-old son is dating an older woman. She wants to break them up.

Open to customers by appointment, this fourth-floor apartment in Jackson Heights, Queens, is not only home to Maria and her husband, but to the beings that are invoked for Santeria practices on a weekly basis. During these sessions, the priestess—or the "horse," as they say in the Dominican Republic, where Maria is from—seemingly becomes the baron of the cemetery Saint Elijah, cheerful and flirtatious Saint Anne, or some other spirit. A change in tone, personality, and mannerism transforms her as she prepares to answer any question. Patrons seeking help are $21 away from their past, present, and future. They're willing to sit in the living/waiting room for hours, watching novelas in anticipation of their turn. Perhaps they've lost their job, maybe someone has put a curse on them, or something else may be plaguing them. Why leave the outcome to fate?

Meanwhile, a few blocks away from the Jerome Avenue stop on the No. 6 el train in the Bronx, is Rosa (not her real name), whose home business is open Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. You have to wait for someone to leave the building to enter—she doesn't buzz anyone in or pick up the phone during the day. She also keeps strict work hours and is busiest around lunchtime, when many of her regulars show up. Most of them are women with a laundry list of concerns. The kitchen, again, serves as the center of operations, as Rosa lays the Spanish tarot deck on a small table for the bargain price of $20—the appointment lasts as long as you want. "I'm telling you the truth, I'm not going to lie to you," she warns as she looks at the cards pensively. Brace yourself.

Those who prefer to self-diagnose can head to a botanica, a shop where charms, potions, and other antidotal ingredients to life's setbacks are sold. There the owner, much like a pharmacist, will prescribe the appropriate remedy; "Jinx Remove," "Luck in a Hurry," "3 Wishes: Success, Money, Love" are just a few. Otto Chicas Rendon (60 East 116th Street, 212-289-0378), established in 1921, was the first botanica to set up shop in the United States. As the neighborhood changed, they adjusted the inventory to fit customers' needs. Serving the West Indians, they sold mainly medicinal herbs and oils, and when the Puerto Ricans came along, Santeria products were slowly stocked and images of saints brought in from Cuba.

Botanica products may treat the symptoms, but ultimately you'll want to get to the root of the problem. El Indio Amazónico (86-26 Roosevelt Avenue, Jackson Heights, Queens, 718-779-9391) claims to be able to help just by reading your eyes, tongue, or hands. He's supposedly the keeper of "valuable millennial secrets of the infinite, mysterious, and unknown world," but his temple could pass for a Coney Island attraction. Giant neon tarot cards, small coffins, and a bleeding Christ adorn the storefront. The clairvoyant could be a sideshow on his own; adorned with feathers, elephant tusks, beads, and face paint, he rarely goes unnoticed. "With debts, undesirable neighbors, vice and bad habits?" asks a flyer at the door. "Make an appointment today with your family and friends so they can also receive a miracle of God." Just don't forget to bring your wallet.

High profiles and extensive marketing don't necessarily make for enlightening spiritual advice. For those out-of-the-way and hidden locales, word of mouth is the best bet. There's an older lady who set up shop in a boiler room somewhere in Corona, Queens. She can tell someone's fortune by reading a cigar. If the cigar is too tight when she lights it up, all paths are closed. If the cigar flares out, good luck is imminent. It's said she can see lotto numbers and people's faces in the ashes as the tobacco burns. To set up a consultation you must be recommended, but first you'll have to find her. She's not in the book.

More advanced spiritual rituals are sometimes held at public spaces. Maria likes Astoria Park (19th Street and 23rd Avenue, Queens) for its desolate patches and easy access to the East River, where cleansing ceremonies can take place. Some problems call for specially prepared baths or "jobs" to be mounted. But in the end it's ultimately up to each person. "You can light 100 candles, but if you don't have faith it won't work," says Maria matter-of-factly. What about Carmen, the woman who wanted to break her son and his girlfriend up? She had conviction, right? "I'm in a loving relationship," says Maria, "I wouldn't do that to anybody." On to the next bruja, who will.


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