Psychics are like therapists: they are ubiquitous in New York, they listen to people’s problems, and they offer advice — some good, some bad. Some psychics are decent and helpful and some are criminals. Every psychic will tell you that other psychics are criminals.
How has this group of workers, caught like many New Yorkers between the roles of helper and hustler, adapted to the pandemic? Did they read palms over Zoom? Did the city’s aura change? To find out, I interviewed psychics throughout the city. It quickly became clear that they had taken on many a New Yorker’s spiritual burdens.
In the Bronx, India Celestine offered seances for people seeking closure with loved ones lost to COVID-19; in midtown Manhattan, Marion Hedger advised doctors worn out from work; in Brighton Beach, Valeria Karat read the hands of the Russian community, increasingly trapped within itself; and in Jackson Heights, Dr. Rakesh Kumar consulted the planets, which warned him in advance that the pandemic was coming.
¶ India Celestine, Centro Espiritista
Highbridge, The Bronx
India Celestine’s Centro Espiritista (Spiritist Center) is located a few blocks from the 167th St. D train stop, up one of those long and magnificent Bronx staircases that divides two buildings like a river. The temple is in India’s apartment, in a well-lit room past the kitchen, and is full of statues of gods and spirits, books on Haitian Voodoo and Hinduism, and family photos. Since the pandemic began, Celestine has offered seances here for people whose relatives died alone in hospitals.
“There’s a lot of new people coming to see me,” she says. “Some of the people that passed away, they were only surrounded by medical staff. Relatives want to say goodbye to their loved ones, to be able to say, ‘I love you.’ The spirits are trying to say goodbye too. When you cross over unexpectedly, the spirit tends to hover for a period of time trying to visit loved ones.” Celestine said she enjoins the spirits to come into the room, and then facilitates a last parting.
She says she has had to put in extra work convincing the bereaved of her good intentions. Many of them have not visited psychics before: “You get people who ask, ‘You’re not a witch, are you? I don’t want to be involved in nothing evil. My grandmother just passed away unexpectedly. I don’t want you to disturb her soul.’”
Others have come to her asking for services outside of her range. “A lady came in here asking me to murder her husband. I just had to say, ‘Ma’am, we don’t do that here.’”
Celestine dresses in calming white and explains the meaning of the items on her altar to set people at ease.
At its center is a photograph of Celestine’s grandmother, who practiced Spiritism in secret in predominantly Catholic Puerto Rico. “My grandmother’s my greatest source of power,” says Celestine. “I come from abuse, from torture. My grandmother taught me faith.”
In addition to consulting her grandmother’s spirit, Celestine consults those of Christ and Mary, and Native Americans, and the spirits of slaves, all of whom are represented in the room by figurines and dolls. Tobacco, herbs, liquor, rosary beads, and palm leaves serve as offerings to these spirits. In their variety they reflect what Celestine calls her “Creolized form of Spiritism” (or Espiritismo), a 19th-century religious movement that arose when Puerto Ricans educated in England brought back European Spiritist traditions, such as seances, which then intermingled with African religions and indigenous herbal traditions.
Celestine gathers herbs before meetings — “I use basil and mint from the grocery store, ’cause we’re not out in the country,” she says — while her boyfriend, himself a budding medium, offers chewing tobacco and anise seed liquor to a slave figurine. Customers deposit money in the hands of the slave upon completion of the seance.
While she offers some services over the phone, Celestine says she can only do seances in person. Of Zoom sessions, she says, “It’s too hard to make contact that way.”
¶ Valeria Karat, Enchantment Palace
Valeria Karat performs readings in Russian at the Enchantment Palace on Coney Island Avenue. She sells crystals, votive candles, tarot cards, herbs, and charms in the front of the shop and offers readings in a long conference room in the back. Speaking in Russian to her colleague Albina Frolova, who translated for us, she said the back room is designed to resemble “a small castle.” The armrest of every chair features a lion’s head and Valeria sits at the head of the table on a throne painted in gold. “I want everyone to feel like kings and queens,” she said.
She wears an eye of Osiris necklace and puffs from a red vape that fills the room with a strawberry scent. She is animated and firm, frequently striking a proud, forward-looking pose, like a bust of Lenin. She wears a Gucci belt and has impeccable eyebrows. The Russian and Ukrainian communities in Brighton Beach form her primary clientele, and she displays her old credentials from Russia on the wall because, she says, “sometimes old people want to see them.”
She says the pandemic has caused her clients to spiral inward. “People are trapped inside themselves, in New York everyone is anxious and depressed,” she explains. “In Russia we can easily go to our neighbors, ask for salt, bread, milk, whatever. We can go next door and start crying and get drunk with them. Here people don’t even talk to their neighbors.”
For the first few months of the pandemic, she did not charge anyone for consultations, and urged her clients to give to charities. She spent some of her savings supporting local restaurants. She says her task is to teach people the confidence within themselves, to tell them they can achieve their dreams.
She particularly enjoys working with gay clients. “I like gay people, because, you know the yin and yang, they are like that. They can be masculine and feminine. They are less jealous than Russian women, they always compliment me and tell me I am beautiful.”
During the pandemic her car, along with some jewelry inside it, was stolen. Before that, her husband left her and went back to Russia. So she has found it hard, in some ways, to be a psychic in the U.S. She says people do not respect psychics as much, and among psychics, she believes there is less integrity — “Too many are in it for money.”
I asked if she had ever considered returning to Russia. “No,” she said, “I don’t want to be known as Valeria who served senators and celebrities in Moscow. I want to be Valeria, who serves Americans, who is on the same level as them.”
Her patriotism came in the form of an interstate revelation: “I was driving down the highway, and I saw so many trees, on every side of me. They were so beautiful. The nature here is so beautiful, there is nothing like it in Russia. I knew then I wanted to stay in this country.”
At the end of our interview, she gave me a free reading. I asked if I would succeed as a fiction writer and whether the newly relaunched Village Voice would succeed.
She burnt sandalwood and rubbed the smoke over my hands, prayed under her breath, and consulted her cards. On the question of my ambition, she was blunt, and, from a financial perspective, surely correct — “You should not write fiction. You should write about crime, criminals, court trials.”
On the question of this newspaper’s future, she told me that a woman would need to come in and make major changes. In the meantime, she said, I should help the staff blow off steam: “You need to buy Champagne and bring it to the office. It’s too tense there. Buy three bottles. It’s such a beautiful day out. What are you doing here? Go!”
¶ Marion Hedger, The British Psychic
The Reverend Marion Hedger calls herself The British Psychic, and emphasizes her descent from Lord North on her website — it is a branding strategy, she says. “Americans love Brits, they love the accent. It just pulls them in.” She practices in a small office, no larger than a queen-size bed, painted all in violet, in a tony, midtown building near Grand Central Station. She says many more doctors had been visiting her during the pandemic.
“A lot of doctors are leaving their practices and going out on their own. They’re the ones who need the most help. They’re starting to see the benefits of holistic medicine, sexual health. The pandemic has left them completely exhausted.”
Hedger has had to change her seances. For months she could not bring people together into a dark room, around her table, waiting for spirits to speak or to appear superimposed upon the bodies of the participants. She had to learn Zoom instead. Now she meditates before Zoom meetings, seeking communion with the spirits of her two older mentors, named Norman and Jerry, both deceased.
“He was the best psychic I’ve ever known, Norman,” she said. “But sometimes he’ll tell things to me and they’ll just be like a burst of swear words. And I’ll have to reword it.” Decades ago Norman told her she would become a psychic all at once, in an abrupt change of careers. “He was totally right,” she says.
Hedger says she discovered her gift as a little girl when her father placed cards on her forehead, giving her a shilling for each correct guess of the card’s face. Her father lost shilling after shilling in this little exercise. He decided to use her gift for betting on greyhound races. Hedger would put pennies on the winning dogs’ names in the newspaper and her father would come home with his winnings.
At the urging of her astrologer, Hedger is now working on an autobiography and will soon be appearing on a reality TV show she would not name, for legal reasons.
In the meantime she needs a break, and plans to visit Brighton Beach soon with a fellow psychic. “You stand in front of that water and it takes all the tiredness away,” she says, “Water is like oxygen for psychics.”
¶ Dr. Rakesh Kumar, The ISHWAR Center
Jackson Heights, Queens
Dr. Rakesh Kumar founded the International Society for Human Welfare and Astral Research (or ISHWAR, a Sanskrit name of God) in Delhi in 1998, and moved it to Jackson Heights in 2005. The current headquarters is a combination temple and astrological clinic stuffed into a red-brick Jackson Heights home, one block from the strip of Nepalese and Indian restaurants on 37th Avenue.
Kumar says the pandemic has brought him more clients, who have been consulting him extensively for advice about finding work. Personally, he has had an easier time adjusting than most: “I predicted the virus. You can check, September 2019 newsletter. It’s there,” he says. That newsletter describes “a severe evil influence of Saturn” which will affect the Earth’s magnetic waves and cause “new inexplicable diseases” affecting “the bloodstream, heart, and kidneys.”
Kumar emails out a set of predictions every month based on his reading of the planets, and then collects his best predictions in a document entitled “The Man Who Can See Tomorrow . . .”. Listed there are his predictions of COVID-19, 9/11, WikiLeaks’ release of the Iraq War Logs, the defeat of India’s Congress party and the ascension of Narendra Modi, Hurricane Sandy, earthquakes in Albania, Bernie Sanders’s heart attack, the discovery of the Higgs Boson, the results of the past four presidential elections, and many other things.
In one, somewhat jingoistic newsletter, Kumar blames the virus on China, citing remarks made by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and in another he says the virus is “like a curse from the animal kingdom,” to be remedied by vegetarianism and fasting during eclipses. Knowing what we know now about the relationship between industrial meat production and pandemics, the latter seems more on point.
In consultations, Kumar asks his clients where they were born, what date, and what time of day. He then puts this information into an astrological software program that, working in conjunction with his intuition (“far more important, intuition”), helps him predict the future.
His manner inspires confidence. He is tall, speaks in an officious tone, and wears the orange dhoti of his religious leader, the deceased mystic Sathya Sai Baba. Kumar said his father once saw honey flowing beneath a framed photograph of Sai Baba. “Sai Baba could do anything. Just think of God on Earth,” he said.
Kumar came to astrology slowly, while working as an engineer, picking up palmistry texts in Kolkata railway stations. He gave free palm readings to beggars and, in the eighties, a group of old men invited him into a graveyard to teach him “mesmerism, how to summon spirits, how to know the unknown.”
“I summoned spirits thousands of times, thousands of times,” he says. “But it was not enough. I needed a system. What is right, has to be right every time.” Vedic astrology did the trick. His astrological program has column after column of calculations based off the position of the moon, sun, and the planets. Kumar calls the FBI when he sees catastrophes on the horizon. He says he saved a woman from going to a job interview in the World Trade Center on September 11th.
I asked him how he decided to enter the trade.
“We have no say over our destiny. We cannot choose it,” he says. “It is like going to Manhattan. You can choose this train route or that train route. But the destination is Manhattan.” ❖