Austin has more than its share of psychics, astrologers, and curanderas.
By Marc Savlov
SEPTEMBER 8, 1997:
Despite what might charitably be referred to as a theologically conservative upbringing,
I spent some time as a youth trying various forms of esoteric divination with the
express intentions of:
a) sluing around impending exams;
Nothing much worked and when Old Scratch himself turned down my admittedly slipshod soul four times running, I knew it was time to pack up the Aleister Crowley Tarot deck and the Ouija board and get down to the truly hellish business of reality.
But despite what may come across as a particularly cavalier and occasionally downright sarcastic attitude toward psychic phenomena and the like, I've somehow managed to cling tenaciously to my childhood belief that if I just grit my teeth hard enough, that damn plastic planchette will dance right across that board and reward eternal patience with a shockingly obvious glimpse into the Unknown.
It hasn't happened yet, but what the hey? I'm open to anything. I do live in Austin, after all....
It's hardly news to note that Austin, Texas has an above-average number of psychics, palm readers, Tarot advisers, and astrologers living and working in town. Every day, to and from work, I pass at least a half-dozen businesses -- usually nothing more than converted residences doubling as at-home businesses with orgiastically colorful makeshift signs posted in overgrown front yards -- that profess to have special insight into my future and yours. You can hardly sneeze within Austin City Limits without gobbing on a psychic, and trying to navigate The Drag without eyeballing a vaguely dishevelled Tarot reader is akin to traversing the length of the Bosnia-Herzegovina DMZ sans shrapnel. It simply cannot be done.
Austin just wouldn't be Austin without the plethora of psychic advisers-cum-astrologers-cum-shamans; they are a part of this city's wonderfully eccentric, creepily endearing urban personality. Noted skeptic and exposer of charlatans James Randi has always referred to divination and the outre arts as "flim-flam," and while I have to agree there's a whole lot of snake oil salesman out there, obviously not everyone can be written off so quickly. 50,000,000 Elvis fans can't be wrong and all that sort of thing.
From the back of his Mexican import shop at 1500 S. First Street, Lee Cantu, alongside his wife Luisa, runs one of Central Texas' most influential psychic outposts. Looking like everybody's favorite uncle and liberally peppering his conversation with references to the Virgin and other Catholic iconography, the heavyset Cantu has an enduring -- and endearing -- reputation that spans across Texas and to a lesser extent, the world. He is a curandero, a psychic counselor who lists his preternatural talents on the wall outside his shop. Inside is a mix of Mexican herbarium and Catholic imagery. Countless images of the Holy Virgin crowd the walls and shelves, competing for space with busts of the revered Mexican faith healer El Niño Fidencio, odd-looking bottles of colored oils, packets of mysterious powders and charms, and a nearly life-size statue of the Virgin Mary -- encased in glass -- that is said to weep real tears. Miracles occur here on a daily basis.
Growing up in the Corpus Christi area, young Cantu had many spiritual encounters, though he was slow to accept the fact that he was different from the other kids in the neighborhood.
"Number one, I was born with my gift, but I rejected it, for the longest time," he says in a surprisingly quiet, gentle voice. "During the time when we were growing up, everything was very hush-hush. It was not spoken about freely like it is now, and that made me not want to do it. Even though I knew I was born with a gift, I held back because I wanted more than the knowledge that I had. And the other reason, of course, was that I thought everybody else could do what I could do. I would go around asking people, `Don't you see what I see?' If somebody asked me, I could read them like a book."
After the death of his mother, herself a noted herbalist, Cantu began to study his craft in earnest, seeking the advice of experts in the field of spiritual healing while working towards an Associate's Science degree from Corpus Christi's Del Mar College. As he initiated himself into the life of a curandero, he and his wife eventually found their way to Austin, where he at first plied his trade out of the back of a van not far from his current office. Cantu's reputation has grown to almost mythical proportions in the intervening years. He's as well-known outside of Austin as he is to the dozens of daily visitors that enter his shop.
Describing his clientele, Cantu says he has "whites, blacks, Hispanics, Mexicans, South Americans from Brazil, Colombia, Peru, English, from Korea, Japan, India, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans -- just about every walk of life there is."
So then, what, exactly, does Lee Cantu do for his clients?
"I do card readings, psychic readings, past life regression, trance readings, dream interpretation, and water readings. Water reading, of course, is where you dip your hands in the water and touch the tips of the fingers and you pick the electrical impulses from the body and it tells you what condition the body's in, like scanning the body. It's very useful for diagnosing what a person may suffer from that a doctor cannot find. You could very easily say I go into alternative medicine through that, because by doing so, you can change your state of consciousness and then actually change the other person's vibrations to be able to accept the healing process."
"Most people come to me looking for answers to, oh, relationships, children that have perhaps been taken from one parent by the other, physical problems caused by nervous tension -- a lot of that. Basically they're looking for answers and guidance. Which direction to take. What to do," says Cantu.
"When we do readings, we're bringing messages to the people on what's wrong with their lives that they need to change. A lot of times you need to change your own self before your partner or other people around you change, so that you can get better.
"That's one of the biggest things the Virgin is pushing in knowledge towards us, to make sure that people understand that the way of life is not by rebelling or by being upset with the rest of the world. You want the world to change, first you must start with yourself. And by changing yourself, you are becoming that much closer to God. I'm not selling religion and I'm not being fanatic about any religious belief, but higher consciousness levels have a key, and that key lies in a knowledge of the Bible. I know that I opened myself up to a higher consciousness level by studying the Bible. That's one of the tools to get there. The keys are in the Bible."
The First Street area where Cantu's Import Shop is situated has more than its share of astrologers and spiritualists. Step out his front door, and turn either left or right, and you're almost in sight of either. Cantu realizes that Austin, and particularly South Austin, revels in psychics and healers. His explanation? Cantu feels that the recent influx in Californians drawn by Austin's burgeoning Silicon-Valley-like status is mirrored by the arrival of other psychics. But his take on the approaching millennium -- an event guaranteeing increased spirituality and increasing numbers of psychics -- is somewhat different.
"The millennium affects us, certainly. Without a doubt. Unlike other psychics and stuff like that, I've had a lot of apparitions of the Virgin. She keeps appearing, trying to bring messages to us, telling us to clean up our act and pray more for the balance of this world, because everything is so off-balance. We need to stop trying to take all the energy out of the earth and start trying to put some back in."
That may be party line for the eco-friendly, Nineties-style green party of Austin or other liberal communities, but it's hardly something you'd hear from La Toya's crew (trust me on this one).
Along with many other Austin-based psychics and healers, Cantu was at one time a member of the Central Texas Parapsychology Association [see sidebar], though his ties with the organization have frayed over the years. While having nothing but high praise for the CTPA's founder, Joe Nichols -- himself a respected psychic -- Cantu admits that the volunteer-run organization, which provides a place for Texas psychics to unite under one flag, is no longer for him.
"Before, I was very active with them, but just like any organization, they let new people come in. With the new people comes a lot of envy and fussing and so forth, and I'm not into that. My business has gotten so big, I need to take care of it all the time. I would lose money if I were to follow around psychic fairs and the traditions of CTPA. Bottom line? It's not what it used to be."
There's a quiet edginess to Cantu's voice when he speaks of the CTPA, and a faint smile plays around the corners of his mouth. Do I detect a rivalry here?
"Cliques is more true," he says. "If you don't belong to a certain clique, you're just not, you know, looked at as one of the best psychics. But we're talking about psychics, not curanderos.
"I am a curandero, and also a psychic, and this is where they lack. We're talking about people who are mentalists or readers or sensitives, but they are all far from being curanderos, which are healers. I pretty well keep to myself. I don't try to criticize them. I think they have a great organization -- and they're doing a lot to straighten up a lot of the things that are wrong with it -- but the old people who were there, the oldest, oldest people are just not there anymore. And the reason for it is because what other people who have less knowledge do is reflected back on those that have higher knowledge. I have a great respect for Joe Nichols as I hope he has for me. Again, we're talking more about low-level or lower-level psychics than higher-level psychics.
"The higher-level psychics have the power to change things for people, and this is where the different facets of mediumship come in. Being able to read is not all there is to it -- being able to cause a change is where it's at."
During our interview, the phone rings several times with customers calling to seek counsel -- better with Lee Cantu than any one of the countless 1-900 psychic lines that mar the late-night television airwaves. So what does Cantu himself think about the Psychic Friends Network and their ilk?
"I had a chance to do that," he says with a grin, "and I've been called by some of the more popular people that are on television and Univision, because I'm a bilingual channel. But I refuse to do it because they have what we call a `bottled' approach.
"I can't do that," he continues. "When I pick up the phone, I'm going to tell you exactly what's going on that I'm feeling, that I'm picking up. That's the difference between them and me, and I don't agree with that kind of reading, because it's not true. It sounds like it is, but it's not."
Someone who might not agree with Lee Cantu's assessment of phone psychics is Cedric, a 40-something, transplanted New Yorker who offers readings exclusively over the phone. I haven't met him, but from the sound of his voice, I'd swear he has a beard -- probably bushy and brown. Call it a hunch, or maybe I have some latent talents of my own.
Cedric has nothing but praise for his adopted hometown: "It's an extremely hospitable climate for this type of business. If you had told me several years ago that I could go into a city where I was not known and run an ad in a weekly paper and have a successful psychic practice, I would have doubted you. But that's exactly what has happened.
"Austin is a place of tremendous spiritual growth; it's a place of great healing. I'm sure massage people do better here than they do in other places. Also, it's a place of high mental intelligence and ability. For example, in many cities you might work [as a psychic], people would not know their [astrological] charts. Here they do. And that makes it easier, because people tend to know what you're talking about."
Cedric says he's been on a "metaphysical quest" for the last 20-odd years, after realizing that he possessed the twin abilities of clairvoyance and clairaudience: psychic sight and sound, respectively.
Small world that it is, during the course of our conversation we stumbled upon the fact that we shared mutual friends in the Los Angeles entertainment industry, which led naturally enough to a bit of reminiscing. I figure that being a psychic, Cedric already knew of the connection and just tossed it into the conversation as an other-worldly bon mot, but perhaps not. Regardless, Cedric, who has gained his entire clientele of "3,000 or so" customers from a single weekly advertisement in the back of this newspaper, says he entered the world of the phone psychic at the behest of friends, who realized the vast scope of his powers and were concerned that he use them only for good, and never for evil. Okay, okay, I'm exaggerating, but it just sounds so right, doesn't it? Secret identity, mysterious abilities -- Cedric sounds like some sort of psychic Superguy.
Of course, the truth is a little less Stan Lee:
"I decided that I would do readings experimentally," says Cedric, "and so I did them for a large number of friends, and eventually business people, but not in a professional way. Very quietly. Little by little, people started urging me to go public. I thought that sounded good, but I wasn't sure how to make a living at it or how to go about it, and it wasn't until I got to Austin -- I had lived in NY and Washington and some other places -- that I found how to do it. I never did what a lot of psychics do, going to psychic fairs, word of mouth, and all that. I did it with an ad in the Chronicle. It was quite amazing. Within six months, I was able to make a living at it, which is also difficult because most people have to start part time and hope that over time they'll be able to build a reputation."
Unlike other psychics with whom I spoke (some wanted cash up front for a simple interview), Cedric operates in an oddly laissez faire manner, something that may explain his overwhelming popularity. Three things come up again and again that set him apart from the spiritual herd:
"What I do is totally different from what other people do. Number one, I work everything over the phone, because I prefer a person to be in their own surroundings. I am clairvoyant and clairaudient, which means that I not only see things, I also hear them. In fact, my clairaudience is probably my strongest ability. I have people say their name three times, slowly and clearly, and the information comes pouring in. It's always fascinating. You have to pay attention to what you're getting, but that's the way it works.
"Number two, I get my payment on the honor system. All I have is a phone contact with a person, and then they mail me or they drop it off.
"And number three, I don't do it by time. I think I'm about the only person that doesn't. In other words, I don't do it like `15 minutes for this, 15 minutes for that.' It's strictly as long as I need."
As far as the cost goes, Cedric says he does it on a sliding scale based on what people can afford. The ad in the paper advertises his services at just $10.
"I was sticking to that and hoping to go with word of mouth, but people started sending more, or bringing more, saying that they thought it was worth more than $10. It's really the honor system. I also do readings free to people who call and I know they can't afford it. I've had homeless people call, transients have called, and I'll do them for nothing."
Robin Hood as psychic.
On the basis of our mutual friends on the left coast, I had Cedric perform a consultation with me during the course of our talk. Maybe it was the weather, maybe it was my latent cynicism, but after saying my name three times slowly and clearly to the psychic over the phone, we both had trouble interpreting the results.
Had I had a rough time the Saturday of the Tyson/Holyfield Bite? Well, since I was with my girlfriend, "frolicking" on a sandy South Texas beach at the time, I'd have to say no.
Did I recently receive a blow to the head? Not that I can recall, but then, if it had been a big enough blow, perhaps I wouldn't have remembered it.
Was I engaged or involved with a woman by the name of "Sylvia," or perhaps with several "S's" in their name? No again, and if I were, my girlfriend wouldn't like it very much.
Negative on all counts, which doesn't necessarily make Cedric a lousy psychic any more than it makes me a lousy client. Sometimes the burden of my cynicism weighs heavy on my soul, though.
"There are certain people -- Carl Sagan was a good example -- who are extremely skeptical of any of this stuff, and the reason is that in other lifetimes they have been very psychic and into magic and so on. It's as though in this life they have chosen to cut themselves off completely from it," says Cedric.
Which leaves me wondering if both I and longtime hero Sagan were somehow brothers in Magick long ago. Perhaps it's time to call 1-900-Shirley MacLaine?
As usual, MacLaine is too busy resuscitating EST and has no time for me. Typical. On the other hand, local astrologer Naomi Bennett does have time, and in fact has managed to work up my Aries chart.
Having never met Bennett before, I'm a bit taken aback by her house, a lovely, two-story white stone number nestled in one of the tonier neighborhoods in the rolling hills off Hwy360. The upscale suburban sprawl is complemented by her son Robby, who answers the doorbell enthusiastically, a scuffed soccer ball in the crook of his arm. Most of the psychics I've visited thus far don't have doorbells, much less swanky digs like this, so I'm a bit flustered, idly wondering if I'd misread the address on the way up the walk.
Nope, this is the place alright, and Naomi Bennett is a knowledgeable, somewhat upscale astrologer who looks for all the world like the soccer mom she is. It's a welcome surprise, given the fact that I'd expected to wander into some seedy, hashish-reeking parlor, replete with snoozing black cats and soiled chintz curtains. That stuff is cool, too, but hey, you get what you pay for. Bennett's rates are $80 an hour, no small fee to a freelance writer like me (though she has kindly waived the cash outlay in deference to the instant fame and adulation this article is sure to confer). You'd think the stereotypes would fade away, but strangely they persist and crop up at the most inopportune times.
Settling into the comfy La-Z-Boy Bennett keeps reserved for clients in her well-lit, pleasantly cluttered office, it's instantly apparent that she's not your run-of-the-mill astrologer -- at least, not what I'd expected. For one thing, Bennett is one of the growing number of adults who have chosen to leave corporate America in search of better things. In Bennett's case, that was astrology, a field she'd been passionate about since 1968, when she met noted astrologer Carl Payne Topey while researching a school paper in Tuscon. "He made the subject so interesting that it never left me, and it's been a passion of mine ever since," she says.
Obviously. Bennett's office is lined with pictures of Topey, astrological prints, and mounds, piles, stacks, and veritable mountains of books and papers related to the field that threaten to spill off the bookshelves and engulf her as she sits at her desk. The lingering aura of academia permeates the air.
Unlike astrologers of the "olden days" (6,000 years ago), Bennett uses a PC and astrological software to forecast and chart astrological signs.
"SkyGlobe is an astronomy software that you can do prescesion on," she says. "What used to take me 15 minutes to draw up and do calculations by hand will take me about one minute with the computer. There are so many different techniques, and now they're all at my fingertips. So now I do twice as much research, twice as much investigation than I ever did when I worked manually. And with the Internet, I can be online with about 200 other astrologers every day, on the Web, and I get over 100 messages a day strictly on the topic of astrology.
"Well, the professional software is at least $250 per copy; I've invested over $1,200 in software because some of it does certain things that other programs don't do. There is a shareware program called Astrolog 5.20 that anyone can download that can basically give them the capability to chart. Now, they may not be able to interpret them, but they'll be able to do the calculations and it's all free and available on the Web."
Before we get to the chart she's devised for me, Bennett takes time to explain the various facets of astrology. She knows her stuff, too. After five minutes I'm in the dark, glazed over from all the shoptalk.
According to Bennett, the semi-science of astrology, which she likens to a subset of astronomical geometry, has been building up to its current renaissance for the last 100 years or so.
"Oh, yes, it's been growing all this century," she goes on. "It hardly existed at all in the United States until the 1920s. There had been a revival in England around that time and it hopped over the Atlantic to New York City, and that's where Carl [Payne Topey] started. It's really grown since then, and it's really having a major renaissance that it hasn't seen in maybe 500 years or so.
"I think part of it is this whole Baby Boomer generation and what used to be the hippie crowd has now evolved into the New Age type of thinking and there's just a greater receptivity that has happened in this generation's attitude. The idea of taking esoteric concepts and marrying them with Western knowledge is much more acceptable now than it ever was. This merging of ideas has come to the point that astrology is being looked at again. Of course, not by academics -- maybe a few, but not many. Although it's not uncommon now for astrologers to get their PhDs in psychology and try and marry the two fields."
Bennett herself holds a BA in psychology, and she's quick to point out that Jung "developed the principles of Synchronicity to explain the usefulness of astrology, the Tarot, the I Ching, and psychic phenomena outside of a cause-and-effect model."
She's also quick to fill me in on the much-heralded Age of Aquarius, looming as it has been since Hair first clipped off-off-Broadway.
"We're definitely right there, on the verge. It takes several centuries to split from one age to another. If you go all the way back to 1850-1860, we started the movement of going from agrarian into a more urban lifestyle. We moved from the farms to the cities, and then we started mass production. With the advent of electricity to the masses (electricity is associated with Aquarius), we first started moving into that age.
"Today everything is exploding as far as information, and to me that is a strong indication that we're already slipping into the age of Aquarius. We've also had a fading of the influence of religion and instead the psychologists are somewhat more revered than your priests, and that's another sign that we're right on the precipice."
In addition to her astrological practice, Bennett is currently at work on a book that will seek to explain the importance of the dawning of the age of Aquarius, as well as offer much-needed insight into the history of astrological conceits throughout the ages. The book has consumed much of Bennett's time not already devoted to her family and her clients. On top of that, she's taught astrology classes at both the University of Texas and Westlake High School's Adult Education Program, although she's moved the classes into her own house for now. "I got more clients from my own advertising than I did from their catalogue, so why pay their overhead? I have a big living room right here."
Before we begin to go over my chart, Bennett clues me in on what most of her clients can expect, saying that, in the beginning, "It depends mostly on what the client wants. If you don't have a strong focus, we're probably going to spend 15 minutes talking about personality, going back on critical crisis periods in the past, which can lend some validity to the idea that maybe I know what I'm talking about."
After that, Bennett will move on to specific questions or areas of concern on the part of the client. It's often the usual love, health, and money situation, although she mentions that when it comes to business, "We look at what areas of investment are possible, or is this person a good business partner, and like that."
The wisdom of choosing one's investments according to the stars may help explain Michael Milken and Jeb Bush, but it seems to me a pretty sketchy way to raise cashflow. Even someone with only the most passing interest in the mechanics of the Dow Jones ought to know how ambivalent the market is; add astrology to it, and I'm thinking trouble.
"Well, you're right -- it's not perfect," concurs Bennett. "Some of what we base our current astrology on has errors in it. It also has to do with how good your training is, how much background you have in the field, and then your own analytical ability and being able to read people and ask key questions to bring out information that they're either not aware of or not very forthcoming with. And sometimes you're just not compatible with that person at all, and it just feels like anything you say is the wrong thing. You'll have those experiences and then you'll have other people that absolutely cook and it seems like everything you say is right. It really depends, though. It's an artform.
"Just like a doctor, you have training, but then you have to be able to apply what you learned to the patient. I have a bachelor's degree in psychology, and even though I've never expanded on it, I certainly use all my amateur psychology background to aid in delving into that particular personality. And you're looking at probabilities, too. We're still not talking about something that's `fate.' I think astrology is actually a branch of geometry, a branch of mathematics, and so what you're looking at is improbabilities with a factor of free will."
On to the chart, which, not surprisingly, reads like an extended forecast of my daily horoscope:
I'm ambitious? Well, yeah, when I get out of bed.
Athletic? Sure, if driving to Thundercloud Subs is considered a sport....
The coolest thing about astrological charts, as I learn, is that they afford an opportunity to spot potentially stressful or emotional curves up ahead. According to Bennett, the last week of July and first few days of August posed a possible risk to me. No real specifics were given, but Bennett stressed that it's not necessarily a bad thing, and could instead mean a time of change or "metamorphosis." Terrific -- Labor Day weekend and suddenly I'm a butterfly. Oh, joy.
Out of the dozens and dozens of psychics, spiritual advisers, and astrologers here in town (come to think of it, if you included all the amatuers, the number would almost certainly be in the hundreds), those are just three examples, but like their contemporaries in the field and the ether, they cut across all social boundaries, not only in their clientele, which, let's face it, encompasses pretty much everybody, but also in their personal lives.
I mean, if you had told me six weeks ago I'd be getting my astrological chart done by the Austin equivalent of Martha Stewart (no offense, honest), I'd have laughed maniacally, slapped you silly, and then run home to write a sonnet (I'm such an Aries). But still....
The millenium fast approaches and doomsayers are breeding like the roaches beneath my sink. Right-wing religious flibbertigibbets are harumphing old Walt Disney, Newt Gingrich is slimming down, and all the world looks rather messy. So maybe -- all personal cynicism aside -- I ought to chill out and get this done on a regular basis? Then again, maybe not -- the old Magic 8-Ball still works fine for me, even if that purple liquid inside is finally breeding new life.
"Do Austin psychics know what the hell they're talking about?"
"Ask again later."
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