Fortunate One

A writer turned PR director turned stockbroker finds her calling among a deck of tarot cards.

Fortunate One

There is no wall of beads. No headscarf. And absolutely no crystal ball. Just a set of stairs inside a boho-chic bistro spiraling up to a tiny alcove near the bathroom. Tucked in the corner is a woman, sitting, hands folded on a floral tablecloth, cards stacked and ready. The din of loud music and a packed house floats up from below. In spite of the noise and the constant traffic of diners, her table feels intimate.

The woman’s high cheekbones belie her 62 years. Her face feels familiar—a slender oval with deep-set brown eyes and cropped golden blonde hair, sort of Susan Sarandon meets Angela Lansbury. Her manicure, vintage rose-shaped earrings and the shirt beneath her open blue button-down are a perfectly matched powder pink.

Janet Horton at Raoul’s Restaurant
Janet Horton at Raoul’s Restaurant

Janet Horton tells me her story on a recent Friday evening at the crowded Raoul’s Restaurant, which has hosted psychics on Prince Street in SoHo for the past 24 years. Horton has been reading tarot cards professionally for some fifteen years, and at Raoul’s for the past three. Speaking in an animated, nonlinear narrative, stopping here and there to chat with an inquisitive passersby or to cater to a customer, Horton explains that she tapped into the “other side” long before she knew what it meant to be psychic.

“I’m five years old, and my mother takes me to go meet the woman who moved in down the street,” says Horton, who grew up in a quiet, lakeside Ohio suburb. “We’re sitting on the couch, and beyond this lady’s head,” she motions past me, “is a hall, and down the hall, there are bedrooms, and in that bedroom to the left, there’s an old German man who died there. He says to me, ‘Tell these filthy squatters to get out of my house.’”

The young Horton relayed the message from the deceased old man, and her mother bade the new neighbor a hasty goodbye.

Ever since, Horton hasn’t been afraid of ghosts. She says the unsettled—be they the wandering dead or the hostile living—bring out her maternal instincts. “To me, something evil and spooky is, you poor thing,” Horton explains. “I look for cause of pain or anger.”

Years later, Horton would find herself walking alone in the dark when a young man approached her with apparently negative intentions. “He hadn’t resolved to give me a hard time,” she recalls thinking. “Once he was near, I said, ‘I’m a psychic. Your mother is gone, but she wants you to know she’s so proud of you. I’ve got another five blocks to go—want to walk me?’” And so he escorted her safely to her destination.

Horton says she could tell he was “a really good man” and was able to see through the rough exterior of this would-be mugger by being “a motherly presence.” She expects that if she had acted afraid and “engaged in the negative energy,” she may have brought out the worst in him.

Other times, she and the spirits might even share a laugh. Horton launches, unprovoked, into a tale about “the spookiest thing that ever happened here.”

“So, I’m sitting here giving a reading and a man comes and sits nearby,” she tells me. “He’s talking so loudly he’s keeping me from giving a good reading. After the reading, I start to get ready to leave, and the phone on the wall behind him rings. There is no connection. It’s an antique. He looks at me and says, ‘The phone’s ringing!’ I said, ‘I know. Answer it.’ So, he picks up the phone.”

“‘There’s nobody there!’ he says, hanging up. ‘It just sounded like whoooeewhew. What do you think happened?’ I answer, ‘Well, this is a really spiritual place and you were talking loudly before. I’m really sorry but I was wishing that your energy would quiet down, so I think God and the spirits phoned.’

“And he just tears out of the restaurant. I think, ‘Oh, gee, I shouldn’t have told him, poor fellow.’ I finish up, go home, go to bed, and in the morning I wake up to the phone ringing. The machine usually picks up after four rings, but it keeps ringing. When I pick it up I hear a voice say, ‘It’s whooeewheew! And I didn’t even charge you for the call.’”

Horton gives a reading (Photo by Jaclyn Einis)
Horton gives a reading (Photo by Jaclyn Einis)

We jump back about fifty years, as I try not to stare at the antique payphone ten feet away. Horton tells me how she moved from Ohio to New Jersey with her parents and three brothers, and that her childhood was increasingly filled with floating Ouija boards, psychic dreams and premonitions. At fourteen, she awoke one morning, convinced from her dreams that her mother would get in a car accident that day. She warned her parents and told her mother, ‘I’m not getting in the car with you.’ Horton recalls her relief after her mother got in a harmless collision leaving the parking lot: “I was glad to get it out of the way!”

She did the occasional card reading for fun, using playing cards as instructed by her book on Gypsy-style tarot card readings, but she had never considered “going pro.” After high school, Horton set off to Swarthmore College, with dreams of becoming a novelist and journalist in New York. Eager to start her career, she dropped out of school in 1974, after two years, and headed to the big city. “What a young idiot,” she says, smiling.

No one in New York seemed to think so. Horton hopped right over the internship pond to a job in radio at NBC and got her journalist feet wet as a freelancer. She’d written just half a dozen articles—mostly publisher profiles—when the publisher of American Home, taken by Horton’s style, offered her a job as senior editor.

“I was 26, and I was confident, but I was sure that she would discover that I didn’t have the experience for the job and fire me,” remembers Horton, who ended up leaving American Home of her own volition after about year. She scored an interview with Us Weekly, at the time a new bi-monthly outlet for “classy little profiles” owned by the New York Times.  After learning that she had merely been granted a “courtesy interview,” she shifted into high gear and stayed up all night to finish the managing editor’s questionnaire, leaving her responses on his chair at 8:30 the next morning. Horton does her own version of “brushing her shoulders off” as she recalls knowing she’d just won herself the gig: hands curled, she brings her pink fingernails toward her mouth, gives each set of fingers a blow and brushes her fists on the front of each shoulder.

Just a few years later, feeling too green for her own shoes—“I wasn’t as fast, didn’t have the contacts that the other editors had”—and worried that she’d never find the time, money and energy to pursue her own writing if she stayed an editor, she accepted a high-salaried position as PR director of the New York State Olympic Committee in 1979, as the country prepared for the Lake Placid games. Contacts Horton made though committee fundraisers later set her up with several interviews on Wall Street, and soon enough, the college dropout-turned-editor-turned-publicist was a stockbroker. “I always got the job; always breezed through,” recalls Horton.

As her resume grew, Horton’s literary aspirations stayed top of mind, while her spiritual powers lay quiet in the back. “I knew I was psychic, but when you’re in the corporate world, you don’t go around telling people that,” she says. “They’ll think you’re a kook.”

Learning on the fly, Horton did not, she insists, use her psychic abilities to predict the markets. “I was an in-depth student. I studied my firms’ research and the newspapers. God and the spirits do not care about making people rich. Abundance is great, security is great, but greed is not a positive state of mind.” She spent seven years as a broker, and had soon accumulated the badges of big city success: a husband, a Manhattan apartment, a Connecticut house and a yacht.

All the while, though, Horton longed for nothing more than a private garret and the time to write. She left Wall Street shortly after the stock market crash of ’87. She and her husband divorced soon after. With enough savings on hand to finally focus on her writing, Horton moved from Manhattan to Hoboken in 1990, finally realizing the independent, lower-rent lifestyle she had long craved.

She had already crafted a concept for her first novel: a murder mystery about a fictional restaurant psychic named Madame Verushka. Horton threw herself into the story, learning how to write a novel as she went along. Two years later, she found herself with a rough draft that was “strong in beginning and end, but messy in the middle”—not nearly what she had hoped to show for her now dwindling savings.

That’s when things started getting Charlie Kaufmanesque. In 1998, Horton approached the owner of Gerrino’s, a local restaurant in Hoboken, to inquire about waiting tables. But she didn’t have a chance to ask about a waitress job. The owner, after learning of Horton’s novel, asked if she could be the Madame Verushka of Gerrino’s, reading cards and charging $25 for fifteen minutes of work. “Could I get customers in that seat? You better believe I can,” Horton exclaims. (Cue another blow of the fingers and brush of the shoulders).

Walking home that night, in February 1998, Horton recalls, “I was 47 and going, I just became my own character.” She scrambled to buy her first deck of tarot cards and learn its many complex symbols. There are typically 78 cards to a pack, though many readers use regular playing cards, as Horton once did. Most decks come with a booklet or book that explains the meanings of their symbols—images like a winged, robed woman with two goblets titled “Temperance;” a nude woman beneath bright shining stars called, fittingly, “The Star;” and a man in tights on the edge of a cliff known as “The Fool.” Each deck has unique imagery and its “own personality,” and every reader has his or her own way of interpreting a card in a given circumstance.

Horton didn’t have to go through the trouble of choosing a particular pack. As luck, or fate, would have it, there was only one left in the only store she knew of that stocked tarot cards.

A week later, when it was time for her first shift at Gerrino’s, she realized she’d spent so much time memorizing the cards’ symbols that she’d neglected to learn their layout, or “spread.” There are countless ways to arrange tarot cards for a reading, and in each one the position and orientation of the card will affect its meaning. The most popular layout is the eleven-card Celtic Cross. So, Horton fell back on the 24-card spread, a personal riff on the twelve-card ring she’d read about (she’d added a second ring, so that she had one for past and present and an outer ring for the future).

Unsure of how to fill up that first fifteen-minute session, Horton winged it, surprising herself as she brought customer No. 1 to tears when she aptly described the woman’s three children. Horton remembers every detail of that first reading: “Once I’d established my credibility, I could have more of a conversation with her. She told me she and her husband were fighting, because he wanted to have a motorcycle. I told her to let him have it. I saw that he was a protector—he’d be fine. Plus, it would sit in the garage after a few months, and—I saw the testosterone card—it would be great for their sex life.” When the customer’s husband learned that Horton had earned him a green light on the motorcycle, he gave her a tip, something she hadn’t even considered. After a night of accurate intuitions, Horton said she felt like a five-year-old prodigy playing Beethoven.

“I realized it was meant to be.”

From there, her readings got deeper. Though she mentioned that the owner at Gerrino’s had initially asked her about reading “cards and palms,” palm readings don’t hold much interest for her. “The cards give a much deeper reading,” she says.

Not every psychic is a medium (one who channels the dead), but spirits kept coming into play during Horton’s readings, seeking contact with her customers. After six months of psychic work, she resolved that if a man on a talk show could guess the names of the departed, then so could she. That night, as she got settled in her chair at Gerrino’s, she glanced behind her and saw something shocking in her periphery: “The legs of the dead, in line,” Horton remembers. “They were waiting to talk to the living who were going to come to my table.”

That night, when her first customer sat down, Horton picked up on a late mother, Katherine. Afraid of getting the name wrong and losing credibility off the bat, she asked if the woman’s mother’s name started with a “K.” Her mother’s name had been Katherine. Horton kept shying away from repeating aloud the names that came to her, thinking she was simply stuck on K’s.

“Next person sits down. Grandma’s gone. Her name was Karen. Third person sits down, and again I get a K. Her name was Kay.”  Horton did six readings that night and in every reading the name of the person on the other side began with a K. She says there will often be a “theme of the night;” she would come to think of this as “the Night of The Six K’s.”

What many might consider creepy, Horton considered validation—guiding others is something she was meant to do. Like most psychics, she will tell you her work wasn’t so much a choice as a calling.

“You can take courses,” explains Joan Carra, a psychic and medium who recently moved from New York to Greenwich, Conn. “But every psychic I know didn’t plan to do it or go to school for it. It becomes an obsession to counsel people.”

Money may have helped compel Horton and Carra to start reading professionally, but both insist on the motivating presence of something less tangible, that keeps them in the field— Carra calls it an “obsession.”

A self-portrait by Horton drawn on a sign that once hung in the window of Raoul’s Restaurant
A self-portrait by Horton drawn on a sign that once hung in the window of Raoul’s Restaurant

While there have been occasional media reports in recent years about fortune tellers who bilk their customers for everything they’re worth, tarot card readers like Horton seem to make an honest and modest living. Horton, who made the restaurant hop from Hoboken to Manhattan a few years ago, works one night a week at another restaurant, La Lanterna di Vittorio, in addition to her shifts at Raoul’s. She used to work at the West Village bar Employees Only, but stopped because of the noise level.

Readings at Raoul’s are $30 for fifteen minutes—a slight salary increase from her days at Gerrino’s— and customers often pay for double or triple sessions. Horton’s rate is higher for parties and private readings. She charges $250 an hour for the former and $120 for 45-minute-long readings in a customer’s home or in her own; an experience she says is tantamount to “your own personal séance.”

“It’s one night at a time,” Horton says. “Some nights I’m so busy, I can hardly cope. Other nights, utterly no one wants to have a reading. If you’re going to do this for a living, my advice is to do it for the spiritual joy, and keep your financial needs small.”

Nancy Stark, a vibrant woman who just turned 77 (she first told me 75, but after consulting her astrology chart she realized her mistake) has wispy grey hair, and a soft Chilean-New York lilt. She has worked the cards and the palms at Raoul’s for nearly a quarter century. With a voice and demeanor that exudes a gentle wisdom, Stark confirms the difficulty of making a living in the world of fortunes. “I know people who do it, but they’ve been doing it for a long time and they’re very good,” she says.

Nancy Stark at home
Nancy Stark at home

Stark, who has worked four nights a week at Raoul’s since she became their first palm and card reader, eschews the term “psychic” in favor of “getting in touch with your intuitions and inner knowing.” She, like Horton, also works the occasional event and sees clients at home, where she focuses on astrology, charging $175 for an hour-and-a-half appointment.

Still, it’s clear that these women don’t see their work as a straightforward monetary exchange. “Most people who have readings with me thank me profusely, and I wonder why, because they’re paying me for it!” says Stark. “It must mean something to them in a good way.”

Unlike the scam artists many associate with psychics, who prescribe weekly calls and visits to remove customers’ curses and to fix their problems—the price often rising with each visit—Horton, Carra and Stark each expressed that while yearly or bi-annual visits could be a healthy frequency for a reading, any legitimate psychic would discourage routine appointments. “That’s bad karma when you’re trying to control other people,” says Stark.

A portrait of Horton and “Paco” drawn on a napkin by artist Manuel Lopez-Torrecillas, who asked Horton to conduct a tarot reading for his dog
A portrait of Horton and “Paco” drawn on a napkin by artist Manuel Lopez-Torrecillas, who asked Horton to conduct a tarot reading for his dog.

Horton also turns away customers who have the wrong intentions, such as businessmen seeking guidance on their every financial decision. “The stock market is not a spiritual realm,” she affirms, from experience.

When Horton looks back on the Night of the Six K’s, she remembers her thoughts on the walk home. “That’s when I truly grasped how aware the other side is of us. God and his spirits were making it clear to me: This is real.”

Horton speaks often of “God and the spirits.” Whether you call it religion or spirituality, belief in some sort of higher consciousness is inextricably bound in her world.

And Horton doesn’t find it odd in the least that she didn’t discover her calling until she was nearly fifty. In fact, you typically won’t find many revered psychics in their thirties. When discussing their work, Horton, Carra and Stark each continuously circle back to the idea that their insights have sharpened with time and life experience.

The reader-customer interactions that they relay to me seem much closer to therapy than guesswork. They admit that while certain people come to them in search of entertainment, most are hoping for answers and comfort.

“I see it as healing and transforming lives,” Horton says.

As a result, psychics “take in a lot of people’s pain,” according to Carra, who admits that a sense of humor is also a job requirement since “there is a bit of absurdity in it—you’re in two worlds,” she tells me. “You’re moving between the past and future.”

It’s practically impossible for psychics to articulate exactly how their intuitions “feel” or “work.” I imagine it’s not unlike trying to explain the experience of color to a blind person. Horton likens it to simply having a conversation: “I just say what comes to me.” That said, some mediums, like Carra, report hearing voices; for Horton, the message is often visual, taking the form of a face or a letter. Stark tells me that while contacting the dead isn’t her forte, if a customer asks her about someone in particular, she can usually deliver.

“I know that it’s real when the hairs stand up on my arms,” Stark explains. “It’s not unpleasant, it’s just like, ‘Yeah, I’m here.’”

Nancy Stark in her bedroom
Nancy Stark in her bedroom

Likewise, she considers tarot card readings to be a channel of sorts, with readers intuitively interpreting, and straying from, the traditional meanings of the cards. “Sometimes I go completely opposite of what the card says because I feel that that’s the right thing,” Stark says.

Before meeting Horton, I myself wavered between skepticism and nervous belief when it came to psychic abilities. But on that recent Friday night when I shadow her at Raoul’s, it is hard to argue with her ability.  I witness Horton somehow pick up on the death of a young woman’s father. At 27, the woman was simply too young for such a loss to be “obvious.”

I decide to talk to a regular customer of Horton’s named Dahlia, who had a very powerful reading from Horton in 2008, when she was visiting from San Diego. “I’m a very logical person,” Dahlia assures me when we speak on the phone. “I think most psychics are a hoax. It’s an easy way to get money from gullible people who maybe have so much turmoil in their lives that they’re looking for answers. But somebody like Janet truly has a gift.”

Seeing a sign for tarot card readings, Dahlia and a few friends had wandered into La Lanterna di Vittoria, where Horton works Sunday evenings, on a whim. “She said, your father has gone on to the other side, and he must have gone when you were very small,” Dahlia recalls. “He’s very sorry that he was never there for you.” Dahlia’s father had died two months before she was born.

Horton remembers asking Dahlia if her father had drowned. “I was getting a boat, but not a storm,” Horton says. Indeed, Dahlia’s father had disappeared from a fishing boat one night, after deciding to sleep on deck.

“Then, she asked if my husband was sick,” Dahlia tells me. “He was in his eighties, but young for his age, healthy and vibrant, so I thought it was baloney. She said that he would have a short illness and wouldn’t make it, but didn’t give a date. Two years later, my husband became ill and passed away after five or six months. He’d had that tumor at least four years.” After I hung up with Dahlia, I wondered how profound it was to guess that a man in his eighties might be sick, or soon become sick. Then again, Dahlia was considerably younger than her husband, and who knows what other details Horton might have perceived but kept to herself.

Dahlia has had three more readings with Horton since then. “I’m not seeking advice or someone to tell me what to do,” she says. “She just offers things and she nails it all the time. She nailed the personalities of my two daughters-in-law, and that was amazing.”

Around 9 p.m. on the night I’m at Raoul’s, a man and woman on their first date have their cards read by Horton. They sit down for separate readings, each going downstairs to give the other privacy during their session. Like everyone else I see having their cards read that night, they each smile as they sit, his appearing slightly anxious. When I hang around to photograph the man’s reading, I’m surprised by his openness. I don’t hover close enough to hear every word, as Horton says my energy might get in the way of her reading.

The man, whom Horton expected to be a skeptic, tells me afterward that he was impressed. She could see that he had children, that he’d been divorced. Later, Horton tells me that the man’s father came through in the reading, that “he told his son to take things slow.”

Customers almost always ask for insights into their love lives, of course, but Horton doesn’t always tell them what they want to hear. She recalls at least one customer who stormed out after Horton implied that her relationship may not last, that the woman’s boyfriend wasn’t ready to commit. The woman came back a year later to tell Horton that she had been right. “I’ve learned to be diplomatic but truthful,” Horton says.

I wonder how diplomatic she’s being when she reads my cards.

I’m definitely on the nervous side of excited. I wonder if she’ll say something that gives me nightmares, if she’ll pick out my insecurities like a mind reader. And then a tiny part of me also hopes it’s not bullshit.

Horton tells me to pick 24 cards, and she arranges them in two concentric rings. I have no idea what I’m looking at, but she gives me the rundown: “Your layout’s on the table. I’m going to tell you what I see, and then when we finish with this part of the reading we’ll do questions and answers so you can ask whatever you want, but you can talk anytime you want.”

Part of it is conversational. “Is Grandma gone?” she asked off the bat, seeing a female figure. “No, but my great-grandmother is.” After describing her visions in the 24 cards, accurately noting certain characteristics that keep coming up for my grandfather, we move on to my future love life. I joke about picking up cards with cat symbols, sealing a fate of feline-loving singledom. “Your mind was not in the right place. Pick again,” she says, replacing the cards before I actually notice their symbols. I shrug, noting that this was the only time during the reading that I wasn’t paying attention to which cards I’d selected.

I pick again, and Horton says that my great-grandmother hijacked the cards. After we talk to Nanny, Horton asks me to pick once more. This time, she sees a ring symbolizing marriage in there somewhere, but she says the rest of her visions are about career. Horton, after all, never pushes a question for which the spirits aren’t providing her an answer. “It’s clear you have other things to focus on first,” she tells me.

When I talk to Horton a week later, I ask her if she was guarding me from what she saw in that first set of cards—one woman, four cats, perhaps? She assures me that she had me pick again because the cards weren’t relevant to romance. “God and the spirits were just not interested in giving you those details right now.”

Horton advises me, and anyone seeking insights, to take readings with a grain of salt. “Never give your personal power away,” she says. “Don’t take what they say so seriously that you start looking for the right man of that description in two years because the psychic said so. Each of us makes our own destiny. I learned that from going to psychics when I was younger.”

“People are looking to psychics to tell them the future,” Horton adds, “but the future is not fixed.”

I imagine that being a psychic it must be tempting to sneak a peek at your own future. Indeed, like restaurant-hopping chefs, psychics admit that they often try each other out after their own shifts are over. And sometimes, they can’t help but read themselves.

“I had a vision a long time ago that I was going to live to a very old age,” Stark casually divulges. “I’m not happy about it, to tell you the truth. I have a terrific life, but it’s not enough for me.”

Horton, too, has read her own cards a few times, back when she was practicing with her first deck.

After the third time, she says she got a message from God and the spirits instructing her to knock it off already.

“‘Stop it,’” she recalls them saying. “‘Just ask yourself what’s the next right thing to do.’” Horton explains that when you’re in tune with the greater consciousness, your intuition will lead you the right way.

Right now, that means following her calling, sharing her insights at Raoul’s, and using her experiences to help her finish up that novel.

“I had to live it first,” she says.