NEW ORLEANS You don't have to stray from any beaten path to find the strange contradictions that have always been part of this city's character.
Consider famous Jackson Square, where the French Quarter meets the Mississippi River. Towering over all is St. Louis Cathedral, whose lineage stretches back to 1718 and which Pope John Paul II visited in 1987. And right in front of its faux medieval façade is the square, sprinkled with seers and mystics who ply their conjuring, divination, voodoo, gris-gris and what-not for tourists.
This spring, I pulled a chair up to one psychic's card table – not to get a handle on my life, but to learn something about his.
It was operated by 42-year-old Zaar, a native of Kokomo, Ind., who said his great-grandfather was a Cherokee medicine man who gave Zaar his first deck of tarot cards at age 7.
Zaar said he'd been working Jackson Square on and off for a decade, and has appeared on cable TV, reading tarot on “Bridezilla” and palms on “Girls Next Door.” He also works at Voodoo Authentica, a store on nearby Dumaine Street.
According to IRS: Zaar said that when he files Form 1099, he lists his occupation as “counselor.”
His tools of the trade: Zaar has an Austrian quartz crystal ball, about the size of a baseball. Besides that and tarot cards, he also does readings – palms and auras. “Every now and then I can talk to the dead. That's draining, though.”
His tarot cards are a “79-card deck – the Thoth variety created by Aleister Crowley, with three versions of the magus, or wizard card. I start with 15 cards face-up; the pattern I use is a variation of the Golden Dawn.”
Office hours: “I'm here four days a week. How many readings I do varies with how intense they are. On average, I do seven readings a day. I have no fixed cost for this; it's strictly donations: $2, $5. … The most I received was $200.
“Where we set up here is informal, though you don't want to have too many psychics working close to each other. They start crossing each other's wires – psychic interference – if they're truly gifted.
“At any given time, there are maybe 30 of us here on the square. There's a different shift there at night – a different crew. There's also a different feel here at night.”
Any problems with the cathedral crowd? “No, not from the locals: This is New Orleans. Every once in a while, some religious tourist will come by and complain, but that's it.”
Zaar's advice on how to spot fake seers: “When you walk by, the real ones don't call out to you.”
Early line on Hurricane Katrina? “I knew it was coming. There was an office pool where I was working at the time – at Target – to pick which storm was coming here. Most of the others picked names at the top or bottom of the alphabet, for storms that would come at the start or end of the hurricane season.
“I picked Katrina, from the middle of the list: It's the name of my sister, and I hadn't called her in a couple months. I won $500.”
Most frequently asked question: “It's a toss-up between ‘Will I find love?' and ‘How's my love life?'”
Best reading so far this particular day: “A couple came by this morning, and I did a tarot reading for her. When her husband stepped away for a smoke, I leaned over and told her, ‘The next time you have your “little boy” over, make sure your husband isn't awake in the next room.'
“She was shocked. She said, ‘He knows!'
“I later found out that the husband had the divorce papers in his jacket pocket.”
His prognosis for this couple: “I think their marriage is going to work; I think they're going to pull it off. She has to work on controlling her urges.”