"When you learn a discipline, the discipline takes over the conscious mind," Mary says. "Which leaves the unconscious mind free. And then it just..."
"Yeah," Mary continues. "To me, it feels like a tunnel opening up for thoughts to come through. Then it's like..."
"You get a hit."
"Right. Sometimes it's concrete and sometimes it's not."
"Sometimes it's a strong feeling."
"Yeah. Sometimes you never know."
Mary is an astrologer with psychic leanings, and Debi is a straight-up psychic. They've been friends for eight years and colleagues for almost as long. When they get together, which is often, they have a way of sharing each other's words, if not thoughts.
"It amazes me," Mary says. "We seem to be the other person's conscious. She's like the other half of me, and I'm the other half of her, and together we make a whole person. We've always been like that. We're opposites in so many things, but we're able to understand the other person's feelings. I feel like she is, and she is like I feel. What I'm trying to say is that we connect. Do you know what I mean?"
Not exactly--and that's the problem. It's almost impossible for Mary and Debi to explain what they do and how they do it. And lately, that explanation has become critical. Because how they define their work could mean the difference between a day of consultation and a night in jail.
For decades, fortune-telling has been illegal in Denver. Anyone doing it, and doing it for money, can be fined, imprisoned or both. The law was passed when the city was still young, when gypsies camped along Cherry Creek--but it was kept on the books long after the snake-oil wagons rolled away. Although it's been updated from time to time, city leaders have seen no reason to abolish it.
John Poley, assistant city attorney, recently flipped through the pages of a municipal digest and found that fortune-telling bans in Omaha, Milwaukee and other cities have been challenged in federal court and overturned. Not only did the laws violate freedom of speech and religion, the courts decided, but they also gave city governments too much power in deciding which methods of predicting the future were more valid than others.
For example: Weather forecasters predict the future. So do stockbrokers, pundits and pollsters. All of these professions base information on specific data, and all speculate on possible outcomes. Fortune-tellers do, too. And while the courts stopped short of endorsing fortune-telling, they determined that, in itself, predicting the future is not a fraudulent act. In a free society, people have the right to choose who will advise them, regardless of how speculative that advice might be.
Foreseeing a possible lawsuit in Denver, Poley asked the city's safety and personnel committee to consider scrapping the ban. Current laws on fraud should protect people just fine, he said--police can still arrest fortune-tellers for guaranteeing such things as recovering from disease, winning the lottery or marrying movie stars. Besides, enforcing the law is not exactly a priority, and nothing prevents fortune-tellers from practicing in the suburbs.
That might be true, responds Detective Mike Pettinger of the Denver Police Department's fraud unit, but the fortune-telling ban should remain, anyway. It gives police one more weapon against crooks. And in Pettinger's experience, con artists often pose as mystics to work larger scams, particularly on elderly people.
Not long ago, he says, a client approached a Denver psychic with a problem. After consultation, the psychic determined that the problem lay in the client's $5,000 worth of jewels. If the client brought in the jewels, the psychic would exorcise the evil spirits, and all would be fine. So the client handed over the goods, and the psychic not only exorcised the evil spirits, but took $5,000 worth of jewels as well.
"That goes on all the time," Pettinger says. "Fortune-telling is where it all gets started. If we keep it out of Denver, we've done the citizens a favor."
So far, the city hasn't decided what to do.
That leaves the future uncertain for Mary and Debi, which is ironic considering what they do for a living. On this gray and drippy afternoon, they are sitting at Mary's table sipping mugs of Folger's instant coffee. They wear no scarves, no turbans, no hoop earrings. They're just a couple of friends taking a break from a script-writing project. And despite potential repercussions, neither woman is shy about discussing her work. Mary even advertises in the Yellow Pages under the "entertainer" category.
They are, however, somewhat wary about a reporter's scribbling and just what that scribbling might mean. "You aren't going to make fun of me, are you?" asks Mary, who, after a narrow-eyed appraisal, concludes, "I think you'll be fair. Your moon is in Virgo. Am I right?...I thought so."
Mary is friendly and chatty. She's wearing a pink cardigan, a blue-and-white striped shirt and black tights. Her hair is clipped short and dyed a shade of red that complements the tint of her large eyeglasses. If it weren't for the tattoos on her earlobes--small clusters of moons, planets and stars--you might think she was a data-processing instructor, which she was, in another life.
"It didn't hurt, because it was on the fleshy part," Mary says of her tattoo, which was done on a lark with a girlfriend. "Everyone loves it. I think everyone should have something tattooed on their earlobes that says what they do. But if you see anyone else with one, you know where they got it."
Mary has practiced astrology for 35 years, ever since a friend read aloud a horoscope that described her perfectly. She has studied dozens of astrology textbooks, co-hosted a psychic radio show in Chicago and worked for two psychic hotlines in Colorado. She has clients nationwide and works as a psychic agent under her business, "Reach for the Stars Psychic Entertainment."
In the days when she was casting her first charts, psychics operated deep underground, Mary remembers. But now, despite the fortune-telling ban, "it's really big in Denver," she says. "Ten years ago I was considered way out. Now it's ordinary. And I haven't changed a bit."
Debi is equally gregarious. She has a blond perm, gold earrings and no tattoos. She used to live catty-corner from Mary's south Denver home, and she worked all manner of routine jobs until the day when Mary took her aside and said: "If you like working in places where people treat you bad, that's fine, but why don't you just be who you are?"
To Debi, that meant embracing the uncanny flashes of intuition she'd had since childhood. So eight years ago, she printed up business cards that read "Step into yourself."
"I think it's something we all possess but don't always listen to," Debi says. "It's not, 'How can I be psychic?' but 'How can I be less logical?' Judging less. Not making assumptions. Understanding there is no such thing as coincidence. I've gotten into car accidents because I didn't listen to myself."
They make quite a pair. Together they work on psychic consultations and collaborate on business ventures. For six years, they regularly appeared on a now-defunct AM talk show hosted by Greg Dobbs, who was highly skeptical of their abilities.
"Every time we came on, he said he didn't want to believe," Mary says. "But he ended up liking us a lot."
"It was fun," Debi adds. "We helped a lot of people."
"We really worked them over."
"We stretched ourselves. You really learn a lot about your gift when you're tested like that."
"You just had this immediate thought and you could not..."
"Think it through."
"Yeah. You had to trust your mouth to say the right thing. You had no filters or..."
"Yeah. It was like that every time."
"And we didn't know if it would just work on command, either."
"But it worked."
"And we were rarely wrong."
"Dobbs waited for us to be wrong, too. Then he'd say, 'How do you do that?'"
With Mary, it's a matter of consulting charts, tables, dates and planetary relationships. For casual clients, she'll ask a birthdate, maybe a time of birth, and offer general assessments on personality, career and love life. If they want her to wear a costume, she'll do that, too.
"If a client wants a psychic cowboy, I'll be a psychic cowboy," she says. "I even have a hat with stars."
For her serious clients, Mary is more thorough, more specific. But even for them, she makes no guarantees.
"I won't tell you to do this or not to do that," she says. "I have no vested interest in telling you to do anything. I just say what's on their chart, and people automatically apply it to their lives."
Or not. Mary occasionally encounters people who are openly hostile. But on the whole, she likes skeptics. In fact, she prefers them. When she's consulting, she doesn't ask about a client's past, watch his reactions or study his appearance. Sometimes she'll even look away.
"I've been doing it so long, it's second nature," she says. "There's mathematics involved, but the art comes from the interpretation. To me, it's like a science."
To Debi, it's a little less concrete. Although she occasionally uses tarot cards or crystal balls, she simply "trusts the information I get."
"I never see Auntie Em or flying monkeys in the crystal ball," she says. "We can't tell anyone when they'll win the lottery, either. Otherwise, we'd just do it ourselves. I just get information. Like this morning. I went to reach for my business cards but said to myself, 'Why do I need them? I'm just going to Mary's.' But now you're here and I need them. Somehow I knew that."
"It comes down to trust," Mary says. "Simple faith."
And ethics. Clients often call Mary and Debi when they might be better off calling therapists. Instead of preying upon their fears, Mary and Debi accentuate the positive. In some cases, they suggest professional counseling.
"If you send someone out with negative information, it's over," Mary says. "They'll dwell on it. I believe in self-fulfilling prophecies. Some people will say, 'You will fall and break your leg tomorrow.' But I don't. I choose my words carefully. I'll say, 'Tomorrow might be stressful, so be careful.' People attach to fear. But they also attach to hope. I'd rather they attach to hope."
Debi concurs. "I've been known to tell people their money will be better spent talking to a therapist," she says. "You must not misrepresent yourself. We're not qualified to counsel people in that way. I'll say to them, 'Look around my walls. There are no degrees.' I won't take credit cards, either, because people don't always have money. Although I can't take care of everyone, I don't want to dig them a hole they can fall into."
Not all spiritual advisers are like that, however. What Detective Pettinger says about fraud is true. Mary knows someone who pretended to be psychic when he was actually a handwriting expert. She also worked for a psychic telephone network more interested in keeping clients on the line than in helping them. She quit after a client threatened suicide and her boss told her she could not call back to check up.
"I can't do this without being responsible for the people I work with," Mary says. "I'm responsible for what I say and how they react. I'm a humanist. I don't want to hurt anyone. I want to help them."
Besides, she says, if you're scamming people, clients will know. "Word gets around," she explains. "If you're no good, you'll never get anyone. People aren't stupid. If what you say doesn't connect, they won't be back."
"They tell their friends," Debi concurs.
"You never need to advertise."
"They find you."
Mary and Debi say they understand the intent of Denver's fortune-telling ban and to a degree even support it. But they don't think it works. Astrologers, psychics, soothsayers and seers have managed to survive for centuries, underground or otherwise.
"People just want to learn," Mary says. "And they want to be able to pick and choose how they do it."
"This has a valuable place," Debi agrees. "Of course con artists should be stopped. But aren't there fraud laws to deal with that? Those are people preying on the vulnerable. That has nothing to do with psychic information. Psychic work and astrology can really pinpoint where someone has lost their way. Within the next decade, psychics will be working with psychologists."
"The ban will just push this underground," Mary continues. "And I don't think that's a good idea."
"There will be more charlatans," Debi adds. "Anytime there's a law, they just come out of the woodwork. Watch. If this goes underground, our phones will ring off the hook. All they have to do is legislate it."
"It will be like Prohibition," Mary says. "You know how people are. If they shut it down, it will become so mysterious that people will do anything to find you. You might as well light a neon sign on my lawn."
In the meantime, discreet advertisements and word of mouth work just fine. Mary will keep charting planets, and Debi will keep listening to her inner voice.
"I'll do what I have to do," Mary says. "If I have to put a sign on my door saying 'This is all a joke,' then I'll do it. My clients will still come."
She knows they will.
She has a feeling.