persona non sequitur

a review of media by a slightly jaded baby boomer.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

   My path to creating the New York Tarot started with a crime and came to the finish line with Punk Rock.

I acquired my first Tarot deck by defacing US currency.

It was spring of 1968. I was 14 years old and in 8th grade in junior high school. That year the girl’s home economics class was full to overflowing, literally. There were so many of us that first day of class some of us were out in the hallway. I’d already taken that exact same class in 7th grade. I wasn’t looking forward to doing their mac and cheese from scratch again. In my opinion the cheese wasn’t flavorful enough. It needed a super sharp cheddar not Velveeta. I already knew how to cook. I was already doing fency schmency menu items like tunnied veal, strawberry soup, broccoli da rabe sautéed in garlic and olive oil, and recipes from the Sunday NY Times food section at home.

A boy’s shop teacher, Mr. Babbitch, had a free period, and an empty boy’s shop class room, at the same time as the over populated girl’s home ec class. He offered to take any girls who would volunteer to take a boy’s shop class. So about 20 years ahead of gender distinctions being removed from NYC public schools, I and 11 other girls learned wood working, metal working, soldering and copper enameling. – This last skill, copper enameling, I loved. It had all the fun and candy colors of cake decoration, but unlike that ephemeral art, my pretties were made of glass and metal and could last. I prevailed on my parents to get me a little copper enameling kit and kiln for Christmas that year. I tore through all the little pre-stamped pins, medallions, ashtrays and tie tacks in the kit. When I ran out of premade items I turned to my change purse for copper. I started enameling pennies. That spring I started decorating pennies with clear enamel and candy colored peace symbols.  This was during the worst parts of Vietnam War and the use of little round pins with the peace symbol on it as an anti-war statement. The peace symbol had not been co-opted as a fashion motif. It really meant something. There were people in my super conservative racist corner of Bay Ridge Brooklyn who risked getting beat up for wearing it. I was both a pacifist and a goody goody since age 9. So defacing US currency, by making it pretty, and making it an antiwar statement appealed to the closeted fannish/punk/anarchist part of me that wouldn’t fully emerge until 15 years later. Plus the grownups loved them!

This was also the dawn of the Head Shop, a place where they sold clothing, bedspreads, jewelry and incense from India, peace-nic Hippie stuff, and the paraphernalia for consuming that stuff that smelled(to me) like burning autumn leaves. They also had a Tarot deck. I’d just become a Buddhist (different story, some other time) and the Head Shop was where I bought my incense. I was always asking to see stuff like jewelry and the Tarot deck that I couldn’t afford to buy. My only source of income was $1 a week allowance and saving about $4 a week by making my own lunch and walking the mile plus home from school and pocketing my lunch and bus money.  I had the idea that the Head shop owner might like my enameled pennies, so I showed them to him with the thought of selling them to him. Instead we worked out a trade. 100 of my enameled pennies with peace symbols for the Tarot deck.

The deck was the Muller deck also known as the Swiss deck. The instructions for how to do readings were thin. I used it for a little while. I found it disturbing. The illustration style reminded me of Arthur Rackham, an illustrator of children’s stories that had creeped me out as a kid. I put the Tarot deck in a drawer and didn’t touch it again for over 10 years. I transferred my interest in divination to the I Ching.

Fast forward 10 years:1978.

I’d graduated college.

I’d gotten a job answering hotline calls at a shelter for battered women.

I’d joined Science Fiction Fandom.

I’d found a rock band that was still rocking when the rest of the world had turned to disco, Turner and Kirwan of Wexford. I got involved running Science Fiction Conventions, specifically art shows.

In the intervening 10 years Hippies had discovered Tarot cards and created their own decks. Additionally 2 other Tarot decks that had existed back in 68, the Thoth deck(presented to me as the Crowley deck) and the Waite deck were now more widely available.

In July of 1978 I ran my first art show at a Science Fiction convention. I was very stressed. I was fresh out of school, I felt I’d bluffed my way into getting the gig, and now I was handling the work of important artists, artists whose work I’d been seeing on SF book covers all my life, and now I was selling their stuff and….AAAAAHHHHHH I’m going to fuck it up!!! A friend of mine, Amy Sefton, kept giving me readings with the Morgan’s Tarot, a lively, funny, light hearted deck. Even Death wasn’t that threatening. The readings seemed to truly reflect my inward condition and they gave me comfort and insight at a time when I still wasn’t fully in touch with myself. I was impressed.

I got myself a copy of the Morgan’s Tarot and started doing readings for myself and my friends.

That rock band I mentioned? I was part of the volunteer road crew. I’d meet them at whatever obscure bar had hired them, help unload the equipment and set up, then watch to make sure the equipment didn’t get stolen while the band went out for dinner. I found myself in bars all over the NYC area. Bars where I knew no one but the band. I quickly discovered that the easiest way to make friends and get random folks to buy me drinks, was to pull out my Morgan’s Tarot and do a reading for myself.

The following always happened:

Random Stranger: Are those Tarot cards?

I’d nod my head: Yes

Random Stranger: Do you do readings?

I’d nod my head: Yes

Random Stranger: Do you charge money?

I’d shake my head: No

Random Stranger: Would you read my cards? (and once in a long while, this being NYC, late 1970s, in the era of Taxi Driver, they’d use the word ‘Please’ in there somewhere).

So I made a habit of doing Tarot readings for Random Strangers. I told them flat out, “I’m not psychic.” My method of reading, which I learned from Amy Sefton, was very interactive. I discovered something really important. Remember that shelter for battered women I mentioned a few paragraphs ago?

I was answering the same kinds of questions for the Random Strangers as I was in answering the hotline.

I came to see reading people’s Tarot cards, indeed, all forms of divination, as forms of folk psychotherapy, a way to counsel people in times of personal crisis and indecision. Think about it. When you are going through trouble what do you have to do? You have to make a decision. How do you make a decision? The answer you need is inside you. How do you get to it? Pray, phone a friend and talk, drink a cup of chamomile tea and sleep on it. Tarot readings are a way of getting to that answer inside you quicker.

I also came to believe that sometimes Tarot readings are BETTER than talk therapy. Because people may not believe me when I tell them “Do not sign a lease with your boyfriend because, by your own report, he can’t hold a job for more than a month and you are going to be stuck paying for everything.” But when they see the Two of Cups crossed with The Tower followed by the Five of Pentacles, AND THEY ARE THE ONES WHO SHUFFLED THE DECK, they believe. I saw it happen again and again. There is something about the visual content in Tarot cards that zooms right past people rationalizations and diminishments and goes to THIS IS WHAT YOU HAVE TO DO.

Which brings me back to that first deck, the Swiss deck I used defaced US Currency to acquire. That deck was designed for playing card games. The Swiss deck wasn’t designed for divination.  Prior to the Hippies getting interested the Tarot, your store front Tarot reading psychics were interested in keeping their customers coming back. It was all about keeping customers separated from their own feelings of agency and separating them from their money. What did they use? The Swiss deck. I knew a few card readers my own age who had worked for some of those store front psychics. They quit because their bosses wanted to keep customers hooked, while my reader friends wanted to give readings that helped customers figure things out and get better AND NOT NEED TO KEEP COMING BACK EVERY OTHER WEEK WITH THE SAME FUCKING PROBLEM.  To keep that customer hooked, to keep the con going, you don’t want your customer to understand what the cards are suggesting. And it helps if the card’s artwork sustains feelings of unease.

That same distaste I felt for the art in the Swiss deck prompted the Hippies and others in the late 60s and early 70s to make the Thoth and Waite decks more widely available, and eventually prompted many to design their own, like the Morgan deck that guided me on my way. I’m too young to be a Hippie. I’m a Punk rocker. But, like my Hippie elder siblings, I reacted to the Swiss deck by creating a deck, The New York Tarot, that was accessible and relatable, and that drunk people in obscure bars could understand.

Giani Siri