She went, on the sly, to a psychic because she was bewildered by the man she was seeing: what was he doing? While the psychic looked into the universe for insight, the woman heard a doorbell ring, heard the door open, and then heard the low voice of the man she was talking about, just a few feet away in the psychic's hall. He can't know I'm here! Whaddawegonna do? When the man's view was blocked, the psychic hustled the woman the opposite way down the hall and out the back door to the porch. In a matter of minutes the psychic had the man settled into the same seat the woman had occupied so recently, and began her next reading. This client, it developed, was bewildered by the woman he was seeing. What was she doing?
What are they doing, these people who pay $50 for a stranger to tell them about their lives? At the very least there's a superficial morbid appeal to the question. You could ask a psychic why--I did--but it's been as interesting to ask the clients, more than a dozen of them. They all visit one particular psychic, Sonia Choquette, the one smuggling clients back and forth down her hall.
Sonia is an ex-airline stewardess (out of work because of the TWA flight attendants' strike over the last year), tall yet petite, approaching 30, who uses a client's familiar belongings--house keys, say, or a wedding ring--and a deck of playing cards to focus her thoughts. And as she sits at her small round table, playing with the house keys in one hand and tapping a Salem Light into the ashtray with the other, thoughtfully talking, she looks for all the world like, yes, a pleasant flight attendant.
Among the regular clientele I talked with are a doctor, lawyer, commodities trader, therapist, housewife, and cop; and from each I caught glimpses of far more interesting and important questions than my superficial curiosity at first suggested, questions that I took back to Sonia herself.
As a scientific control I got my grandmother to go as well. And I learned a few things from her, too.
I got my clearest expression of the difference Sonia can make to her clients' lives from a north-side cop, a veteran of almost 20 years. He's seen Sonia every six months for several years. When I met him, he had just changed into his swimming trunks at a lakefront field house after coming off duty. He said he'd answer anything so long as I changed his name. I've changed it to Tom Kozinski:
"I've always had an interest in the metaphysical. It started, I think, in Catholic grammar school, where I'd always ask questions that I got either hit for or sent out of the room for, and it's been under my skin since then.
"My initial reaction to Sonia? It was incredible! I left there just floating. The way I describe it to myself was--working here on the beach, I felt like one of those salmon. You ever see a salmon when they split it open, all the eggs spill out? She unearthed from me things that I hadn't told anybody, and she went as far as to bring out in me things I didn't even tell myself, that once I heard myself say them I knew they were true. But she did it in such a loving manner. It was like an instant analysis. She just puts you right on the right track.
"See, I was brought up in the Catholic schools, very strict schools, and I had a lot of ground to make up before I got to ground zero. To start learning again. I'm still doing it now, getting old thought systems out of my head. But now I don't take anything personally anymore--a person is, you know, doing something incorrect, he hasn't had the advantage I had; I mean I could have been doing the same thing if I was brought up a different way. He's a little down the path from me in social behavior, but maybe other areas of his life he's ahead of me on the path.
"I come to the conclusion that life is like little kids playing. Like a Monopoly game. If my parents came and said, listen, your child owes my child $10 million for this game, you say, what difference, this is a game! It's a game to teach these kids skills, how to interact together, group dynamics.
"This is a game. 'Illusion' is the popular word. And we're here to learn, get back to where we should have been, before we decided to separate."
It's hard for me to remember that this is a cop talking. Tom is stocky, his arms are beefy, and above his bright eyes his pate is freckled and flecked where many generations of skin have peeled under steady sun. He stares into the unfocused distance as he speaks, now and then glancing at me almost shyly. As he stands in his trunks with his arms crossed, leaning against a garbage can by the beach house, I can glimpse the cop in him, now and then--an officer standing at ease--but it's hard. "Sonia takes all the cares and woes and vibrations in the outside world," he goes on, "and shows them to you for what they are, nothing, shows you what you are, that there's a purpose for you in this world, there's someone with you at all times.
"I think if you always knew who was with you, you'd never be afraid of anything. I use that at work now, it works tremendously in dangerous situations. I know who's with me, who's inside me: the Christ, or God.
"I have to center myself. If I get caught up in the world here, or the situation, I'm like anybody else, I get scared and I do what I do through rote or peer pressure--whatever, whenever policemen do what they do. But once I center myself and I realize what this is about--here, I had a man on the beach the other day supposed to have a gun; I was by myself here early in the morning. People said he had a gun and he seemed a little crazy, and I had to go down there myself and take care of it. You know, 7:30 in the morning, you hardly woke up! Much less you wanna face what could be the end of the world for you.
"But because nobody was in immediate danger, I just took a half a second to center myself, and rely on the God in me, the Holy Spirit. If I couldn't communicate with the guy, I thought maybe the Holy Spirit could communicate with the Holy Spirit in him. See if we could settle this amiably. I didn't want to deliver any hard karma to him, however you want to say it.
"I got to the point where, if I was scared, I should be ashamed of myself, thinking: Who was with me? Who was inside of me, walking right with me? Taking my hand, if you want. And He says He'll take it, if you feel better thinking I'm holding your hand. He said, 'Do that, because it's not a fantasy. I am.'
"And I walked down there and we took care of the business. And it was done--he didn't have a gun.
"In my early years on the police force I didn't have that benefit. I was scared, and what happens when you get a situation like that, thankfully--and I think this is what keeps policemen going--is you do for a few seconds what the sages and mystics of the world try to do their entire life: you stop time. You live by the moment.
"And I've been in situations that literally time has stopped. A second was literally an hour. When that happens, you put all these emotions on hold, and you just do. And then you get scared. Several times after it's all over, your knees shake or whatever.
"You can't separate yourself from God. I mean, you can try, you can do it intellectually, but you can't. He's gonna be there, and things are gonna go according to the plan, no matter what. It's like they say, we are already perfect. We just don't know it. Once we convince ourselves, it's done.
"She's helped me tremendously."
Sonia's been psychic all her life. She says, "I never realized I was psychic exactly. When I started going to school I realized other people were not." Her mother, a working psychic for many years, had encouraged Sonia from infancy to try to know things without using the usual senses. "It was approached like a game, but my responses were taken pretty seriously, and it just evolved into a natural, comfortable state. Until I started going to school I didn't think about it being anything unusual. It was probably around eight, nine, I began to realize other people had strong attitudes against it, so I kind of went underground.
"Basically, my mom always told me it was perfectly natural, it just wasn't common, and that in her part of the world, Bucharest, in Romania, it was very common. But she always pointed out to me that . . . it was never considered a gift. Some people have it and some people don't pay attention to it, was more the attitude. But it was also very fun.
"It was my entertainment as a child, seeing how much I could pick up without having any information. My mom would play with me: every day at school there'd be something different for lunch, and she'd always ask me what it would be before I'd go, and check after. And who's on the phone, and letters from Europe written in Romanian, I'd have to tell her what the relatives wrote about. And read cards. I spent every day doing that. Every day I'd pretend I was psychic."
As Sonia says in her workshops, you can't experience what you can't imagine. She learned that from her mother, too.
Once after teaching Sonia the meanings in a deck of playing cards and how to lay them out for a reading, out of the blue her mother handed the deck to Sonia and told her to try to read for herself. "I felt put on the spot. My mind went completely blank. I remember really wanting to try, but at the same time being anxious that I wouldn't be able to. That it would sound stupid, or I wouldn't be aware of any psychic feelings at all. I said to my mother, 'I don't think I can.'"
Her mother laughed and reassured her, saying, "Just imagine that you're psychic. Don't worry about what you say."
So Sonia played a game, pretending that she was a gypsy reader passing through town, and imitated what she'd so often watched her mother do: she told her mother to shuffle the cards, as her mother always told clients to, then Sonia laid them out in the familiar patterns. "At first it was hard to think of anything to say, and I was very general. But as I relaxed and got absorbed in the game, more and more specific things came to mind. My mother was very reverent, listening to every word."
Sonia doesn't remember much of her chatter that day, except the last thing she said. She saw her oldest brother, who was hundreds of miles away at school, coming home for the weekend.
"I thought that message was silly because I knew he was in Utah and wasn't planning to come home until September. But that's what came into my head and I said it. Two hours later Stefan walked in the door. My mother just about fainted.
"And I couldn't believe it! I was just imagining I was psychic, and yet there Stefan was!"
She was seven years old. "From then on, imagining I was psychic became my favorite game. The more I imagined, the better my readings were. It was easy; I didn't have to try to be psychic. I just pretended I was, and never censored the psychic feelings that came. I imagined I was psychic until I believed it. I came to believe it because I was getting more and more accurate readings.
"My imagination game began to take on new dimensions. I started imagining what work people did, where they lived. I even imagined their addresses. I'd imagine what color car they had, whether they had families, how many children. What their names were. I'd nonchalantly approach people and ask, to check my accuracy. And I never worried about my mistakes--it was just a game. I'd keep on playing."
She played psychic with a couple of other girls on the block all through childhood, and her unusual home life made up for difficult times in her Denver school, where she was one of few Anglos and stood a head or two taller than everyone else.
"So I made my world with psychic things, instead of feeling awkward or out of place. But when I was a teenager--I'd been doing readings for other people for several years, and by then people would say, 'Come have her do it, she's so young, it's interesting.' I was flattered by the whole thing, until I got invited by the police to go to this house where a family was murdered, and it was my first direct experience with tragedy, awful things.
"I went with a couple of other psychics, who really whipped out crosses and carried on, and it scared me personally to death. Traumatized me. But it was the best thing that ever happened, because at that point I began to pay attention to what psychic ability really involved. And I began to question more deeply the nature of why things go the way they do.
"So that point was the initiation of my more spiritual education. I was maybe 12. I pursued more serious reading, not only boning up on my psychic skills but researching what makes the world go round, how we create our own future, and how psychic energy is just picking up on those probabilities in action.
"I really studied it. I was no longer satisfied just being a psychic. In fact I didn't like being connected with that at all, especially after those psychics carried on and scared me so. I wanted to completely remove myself, and I approached it more like a science.
"And I took a pretty strong dislike to a lot of the brouhaha associated with some psychic types. In my older age, I feel like if someone wants to dress up or put on the dog, that's fine. It's just not my way.
"I didn't like to feel so alien. Psychics sometimes tend to congregate together and depart from the mass. I don't feel that's necessary. Or true. And it's dangerous when you just congregate with a bunch of know-it-alls. Where will you learn?
"I think it's better to be in the midst of this, that's why I took a job with an airline. To get out, be exposed to what's happening, not depart from society and call myself special. It's very uncomfortable. Extremely. I didn't like it."
I began asking questions of Sonia Choquette's clients in the downtown law offices of Andrea (Andy) Schleifer, an attorney in private practice who's had two or three readings with Sonia in the last two or three years. She says she usually goes in for a "pep talk," for reassurance that life makes more sense than what she sees at the moment.
"There's something about seeing the forest for the trees," she says, "seeing that there is in fact a bigger picture than whatever you happen to be tripping over right now; there's some map, whether or not you know exactly which road you're going to travel on; there's some order, even though we may not ever discern what that order is. And knowing that if there's something particularly troubling, then maybe there's a reason for it, which we can't see. Being reminded of that."
Sonia often seems to produce a soothing sense that what's ahead, even when it's frightening, will come out all right. Andy mentions the recent experience of her chiropractor, who first recommended Sonia to her. "He had a reading when his wife was pregnant, and I guess Sonia gave him some information about her pregnancy, and then he said, 'By the way, my sister-in-law is pregnant too; can you tell me anything about that?' Sonia said, 'Oh, she's in excellent health--she's gonna have to have a C-section, but don't worry, she and the baby boy will be fine.'
"I went to see the chiropractor last month, and he said, 'I got a call yesterday. They had to do a C-section on my sister-in-law.'"
Sonia once told Andy she'd have a wonderful trip out east, and Andy protested she wasn't going east: "And about two weeks later I was invited by the ABA, expenses paid, to go to Florida. Was I gonna turn that down?" But while it's fine to learn what the future holds, sometimes the present is at least as bewildering. For example, Andy laughs, "There's so many moving parts to relationships. Sonia's spoken a lot with me about relationships, whether personal or business. I have a real good sense of what I feel, obviously, but it's hard for any of us to know what somebody else is feeling, and I think she can get a real handle on that kind of perspective."
What comes with that perspective? "For those of us who are filled with a lot of doubts, having someone be able to, well, see inside you and yet see a bigger picture and reassure you with that view is helpful. So I think it's more the immeasurable things, the unquantifiable."
And with these unquantifiable things Sonia somehow taps into human needs? "Doesn't any counselor?" Andy responds. "I mean, whether it's a psychiatrist, a doctor, a social worker, or a lawyer, we're all feeding into and from human needs. I think the thing that's remarkable about Sonia is that she's not looking to anything outside, and there's a very limited amount that she's asking in terms of, you know, x amount of dollars. It's not a continuing obligation that you have to her.
"She's not giving you fancy little pills from a bottle that you have to go back to or get addicted to. But she can hold a mirror up to you in a different way and feed the human needs. Spiritual needs. Clearly, she's spiritual. But she's not asking to convert anybody else. They can take of it what they want and they can leave; she's not proselytizing at all."
So how's she spiritual? "That's a real good question." It reminds Andy of an old uncle who, as he struggled to get his motorcycle started to take Andy for a ride, tore a ligament in his right leg. "And his face turned white as a sheet, and nonetheless he was able to call a cab and get his motorcycle taken care of. And he clearly was in absolute pain, yet he kept on saying, 'My left leg never felt better.'
"There was just something about him, too. He had a calm in the face of adversity, I guess, and a belief that things would be as some order would have them be, and a belief in power greater than oneself. But I'm sure that when Sonia's doing her job for TWA, her passengers probably just feel like they're being reassured and cared for, I don't think that she . . . there's just an inner glow about her, too, that just, I dunno . . . spirituality, hard to measure. Hard to describe. But it's just that extra added dimension . . ." Andy shrugs regret that she can't be more articulate about it.
In so many and such instructive ways it's hard to talk about these things, and often what's said seems contradictory. As we're winding up the interview, Andrea tells me that she "went to the home on Saturday of a respected professional woman, and she belongs to a church, I guess, where they believe in psychic powers. She had two psychics at her home who were giving readings. She must have had 30 or 40 people come through, including physicians, lawyers, and government bureaucrats. And we were all there sort of as part of an inner circle, but I'd say at least half the people would not want anybody else to know they were there.
"And in fact this woman said she doesn't tell many people, because it sounds hokey--people will use it as an object of scorn or in some way try to twist it. And I said, you know, I don't think I care anymore. It's not hurting anybody else; I don't think I'm being led down any garden paths; I appreciate that someone is open to realizing that they're not pulling all their own strings, and I'm tired of people who either have the need to be, or believe they are, in total control.
"I mean, I certainly have that need myself. And maybe that's one of the reasons I go to see Sonia too, so that I have more information, a greater view to control."
Such paradoxes--are clients surrendering or gaining control?--keep cropping up in conversations about people's psychic experiences. But just as I was leaving, Andy also suggested how paradoxes are sometimes resolved--by the sheer force of people's practical purposes. She said, "I heard Quentin Young [the former chairman of Cook County Hospital's Department of Medicine] on WBEZ the other night talking about acupuncture. Apparently his wife quit smoking after one acupuncture treatment, after 20 years of smoking. And he was saying everybody will feel a whole lot better when somebody figures out how acupuncture works. But just about everybody is beginning to believe it does work. Don't know how, don't know why; and I think that, you know, I feel pretty much the same way about psychic power."
But sometimes things that work brilliantly for no discoverable reason can be a lot of trouble--how do you set objective standards for performance? How do you replicate the results? How do you assure that, or even act as if, every geek with a degree in the discipline has a defensible right to his or her shingle? These points come home to me as I talk with Jean-Luc Heiz, a food importer from France, and his wife, Irama Neri, who grew up in Mexico and Venezuela and has had extensive experience with psychics. We sit in their fern- and palm-filled living room overlooking the streetlights weaving through Lincoln Park, and if the setting doesn't actually transport me to Venezuela, I still feel a long way from the city out the window as the exotic-looking Irama explains her interest in psychic phenomena.
"I fell in love with Sonia. It's Sonia, eh? Everything she is. I come from a third-world country, I grew up in Mexico, and all my life I have been near all those things that you cannot touch. Even though I'm familiar with that world, I think I find in Sonia something that you can touch from the world you cannot touch.
"She's excellent, she's very sensitive. She's like us, she's a human being, she has nothing strange, and she knows a lot and she's very wise; and she makes you feel like you can know a lot also. That it's nothing special, it's something that you are born with."
That was a new approach to Irama. "I have been seeing psychics all my life, and I never found them normal. No, they were, you know, some of them with the turbans and some of them with a lot of altares [altars], saints and things in their house, and smoke, you know, different things. And Sonia, no, Sonia tells you that she was a stewardess and now she's not working because of the problems with the airline, with the same problems that we all have. She's not starving, she's cultivated, she's completely the opposite of what I have seen."
Irama and Jean-Luc both have found their visits energizing. "What is a great thing," Jean-Luc says, "is for her to tell you that, first, you are able to control your life. But she shows you that you have the power also to get to the things you want, you are what your personality is. But focusing on everything that's good in you, that can really generate something positive in your life. That's where the sparkle comes, I guess." Later, he says getting a reading is "a little bit like you have your life in front of you, but not with the details that invade you and make a big fog; it's like, 'Here, you have this, that, that,' everything has its right spot. It's wonderful. It's clear, it's like you have a better picture of everything you have at that moment, the elements that you have to work with."
She's also given them books to read, her home phone number, workshops on psychic development and getting what you want, a ready ear, ready advice. Without my asking, Irama says, "Yeah, I would tell a friend, instead of 'Go to a good therapist,' I would tell him--and I have already done that to one of my friends, because we all have problems--'Go to Sonia.' Go to Sonia, it's like going to a therapist. Go to Sonia. . . . She talks to you and she gives you books to read; she gives you the opportunity to see her again if you want, to call her; she's available always. You call her, and she will call you back two days after, or three days or the same day, but she'll call you. And she's an excellent therapist."
Well, what would a therapist say to that? Mary Ann Daly, a therapist and substance-abuse counselor, is also Sonia's client. And just as Irama sees psychic readings as a kind of therapy, Mary Ann cannot separate therapy from spirituality. She says, "Often when people come to see me--not always, but often--they're really experiencing a spiritual crisis. What's missing is meaning in their life. Being loving, and knowing how to accept love from other people. That's the bottom line. And we could bullshit and psychobabble with all these terms, but that's usually the bottom line.
"And I see our psychological makeup as the thing that often gets in the way of our connecting to our spirituality."
She sees Sonia to be connecting people with their spirituality, a tough job in Mary Ann's experience. "If you talk about the top three most private matters, I think they go in this order: sex, money, and spirituality, spirituality being the most private. People will talk about their sex lives a lot easier than they'll tell me how much money they make a year. They'll tell me how often they're screwing, who they're screwing with, but if I ask them how much money they make, they are gonna ask me why, how come I need to know? And if I ask them about God--I don't think it's so much not wanting to, it's just, I don't think people know how to. It's hard.
"That's one of the sacred pieces of our spirituality: it isn't really that clear, or easy to talk about, because it's very deep inside of us. And I don't think most of us make contact with that part of ourselves enough to be able to express it real easily."
And as clouded as the link may be, she takes for granted a close connection between a person's spirituality and psychic phenomena. "I think that someone like Sonia obviously has a far more advanced development of her psychic ability, which I don't really understand, but I believe that we all have that intuition, that ability that begins with connecting with our feelings.
"A long time ago, and this made a tremendous difference for me in my own personal growth and professional work, this 70-year-old, very wise man [a therapist] at a workshop said, 'You know, it's not important that you trust me.' Whaddaya mean? That's always a big focus for these therapists, to get everyone to trust them. He said, no, it really doesn't matter if you trust me or not; he said what matters is that you trust you.
"That really took me back. I'd never heard somebody say that before. At first I didn't know if I liked it or not. I'm supposed to be helping people learn how to trust me. And I don't totally discount that, I think it's important. But I know what he was saying, which is that if you learn how to trust yourself, then you'll know if you can trust another person."
Not trusting is part of not feeling. What doesn't register in oneself can't be conveyed to others. Half-thoughts we daren't pursue--Did I know he was going to call me? Is the bastard breaking my heart?--slosh back unacknowledged into the occult unknown, where we never quite lose them, until they become such problems that we need people like Sonia and Mary Ann to dredge them up.
Mary Ann gives an example of a client's first step toward self-knowledge. "I have a client in a group that I do, and she's had a wicked migraine all week. Well, she's been in this group for three years, and she was able to say, 'I know that I must be angry and I must be feeling a lot of longing.' Those are the two things that always come up for her with migraines. And she says, 'I'm not feeling it. I can't connect with it. But my headache's killing me.'
"Now, two years ago she would have told me I was full of shit [for saying her love life and migraines were connected]. But over time, and after having told me I was full of shit, she's listened to her body enough to know the signals. It's gonna take her some time yet to be able to connect with those signals; not all of us connect with our feelings 100 percent of the time, no one."
Is that what Mary Ann sees Sonia for? "I'd say a lot of people go to her when they're not sure what direction their life's going in. We're always looking for somebody to tell us," she laughs ruefully, "what to do and where to go. So I have used her for that. And it's been very helpful. I remember once real clearly feeling like a lot of stuff that I had been just tossing around in my head, things I had really been thinking about but hadn't talked about with anyone, especially job-related stuff, different possibilities, it was like she had been sitting there listening to all of it in what she was giving me back.
"Now, I haven't gone along with all of her suggestions. In fact about two years ago, one of the first times I went to her, she told me that I needed to be downtown with my office, that's where I needed to be, blah blah blah. I walked out of there and I thought, 'Yeah right, Sonia, I'm not going downtown.' I'd been working up in Rogers Park, the majority of my clients were from that area, and I wanted to stay there. So I found an office in Rogers Park.
"I'd just gone into private practice, and she had reassured me, which was very helpful, that financially things would be OK. And I guess I really needed that reassurance. Since she'd been so on-target about other things in my life, it was easy to trust her in this thing."
Mary Ann hadn't moved downtown, though. But a year later, poor services in her building forced her to move again, just two weeks before a vacation, and she couldn't find any space.
"And Sonia said, 'That's because you're not looking in the right place. You're supposed to be downtown. I told you that a year ago.' Well, I thought, OK, I'll listen this time. And she said to me, 'You're gonna have a great office, you're gonna think you can't afford it.' She said, 'I see you off Michigan Avenue, you got a view of the lake.' I thought, yeah right, Sonia; and sure enough, that's exactly what I have.
"There was a part of me that was cynical, and there was another part saying, well, be open to it, the universe provides. And if I'm open to it and she's having glimpses of these things, then it will work. So I did a lot of meditating on it also, and things would happen."
Did she actually visualize her Michigan Avenue view of the lake in an attempt to make the downtown office happen? "I visualized windows. I wasn't worried about--I just visualized windows. When I meditate I use a lot of creative visualization principles of putting out for what I want, or better--and that's what happened. It fell into place like that." Her fingers snap.
"So that's what I use her for. Especially with business stuff. Very, very affirming. There's been times that stuff she's told me I would do, I haven't done. I think that has to do with stuff she picks up on, our possibilities at that time, more than a specific: 'This will definitely happen.' She picks up on things that I'm thinking about, so in some ways it's almost like listening to somebody, someone objective, say out loud things that I've been mulling around inside.
"So what I'm finding is, I'm not walking out of there like I used to, going 'Oh my God!'--you know, I'm not awed, I'm not in that place at all anymore. I walk out and I go mm-hmm, yeah, that's right, that fits. It's become more like an affirmation.
"I think it's an affirmation of my own intuitive sense of my own process. Somehow it's picking up on my energy and feeding it back to me. Possibilities. All the possibilities that are going on in my life. Areas that maybe I'm stuck in.
"Like for a while when I was just really being a raving workaholic, she would say to me, 'You're working too much, you're getting too intense, you need to be out there having fun.' Well, you know, no shit, Sonia, I know that. But the piece that helped was her saying, 'And it's gonna be OK. You need to let go of that and it's gonna be OK. You're not trusting that.'"
For Tom Kozinski, Sonia's one wedge in a vast opening. The questions I ask Tom about Sonia prompt answers about the universe, and it's clear there's no separating the woman from the world she gives access to. I ask what difference Sonia has made in his work on the force.
"Oh, it's like night and day. Just take a look at my disciplinary record. It's spotless for the last ten years, as opposed to my first five or six years on the job--you know, you wanted a fight, you got one. A good one. That's not necessary anymore, not necessary at all. When somebody fights me now, I'll tell him, you know, we all have the same father. I don't care what color we are, we all have the same father.
"I'll try to talk somebody off the beach or something, and if he wants to fight, I'll tell him, you know, I'll fightcha. I'm still young, I like a fight as much as the next guy, but I say then, after we fight, we're gonna get back to my questions. Which is: I want you off the beach, and this is what you gotta do. But you wanna fight, we'll fight. You want to wrestle, box, do whatever you want. But then--you're not getting out of anything--we're gonna get right back to where we are right now. And they think about that, you know.
"I think about it more like boxing in a gym; I don't take it personally. And what I do now is, I don't have the macho thing, and if I have the luxury of a minute or two I'll call another policeman or two. And by sheer numbers we'll talk somebody out.
"I don't get any thrill. Today, I lose. I fail. If I have to fight somebody, I fail. And if I do have to fight him, I contain him. I used to try to drop him, and hurt him."
He's gotten pretty good at turning over to the Holy Spirit the petty frustrations inherent in his old ways of thinking: "In your car, guy cuts you off and gives you the finger, boy, I was right there. Now I just smile and I go. People butting in line in front of me. Right now, I'm trying to see the light in everybody. I have to get it in my head.
"See, I deal with people from, literally dying in the gutters, alcoholics with ulcerated stomachs, with their intestines outside their skin, to heads of state. Whatever. And I have to see the light in both of them. That's what I'm working on now, instead of saying, 'Ahh, he's just a bum.' He's not a bum! He's my brother. He's as much a part of the universe or God as I am or anybody else.
"That I gotta work on, because it's the truth. It's the truth, and I didn't see it. I gave the benefit of the doubt to about 90 percent of the population, but there was 5 percent on the top and 5 percent on the bottom that I didn't want no part of. Whether it was the Rothschilds or the arms-and-munitions people or the bums in the gutter. They're also part of it. That's something I'm working on now.
"I'm starting to get glimpses that the only--I have another business going. I grew up real poor, and I thought money was the answer to everything. Well, I got money. And lots of it. And it's not. And I thought a lot of other things were the answers, and they're not. I have a beautiful girlfriend and I've got all kinds of things, and they're not. I've gotten glimpses of reality or what true peace is. And 'whet your appetite' isn't the word. It's all I want. It's all I want. It's all I want. Now. God first and everything else second. Because it's the only reason to be here."
Later, Tom explained how this relates to Sonia Choquette: "Sonia pulls it all together. She's for real. I see Sonia as someone who's realized a lot of the goals I have in mind. I look at her--it's the old master/disciple thing. She doesn't know it, she'd probably be mad at me if I called her my master or anything, but she certainly is someone I can touch base with. And she just straightens me right out. You need that. You do need that.
"Because you can go off on tangents. And along the path there's a lot of pitfalls. She keeps you straight. And in such a loving way." He chuckles. "She has an incredible smile," he laughs more broadly, "with this gentle smile and a few words, she'll say, 'Oh now Tom, now you know that. . . .' 'Yeah, you're right, I know. . . .'"
"It's like when I was in the Marine Corps: 'We don't make men, we bring out the men in you.' She doesn't tell you anything you really don't know."
Tom answered plenty of other questions as well, but they all led back to this powerful, slight stewardess, the pivot of such disparate lives. "I had a problem about a week ago," he says. "And I had to talk to someone. I just had to talk to her quick, because it was a timing thing involved. I called her message service from that phone. And I came right over here and I sat down"--he sits on the rim of a park garbage can, arms crossed, scowling at the pay phone nearby--"and Sonia pulled up on a bicycle." She told him she'd been hurrying home to an appointment when her bicycle swerved over to him.
"I pictured Sonia, and I charged that picture up with some energy, emotional energy. I said: Come on, Sonia! I need it! And that's the energy that makes it come into creation. And it works. It bounced her right over that median and across the park. She said, 'My bike just pulled over here.' She says, 'I didn't know what the hell it was doing.' I don't think she even saw me, and see, her being a sharpie, being more along the path, she went with it, she went with the flow. That's what I want to do.
"I'm getting better that way, but I would be the one to make that bike go that way and probably end up in a four-car accident. She knows how to feel when the universe is pulling her."
Feelings. Feeling and pulling. Irama had said that Sonia offers "lots of affection, her voice, it's like a blanket. And she's giving you a lot of confidence within yourself when she talks to you, and she tells you you are going to have it. Then also she gives you books to read, she gives you her backing, her wisdom. She's a very important person in my life."
There's something of the same feeling in a story another woman tells. A physician in her 40s, the woman was shocked the first time she saw Sonia to be told that she was going to have another baby. "I was much too old, and I certainly wasn't planning on any more children," the woman says. "But she was right." So when the rabbit died she went back to Sonia to learn the sex of her child, yearning for a girl. Sonia said it would be. But Sonia told her husband in a separate reading it would be a boy. "And then I had amniocentesis, and that showed the baby to be a boy, and yet--I thought to the end Sonia was correct and it would be a girl. It did turn out to be a boy.
"I think in that case what Sonia was reading was my overpowering desire to have a girl rather than a boy." She laughs at the memory.
Feelings and pullings. Mary Ann's conclusion: "The piece that helped was her saying, 'And it's gonna be OK.'" Andrea: "Knowing if there's something particularly troubling, then maybe there's a reason for it, which we can't see." Tom: "I'm sure there's a metaphysical meaning of it; I'm literally half as heavy after a reading, I just float out." Marriages have stayed together when Sonia has predicted that a spouse will see things more clearly. Businesses have been born, frozen pork bellies lofted up and down the indexes, on Sonia's say-so. "It's like going to a therapist. Go to Sonia." Pulling and feeling.
But what's really going on? Are these people spiritual junkies, scoring some spirit fix? They certainly don't think so, each one offhandedly saying he or she sometimes ignores Sonia's advice. No one's called her infallible--quite. And several people note that she won't return your calls if you've a problem you have to work out for yourself.
And if she's a pusher, she's the most reluctant I've ever encountered. She tells each of her clients not to come back for at least six months after a reading, and encourages people to take one of her psychic workshops, which end with the admonition never to come back at all.
I spent several evenings kicking around these issues, among others, with Sonia and her husband, Patrick Tully, a hypnotist and stress counselor who cohosts the workshops. One evening, after a long day of divining for Sonia, we were a couple of hours into more talk when Patrick caught a fidget of fatigue in Sonia, stood, shook my hand, and wished we had more time.
Still full of my questions, I walked along the lake to Montrose Harbor, then east toward Montrose Hook, the pier protecting the Montrose beach. I knew the moon, a couple of nights past full, would be rising soon over the water; as I waited for it the lights downtown were sparkling like piled pirate's treasure. The late spring air was damp and warm, and alive with boom boxes, squealing tires and girls, hooting and howling boys. The sounds of their skylarking subsided under the lapping of choppy water as I walked out onto the Hook, where, but for a few couples quietly petting here and there, I was alone.
The onshore percussion is inaudible here, drowned by the water, of which I'd heard not a splash before. Here the wind works unobstructed, fluffing whitecaps all around the pier, making me zip my jacket. But every few minutes, for just a second or two, somehow in folds of wind and sound I catch a low moan from the foghorn on the old Wilson Avenue water-intake crib, more than two miles out. The crib's long abandoned, and the horn groans warning in open water.
I see the yellow warning light blink from its old, dead dome, and as I watch the light I realize I see a light mist, lying low on the water, all through the periphery of my vision. Yet my middle field, where I actually look at things, sees no moisture in the air at all. Something about the eyes' rods and cones, I figure and forget, now watching a green light bob toward shore. It slowly scribbles the air above the water like a will-o'-the-wisp, wavering free. Then some hot-rod kid does a doughnut in the parking lot, and his brights whipping across the horizon sweep the hull of the sailboat that has that green light on its mast. Only in that instant do I see the boat. There is a mist.
I'm struggling to make sense of all I've heard. Around me whitecaps are racing to shore from sea, a north wind's picking up, and the breeze, sultry on shore, out here is edged with northern ice. Soon I'm watching airplanes plunge from the lake's blue skies into the puke pink over the city, watching one light after another soar above the racing water. Some sort of stunt flier catches my eye, so low I think it's a boat at first, except it's moving fast, due north, skimming the water. It's the damnedest thing I've ever seen, I've never seen a sea light move so fast. I think to clock it against the light on the Wilson Avenue crib, and look for that yellow pinpoint. I can't find it! There's just one light out there, and that one's hauling ass, right where . . .
These whitecaps are blowing south ever faster under the crib light, which now that I recognize it is standing still. My head's getting cold and windblown, and I haven't eaten. I give up and go home before moonrise.
Sonia and Patrick are two of the most aggressively normal people imaginable. They're a handsome couple, both rather tall and thin, fine-featured and friendly; and Sonia's supernatural warmth is complemented by Patrick's humor and charm. I mention all this in part because it was so often mentioned to me: Sonia and Patrick put people at ease. And in part I mention it because being normal is clearly so important to them.
At first I took it for simple backlash from an abnormal past. Only after talking for hours about other things did I learn that Sonia and Patrick still have to put people at ease when they meet, still face gales of nervous giggles and stupid jokes. "Haddaya keep secrets from her? Hah?" backslappers jabber at Patrick. Going about life means hearing, like the tolling of hours, "Oh yeah? What's my phone number?" And there's no counting the people who dodge them at parties, or whose ears turn red, for fear of their brains being ransacked.
Sonia and Patrick still reminisce about the days they first met, years ago, when their first partnership was a silk scarf business--together they cut, hand painted, and sold silk scarves for a lark. They'd introduce themselves as fashion designers. People would say, "Oh, that's nice," and talk about something else.
That's what they reminisce about. Sonia asks, "Do you have any idea what it's like to talk about something all the time?"
The problem they face, and it seems nearly insurmountable, is that everyone really does have the same questions: Can you tell that I think you're cute? Why am I sometimes sad for no reason? Are you reading my mind right now? What does it sound like? So, once and for all, I tried to have a long, dumb-question-and-answer session with Sonia and Patrick. But, as you'll see, their reality was forever straying out of the ruts of my imagination. My questions were answered, but within a much larger context.
"Back in high school," Sonia says, "I felt tremendous discomfort. People who knew I was psychic made fun of it, or acted like I was reading their minds, which I think is presumptuous. It would be entirely too much work." She makes a face of exasperated distaste. "Or laughed at it. That's why I kind of retreated, on my own with a couple of friends and my mom. And I found my pursuits much more entertaining than the average high school stuff.
"Also, being psychic gives you an advantage when you're in your teenage years, because you're curious about everything. You don't know anything about anything, and you think you know it all. At least psychically you can explore more deeply.
"Mostly love affairs. You get these crushes, and we were reading the cards and trying to dig up everything we could."
Never mind the cards, why didn't you just read their minds? "Never interested me. Never. No. I always felt that that was an intrusion. And I was very conscious of not being--I didn't want to be alienated. I felt enough that it was uncommon, but if word got out or it was ever suspected I was picking someone's brain, then I would be shunned. So I just never did."
Then what do you get out of this? "I'd say the greatest gift I've received from doing readings so long is that I have been able to gain a great deal of insight without having to go through the experience. I've been so sympathetic to people's problems, understanding how and why they come about and what needs to be gained, that it's spared me the need to go create a bunch of problems for myself. Not that I don't create problems for myself, but probably less.
"You see, when I read for someone, I experience from their point of view. That's how I can see why they got into the situations they got into."
What happens when you read? How do you understand what you pick up? "I don't understand, it just is. But what I pick up is their consciousness, in several stages. One, the creative stage, where they're considering action or considering needs or looking for something--sometimes I see it, sometimes I hear it, sometimes I just know it. It's almost as if I know it. Like what I'm saying is something that is sort of understood.
"When I speak, it's almost automatic, I don't really think. I just relay. I don't feel my own personality is involved much. Actually I think people would be shocked sometimes to see my own personality in contrast to my reading personality. I think I'm a lot feistier and a lot more erratic in my own life than I am when I'm doing readings. Doing readings I'm perfectly calm. It's a shift of consciousness."
Is that shift a professional service or in the nature of the reading? "It happens. In the nature of the reading, by training, and by doing this for so long. No matter what my condition, when I'm doing a reading, when I start the whole world stops. I can be upset, I can be tired, I can be starving, no matter what my personal condition is when I start working, it ceases. And I've gone into readings all worked up over, you know, my own personal affairs, and the minute I sit down, I'm there. But I think that's training. That's years of doing this."
Yet this world stopping isn't an escape. It's a job--hard, draining work that leaves her exhausted at the end of each day. Given that she turns her powers off and on at will, the people who feel nervous around her have nothing to fear. "Quite frankly, so much of my life is involved in psychic work that I don't pursue other activities that would create that same energy. I pursue activities that are more pedestrian. I get a great deal of pleasure, when I'm not reading, doing paperwork or cleaning the house or doing the laundry, mechanical things that don't involve a great deal of inner energy.
"That's my balance. A lot of people see me for readings and it's very meditative and quiet, but when I'm not reading I like a party, or a social gathering, friends for dinner, a houseful of people, out on the town. That's the balance. This is such internal work that my relaxation is to do something totally external." The idea of recreational brain-picking seems never to have entered her head.
Then what does she see herself doing, in the largest sense? "I think I'm primarily helping people get back in touch. With an inner self that's very balanced and very reliable, and can be tapped as a resource to make their lives more satisfying. They're reminded that the ultimate resource and the ultimate authority on how best to live your life should be to reflect within.
"I continually state in my readings, the first commandment is not to have false gods. Including me. That's why I don't allow taping. My greatest function is to try and help you reconnect to yourself. The data might be curious or interesting, some of it's flat-out dead wrong, but the purpose that I serve best, I think, I usually accomplish. I usually incite or instill within people a conscious return to their own spirit. Kind of fuse them back together. And to me that's mission accomplished."
And how does that happen through these random stories about events of the past and future? "Well, you tell a person what he wants to hear about first so he'll listen. I remove the particulars of the transitory state and then I go to the deeper issues, like why are you in these states? Has it occurred to you to reflect that maybe there are deeper disconnects here? Things of the past and future I don't think are really of that much importance. What's much more important is to become conscious that there's an inner self.
"The most significant thing in a reading is bringing out what they're fighting their inner self over. Putting my finger right on what they're in conflict with usually does the trick. It's like: 'I knew that.' And I say, well, that's the part of you you're ignoring, the part of you that knows that. But it depends on each situation, and it's not a conscious process. I don't think it out, it's a spontaneous event. I don't think about anything until I sit down in a chair, and sometimes not till five minutes after I've sat down. . . . Each situation is unique. I think that what I do--I discern the situation as a whole, and then try to connect the pieces. You get a loose marble or two, I don't care.
"A big turning point in my life, though, where I became really comfortable with being a psychic, and really started progressing, was after I met Patrick. He was the first person I ever met that just took it in stride. I might as well have said: I'm a waitress. He just kind of, 'Oh, good.' But not, 'Oh, that's something!'
"So, soon after we started dating, we were already speaking of ways to teach it: the difference between a reading and a workshop is [the difference between] a fish and a fishing pole.
"Another thing Patrick did for me: I'm extremely good for other people but I'm rather shortsighted when it comes to myself in some respects. My enthusiasm and impulsiveness tend to cloud my own decisions. Patrick is far better than me at calling day-to-day decisions.
"And he relieved me of being self-conscious, being conscious of what I did [for a living]. It became one thing I did. Which was a real nice thing; I was able to enjoy it more. I wasn't as drained."
"Yeah," Patrick says to her, "but then you always felt responsible too for people. Sometimes she'd feel responsible to people who'd keep calling her, saying, you've gotta come, this is critical, I've got to talk to you now--and it'd be 4:30 in the morning. And it'd be about some love affair that, this is the sixth breakup in six years, you know, with the same guy. It wasn't critical, it was hysterics. And I think she learned how to sort through a little of that."
"That's a good example of Patrick's own intuition being better than mine. I'd rise to the call, and Patrick taught me boundaries. He taught me how to be able to say no, and trust that people will survive. That's the best thing he taught me, to define the parameters of my role really clearly. And it's helped tremendously. The quality of my work has improved, and I enjoy it more.
"A lot of times Patrick intercepts, fields. His background in psychology and dealing with people in crisis situations has been invaluable. A lot of times people do think I'm a therapist, and I'm not. I'm not qualified to resolve deep psychological difficulties. If it occurs that what I bring about in their consciousness causes spontaneous healing, wonderful, but I am not a therapist. I actually encourage people not to see me any sooner than a year. Minimum.
"It robs people to become--it's wrong for people to fall under the impression that somehow I can change things. I'm like a road map, that's all. Everybody's drive is different. People sometimes will call me, when in fact they probably should be calling a doctor, a counselor, a friend. I do what I can, but I think it's dangerous for people to think that I can do more than I can."
But don't think Sonia and Patrick are complaining. As Patrick says, "It's great, I love it. Because it's so much better than working. Most of the people that come are very open, very healthy, very spiritually seeking something more than just the meat and potatoes to survive. They're a nice group of people, and it's a really refreshing perspective on life."
And Sonia cuts in, "It keeps our world large. It keeps us extremely conscious of the million and one ways to go about life. And it's entertaining as all get-out. The people coming and going are, most of them like Patrick said, a sheer delight.
"A lot of the people who have been coming around lately seem to be extremely willing to be responsible for the way their life goes. It used to be, and I notice that this is almost a trend in general consciousness amongst people, five or ten years ago people would come saying: 'Well, why this way?' Or 'Why that way?' And now it's more like, 'How can I make things go better?' There's a larger degree of personal responsibility and interest in improving the quality of their life. I think that's a real obvious change over the last five years."
What can you see about the way people live that most of us can't see for ourselves? "Probably the most important thing is that most people see life only from their own point of view, and it never occurs to them that there might be another point of view, or another motive, or another reason, or another attitude operating in those individuals in their lives around them.
"And that's the greatest source of their pain and anxiety: their single-minded point of view is greatly misunderstood by everyone else who has their own single-minded point of view. Dealing with so many different people keeps us from necessarily assuming any one point of view to be it. It makes us perhaps a little bit more tolerant and understanding of other people."
What's the truth, Sonia?
This isn't easy. She says, "There's no absolute other than the Divine within." I try to wheedle her down to earth. "What's interesting to me when I do readings is, people do know the truth, but they don't stop long enough to pay attention to it. And they're often too busy trying to perpetuate the myth instead of the truth.
"An example: One woman I read for kept having problems finding a job--that was her myth, when the truth was she didn't want to work. And the minute I said, 'Well, has it occurred to you that maybe you'd rather be home, raising children, that that's really the truth?' it was like, 'Oh, thank God! It's true!' And she'll admit it readily! Once you've exposed it, pulled the curtain away.
"But I would be very presumptuous to give you a definition of truth in any large sense. Never. That's one thing I know to be true in all my experiences, I've never even attempted. Truth isn't a concrete thing."
It sure isn't. I learned something about that when I took my grandmother to Sonia for a reading. Grandmommy was visiting from WaKeeney, Kansas, a town of 2,500 located in the geographic center of nowhere. She had no idea what to expect from Sonia, but had thought a great deal about her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren in the days before her reading and was full of questions about them. She came out from the reading delighted. My father summed up the news from the reading curtly as: who's gonna get fatter and who's gonna lose weight. But Grandmommy also learned about her house plumbing, one of her investments, her upcoming travels, and who broke her crystal bell.
She had a souvenir crystal bell, which she kept on the edge of her buffet in Kansas, and she used to ring it sometimes as she passed into the living room because she so enjoyed its clear, soft tone. One day the bell rang flat. It scarcely had a tone at all. With her failing vision it took her a while to see that her crystal bell had been broken and painstakingly glued.
Who could have done it? And why hadn't he or she told her? She wouldn't have been angry; the bell had no sentimental value. She suspected it had been broken by her cleaning woman, who'd been with Grandmommy for a long time and was herself getting along in years. The woman wasn't as agile as she once was, and she knew where the glue was kept. Perhaps she was embarrassed--worried--that she knocked things over now.
Grandmommy was much relieved when Sonia told her the cleaning woman had broken her bell. And as Grandmommy told my aunt and her family about the reading that night here in Chicago, she recalled again how she'd told the cleaning woman explicitly that she had no special attachment to the bell. "I bet that made her feel better," my teenage cousin said.
There was silence for a few moments, and then my cousin spoke again. "I hate to spoil the psychic's reading of it," he said, "but I broke your bell."
He said he was really sorry, and he had hoped that gluing it wouldn't make any difference. He was very penitent, and of course Grandmommy forgave him.
But she didn't believe him. His mother said, "With all the things he doesn't confess to, I can't imagine him confessing to something he didn't do," but Grandmommy didn't want to believe him. She said Sonia's theory made more sense.
I saw Sonia and Patrick soon after that reading, and as I was leaving I told Sonia some nice thing Grandmommy had said about her.
"What a nice woman! So full of life. How old is she, 79?"
Sonia nodded and smiled, remembering her fondly. "Her biggest question was who broke her bell!" She laughed, refreshed, I suppose, by the scale of my grandmother's problems. "Her cleaning girl broke it. But you know," Sonia said, suddenly earnest, "that bell was very important to her. Very important. I think when it broke, it was like the bell represented her own vitality. You know, someone should give her another bell."
"She used to ring that bell every time she passed the dining room bureau," I said.
"That broken bell means getting old to her. I know it. I just know it!" At that moment she looked for all the world like a flaky girl having a flaky feeling. "Someone should give your grandmother another bell."
It's been a month since I sat puzzling over my questions on Montrose Hook; now I'm back awaiting another waning moon. Twice as many kids are rioting on shore as before and the lake breeze is barely blowing, so I hear the odd wheelie or drum solo drift out now and then from land. While I wait for a moon tip to slip up from the water, I'm thinking about where truth comes from, and where to get a crystal bell.
Sonia said that people's creative projections--their overweening desires, like having a girl baby, and beliefs, like the real way a bell was broken--can be so strong and fixed that "sometimes the projection falls into my realm, and I don't discern closely enough. So I'll sometimes pick up someone's projection, their strong desire."
"Discern?" I said. "What's the difference in the way you pick up a projection or a--"
"See, Charley, the difference is, I don't know the difference, that's why I do that sometimes."
I'm wondering what's the difference, and what's the crystal bell. But the evening lake air's balmy, I've eaten, and I've time to wonder. And while I wait for the moon, a ruddy red glow fires up from the Indiana shore, on the farthest horizon, higher and higher, delighting me to recognize it. They're firing up the furnaces in the mills.
When I was growing up on the south side and there were still furnaces to fire, I'd come out to the lake sometimes to watch the South Works swing shift fire the skies. I've never seen it from so far away, though, and from here it's so cool and stately . . . and it's not spreading, it's climbing . . .
And then the moon runs into thick yellow from old-blood red as she clears the mill air, brightening for heaven and slowly outshining the stars. The message that never seems to come down from the mountain is that wisdom is an experience, not an understanding.
Maybe one day I'll understand a little less.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.