When it comes to the occult--stuff like astrology, fortune-telling, life after death, and the stock market--I'd like to be rational, but I just can't. I sort of believe in all that crap.
Victoria Martin sort of believes in it too. The difference is, she makes her living at it.
On Thursday nights Martin is the resident psychic at the Parthenon restaurant in Greektown. She joins me, my wife, and our two sons after dinner. The meal we can barely recall a minute after the plates are removed, but Martin's appearance is pretty memorable. She's wearing one black glove, a black shawl with gold sequins, and a black tricornered hat with a sun medallion affixed to the front. She shines a flashlight on our younger son's palm. "Your head and heart lines are combined," she tells him. "That's very unusual. You see maybe one in a thousand with that."
He thinks that's cool until his brother turns out to have the same thing. Martin shakes her head. "I've been reading palms here for eight years and I've never seen a single person with their head and heart lines joined," she says. "Must be because you're brothers." The boys get similar readings and order the same dessert.
A waiter calls from across the room: "Veectoria!" Another table has requested her services, but she doesn't rush away. We just ordered coffee, and she's promised to read the future in our grounds. "It's like a picture," she explains. "I call it psychic Rorschach.
"You don't have to drink it," she says, "but it has to be the coffee you were served." We drain our cups into water glasses, turn them upside down, and place them on their saucers. Then we turn them right side up again so Martin can inspect the thick brown paste stuck to the insides.
She sees plenty of action in my wife's cup. "There's walking, dancing, movement," she says. "You're in a team holding a torch. You're under pressure, but with good humor." My wife confirms that she's just started a project involving a team, dancers, and a trip. Martin says she sees a seashell too. "Keep your ear to the zeitgeist," she advises.
In my cup Martin sees two birds about to fly, a whale with a waterspout, and a Sphinx solving riddles. The birds suggest imagination and invention, she says, the whale prosperity and improvisation. "Help is on the way," she tells me, "an agent or someone else will boost your business."
"You know what I see in there?" I ask. "I see a future filled with chocolate pudding."
A couple of weeks later I contact a literary agent in New York with a proposal. He says he'll get back to me.
The oracle of Parthenon is accustomed to doubters and skeptics--she counts herself among their number. "It's so embarrassing to do this for a living, because there's no reason it should work," she says. Except, she swears, it does work. "I have regulars who come back every month. They tell me these things happened."
In the course of her career Martin has looked into the futures of cabdrivers and commodities traders, restaurateurs and satanists. Back in the 80s she read tarot cards as a "psychic entertainer" at Oprah Winfrey's Eccentric restaurant and bar. Now, in addition to the Parthenon gig, she has a regular job writing an astrology column for Bloomberg News. She's also a painter, with a studio in Chinatown, and her canvases have been displayed at the Chicago Cultural Center. She's a Daughter of the American Revolution and an Art Institute graduate; she's taught at her alma mater and is scheduled to lecture on art and astronomy next spring at the Adler Planetarium. She's a dues-paying member of the Oriental Institute, the Cliff Dwellers Club, and the Spertus Society, where she hangs out with world-renowned scholars and experts on the ancient Near East. She belittles her insatiable curiosity by referring to herself as "an academic groupie."
Now 49, Martin's been in the mystic business for 30 years. At the age of seven a chart she got out of a ten-cent vending machine told her she was an Aquarius. She was also a Baptist, and at age 17 she was introduced to the Reverend George Gibbs, an ex-vaudevillian in his 80s who told fortunes in special appearances at south-side churches. ("That really helped attendance," Martin recalls.) He told Martin she was going to be a psychic, and then used his corporeal connections to make his prediction come true.
Eventually he referred her to the Illinois Psychic Institute, in an office building near the corner of Clark and Lake, where he was a "resident clergy member." It was 1972, and she was a sophomore at the Art Institute. "My parents thought I was nuts," she says. "To prove me wrong, my father started to study astrology--and he got so caught up in it he actually became an astrologer. He found it explained a lot of things." Martin's mother, an art teacher and writer, remains unpersuaded.
Like her father, whom Martin has described as a "perpetual student," she's still learning, even after all these years. She reads cups, cards, palms, faces, and ears as well as constellations, and she's studying up on stones and sheep innards. (About a year ago Martin finished a series of paintings based on the ancient practice of divining the future from viscera. She spoke with Jesse White's people about hanging them at the Thompson Center to promote organ donation, but he declined. "They said they couldn't promote one artist," she says. "I told them they could use them anonymously--like anonymous organ donation.")
Each system has its particular use, she says. For instance, palm and face reading are best for telling quirks of character, while astrology's efficacy depends on the character in question. "A person with strong character does better under bad configurations than a person of weak character under good configurations," she says. The best use of the stars is for timing, she adds.
Timing led her to become the only astrologer currently employed by the mayor of New York. Thirteen years ago, while researching uses of astrology in financial markets, Martin was introduced into a circle of financial astrologers by a man named Norman Winski. "He was this wild, crazy guy, same birthday as me, who had predicted all these things with the market, and his use of astrology got real famous," she recalls. "And he got written up." Something traders usually avoid. "The worst thing that can happen to a trader is to get featured in an article of a paper. And to be on the front page? Kiss of death.
"So this guy had the misfortune of getting featured in the Saturday Evening Post or something, lost all his money, but still had this group called the Aces, who had used astrology in financial markets. And oddly enough, when I was in college, I had a group called the Aces." Though her Aces were a performance group, the coincidence of names and birthdays seemed fortuitous. Hanging out with the financial Aces, she heard about the Bloomberg position and applied for it. She did the job for free for the first six weeks to see if it would catch on. It did. "At the time it was a multimillion-dollar company and now it's like a multibillion-dollar company," she says. "So I got in in the midstage and have been with them ever since."
That financial markets have an established undercurrent of irrationality and superstition isn't too surprising. Wall Street is like Hollywood--nobody knows anything. There are plenty of chart-reading fortune-tellers working for brokerage houses, whether they call themselves that or not. My broker, a man in his 60s who has worked most of his life for Salomon Smith Barney and a solid adherent of proactive financial planning and capital formation, just signed up for a course on "developing the sixth sense" at the Kabbalah Centre in New York City. "I believe in the psychic phenomena," he tells me, as we discuss undervalued companies. "It's very unpleasant right now and people need a lot of help."
Martin doesn't actually recommend particular stocks in her column--she herself doesn't invest, and she doesn't follow the market. Her column, called the Mass Psychology Forecast, is aimed at brokers and traders and is available by subscription only. "I write a weekly forecast, and I split it between forecast and advice," she says. "Some people don't want advice, they just want the forecast: it's raining, you don't need to be told to take an umbrella. It's an insult to some people."
She's not required to persuade her readers to believe in astrology. "Mike [Bloomberg] does not believe in astrology, and whenever he sees me he lets me know he thinks it's a crock," she says. But he knows he's got a good thing. "It's my understanding that the column has a lot of readers," Martin says, and some of them also say they think astrology is a crock.
And as you already know, she's not sure they're wrong. But you don't have to believe in astrology for it to work; it's not magic. "Astrology or reading cards is a correlation of patterns," she says. "Magic is a petition to get something you want. It's a lower form of prayer." In order to get something from, say, Ishtar, the Akkadian goddess of war and sex, the magician has to believe in Ishtar. Martin doesn't believe in Ishtar. Or Ouija boards, or UFOs. Or ghosts. "It's scientifically impossible," she says. "There's no such thing as a vaporous disincarnate being. I just can't buy it."
Martin is interested in magic, but not in the practical way she's interested in divination. So in her self-directed studies, she often turns for advice to rationalists, like the academics at the Oriental Institute. On her regular visits to the OI, she's like Dorothy visiting Oz, except she has her pick of wizards to consult. About a year ago she met Professor Robert Biggs at a party there, struck up a conversation about his work in Sumerian pictograms, and learned more than she expected when she asked him, "What are you doing next?"
Writing a book about livers, he said, specifically sheep livers used to tell the future in Babylonia.
Since then she's become an occasional visitor to his office, where the two are a study in contrast: Martin in flowing purple, dark haired and animated, Biggs in professorial beige and brown, soft spoken and gentle. "Once you're a member of the OI, you're part of the extended family here," she says. Biggs agrees.
She also frequents the OI's Elizabeth Morse Genius Reading Room, where she studies Sumerian and Babylonian cuneiform and copies the Egyptian incantations that she hires University of Chicago students to translate. She's learned love charms as well as a first-century Alexandrian method of picking the winner in horse races.
Being a nonbeliever, she hasn't tried any of the spells at home--instead, she paints them. In 1995, Martin took a course in the Kabbalah at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies with Rabbi Byron Sherwin. She learned enough about Kabbalah's system of symbols, the Tree of Life, to create a series of paintings based on it. It took her two years to paint the 11 canvases, collectively called "Eleven Heavens."
Then some bad things happened. "When I finished them I had a bad reaction to penicillin and went into the hospital," she says. "After I got out of there, I went to get a raise from Mike Bloomberg and he almost fired me. I got into a huge fight with my mother. I lost $20,000 in antiques. I got assaulted in the gym, and then I was stalked."
She can't help but wonder if her run of bad luck was related to the paintings, and points to the story of the four rabbis who studied Kabbalah as evidence: "One went to paradise, one became an apostate, one went crazy, and the other died. That's a 25 percent chance of success."
She now stores the paintings in two separate places, just in case.
Does this sort of stuff happen because the magic is powerful, or does it happen because we believe it will? One worrisome aspect of the phenomenon of millions of people believing that the apocalypse is near is that prophecies can be self-fulfilling--if people believe it will happen, they'll make it happen. Or die trying.
I'm inclined to hedge my bets. For one thing, Martin's reading of my coffee grounds came true--sort of. The agent I contacted agreed to represent me. Did I make that happen because I'd been told that it would? I don't know. But three months later, the agent doesn't return my E-mails. The coffee grounds didn't say anything about that.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David V. Kamba.