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The Art of Telling Fortunes

Updated: Feb 21, 2022

Fieldwork is an essential part of becoming an anthropologist and I began my fieldwork in 1966 at the University of Washington. With two teenaged children at home, I was hoping to avoid going to New Guinea where many of my professors had gone. Seattle had a number of Roma living and telling fortunes in downtown storefronts not far from my apartment. Having once volunteered in another city to teach a charming young Roma couple to read with mixed results, I already had a considerable interest in Gypsies and made them the subject of my study.

The head of my committee, the kindly Ed Harper, had once studied a Roma family in Portland, Oregon, and he arranged for my introduction to some of their local relatives. Fieldwork usually proceeds by questions, answers, observations, tapes, and notes. But Katy, the woman at the storefront, apparently didn’t know this and never seemed available for a question. I would arrive at her Second Avenue doorstep several times a week, be carefully served a cup of coffee by her two teenage daughters, and then sit by myself on the sofa while Katy talked in Romanes on the phone. Her youngest children did what Roma children were taught to do whenever Gadze (Outsiders) visited; they tried to scare me off, telling me ghost stories about the Dead Ones -- stories that, I could see, terrified them. Even mentioning the name of the Dead was apparently dangerous and required an immediate prayerful apology. I would eventually learn that it was the Dead Ones, the ancestors, who punished any infraction of Roma law and who delegated the main portion of their descendants’ good or bad luck (baXt). At the time, however, I found the children’s dramas more frustrating than frightening.

In Seattle, there were three different kinds of Roma -- several Machvaia families and two extended families of Kalderasha. Among the latter, the men bought and sold cars and ran the show. The Machvaia suited me better. For most of the twentieth century, the Machvaia were considered the best fortune tellers in America. They were known as the tribe with money, the Roma who lived in apartments and houses rather than tents or storefronts. They were described as more attractive, richer, luckier than any of the other Roma.

I liked the fact that the Machvanki (Machvaia females) were responsible for earning the family income; all major decisions, such as where a family lived and how, were made in terms of the women’s ability to give readings. When I learned that Machvaia males were expected to be good-looking and socially agreeable, much as I had been expected to be as a young woman growing up in patriarchal America, I wanted to know more. My increasing affection for Katy’s mother, Lola, secured my passion for Machvaia and eventually made it possible to extend my study. Her ten children had married into nearly every California clan and her daughter Katy, whom I would eventually follow to the Bay Area, became a tremendous help. It was Lola, however, who explained how Machvaia became so renowned for giving readings. She said that The God gave them this skill so they would have “something.”

All the Machvaia women I met told fortunes, and even a few of the men did. During the decades I spent with the people, I overheard a multitude of fortunes. Many readings were given to the curious -- people who wondered what a fortune might be about, people unlikely to return for a second reading. Those who became clients were often people lacking in social skills and unwilling to risk an emotional investment. Most often they seemed to have no one to talk to who might listen.

The Machvaia do listen. Dolly, Katy’s whiz-bang fortune telling sister-in-law, had a client who said he was never coming back. She answered “Fine,” he could stay away. But she pointed out the difficulty of his deciding issues for himself without someone to hear him out and make concerned comments. Agreeing that this might pose a problem, he changed his mind.

Americans are raised to value independence above community closeness. Machvaia are raised to value community and the welfare of others above all things.

In the readings I heard, the fortune teller would usually listen, ask questions, discover what was truly bothering her client, and incorporate that information into as much practical advice as possible. The older readers seemed to have become familiar with typical problems according to sex, age, and financial status, giving them a considerable advantage when it came to making predictions. Only the most adept could successfully deal with the unknown.

That was Lola. After we met at Katy’s storefront, she insisted I drive her home, and then told my fortune – the only time that anyone has ever told my fortune. I told her I had been sitting alone at Katy’s, trying to learn about Roma by observation. The words I used, culture, anthropology, fieldwork, were, I would imagine, a foreign language to someone who couldn’t read or write. I could tell I was making no sense whatsoever when Lola frowned and appeared shocked that I wasn’t getting paid for fieldwork: “Nothing?”

But the unfamiliar was opportunity for Lola. After assuring me that my fortune was free and that “I usually get fifty dollars,” she served us each healthy portions of cake with our coffee. She said we were two women divorced and alone, that we needed each other, and adopted me as her driver. Then her voice dropped to a baritone whisper as she pointed out that “Gypsy things” were secret, an honest answer that showed me considerable respect and suggested the difficulty I would eventually have asking her people any questions.

For both Machvanka, Lola and her daughter Katy, fortune telling had a spiritual component. This is apparent from what Katy later remembered about her years in Seattle:

So, I used to have my little place in Seattle.

And I used to go downtown. I used to just go walking, do a little shopping.

And here comes a woman following me. And I used to give readings, stand a

bit, and give a reading. And I used to get $5, $20, $100, or so.

Then, when business was slow, we sold flowers (paper flowers that they


Also, lot of people (Roma) used to come by and ask me for a loan. I used

to help them with a loan . . .when I could.

Sometimes business was slow and I used to worry. I worried a lot. Tsetsi

(former Kalderash husband) and I were split and I had to take care of my

children. I would look at my kids; I looked at Judy: I looked at John. And I

said, oh my God, how am I gonna feed these kids?

So, the next day, somebody comes and gives me two, three hundred

dollars. So I said, “Thank you, Lord.”

One day I went out to the [Pike Place] Market and passed out little cards.

I passed out little bills. Here comes a short guy who says, “Hi! Do you need

any food?” He bought me three shopping bags of food, all kinds. He sat

down and talked a bit. He said, “I know you worry. I know you are a very

worried woman. I felt you needed food for your children.” Then he left.

The Lord sent that man over to buy us food.

Right after that, my business was great. Money used to come to that place.

I didn’t have to struggle any more.

Also, when Katy moved closer to the Market, she found she could canvas the people selling produce and other food before they left for the day, collecting some of whatever they hadn’t sold. After that, her family never went hungry.

Fortune telling was sometimes shamanistic. Katy said she could use a “fresh banana, tomato, peach to find a devil.” Or ask for nine leaves from a plant in the client’s house “to know what is happening and find the trouble.” As she said, “You need money for praying and money for a candle.”

Katy was an expert in trouble. In Sacramento, California, as a child of seven, she had pulled a pan of frying potatoes off the stove, burning her arm and sending her to a gadje hospital for months. The scars depressed her value as a bride and when, as a teenager, she ran away briefly to the American life, her value fell even further. Initially, she was given to a family of Roma crop pickers. Coming home the next week badly sunburned, she was sold for a nominal brideprice to Tsesti’s Seattle family.

When I was visiting California and before I moved there, I asked Duchess, a young girl of 22, how she managed to tell fortunes. She explained that

I have to think I can do it. If I don’t believe, they aren’t going to. I make

myself sure I can help them and usually I think I do. I have to believe that

The God has given me the power.

The longer Machvaia fortune tellers live in America, the less spiritual and the less shamanistic they become. Even in the mid-1960s, when I began my fieldwork, not all readers associated the success of their efforts with Saints and The God. Dolly, Katy’s sister-in-law, didn’t. She had been raised in a New York family with a more practical approach. For her, telling fortunes was similar to psychotherapy. Dolly couldn’t read, but she expected to be a help, and she was. She thought of her long-term clients as her good friends, and they considered her the same. Many of the clients she helped the most were potential suicides. One whom she saved bought her a house. (See Dolly’s chapter, “A Roma Tribe Is Undone,” in my book Life at the Last.)

The 1970s and 1980s! That was the Machvaia heyday when almost everyone was rich (via fortune telling), when money and travel were easy, when the people enjoyed a bounty of good luck -- luck being made by good times. The people lived for parties, parties with a happy Saint, parties blessed by the feeling and passion of song, the divinity that comes with dance. Machvaia celebrated with baptisms, formal engagements, three-day weddings, as well as holiday food and candles honoring the Dead Ones. Most rituals and parties had hundreds in attendance, and some had thousands, the men in tuxedos, the women in formal gowns. No one can remember a time more glorious. I feel incredibly blessed to have been part of the Machvaia time of joyful celebration. In California, we were either busy getting ready for an event or reviewing the last one attended.

In 1975, while waiting for an available place to rent, I was living in Oakland with Katy and her new husband, the Machvano called King, as well as King’s two children. (By then, Katy’s youngest children had returned to their father in Seattle.) King’s daughter Sunshine had recently had her fifteenth birthday and Katy wanted her to practice telling fortunes. At the time, a girl’s ability at fortunes was more relevant to her desirability as a bride and the amount of her brideprice than was her figure, face, disposition, or anything else. But Sunshine complained she didn’t have the feeling to do it. Feelings count: feelings suggest the direction of one’s luck. When King got a fortune telling booth at a nearby fair, Katy encouraged Sunshine and me both to try our hand at fortunes; she said it would be our first time out, and we could do it together. If I, an American Outsider, did it, then, Sunshine said, then so would she. This was before I had heard many fortunes and when I asked Katy what to say, she assured me it was easy; “You just say whatever comes to mind.”

At the fair, my first client was a young Mexican lad of maybe twenty. I cannot even begin to imagine what he thought of my advice. I told him what I invariably told myself; to exercise, refrain from smoking, eat organic and mostly salads, cut down on meat, and pay attention to nightly dreams. Before he could respond, Katy, Sunshine, and I were unceremoniously hustled out, driven to the police station, finger-printed, photographed, and then released. Going home, Sundshine and I were wildly elated that we had done it -- told fortunes for the first time and even been arrested. In those days, fortune telling was legally considered witchcraft and we felt like winners of an advanced occult degree.

But our accomplishments didn’t please Katy. The police had told her we had been working another Machvaia family’s territory. In those days, territories were usually created by an agreement between a fortune telling family and the city council and/or the local police. As setting up business situations was the job of the Machvano, Katy lost her trust in King.

Not all fortune telling is benign. A greedy reader sometimes takes all a client’s means and money. Mileva did (forty years ago) and spent three years in prison.

Marrying late in her mid-thirties, Mileva had been anxious to impress Wild Bill, her new husband. When she found a client with cancer, she promised to provide a cure in exchange for everything the woman had, even her jewelry. The crime was in the newspapers and on television, traveling quickly throughout the California community, causing a vast number of clients to lose trust in their readers. In keeping with Machvaia law, the publicity about this kind of take-it-all fortune telling wipes out the guilty one’s respect, stigmatizing the entire family. By then, I lived in San Francisco. But when I was visiting Katy during Mileva’s imprisonment, I would often see the marime (outcast) Wild Bill, now low-class, unclean, and avoided, eating in an Oakland café by himself.

All of the fortune tellers I talked with said it is better “to grind” -- to tell a succession of fortunes -- than to make a killing. They explained that the amazing amounts of money associated with a bujoh (scam) tends to disappear “like smoke.” Better to make a routine of fortunes, to spend the proceeds wisely, and to keep the virtue of community respect.

Anastasia is my very dear and special friend who left her people long ago. Currently in her seventies, she has had the same client, now a computer analyst, for fifty years. The woman doesn’t get along with her evangelical mother or her censorious children and has never felt accepted by her Bible-thumping family. It is Anastasia’s experienced and practical advice that has kept the client’s family, through the years, on speaking terms.

King was a sweet man and good company. Katy’s marriage to him lasted more than a decade and ended when she got tired of living with a gay man. (In those days, homosexuals were required to pretend.) Later, in the 1980s, Katy married her heart’s desire, a man of sixty-five years, and a considerable catch -- lanky, handsome, good-natured. All the single women in his age group wanted him. Katy took the initiative, calling Chally on the phone, and she got him.

Each week the couple would go together to the local fair. Katy told fortunes; Chally made funny little joke figures to sell out of walnut shells and pipe cleaners. He didn’t earn much, but he liked to create and feel productive. By then, for many if not most, money was tight, fortune telling opportunities dwindling, and husbands were required to contribute whatever they could.

The Machvaia ideal of big moneymaking women and their free spending husbands is currently something of a myth. The wealthiest and luckiest families are those who have invested in stocks and real estate.

These past decades, more and more kinds of Roma who vastly outnumber the Machvaia have copied them and begun giving readings, making any territory suitable for telling fortunes forbiddingly expensive and difficult to find. Adding to the competition are the Americans who give phone readings on the popular Psychic and Prophecy Lines. At the same time, the cost of simply living in America has increased a disproportionate amount. Meanwhile, Machvaia themselves complain they are “going American,” losing their language, their customs, losing their beliefs including their trust in the absolute and terrible power of the Dead Ones.

As Machvaia parties became infrequent, my fieldwork, my apartment rent, and car maintenance grew impossibly expensive. After the stunning pan-California Halloween party of 1996 where the Machvaia – most of whom were under thirty – showed up dressed as ghosts, the Dead Ones, skeletons, and in every costume imaginable, I knew the rules of ritual, the critical enforcement of law and order, the basis of Machvaia spiritual belief had altered and, for many, vanished. I realized I was now studying tribal history. I moved back to Seattle and my family.

Lola died in 1975. She overdosed on sleeping pills – Katy thought intentionally, as Lola’s heart was failing. Katy died in 2001. The day before, I called her from Seattle but couldn’t talk because I was crying so hard. But, even sick and sedated, she must have known that I loved her.

In October 2004, feeling a bit lonely for the Roma, I called Katy’s niece, Little Sonia. She told me that only a few of the elderly still bother with rituals. No more slavaria and big halls. No elaborate banquets like before; now they cost thousands. Years ago, she says, money was easy. Everyone had money and everyone had parties. Now, instead of good times, she has to work hard just to live and take care of her children, Romeo, Valentino, and Barbie.

Besides giving readings, she is baking cakes to sell online. As she says, “Everybody eats. Not everyone wants a fortune.”

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