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Just Your Everyday Paranormal

Psychic Friends

by Marc Savlov

photograph by Bruce Dye

Despite what might charitably be referred to as a theologically conservative upbringing, I spent some time as a youth trying various forms of esoteric divination with the express intentions of:
a) sluing around impending exams;
b) figuring out if she did, indeed, love me after all;
and the time-honored
c) turning the neighborhood bully into a waffle.

Nothing much worked and when Old Scratch himself turned down my admittedly slipshod soul four times running, I knew it was time to pack up the Aleister Crowley Tarot deck and the Ouija board and get down to the truly hellish business of reality.

But despite what may come across as a particularly cavalier and occasionally downright sarcastic attitude toward psychic phenomena and the like, I've somehow managed to cling tenaciously to my childhood belief that if I just grit my teeth hard enough, that damn plastic planchette will dance right across that board and reward eternal patience with a shockingly obvious glimpse into the Unknown.

It hasn't happened yet, but what the hey? I'm open to anything. I do live in Austin, after all....

It's hardly news to note that Austin, Texas has an above-average number of psychics, palm readers, Tarot advisers, and astrologers living and working in town. Every day, to and from work, I pass at least a half-dozen businesses -- usually nothing more than converted residences doubling as at-home businesses with orgiastically colorful makeshift signs posted in overgrown front yards -- that profess to have special insight into my future and yours. You can hardly sneeze within Austin City Limits without gobbing on a psychic, and trying to navigate The Drag without eyeballing a vaguely dishevelled Tarot reader is akin to traversing the length of the Bosnia-Herzegovina DMZ sans shrapnel. It simply cannot be done.

Austin just wouldn't be Austin without the plethora of psychic advisers-cum-astrologers-cum-shamans; they are a part of this city's wonderfully eccentric, creepily endearing urban personality. Noted skeptic and exposer of charlatans James Randi has always referred to divination and the outre arts as "flim-flam," and while I have to agree there's a whole lot of snake oil salesman out there, obviously not everyone can be written off so quickly. 50,000,000 Elvis fans can't be wrong and all that sort of thing.

A quick glance at the yellow pages reveals dozens of listings under the heading "Psychics & Mediums," and dozens more remain unlisted. Alongside the locals are an assortment of national 900 numbers, including Psychic Twins Network, which I presume Hugh Hefner had a hand in, and the much-beloved (in Tangiers, anyway) LaToya Jackson's Psychic Network. It became clear that there are too many to cover locally, much less nationally -- but LaToya is tempting [see sidebar].

From the back of his Mexican import shop at 1500 S. First Street, Lee Cantu, alongside his wife Luisa, runs one of Central Texas' most influential psychic outposts. Looking like everybody's favorite uncle and liberally peppering his conversation with references to the Virgin and other Catholic iconography, the heavyset Cantu has an enduring -- and endearing -- reputation that spans across Texas and to a lesser extent, the world. He is a curandero, a psychic counselor who lists his preternatural talents on the wall outside his shop. Inside is a mix of Mexican herbarium and Catholic imagery. Countless images of the Holy Virgin crowd the walls and shelves, competing for space with busts of the revered Mexican faith healer El Niño Fidencio, odd-looking bottles of colored oils, packets of mysterious powders and charms, and a nearly life-size statue of the Virgin Mary -- encased in glass -- that is said to weep real tears. Miracles occur here on a daily basis.

Growing up in the Corpus Christi area, young Cantu had many spiritual encounters, though he was slow to accept the fact that he was different from the other kids in the neighborhood.

"I'm not selling religion, but higher concious levels have a key, and that key lies in a knowledge of the Bible. I know that I opened myself up to a higher conciousness by studying the Bible." -- Lee Cantu
photograph byBruce Dye

"Number one, I was born with my gift, but I rejected it, for the longest time," he says in a surprisingly quiet, gentle voice. "During the time when we were growing up, everything was very hush-hush. It was not spoken about freely like it is now, and that made me not want to do it. Even though I knew I was born with a gift, I held back because I wanted more than the knowledge that I had. And the other reason, of course, was that I thought everybody else could do what I could do. I would go around asking people, `Don't you see what I see?' If somebody asked me, I could read them like a book."

After the death of his mother, herself a noted herbalist, Cantu began to study his craft in earnest, seeking the advice of experts in the field of spiritual healing while working towards an Associate's Science degree from Corpus Christi's Del Mar College. As he initiated himself into the life of a curandero, he and his wife eventually found their way to Austin, where he at first plied his trade out of the back of a van not far from his current office. Cantu's reputation has grown to almost mythical proportions in the intervening years. He's as well-known outside of Austin as he is to the dozens of daily visitors that enter his shop.

Describing his clientele, Cantu says he has "whites, blacks, Hispanics, Mexicans, South Americans from Brazil, Colombia, Peru, English, from Korea, Japan, India, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans -- just about every walk of life there is."

So then, what, exactly, does Lee Cantu do for his clients?

"I do card readings, psychic readings, past life regression, trance readings, dream interpretation, and water readings. Water reading, of course, is where you dip your hands in the water and touch the tips of the fingers and you pick the electrical impulses from the body and it tells you what condition the body's in, like scanning the body. It's very useful for diagnosing what a person may suffer from that a doctor cannot find. You could very easily say I go into alternative medicine through that, because by doing so, you can change your state of consciousness and then actually change the other person's vibrations to be able to accept the healing process."

As with most psychics and spiritual healers, people come for a variety of reasons, and as you might expect, many of those reasons have to do with love and relationships, ailments and aches. Think of the curandero as a small-town G.P.

"Most people come to me looking for answers to, oh, relationships, children that have perhaps been taken from one parent by the other, physical problems caused by nervous tension -- a lot of that. Basically they're looking for answers and guidance. Which direction to take. What to do," says Cantu.

"When we do readings, we're bringing messages to the people on what's wrong with their lives that they need to change. A lot of times you need to change your own self before your partner or other people around you change, so that you can get better.

"That's one of the biggest things the Virgin is pushing in knowledge towards us, to make sure that people understand that the way of life is not by rebelling or by being upset with the rest of the world. You want the world to change, first you must start with yourself. And by changing yourself, you are becoming that much closer to God. I'm not selling religion and I'm not being fanatic about any religious belief, but higher consciousness levels have a key, and that key lies in a knowledge of the Bible. I know that I opened myself up to a higher consciousness level by studying the Bible. That's one of the tools to get there. The keys are in the Bible."

The First Street area where Cantu's Import Shop is situated has more than its share of astrologers and spiritualists. Step out his front door, and turn either left or right, and you're almost in sight of either. Cantu realizes that Austin, and particularly South Austin, revels in psychics and healers. His explanation? Cantu feels that the recent influx in Californians drawn by Austin's burgeoning Silicon-Valley-like status is mirrored by the arrival of other psychics. But his take on the approaching millennium -- an event guaranteeing increased spirituality and increasing numbers of psychics -- is somewhat different.

"The millennium affects us, certainly. Without a doubt. Unlike other psychics and stuff like that, I've had a lot of apparitions of the Virgin. She keeps appearing, trying to bring messages to us, telling us to clean up our act and pray more for the balance of this world, because everything is so off-balance. We need to stop trying to take all the energy out of the earth and start trying to put some back in."

That may be party line for the eco-friendly, Nineties-style green party of Austin or other liberal communities, but it's hardly something you'd hear from La Toya's crew (trust me on this one).

Along with many other Austin-based psychics and healers, Cantu was at one time a member of the Central Texas Parapsychology Association [see sidebar], though his ties with the organization have frayed over the years. While having nothing but high praise for the CTPA's founder, Joe Nichols -- himself a respected psychic -- Cantu admits that the volunteer-run organization, which provides a place for Texas psychics to unite under one flag, is no longer for him.

"Before, I was very active with them, but just like any organization, they let new people come in. With the new people comes a lot of envy and fussing and so forth, and I'm not into that. My business has gotten so big, I need to take care of it all the time. I would lose money if I were to follow around psychic fairs and the traditions of CTPA. Bottom line? It's not what it used to be."

There's a quiet edginess to Cantu's voice when he speaks of the CTPA, and a faint smile plays around the corners of his mouth. Do I detect a rivalry here?

"Cliques is more true," he says. "If you don't belong to a certain clique, you're just not, you know, looked at as one of the best psychics. But we're talking about psychics, not curanderos.

"I am a curandero, and also a psychic, and this is where they lack. We're talking about people who are mentalists or readers or sensitives, but they are all far from being curanderos, which are healers. I pretty well keep to myself. I don't try to criticize them. I think they have a great organization -- and they're doing a lot to straighten up a lot of the things that are wrong with it -- but the old people who were there, the oldest, oldest people are just not there anymore. And the reason for it is because what other people who have less knowledge do is reflected back on those that have higher knowledge. I have a great respect for Joe Nichols as I hope he has for me. Again, we're talking more about low-level or lower-level psychics than higher-level psychics.

"The higher-level psychics have the power to change things for people, and this is where the different facets of mediumship come in. Being able to read is not all there is to it -- being able to cause a change is where it's at."

During our interview, the phone rings several times with customers calling to seek counsel -- better with Lee Cantu than any one of the countless 1-900 psychic lines that mar the late-night television airwaves. So what does Cantu himself think about the Psychic Friends Network and their ilk?

"I had a chance to do that," he says with a grin, "and I've been called by some of the more popular people that are on television and Univision, because I'm a bilingual channel. But I refuse to do it because they have what we call a `bottled' approach.

Austin just wouldn't be Austin without psychic advisors-cum-astrologer-cum-shaman; Lee Cantu.

photograph by Bruce Dye

"The questions they ask you, they can actually turn those around and feed you back simple answers. Like for instance, some of the first things they ask you, `Are you married?' and `What do you do for a living?' Out of that I can tell you an awful lot. If you're married, I can always tell you, `Well, you know, your marriage has its ups and downs, there may be turmoil in your life right now, but, you know, that's typical of every marriage.' So you see, it's a format that they use which usually fits around everybody. If you're single, it's one format, if you're married, it's another format. It's something that they go through and it fits 97% of the people, you see what I'm saying? You can't hardly go wrong. It's a sham, because they're not actually saying, `You have to do this and this and this in order to achieve what you want.' It's canned.

"I can't do that," he continues. "When I pick up the phone, I'm going to tell you exactly what's going on that I'm feeling, that I'm picking up. That's the difference between them and me, and I don't agree with that kind of reading, because it's not true. It sounds like it is, but it's not."

But still....

The millenium fast approaches and doomsayers are breeding like the roaches beneath my sink. Right-wing religious flibbertigibbets are harumphing old Walt Disney, Newt Gingrich is slimming down, and all the world looks rather messy. So maybe -- all personal cynicism aside -- I ought to chill out and get this done on a regular basis? Then again, maybe not -- the old Magic 8-Ball still works fine for me, even if that purple liquid inside is finally breeding new life.

"Do Austin psychics know what they're talking about?"

"Ask again later."

It figures.