Tarot card reader and psychic practitioner Alia Curtis at her home in Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

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During the pandemic, people throughout the country have looked to psychic practitioners for signs of personal hope, while others have fallen victim to an apparent rise in psychic scams. The reports suggest a possible financial boon for fortune tellers—but has that been the case in Oakland?

The Oaklandside contacted over a dozen local business owners who offer psychic services and card readings—the practice of using tarot cards to gain insight into a person’s past, present, or future. All but two chose not to comment at length for this story, but almost all of the fortune tellers we spoke to, like “Ms. Star,” the owner of a tarot card and psychic reading shop, said they have been struggling this past year to attract customers. Others, like the owner of a Chinatown shop simply known as Fortune Teller, said they could not “speak on spiritual work.”

Alia Curtis, a tarot card reader who has lived in Oakland for 18 years, was one of the exceptions. She runs Intuitive Tarot Readings with Alia out of her home in Eastlake, and has been supporting herself during the pandemic by doing readings over the phone. Curtis charges $65 for a 30-minute session, and $125 for a one-hour session. Her revenue primarily comes from her regular clients, but she said there’s been a slight increase in newcomers seeking out her services lately.

“The reason is because people are depressed,” Curtis said. “It’s been difficult for them to adjust, and there’s a lot of emotional upheaval.”

Curtis is adamant that psychic readings should not be considered therapy, and she is not a licensed therapist—but she does believe her services function as a form of counseling, “because you have someone you can say anything to and they’re going to give you solutions as to how to make things better.”

A lifelong calling deferred, then reclaimed

Although Curtis has only worked full-time as a tarot card reader in Oakland for two years, she’s been reading cards ever since she was a kid growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At a young age, Curtis realized she had a gift.

“Someone sent my mom some cards and she never really bothered with them, but I looked at the cards and just felt an affinity,” Curtis said. “It was fascinating; I couldn’t put it down.”

Alia Curtis of Intuitive Tarot Card Readings holding her cards. Credit: Amir Aziz

She grew up in a Catholic household, but her mother was open to alternative spiritual practices. “My mom always wanted to know ‘why’ and I wanted to know ‘why’ too—it was [about] wondering what was the mind capable of, how did the mind relate to God, and what were we capable of, being children of God.”

When she moved to Oakland, Curtis focused her energy on other pursuits. She raised her children, went to graduate school, and held jobs as a freelance journalist and teacher. She would still read cards for friends from time to time, but for the most part the practice took a backseat. “I knew I should be doing it,” said Curtis, “but I just didn’t have time.”

Then, Curtis became suddenly ill and was bed-ridden for months. Her children took care of her bills until she eventually recovered, but her sickness left her in no position to begin working full-time. “I began thinking, ‘Oh God, what shall I do, I can’t just rely on my kids,’” she said. “I was always taught that you leave things to God and things will come when you need. I let go, and that’s when I started going back to the cards.”

Amongst her friends in Oakland, Curtis had cultivated a loyal group that appreciated her card readings, and they were there to support her once she decided to start reading cards full-time. “They were referring me to other people, and before I knew it, I had a string of clients,” she said.

A failed political run leads to psychic opportunities

Like Curtis, Allen David Young of Aquarian Institute in North Oakland also relies on a steady stable of regulars he has accumulated over four decades as a psychic practitioner. “Trying to get new clients in hard times is very hard to do, but I’ve been in business a long time and about 80% of my clients have been with me for over 40 years,” said Young, who charges anywhere between $40 and $200 depending on the duration of the reading and how many questions a client wants answered.

Young co-founded Aquarian institute in 1981. Before he was a professional psychic, the Berkeley native was a professor at California State University East Bay. He also had political aspirations, running unsuccessfully for Oakland City Council in 1975. “That’s when the Black Panthers were running,” Young recalled, referring to Elaine Brown and Bobby Seale, two prominent Black Panther Party leaders who ran for local offices in Oakland in the mid-70s.

Young, then known as Allen David Franklin, found himself at a professional crossroads after his unsuccessful bid for the District 5 council seat. He was 31 years old, the campaign had cost him most of his savings, and his job situation at Cal State East Bay was precarious. According to Young, he was in desperate need of professional advice. “My friend said, ‘I got two references—I can give you this psychiatrist’s number who charges a lot, or you can get a psychic reading for $25 dollars,” he said. “I said, ‘I’ll take the psychic reading.’”

Just because the psychic reading cost less, however, didn’t mean he was completely sold on the idea. “It was by this old hippie white guy and I thought, ‘This guy is going to tell me about my life?’ But he did,” Young said. “Once I got the reading, I was blown away and wanted to learn how to do this.”

Young studied with the psychic and continued to work at Cal State East Bay while practicing readings on the side for years until he opened Aquarian Institute.

In the end, the unorthodox career paths have proven to be spiritually and financially rewarding for both Young and Curtis. Neither has had to apply for paycheck protection loans or COVID relief grants to sustain their practice, unlike many owners of more conventional businesses who’ve closed or struggled to keep their establishments open over the last year.

“For me personally, it’s not a big income but it’s a steady income,” Curtis said.

Young is skeptical that psychic practitioners like himself would even qualify for relief funding. “Probably if I said I did psychic readings, they’d tell me, ‘Get out here,’” Young quipped. “I’m completely self-sustaining.”

Ricky Rodas is a member of the 2020 graduating class of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He has spent the last two years reporting on immigrant communities in the Bay Area as a reporter for the hyperlocal news sites Oakland North, Mission Local, and Richmond Confidential. Rodas, who is Salvadoran American and bilingual, joins us through a partnership with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. Rodas will be reporting on small and immigrant-owned businesses in Oakland.