In 1986, when I was fifteen, I discovered the bar car on the Metro-North New Haven Line—a dingy, crowded, badly ventilated chamber where commuters drank enough to get a decent buzz going, told dirty jokes, and chain-smoked. These were my kind of people. I liked my friends at school— mostly pothead misfits like me— but these were adults, and, right or wrong, I liked to think of myself as one of them. And even though in my memory the whole place is clouded by a sort of grimy yellow film, it was my kind of joint.
My mother had moved us— herself, my brother, me, a shih tzu, a Lhasa apso, a cat, and a parrot— from Greenwich Village to the suburbs a couple of years earlier for many reasons, but partly, I think, in a desperate bid to make a normal kid of me. It didn’t work. I became a druggie, a Deadhead, a reasonably resourceful truant, a small- time delinquent. But I was not without ambition. I wanted to be a mystic.
Once a week, I got a reprieve from my suburban exile. After school every Thursday, I took the train from Westport,Connecticut, to Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal to see my psychoanalyst. I’d been going since eighth grade and I’d come to enjoy it; the fifty- minute sessions made me feel like the featured guest on a talk show. It helped that my shrink sounded a lot like Dick Cavett.
Except on the few occasions when my mother had called him, crying, after finding a bong in my closet (“It’s not mine! I swear! I was just holding that for a friend! It’s decorative!”) or a roach clip in a jacket pocket (“Oh, that? It’s for holding papers together!”) and demanded that he submit me to another drug test, I looked forward to seeing my shrink week after week, Thursday after Thursday. Besides, I could pocket the round- trip cab fare Ma gave me to get to his office from Grand Central and back. It was just enough for a dime bag of pot, and I didn’t mind having a little time to walk the city streets alone. It was good for thinking.
But from the moment I first stumbled into the bar car after one of our appointments, my return trip to Westport became the best part of my Thursday visits. I liked the company of grown- ups, especially strangers. With them, I found it easy to feel smart and funny and interesting. Easier than it was with my peers.
I first discovered this one summer, years earlier, when I was eight or so and my family was vacationing on Fire Island. Ma sent me to borrow a skillet from the neighbors, a bunch of thirty- somethings in a shared rental. They were lounging on an L-shaped white couch and seemed to get a kick out of everything I said, even the word skillet. I wasn’t even sure what the word meant until a tall, tanned woman handed me a heavy frying pan with flared sides. I thanked her and turned to leave. But they weren’t ready to let me go. They had questions: Who was I? What grade was I in? What was I into?
I was astonished by their interest. I sat myself down on a puffy ottoman and asked if they wanted to hear a joke. Did they ever. “So this Jewish American Princess married an Indian chief. Guess what they named their baby?” I paused. “Whitefish.” It’s a terrible joke. I’d heard my mother tell it to one of her friends. I didn’t exactly get it. But those grown- ups, sitting there drinking wine, tumbled off the big white couch, laughing. And I felt like a superstar.
That’s not how I felt in the bar car. Surrounded by its regulars, mostly men in wrinkled suits and loosened neckties, I felt almost invisible. But I liked listening to them. They were not like the silent, unsociable commuters in the regular cars who napped, read, or reviewed spreadsheets. No, the people in the bar car crowd drank beer or Scotch, laughed loudly, talked fast, and always seemed happy to see one another. They were a tribe, and I wanted in. On the surface, we had little in common: they were mostly male, mostly much older, mostly professionals. I was none of those things. Yet I felt an affinity; here, among these hard- drinking commuting men, in some way I felt that maybe I could be myself. Still, I didn’t dare belly up to the bar and order myself a beer; there was no way the weary, wary, seen-it-all Metro- North crew would serve me. I needed a point of entry.
The night I pulled my tarot cards from my backpack and gave myself a reading, right there in the bar car, I accidentally found just what I was looking for. I’d been studying The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, a 1910 primer by Arthur Edward Waite— an English weirdo fairly typical of his day who, like Aleister Crowley, had belonged to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. I had read that Jimmy Page was into Crowley and the Golden Dawn and all that, so it had to be a good thing. I had cultivated a look that fell somewhere on a spectrum between Madame Blavatsky and Janis Joplin: gauzy Indian dresses, batik caftans, chunky silver rings on my fingers (more delicate ones on my toes), glass beads and colorful embroidery floss woven into my long messy hair. From way back in my mother’s closet I had appropriated a paisley head scarf shaped a bit like a turban, shot through with glittery metallic thread and adorned with ruby- red rhinestones and golden tear- shaped studs. A silver pentagram with an amethyst in the middle hung from a black silk cord around my neck, coming to rest on my solar plexus, where, according to the salesman in the New Age bookstore where I bought it, its power would be most effectively transmitted throughout my chakra system.
My tarot cards smelled of patchouli oil and sandalwood incense, tobacco and marijuana smoke, and I kept them safe in one of those fuzzy purple Crown Royal whiskey bags. As I shuffled the deck, I focused my energy on a question I wanted the cards to answer, and then began to lay them out in the Celtic Cross pattern I’d learned from Waite’s book. First, the significator: the proxy, the card that stood for me. Then the card that “crossed” me, signifying the things that blocked my path. Next the card that “crowned” me, representing my ideals and aims. And so on and so on, until I’d laid out the tenth and final card, which would reveal the answer to my question.
By then, a small crowd had gathered around me. When I finished, a woman asked if I’d give her a reading. It was the first time someone in the bar car had spoken to me without wanting to see my ticket. She asked what I charged. I hadn’t thought about that. I mulled it over and told her I thought it was kind of bad mojo to take money for readings— but I was cool with bartering, and I wouldn’t mind a beer. She didn’t ask how old I was.
Her reading was good, loaded with cards from the cups suit—abundant and comforting—and earthy, practical pentacles. I had good news for her. Yes, I said with certainty, she would thrive at her new job. She might even get a promotion soon. She perked up— and discreetly got me that beer, which I tucked behind my back and nursed furtively.
Suddenly it was like a divination marathon. I must have done five readings in an hour. And the more I read, the more confident I grew. I found my voice; a routine took shape. As I set down the cards, I’d sing Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” quietly, almost under my breath. Well, I dreamed I saw the silver spaceships flying in the yellow haze of the sun . . . Then I’d give the whole pattern an initial once- over and look solemnly into the questioner’s eyes. “The cards are here to guide us,” I’d say in a voice an octave lower than my own, “but what they tell us is not carved in stone, not written in blood. You have the power to change any of this.” I believed that. And here were all these grown- ups— accountants, lawyers, executives— hanging on my every word.
I felt pretty good when I got home that night, with a couple of cans of warm beer in my backpack and the satisfying shock of newly acquired power. I brought my cards to school that week and practiced on friends, sitting cross- legged in a carpeted hallway near the cafeteria. And as soon as school let out, I’d hurry home, slam my bedroom door behind me, put on Led Zeppelin’s fourth record— ZoSo, the one with “Stairway to Heaven” and “The Battle of Evermore,” the latter a song I’d play three or four or five times in a row, for there is no finer accompaniment to girly adolescent magic than Sandy Denny’s voice— light a stick of incense, take my cards out, and practice some more. This was no joke. Huge and mysterious force were at work. The cards had power. The cards knew stuff. The cards understood things that even my shrink didn’t get.
The next week, after therapy, I stood in front of a mirror in a women’s restroom at Grand Central and fitted the paisley head scarf onto my head before boarding the train. And then my fortune-telling-for-alcohol scheme began in earnest. Again, I settled into the bar car and gave myself a reading. And again, a cluster of commuters assembled around me. I felt like I’d cracked a code. They’d sit down next to me and listen obediently: “When you shuffle the cards, put your energy into them. Focus. Concentrate on your question,” I instructed them. “The cards will know if you’re doing this halfheartedly.”
This continued for weeks, and out of it I got plenty of beer, a couple of books, and a pair of silver earrings. That, and the undivided attention of all these adults. I’d explain what each position in the Celtic Cross meant, the significance of casting more cups than swords, more wands than pentacles. If someone’s reading turned up an unusually high number of major arcana cards (the first twenty- two in the deck, including the Magician, the Moon, the Devil, etc.), I’d go quiet for a moment before I disclosed to him how much power that foretold— and urged him to use that power responsibly, for the greater good.
It didn’t take long for me to figure out something that Waite didn’t mention in his book: Reading the person was as important as reading the pictures on the cards. I never asked them their names, and I never told them mine— not my real one, anyway. Yet time after time, as I arranged the cards, as I laid out their destinies on a grimy laminated table sticky with liquor and blistered by cigarette burns, complete strangers would drop intimate clues about their lives, their jobs, their families. More than once, a wing tip- wearing banker or broker confided in me that he’d taken acid and sloshed around in the mud at Woodstock and felt very connected to the energy of the universe. I’d nod and say something like, “That’s awesome, man. I wish I’d been there.” They had lived through the sixties, when I had not yet been born. I think for some of them it was as if I’d materialized before their eyes like some ghost from their youth come back to answer questions about their future.
Of course, there were people in the bar car who paid me no mind, and others who made their skepticism known. But I was dismissive of the nonbelievers and the cynics. They were out of touch, and that was their loss. Still, one heckler in the crowd made me nervous. I couldn’t pinpoint his age— mid-thirties I guessed. He was a broad- shouldered, thick- necked guy with a beer gut, strawberry blond hair, and a big ruddy face. He looked like a distant Kennedy cousin, maybe, or an overgrown, superannuated frat boy. And did he have a mouth on him, deploying the F-word as a noun, verb, and adjective in one sentence, and then the next and the next and the next, like artillery fire.
This guy was always drunker and louder than anyone else. Once, he cupped his hands into a makeshift megaphone and sort of stage- shouted at me, something like “The sixties are over, get a life!” It was pretty stupid, but it still rattled me in the middle of a reading and disrupted the flow. And as much as I basked in my bar car celebrity, I dreaded seeing that guy.
One Thursday, after I’d already served a few of my patrons, he half staggered, half swaggered over to me. “All right,” he said. “This is total bullshit. But go ahead. Do mine.” He plunked himself down across from me, his knees a little too close, sweat beading on his forehead. I wanted to tell him to go away. I wanted to tell him that his unwillingness to believe would insult the spirits that governed the cards and make them uncooperative. But I figured he’d call me out. That he’d call me a chicken. So instead, I said okay. I kept my cool and started my spiel: “Shuffle. Focus. Give the cards your energy.” He rolled his eyes but played along.
He cut the cards once and handed me the deck, following my orders. I spread them out. First, his significator: the Ten of Swords, possibly the worst card of all, with a solitary, prostrate figure under a black sky, pierced in the back by all ten swords. It represents, in Waite’s words, “pain, affliction, tears, sadness, desolation.” The rest of the cards weren’t much better. From the minor arcana, more swords. From the major arcana, he pulled the Tower, a card signaling corruption, destruction, and the presence of evil. He got the Death card, too. The Celtic Cross turned up little more than despair. And as much as I disliked the guy, I really didn’t like what I saw in those cards. Not for anyone, not even for him. I kept quiet for a few moments while I tried to figure out how to spin this. Anyone who read tarot cards knew that the Death card was not to be taken literally. It did not forecast imminent peril. It was about transformation: dramatic but necessary change. And the Tower, menacing as it was, might signal the obliteration of the negative forces in his life. But that Ten of Swords? I couldn’t get around it, especially since it was his significator. Had it landed upside down, that would’ve tempered its meaning and softened the blow. But as it was, right side up, full strength, there was nothing good I could say. Maintaining eye contact is key to being a good mystic, but I couldn’t even meet his gaze.
“Well, what’s it say?” he finally asked.
I took a deep breath. “None of this is carved in stone or written in blood—”
He cut me off. “Well. What?”
So I told him what I saw. Things looked bad. Where destruction was already underway, there was likely more to come. The isolation, aloneness, and despair he felt held out little hope of diminishing anytime soon. Change was coming, that was clear, and it would be something dramatic, but probably not for the better. And as I interpreted one dismal set of symbols after another, the guy leaned in closer, put his elbows on the table, buried his head in his hands, and started to cry.
He told me that his marriage was falling apart. That he constantly worried about his health. That he was too young for heart problems, but he had them anyway. That he felt as though his whole life had added up to zero. He asked: “Will I ever be happy?” The cards, I answered bluntly, said no.
“But,” I told him, just like I told everyone else, “you have the power to change that.” He shook his head and glared at me with red, swollen eyes that said No. I don’t.
I did not want to believe him, but I held myself back. I had no business contradicting him, arguing with him, trying to make him feel hopeful. Maybe he was right. Maybe he didn’t have the power. Maybe no one had the power. Maybe the days that lie ahead of us are set in stone and written in blood, and that was that. And it occurred to me that maybe I’d been the cynic: Something I had believed in had become a shtick, a gambit for attention. I hadn’t thought it through. Maybe I’d even hurt people.
In the background, other passengers were caught up in conversation, laughing and drinking and carrying on. I could think of nothing more to say to the guy. Nothing reassuring. I felt small and foolish, incapable of any small comfort or kindness, and when the guy got off the train a couple of stops before mine, I was relieved.
I sat awake in my bed that night and thought about him. I imagined him going home to a white- clapboard colonial, to an unhappy wife pretending to be asleep. I imagined him returning the next day to a job he hated and getting wasted again that afternoon. But of course at fifteen, I really couldn’t imagine what it was like to be him, to live his life. And I realized I didn’t want to be able to. I didn’t want to be adult enough yet to understand where he was coming from. Reading tarot cards in the bar car had been fun until it got serious Adults had problems I could not begin to fathom, that I should not wish on myself, no matter how badly I wanted to grow up. And they had things to say I wasn’t ready to hear, and to which I was incapable of responding with any real empathy.
I didn’t go back to the bar car. I missed the drinks. I missed the grown- ups. I missed their attention. But I was not one of them. For the first time in my life— but not the last— I felt sharply and unhappily aware that I was getting older. That I wasn’t exactly a child anymore. I was in the borderlands, neither here nor there, old enough to see that I was too young for the bar car, even though I desperately wanted to be there. I had been little more than a pretender, but I had felt, at least for a little while, like a regular, and for reasons I didn’t yet understand, that feeling mattered to me, and I sensed that it always would. But I knew I didn’t belong there—not yet—although I could feel adulthood encroaching, real adulthood, which now seemed less about drinking and smoking and freedom and more about loss and fear and the sense that Death itself lay waiting somewhere just ahead.
Rosie Schaap has been a bartender, a fortuneteller, a librarian at a paranormal society, an English teacher, an editor, a preacher, a community organizer, and a manager of homeless shelters. A contributor to This American Life and npr.org, she writes the “Drink” column for The New York Times Magazine. She was born in New York City and still lives there.