Behind the host’s podium at a New Orleans-themed restaurant in downtown Chicago, there’s a door that leads to a set of stairs. If you make your way to the bar at the bottom on a Friday or Saturday night, you’re likely to find me there. For only $15, you can hire me as a professional tarot reader.
Tarot is a deck of cards used to divine and find insights on personal matters. I first discovered tarot when I was 8 years old, after borrowing a deck from my sister. I started reading for fun, but over time it became a part of my spiritual practice.
Rather than tell the future, tarot points out the most probable outcome given the current trajectory of the person receiving the reading. For me, it’s an empowering tool that can help us see where we have agency in a situation.
Before going pro, I had done tarot readings only for friends and co-workers. When my neighbor who read tarot at a bar helped me land a position there, I saw it as a chance to establish myself as a “real” practitioner. I hoped this would be the beginning of a meaningful, fulfilling career.
On my first day, I wore black harem pants and a shirt with gold trim and sparkling mirror sequins, in an attempt to look the part. The speakeasy was dimly lit and elegant. Situated on a luscious couch with a gold-rimmed table before me, I felt like a queen.
Before long, an expensively dressed white couple beckoned me to join them at their table, which had a VIP sign on it and a bucket filled with ice and Champagne bottles. The woman asked the man if they should do a couple’s reading. He answered with a blunt “no.”
It was a heterosexual relationship dynamic I would come to see a lot over my months reading tarot. The woman would end up having to pressure her disinterested male partner into participating in something that was important to her.
I began shuffling the deck as I waited for the woman to ask a question to guide the reading. Instead, she asked if she could film me for TikTok. I don’t really care for public speaking or entertaining, but I put on my forced customer service smile and agreed. She pointed her phone at me and I felt like a zoo animal. When she was done filming, she seemed satisfied, though neither she nor her partner smiled. I made a 100% tip, for the first and last time.
I was thrilled to make $300 in just six hours that first weekend. The prospect of making that much money kept me coming back for more. On a good day it feels like Easter, my neighbor had told me when she described the job.
But the glamour soon wore off — by the next weekend, I was moved from my couch into the stairwell, where I made only half the amount of the previous weekend. Chicago winter began and the tourist season ended. Promises to advertise the tarot readings outside the bar never came through.
As you might imagine, a bar is not the ideal place for spiritual work ― it is challenging to flip between being vulnerable and spiritually attuned and being ready to defend myself in a combative atmosphere.
Every night my stomach twisted with anxiety as I entered. The owner wanted me to approach restaurant customers to offer readings. It was crowd roulette to see whether I’d get an amenable and respectful customer, a belligerently drunk one, or a rude skeptic. Many nights I had to repeat myself by shouting over a live jazz band. One time I was reproached as if I were a child and told I should not be soliciting services at a restaurant. My face turned red as I explained that I worked there.
“Hello, I hope you are having a great evening. I wanted to let you know that I offer tarot services downstairs if you are interested,” I told a couple, shouting over the din of the crowd and the blaring trumpets.
“What is your name?” the man asked. I was pleasantly surprised ― no one had bothered to ask my name before. He introduced himself with a smile, as did his companion.
“Nice to meet you,” I said, repeating their names.
“That’s not her name,” the man snarled.
“My name is Alicia, not Natasha,” the woman reasserted angrily.
“You’re not much of a tarot reader if you can’t get a person’s name right,” the man added.
Though I drew in clients who appreciated my work, I also attracted those who had never heard of tarot, or even feared it. I’ve since learned it’s common for people to try to “test” a psychic, perhaps as a defense mechanism to protect their own belief systems.
For privacy, I didn’t require clients to share their questions with me. This at times was abused by skeptics, such as one woman who tricked me into thinking we were doing a love reading, then told me in a challenging tone that she’d really asked whether she should try to have a child again after a miscarriage.
I wanted to say, “This is a heavy issue. You should be consulting a therapist, not a tarot reader.” Unfortunately, clients expecting therapy from a tarot session was also a common experience.
Another problem with the environment was the omnipresence of alcohol. Though I started the job intending never to touch booze while working, I ended up looking forward to the drinks as one of the few perks. It helped me feel more at ease in a stressful environment and cope with the difficult customers. But like a funhouse mirror, alcohol can distort tarot’s messages.
On rough days, it became harder to pretend I had “positive vibes only.” Sometimes customers would talk about me as if I couldn’t hear them, like I was an oddity in a museum case to be discussed. I felt simultaneously invisible and on display, as I tried to pretend nothing was happening.
Most often clients were concerned with love and career, especially after life transitions. I most enjoyed relating with people who were spiritually inclined or had a curiosity about tarot. On slow nights, I was able to have long conversations with them after the readings were over.
One full-moon night, I had my only other $300 weekend. It’s hard to say whether it was the magic of astrology or because I was finally able to have fun and release my attachment to the outcome. I playfully approached each table, announcing: “It’s a full moon, the perfect time for a tarot reading!”
“I know!” one client enthused. “I have it marked in my calendar.” A positive energy crackled in the air.
My first customer that evening was a tall Black man dressed in red velvet and wearing a cowrie shell necklace I knew represented Elegua, the main orisha (god) of the crossroads. Impressed by my ability to recognize it, he answered a few of my questions about what drew him to Santería. The pressure was on — here was someone who could truly discern the quality of my work. As I shuffled, I prayed to the full moon that I could make a fully connected reading.
My prayer paid off. I pulled the Hierophant, a clear reference to the man’s potent teacher energy. He strongly identified with the card and validated the reading by sharing more of his background and future plans. As the man stood up, he respectfully requested a hug. Though surprised, I agreed.
He sent others from his group to do readings with me, all of which were lovely interactions. The beauty of tarot reading was when it brought me this deep energy exchange and human connection.
In spite of the these experiences, after six months, it no longer felt viable to put myself in such an emotionally vulnerable position. A family member was having health issues and it was all I could do not to burst into tears when dealing with difficult customers. It no longer felt worth it ― the last month, I was making only $45 each weekend.
My last day at work was St. Patrick’s Day. Given the nature of the holiday, I was apprehensive that I’d be doing readings with argumentative drunks who would spill alcohol all over my cards. The first woman who sat down for a reading was drunk ― she immediately professed her urgent need to use the bathroom. But she was so friendly I didn’t mind.
I struggled with the first part of the reading, but broke through when I pulled a card I could feel and channel. When I finished, she put a hand on my knee and told me how convincing and confident I had been.
Despite the negative way I was sometimes treated while reading tarot at the bar, I am thankful for the unique opportunity to have those experiences. I gained confidence and discovered a side of myself I never knew existed, one that could deftly handle a variety of tricky situations. I also got to connect with people from all over the world.
Since then, I’ve done private and group readings, written monthly tarot forecasts for a spiritual business and moved to Sedona, Arizona. I’m finishing a group tarot mentorship that’s teaching me how to better navigate difficulties of the trade. I went on a purposeful hiatus in order to deliberately build a respectful, responsible private practice.
As a result, there has been an immense shift in the way I approach tarot. I now treat it as a sacred communion with spirit and client. I am eager to restart my career feeling more confident, more in touch with my intuitive gifts, with clearer boundaries ― and, perhaps most importantly, in a much more appropriate setting.