What's Psychic Brunch like in Toronto?
If you live in Toronto, brunch has touched you. Even if you're not enamoured with the concept enough to join a regular group (professional or Sex and the City style), nor do you harshly judge those who regularly Instagram it or rely on the meal as a tent peg for a questionably assembled social life, you've skimmed a list or sipped mimosas celebrating the calorie laden meal that isn't quite breakfast, isn't quite lunch, but comes with a slice of cantaloupe (or donut disguised as a bagel) at the end.
Psychic Brunch caught my eye as a non-fan of brunch culture. Last spring I had more fun wandering as a tourist through the Psychic Fair than I ever could over artisan waffles; even as a skeptic in regard to contact with paranormal forces, I still found the lifestyle accompanying the subculture (touring psychics! Comedian numerologists!) fascinating. That a group of psychics have jumped on the brunch caravan is, perhaps, peak Toronto.
On the last Sunday of each month, Psychic Brunch sets up in the Flying Beaver Pubaret at Parliament and Carlton. An email chat with Ralph Hamelman had prepared me for a relaxed, low pressure affair. "Skepticism is a good thing, especially when seeing a psychic. It's not healthy to digest every message that every psychic shares as the gospel's truth," he wrote after I answered him honestly about my approach.
Psychic Brunch contains none of the pomp of the Psychic Fair - I never saw anyone twirling crystals at women's throats or waxing on about the end of the world as we know it. The pub's front tables and side room are for the brunchers, with the back half of the pub occupied by a handful of psychics set up with unique tablecloths, knick knacks, timers, and decks of cards. $29 buys a 15-minute reading at a table of your choice and a $5 meal voucher.
I get flack for even acknowledging the existence of psychics because "they're all scammers," so I'll point out that, according to Hamelman, the first Psychic Brunch event in 2003 was a fundraiser for the Toronto Humane Society. Now, all profits go to the Rainbow Association of Canadian Artists - Hamelman's "registered non-profit organization that celebrates diversity in musical expression."
On the name, Hamelman tells me over email: "I'm not a fan of the word "psychic" due to all the negative connotations associated with this word, but we call ourselves "psychics" and our event because these are terms most people are familiar with. Most members of our team identify as healers or spiritual counselors."
Foodwise, the brunch fare is basic and good (homestyle comfort food without a twist), with eggs benny as an obvious top seller. You can tell Heather Mackenzie and Maggie Cassella have put a lot of love into the Cabbagetown pub/venue (cabaret) and everyone on staff is friendly, accommodating, and open minded - an important attribute for a fringe group like psychics.
While the older psychics in the room seem to eye me suspiciously, I get readings from two younger tablers, Hamelman himself and Gillian Witter. My kitschy inner goth is overjoyed by the pentagram pattern on Hamelman's table as I admit I've never gotten a tarot reading before. He asks me what aspect of my life I want to explore, and names some basics: career, love life - nothing health related as that borders on dangerous territory. So much for finding out what's up with that rash.
I say career because I don't want to get too personal. As I make choices by pointing to cards or cutting the deck, Hamelman explains each card as well as his process. The cards are never wrong, he tells me - but he can be, so I have to take his readings with a grain of salt. No matter how spooky the card, he won't engage with any negativity. He's well spoken on topics like gender divides and interpersonal dynamics, and over the course of two tarot readings names a couple of specifics that are eerily accurate.
We switch topics for another hand and I get all the wish cards (a big enough deal that another psychic has to be consulted, apparently) and find myself getting a little worked up, if only because the reading is bringing up issues I generally don't make time to think about. For a Sunday afternoon in a pub it's gotten more intense than I'd anticipated, but I enjoy the challenge. However when Hamelman tells me I have to wait three years for something big, it's more specific (and random) than I expected.
Witter's reading style is more flamboyant. Her cards are decorated like dreamy covers of Harlequin fantasy novels (I love it). She really wants to talk about my love life, and while her reading doesn't resonate like Hamelman's, chatting with her is soothing.
I talk shop with Witter between readings and she dishes about psychic life. Witter herself got started after another psychic's reading inspired her buy a tarot deck to use on friends, who soon told her she was so skilled they felt bad not paying for the service, and began recommending her to others. If a reading is particularly intense, she has scented oils on hand to calm a client down before they go back to real life. I remember frazzled TTC rides home and mentally note that my therapist ought to try that same idea.
Witter tells me about the psychic equivalent of Tupperware parties (private readings hosted in someone's home), that people will see the same reader for years once they find a good one, and that you shouldn't chose a psychic based on their neon sign - it's all about word of mouth. "Everyone has [psychic] abilities, but people block them" Witter also tells me, a line I've heard appropriated on more than one TV drama. I'm enjoying myself and I'm not freaked out anymore, but I take a whiff of the oils anyway.
While to me the benefits of seeing a trained therapist far outweigh visiting a gifted card dealer, there's something to be said for gaining the intuition of both. Witter is clearly adept at forming a rapport with her clients that goes beyond charm-for-profit - in a lonely world, she's someone to talk to, trust, and be vulnerable with, with the cards as an ice breaker. In contrast, Hamelman's philosophical reading approach offers an undeniable platform from which to examine one's own life.
My brunch experience affirmed my position that psychics are acceptable form of entertainment and even therapy (I agree to a point with Hamelman's "healers or spiritual counselors" phrasing), though I do worry about the over reliance some clients may have. I overhear an older psychic advise a woman to wear obsidian at work, which I can't judge as anything other than a well intentioned placebo at best. Yet maybe a simple, sturdy rock helps one navigate a difficult world, and is brunch not a placebo to make a doldrum week feel luxurious and fun?
The culture of clever sandwich boards and [insert exotic descriptor] takes on comfort food inspires divided takes. We have too much money, or not enough (thus we spend, rebelliously, on Caesars at noon to celebrate our week's one day off). We have too much creativity, or too little. Too many friends, or no real friends. In a barrage of quirky quips drawn in chalk, the board reading "Psychic Brunch" stands for something that probes reality, even if it doesn't lift the veil.
Aubrey Jax is decorating her veil for the long haul on Twitter.
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