Fear and Trepidation are in the Cards

The Seattle Times
September 6, 2002
By Alex Tizon

NEW ORLEANS — A few days after September 11, a witch in the French Quarter named Mimi Lansou — Lady Mimi to her followers — drew three tarot cards to divine the future of America and its shaken citizenry.  What the cards revealed still haunts her. Something bad lies ahead. And regardless of whether you believe in this kind of thing, many of us share the same sense of foreboding. Lansou turned to the cards because she herself was shaken, and besides being a witch, she considers herself a good citizen.

This may seem incongruous to a lot of us, but not here in the sultry city of Anything Goes, where the strange and esoteric are as commonplace as fog in the bayous. In the Quarter, “witch” is only slightly more provocative a title than, say, mortician or cop.

Lansou tends a small store of herbs and potions on Dumaine Street. She is 35 but tells people — those brazen enough to ask — that she is ageless. Her green eyes laugh in self-mockery. She is compact, maybe 100 pounds squeezed into a black leather dress that is as much costume as work wear. A python coils around her neck, and nearby, like her own drooling gargoyle, sits a spotted Great Dane named Raoul.

“Everyone in the Quarter was terrified,” Lansou recalls between puffs of a cigarette. “People were asking me what was going on. I wanted to know, too. I wanted to know what the hell was going to happen to us as a country.”

There are a million reasons to wonder and countless ways to ask. Lansou chose a way that many Americans would consider silly at best, demonic at worst. She did a tarot reading. Two of the fortunetelling cards held hopeful images: They represented strength and ultimate victory. But the third image gave her pause. It was a picture of three robed women toasting with three goblets, but one woman kept a hand behind her, hiding something. The card represents duplicity.

In the context of the reading, it meant to Lansou that someone, some group, or even some other nation pretending friendship, was not being forthright and that the U.S. was in danger of being fooled and harmed again. She taped the three cards onto the front of her store and explained them to anyone who asked.

Lansou had divined her way to a sentiment felt by many Americans one year after 9/11, a feeling of twitchy anxiety over what catastrophic thing might happen next. We can dismiss her brand of future-seeing, but we can’t deny the subtle but widespread sense of wariness.

“I think she’s full of (expletive) personally,” says one customer who overheard the conversation. He wanted to be identified simply as John from Atlanta. He was in the shop with his male partner, who, John says, is a believer in tarot. “But she’s probably right about something else happening, another bomb somewhere, a big epidemic in a big city like Atlanta. Even Bush is saying that. She’s just saying what Bush is saying.”

Simply divine

If the astrological horoscopes in newspapers, the psychic hotlines on television and the palm-reading shacks throughout the land are indication, many Americans do in fact believe in some form of divination.

  1. noun. 1. The art of foretelling future events by means of augury or alleged supernatural agency.

The type of witchcraft practiced by Lansou is most closely related to a growing religion called Wicca, allegedly based on an ancient pagan faith in the supernatural and a belief in the powers of earthly “magic,” that is, of natural elements, such as herbs.

“I don’t levitate tables,” Lansou says.

Wiccans neither worship Satan — they don’t even believe in the concept of a devil — nor practice the sort of malicious magic made popular in fairy tales. They don’t, in general, have warts. They tend to be, like Lansou, white, middle-class and educated. One study estimates the number of practicing Wiccans in the U.S. at 200,000. They call themselves witches.

If there’s any place in the country witches would feel at home, it would be here, in New Orleans, pronounced by natives as “N’awlins” or “New ‘awlins.” The city, in spirit, is deeper than the Deep South, so far off in the bohemian hinterland as to be called the most un-American of American cities, functioning with its own rules, which at certain times of the year, means no rules. Seattle’s Mardi Gras is a tea party compared with what takes place here.

In human architecture, the city is a riotous blend of French, Spanish, American Indian, German, Scottish and all shades of black and brown. Haitians, centuries ago, brought the practice of voodoo to the region. Past voodoo priests and priestesses have become part of the official city lore.

When we arrived one sweltering afternoon, the French Quarter, the city’s oldest district, was site of a small party of 80,000 gay men. An annual event called Southern Decadence, it is essentially a four-day orgy in the streets. The palmettos that clapped in the humid breeze, the banana leaves that shyly peeked over Spanish gates, the three-story flats of screaming Caribbean colors — all were witness to lots of flesh. Just another carnival in the Quarter.

Tourists vanish

It was a far different scene in the days and months after 9/11, when the Quarter “became a ghost town,” Lansou says. Forty percent of tourists to New Orleans come by plane, and those numbers took a nosedive in the months after the attacks. Louisiana suffered a 10 percent drop in U.S. tourist visits, the third-largest percentage decline in the nation.

Out on the Gulf of Mexico, offshore oil-and gas-platform owners worried that every passing barge or fishing vessel was a terrorist boat bent on destruction. Meetings were held, fears were voiced, restrictions were set in place in a place uneasy with restrictions.

The tourists have slowly returned, though still far from the usual numbers. And not infrequently, someone familiar with Lansou’s reputation will wander into the Quarter, down the quiet side of Dumaine Street to her little storefront where hangs her shingle, “Esoterica.”

If you ask how to get a boyfriend, she might give you a potion or suggest a spell that, oddly enough, resembles a prayer. If you wonder what lies ahead for America, she will tell you about the three cards. The Eight of Wands, representing strength, shows a man standing in a garden of tree-size poles. The Chariot, representing victory, depicts a kingly rider pulled by muscled creatures. And then there’s the Three of Cups, with the robed figure hiding a secret agenda.

“People want to know. They’re scared,” Lansou says, petting the head of her writhing python. But if they want to hear only good news, or if they crave the reassurance of peace eternal or happily ever after, they might have to go somewhere else.