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'Poor Man's Psychiatrist' : Gypsies Fight Stereotypes, Bans on Fortune-Telling

August 11, 1985|BELLA STUMBO | Times Staff Writer

He was in his late 30s, a loud, unattractive little man with a marginal IQ, a practiced Rambo swagger and a pathetically grandiose view of himself. He worked at assorted odd jobs, but he came to Hollywood 20 years ago to be a movie star, and he still clung to the dream, still hung around studio lots awaiting his lucky break. But he was growing impatient. Besides that, he was lonely, a bachelor with neither family nor friends.

So, he had brought his troubles to Madame Lulu. For $10, according to the sign outside her parlor in the heart of Hollywood, she would foretell the future, solve problems and bring happiness.

Now, his expression anxious, he sat stiffly across from the pretty Gypsy with her piercing black-brown eyes, his hand in hers. Incense clotted the air, candles flickered, paper flowers and several pictures and statues of Jesus adorned her tiny shrine.

Like many Gypsies--who still do not send their children to school--Lulu Bimbo, 36, can neither read nor write, but she has an innate ability to size people up in a glance. This fellow, her bored expression said, was no challenge at all. She turned her attention to the web of lines in his palm, speaking with brisk certainty. He was glowing within minutes.

She did not tell him he was going to become a movie star, but she did see in his palm that "unexpected success in business is in your future." Better yet, she also saw "a dark-haired woman" entering his life "very soon."

She pumped up his ego, diagnosing his virtues. He was "honest . . . and kind, basically very loving, but you are embarrassed to show it."

"How did you know that ?" he marveled.

At the same time, she offered a few delicate tips on toning down his obnoxious personality.

'You Talk Too Much'

"You have very good ideas, but I can see that you talk too much; you must keep your opinions and ideas more to yourself, because you make people feel envy, that is why you have difficulty making friends."

"You're right!" he declared. "Guys at work are so jealous of me, it's crazy." He thought her advice was cunningly good and vowed to at least feign greater modesty in the future.

When the reading was done, he hated to go. Whatever else, his $10 had bought him an instant measure of attentive, supportive friendship. He promised to soon return.

"I feel sorry for him," Lulu said, watching him strut down the street. In her line of work she sees a surprising cross-section of the population, from affluent suburban housewives and educated professionals to college kids on a lark. A large percentage of her customers, though, are sad, lonely misfits with nowhere else to go.

"We're the poor man's psychiatrist," she said. "People who can't afford $100 an hour come here to talk about their problems, to get advice, to see what the future holds. And Gypsies are psychic; it's in our culture. We believe very much in our own feelings and intuitions about others, we work with our sixth sense, and we do help a lot of people."

Fortune-tellers, most of them Gypsies, flourish throughout Los Angeles. Strictly speaking, however, they are illegal under provisions of a sweeping local ordinance that prohibits, among other things, foretelling the future, either for a fee or for free. Other California cities have similar laws.

However, many of those laws may soon be overturned. In a case under consideration by the California Supreme Court, a Gypsy couple is challenging an Azusa ordinance banning fortune-telling as an unconstitutional violation of freedom of speech and religion, overly vague in its language and specifically discriminatory against Gypsies.

Representing Gypsies John and Fatima Stevens, Los Angeles attorney Barry Fisher argued that the ban on fortune-telling was so broad it could be construed to include Bible-readings, newspaper horoscopes, maybe even weather forecasters.

A decision in the case (Spiritual Psychic Science Church of Truth vs. the City of Azusa) is expected any day--and the consensus among court watchers is that the Gypsies will win.

If so, Detective Jose Alcantara of the Los Angeles Police Department--among others in law enforcement--predicts the worst.

"The floodgates will open. California will be crawling with fortune-tellers looking for people susceptible to their con games. That ordinance is our only tool to protect the public."

To Alcantara, one of two officers permanently assigned to the so-called Gypsy detail, there is no such thing as an honest Gypsy fortune-teller. Or an honest Gypsy, for that matter.

"Why should they (be honest), when they despise you?" he said. "To them, you (all non-Gypsies) are merely the animal they feed off of. They're con artists; they live off their wits and always have. The whole time they're telling fortunes for a few bucks, they're really waiting for that one big mark, the 'last resort' type who's desperate enough to believe anything--and who's got a lot of money they can steal."

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