You know that feeling you get sometimes–the quiet little instinct that alerts you to nearby sketchiness? Oftentimes you can’t even identify what specifically is sketching you out: It’s just a sense, a hunch that something is off. This happened to me a few days ago, when I stopped in for a coffee at the Museum Square Organic to Go. As I crossed Wilshire at Courtyard Place, I noticed a couple sitting at one of the outdoor tables, a few back from the sidewalk. My sketch-o-meter immediately went off. I can’t really tell you why, exactly–they looked “normal” enough, but also somehow “different.” It’s an odd sense to have in a city like Los Angeles, with its eclectic and eccentric population. They made eye contact with me as I approached, and the woman (who looked like she was in her early thirties) said something to me about my dog. I didn’t hear her clearly, so she repeated it. I still couldn’t understand–which raised the level of my sketch-o-meter even higher. I have a pretty good ear, especially for accents and speech impediments, so not being able to make out what she was saying to me at such close range was odd, especially considering that she didn’t have an accent. She sounded like she was “from here.”
I tied my dog at an empty table next to the sketchers, ran in, grabbed a coffee, and when I returned, my pup was laying at the guy’s feet.
“He’s a good dog,” he said. “I told him to sit, he sat.” He had shoulder length, dark hair, and wore dark sunglasses. I got an “Italian, East Coast” vibe, but didn’t think it was entirely on the money. Something still felt off.
We remarked on the weather–it was HOT the day this happened–and he mentioned that he’d recently been in Buffalo, New York. Our half-hearted conversation trailed off. He got up, walked away, disappeared for about 15 minutes. His significant other, meanwhile, had received a call on her cell and was pacing Wilshire in front of me. She stood at the crosswalk at Courtyard Place, scanning the crowd for whom I assumed was the person on other end of her call. A young Asian woman approached, they greeted each other with friendly introductions, and then sat down at the table in front of me.
The Asian woman extended her arm across the table, hand outstretched, palm up. The other woman began to “read” it. I tried desperately to listen in without being obvious, but the traffic and lunch rush made it difficult. I caught a few throwaway phrases, some pointed, “fishing” questions asked by the palm reader. After about 15 minutes, the reading was finished, and I heard the Asian woman say, “Forty? But I only have a dollar.” I couldn’t help myself and looked over. She had a look of dismay on her face. She realized she’d been scammed.
“There’s an ATM right inside,” the palm reader said smoothly and confidently, motioning to Organic to Go. The two got up, walked into the cafe, then were out just a few seconds later, walked west down the street to a Bank of America ATM, then back towards me. The Asian woman kept on walking; she looked bummed. The palm reader stopped.
“Your dog is such a good listener,” she said to me.
My heart started racing. What was she talking about? Was she implying that my dog had been “listening in” on her reading? Just how sketchy was this lady?
“He is?” I asked, dubiously.
“Yeah, he was so good. My fiance told him to sit, he sat. Told him to get down, he got down. What a sweetie.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said. I smiled. “Thanks, yeah.”
Her fiance rejoined her, the two gave me a wave, and then disappeared west down Wilshire.
It was the first time I’d ever seen that kind of a scam being run in this neck of the woods. Growing up, there were always palm readers and psychics in Westwood Village, and they’d lure us kids in with their tarot cards and crystals. I succumbed once, and allowed a child younger than me to read my palm. She recited a lot of rote garbage, throwaway phrases like “beware, your best friend could be your worst enemy.” I gave her five bucks and learned my lesson. Venice Beach is full of them, too, and the “higher end” psychics and fortune tellers have storefronts on streets like Beverly Drive and San Vicente. Like donut shops, I always wonder how they stay in business.
Anyway, this all became much more interesting to me when I learned about the huge Gypsy scandal currently unfolding in Newport Beach. I had always sort of thought of these various fortune tellers and psychics as individuals, but it seems that it’s actually a community–or more to the point, various clans. They’ve got designated turf, and old rules.
The Stevens and Merino clans, like other Gypsy families, have run numerous fortunetelling businesses in Southern California for decades.
The trouble started two years ago when Edward Merino and his wife, Sonia, opened fortunetelling parlors in two trendy resort sections of Newport Beach, not far from where the Stevenses did business.
Members of the Stevens clan promptly broke in, stole a credit card machine and threatened to kill the Merinos if they didn’t shut the places down, the Merinos claim in court papers. Since then, the bad blood has only gotten worse.
The Stevenses “are very territorial,” Merino attorney Tom Quinn said. “This is crazy stuff.”
Reading that made me wonder if the sketchy lady at Organic to Go wasn’t conducting a little side-business on some other clan’s turf. Anyone out there know more about or had personal run-ins with LA Gypsies?