Some spiritist advisers say theirs was a calling from God himself. Wilfredo Pagan's calling was of a more internal sort - the nagging of an empty stomach. Upon arriving penniless in Penn Station, after losing his job as a dishwasher in a Long Beach Hotel, he realized that he "had the power," he said. He launched a carrer then and there, and became a palm reader in the caverns of the train station.
Today, Pagan operates the Botanical Gardens, in Rockville Centre, Long Island. His Botanica is actually a type of spiritual supermarket that sells Bibles, Last Supper rugs and conventional religious items along with healing herbs, lucky candles and jinx-removing incense. Spiritists, whose cult is widespread in the Caribbean, believe that the dead have a hand in causing many problems: If things are going poorly, chances are that a malevolent spirit is bungling up the situation. To prod these troublesome spirits into being more reasonable, spiritists employ potions, candles, amulets and other ritualistic items sold in Botanicas. Those who believe in spiritism usually see no conflict between their dealings with the departed and the practices of a standard religion, especially Roman Catholicism, to which they feel an affinity.
But in a world where television housewives have difficulty choosing between two laundry detergents, how is a Botanica customer to know whether his or her particular problem calls for a cold shower and a novena, or a soak in a hot tub full of Attraction Bath Crystals? To clear up this type of confusion, Pagan, like many Botanica owners, advises his client on what remedy to choose for their particular physical or emotional malaise. In Botanicas where no consultation is available, referrals are made to mediums who work in their homes.
A survey of Long Island Botanicas, the closest spiritists come to having a church, revealed a tantalizing offering of curative agents for psychic ills. There are purification baths to dispel envy, "Carry All Away," problem-removing salve, Gamblers Lotion, and "Come with Me" powder.
The oils are brightly, if somewhat predictably, colored. The bottles labeled "Love" contain a red solution, "Money Drawing" oil is green, "Finance," a golden hue, while "Hate" has a sinister, dark purple glow. A Botanica may also be just the place to purchase that hard-to-find volume on table rapping, automatic writing, King Tut's dreams or successful lottery play.
The collection of incenses and herbs includes frankincense, myrrh, "Blessed Thistle" and blood root. One incense has the catchy brand name, "Mr. Money." Its envelope pictures a nattily dressed man beside the logo, "A powerful gentleman is Mr. Money."
The marriage-breaker candles, molded wax sculptures of naked men and women, are apparently hot-selling items. If a covetous third party wants to break up a couple, he or she may be instructed to buy two of these candles, one of a man and one of a woman. The candles, which sell for up to $3 each, are burned back to back, while the third party concentrates on rupturing the relationship. By the time they are burned out, the couple may be broken up, leaving the sought-after sentimental void, or the third party may simply be $6 poorer.
Aerosol sprays that, according to Pagan, are useful for driving "bad vibrations" out of the house are another popular item. One spray can issues out a "Come Back to Me" vapor. Another expels a "Woman Welcoming" mist with the supposedly enticing scent of patchouli oil. The directions read, "Shake Well. Hold Nozzle Upright. Let Us Pray, Make the Sign of the Cross.Air freshener deodorizer. Does not have supernatural power." A can of "Aunt Sally's Strong Love Spray" pictures an embracing couple on the shocking pink label with an exhortation to the lovelorn to "repeat spraying as necessary."
But Botanica clients say that what the store sells is not as important as whether or not the store owner possesses an intangible quality they call "The Power." The customers, who all asked not to be identified, had a hard time pinpointing exactly what the power is, but they all agreed that it cannot be acquired: One definitely has to be born with it. Pagan's clients say he has it.
Pagan, a polar opposite of the soberfaced mystic one might expect to encounter, is a slight man with black curly hair, a magnetic smile and translucent eyes. He wears jeans around the Botanic.
He says that he inherited the elusive power from his grandmother, who also had it. When he was a child growing up in Puerto Rico, she taught him about how to determine problems and what remedies are called for to alleviate them, he said.
As proof that he has the power, Pagan states proudly that he never advertises: Customers come to the store by recomendation. He also says that he does not even enjoy giving out advice and only does so because his customers are always "bugging" him for it. The Botanica often overflows with customers, mostly women wearing funereal expressions and waiting to find out what salve, oil or powder is the antidote for the problem that has poisoned their lives. When their turn comes, they are ushered into a small room behind silky, white curtains.
Inside the inner sanctum, Pagan listens patiently, giving the customer a chance to talk about the problem and vent frustration before he recommends a remedy. If there is no specific complaint, Pagan may look into the person's life using a deck of cards, as he did recently. Cutting the deck in three, he turned over one pile of cards and stared intently at what appeared to be a picture of three zucchini.
"I see someone in your life with the initial 'J.' Who can that be?" he queried.
"Well, I have a friend named Juan," the client volunteered.
Pagan, seeming not in the least surprised, nodded, paused dramatically, stared at the card again and said:
"I see a Spanish-looking man . . ."
"I work the white table, not the black one," says Ruth Jiminez, who operates the Botanica del Indio.
"I've had people offer me $2,000 so their husbands can't walk again or can't get up in the morning, but I wouldn't do it no-how, no-way."
Jiminez, the mother of 13 children, says she has known she had special powers since she was 7 years old. One night she dreamed that an airplane crashed through the Empire State Building and she warned her uncle who worked there not to go to work, she said. The next day a plane did crash into the skyscraper, she said.
On a particularly stifling afternoon, Jiminez is in her botanica working "the white table." She lends a sympathetic ear to a woman whose 16-year-old son ran away from home. The woman complains that the boy is "too wild" in general.
Jimenez says knowledgeably, "The problem with (him) is that he thinks he's in the new age, and he wants his mother to be like him." Her verdict: He'll be back. The woman should light candles for his return.
But Jimenez declines to say exactly when he will come back. Exact dates are unpredictable, she says.
"Some things work faster than others," she says. "Last night, this girl wanted a guy back. She just lit up the candle and 10 minutes later, he was beeping the horn outside her house. She had to tell him to shut up. He wanted to knock the whole block out with the horn."
When the stray boy returns, Jimenez intends to put "invisible, spiritual chains" on his legs, so he will stay near home in the future.
She is most frequently consulted about problems involving husbands who have been "taken away by another woman doing witchcraft" to them, she says.
Fortunately, this problem is simply solved: "With that it's easy, you just break the spell and get him back," she says.
"I'm the only one who came for my son," says the customer. "I don't have any problem with my husband, thank God," she muses, knocking on the wooden table.
According to Jimenez, women handle spirits quite effectively because they are more courageous than men. This fact, she says, became obvious to her after her own marriage.
"If I hear a noise at night, I'll go see what it is," she says. "My husband says, 'What if it's somebody dead. . . a spirit?' I say, 'If it's a spirit, I'll confront it. If it's someone alive, I'll knock them on their head.'"
Jimenez proffers her compassionate advice free, but she cautions vehemently that many people without her special powers give advice simply to make money.
"Out here in Long Island, there are more phonies," she fumes. "You have got to know the person before you go giving your money out."
A person who really has special advising ability will not charge for the consultation, only for prescribed lotions, candles or incense, she says.
"For example, if you want your husband back and they say okay that's $200, then it's a ripoff," she says. "A real person will get your home back in one piece for nothing."
Before meeting Jimenez, the woman whose son ran away says she stumbled on a quack and lost $260. She does not wish to be identified, fearing her husband will discover she spent so much money and the boy is still missing. She paid to be baptized into santeria, a variety of spiritism tha t flourishes in the Carribean and Central and South America. According to Jimenez, the baptism might have helped if it was performed properly, but since the rituals were apparently garbled, the baptism was utterly useless.
Jimenez explains how it should have been done.
"You go to the ritual in the raggediest clothes so they can be thrown out," she says. "Then the madrina (or godmother) gives you a bath with 1001 herbs and sings in African."
"Nobody was singing when I went," the customer protests.
"Well, you got a cheap one," Jimenez retorts. "Did she throw your clothes out in a river?"
"No!" the customer exclaims in dismay.
"They (the clothes of the baptized person) have to be disposed of in a river - in sweet water," Jimnez continues. "If you got a ripoff, she probably threw them in the garbage," she says disgustedly.
While rituals clearly vary from one adviser to another, botanica owners and customers all seem to agree on one thing - that no remedy or problem-eradicating technique works unless the customer has faith that it will.
Jimenez' customer professes her belief outright, very fervently. Then she says in a dejected tone, "I believe. . . because I want my son back."