For years, the fliers of a mystic consultant named Keano have cast a spell over the New York City subway. They are as ubiquitous as they are understated, stuffed in seemingly every train. An all-seeing eye in a white pyramid gazes out over the morning commute.
“Discover the Mystery of the Psychic,” Keano’s ads read. “The Moon & Stars Can Be Yours.”
This metaphysical artifact seems to have fluttered in from a dusty carnival. But Keano has attained a 21st-century type of fame. The posters have inspired scores of memes, parodies and artsy homages. There are Keano comic strips, iPhone covers, T-shirts and chic blown-up posters. There are tote bags.
But for all the popularity, almost nothing is actually known about Keano, or if he or she even exists. The flier offers only a phone number — “one free question by phone” — but the line often goes straight to voice mail.
Like many before me, I was drawn in. About a year ago I began calling. One winter night, a husky voice — possibly a man, I thought, with a smoker’s purr — picked up. The voice identified itself as Keano. I suggested we meet for an interview.
There was a pause. “Yes, maybe,” Keano said. “I need to read your energy first. But now, I have to go.”
We spoke several more times, but a connection was elusive: Keano was out of town, tending to clients, not feeling well. Keano stopped picking up my calls. The trail went cold.
But this spring, there was another break. A new series of subway fliers started appearing. These were nearly identical to Keano’s monochromatic pyramid, only now there were new names: Angelina, Mila and Ruby. This psychic trio was also promising the moon and the stars. But these posters, unlike the vintage Keano, carried a crucial addition: a street address.
If there was an answer to the Keano riddle, it would be found on 86th Street in Brooklyn.
The address on the new pyramid posters led to a small storefront in Bay Ridge, next to a Thai takeout. The awning, decorated with a purple meditating silhouette, reads, “Aura & chakra cleansing boutique.”
Pink fluorescent lights flickered. Huge, glittering chunks of geode lined the dirty window. A woman with a ponytail opened the door and identified herself as Angelina.
As we spoke, a barefoot boy peered out from a room where an air mattress was propped against the wall. Angelina glowered at the boy. He scampered away. Keano wasn’t there, she said.
I returned in a week. This time, I met Mila and Ruby, the other psychics from the new posters. They were much younger and invited me inside the front room, where I saw enormous piles of the Keano posters on the floor. I had placed eyes on the entire subway cast, except for the lead character, whom Ruby had referred to as “our elder.”
I wondered aloud whether Keano was a real person at all. Ruby laughed at that. “Oh, yes,” she said. “Keano’s not, like, a spirit or something.”
I still wasn’t sure.
The spiritual entrepreneur has long thrived in the American city, tapping into that enduring impulse toward enchantment: do-it-yourself salvation, the therapeutic life-hack, mail-order enlightenment, the key to life one toll-free call away.
But storefront fortunetellers aren’t just some holdover from a credulous past. They are actually a product of the modern city and its peculiar anxieties. New York swelled with newcomers in the 19th century and novel forms of spirituality were on the rise. Through the 20th century, a sprawling market of urban soothsayers grew. Broadsheets of the era carried listings for spirit boards, erotic elixirs and an endless parade of enterprising metaphysicians.
Take, for example, Madame Boulanger (“celebrated trance medium”) who offered counsel in New York classifieds each week.
Or Miss Somp (“seventh daughter born with veil”), who sold her own advice in German. There was Lady Astoria (“everything successful”) off Gold Street; Lady Zaretta (“Brooklyn’s greatest”); Melba the Mental Scientist (“whom to trust in business”); King Osman (“Lucky Talisman Free”); Countess Habelu (“Gypsy fortuneteller”); or, if you like, the mighty Magno (“ladies only”).
Law enforcement launched periodic raids, mostly charging business owners with disorderly conduct. The next decades brought high-profile court cases culminating in the 1960s, when “claimed or pretended use of occult powers” to “influence or affect evil spirits or curses” was outlawed outright. (One caveat: such demonstrations are permitted if explicitly “part of a show.”)
Evil-eye removal for a fee? Not always enforced, but it’s actually a Class B misdemeanor in the five boroughs.
Regulation has always been uneven, falling often along class, religious or racial lines: Who gets to claim supernatural insight? Was this a protected religious practice?
Healing prayers from pastors with a collection plate are mainly taken as expressions of faith. And while it offers its own kind of paranormal cure, a Williamsburg yoga studio’s reiki healing is less likely to come under investigation than a crystal ball psychic on a Bay Ridge corner.
You could understand why Keano and her clan were wary.
Other psychics warned me off my quest altogether. Terry Iacuzzo, a longtime Little Italy clairvoyant and author who also teaches at the upscale Omega Institute, said she didn’t know Keano, but she wanted to draw a bright line between her work and what she called the déclassé charlatanism of the storefronts. “There are many phony scam artists,” she said.
Even Bob Nygaard, a crusading private investigator with the peculiar specialty of fortunetelling fraud, had little to offer.
Mr. Nygaard recalled the scores of psychic cases he had taken on, like the fortuneteller who said she could treat an autistic boy with a magic banana.
To hear Mr. Nygaard tell it, the storefronts exist primarily to swindle. They are often family affairs, and they don’t need troves of clients to eke out a living, which explains why shops can appear eerily quiet. They need only a few high-yield marks.
The typical scam starts with small readings, he said, which can avalanche to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But Mr. Nygaard had never run into the subway psychic. “People have asked me about this Keano,” he said, “but I’ve never investigated.”
Cautions aside, I persisted. Saint or swindler, hoax or holy; when isn’t there a bit of both? I didn’t expect Keano to be so simple. Anyway, the murky in between was far more interesting.
I kept my weekly ritual of passing by the Bay Ridge store, holding out hope Keano would materialize. Then, one afternoon, I encountered a new figure.
Approaching as usual, I saw an unfamiliar woman, her face obscured in the shade of the awning. She had dragged a huge, golden chair, almost a throne, onto the sidewalk, where she smoked a cigarette.
A white scarf, printed with zodiac symbols, fluttered on a side table. I asked for Keano.
“That’s me,” she said. “I’m Keano.”
Her skin was pale, her dark hair cropped short and dotted with gray. The voice was the same husky tone from the phone. She flicked away her cigarette butt. “What do you know about Keano?”
I introduced myself. We spoke months ago, I said. I’d met her colleagues, but it was Keano that interested me.
There was a look of recognition. She invited me to sit and apologized for her long absence.
I wanted to know her story.
Keano told me she’d been traveling and seeing clients — in California, Florida, Canada, wherever business called — and the shop here was being renovated. She added, by way of further explanation, “I’ve been working to repair my aura.”
As we spoke, a tall blonde woman slowed in curiosity. Keano passed her one of the pyramid fliers. They discussed prices.
The fortuneteller paused to correct the woman’s pronunciation: “No, no. It’s kee-ah-NO, not kee-ah-NU.”
She turned back to me, but I soon felt Keano’s attention drifting. Another client was coming soon, she said.
I offered, “Maybe we can do a reading?”
At this, she perked up. “For $80, yes,” she said. “I can tell your future, if you want, just from looking at your head.”
“Sure,” I said. I counted out the bills. She scanned my face and asked simple questions. How old was I? Was I worried about anything? Was I sleeping enough?
I half-expected to be ushered into an inner sanctum, mesmerized by incense-filled rituals. Something more theatrical, at least. But there we sat on the street, a bright Brooklyn afternoon. Dump trucks sputtered by.
We spoke for 20 minutes. I told her about work, new opportunities that had come my way. As I spoke, she offered short, prodding comments. Then, finally, Keano gave her full diagnosis: “Good news today. On a scale of 1 to 10, honestly, your spirit is at 9.5. Come back if you want more.”
Then I was dismissed, with a handshake and a wave. Keano did think my spirit was strong. There was that.
Over the next months, I visited the woman who called herself Keano every few weeks. We would sit on the sidewalk in the afternoon sun and talk, she on her gold-painted throne, me on a dingy, foldout chair. Some days, we would eat candy and crack open sodas from the bodega. Keano preferred 7-Up but would settle for Sprite.
There were three types of consultations in Keano’s repertory: the face analysis, which I’d already done, and aura and tarot readings, which each cost $40. I said I would sample each once. Some days, she would give unprompted and free counsel.
Keano said she could see blue and yellow energy radiating from my body. She peered into the creases of my hands and pulled from a tarot deck. She would give homey, occasionally otherworldly, encouragement.
“I see your finances improving,” she told me once.
Then she quickly cautioned, “But don’t let anyone touch your books or pencils.”
Another day, Keano said: “Your aura is glowingly bright today. It’s improved even in the last five minutes.”
Her favorite phrase, uttered almost like an incantation: “Good vibes, good vibes, I’m getting good vibes.”
Yet Keano’s health, at times, seemed to falter. Her hands trembled as she spoke. One afternoon I found Keano on the far side of the block, stooped and short of breath. She mopped her brow with a napkin. “My spirit’s low,” she gasped. “I’m trying to bring it back up to 7 points. I feel down. I don’t feel well.”
I would steer the conversation to her life. But her responses were cryptic and spare.
On her origins, she said: “It began when I was 16. I had a premonition that I would be hit by a car. And I was. I was hit by a car crossing the street. I was run over. I broke my ankle. But I survived. And since then, I have premonitions about other people.”
On her roots: “I am Greek. I am Argentinian. Keano is my true name. This gift we have, it’s in the family.”
One day she said: “We don’t do black magic, only deal with the light. We’re not Illuminati. No witchcraft. No voodoo. I want you to know this. Trust me.”
When I asked about the popular flier, she said: “I made it myself. Simple. Powerful. The eye is for seeing into the spirit. The moon is protection. The earth is for thinking victoriously.”
Keano doesn’t seem to hang the posters herself. She enlists helpers, one of whom swung by to gather a bulky cardboard box, brimming with ads. (This woman, wearing dark sunglasses and a hat, is sometimes mistaken for Keano by subway riders.)
I wondered what Keano’s online fans would make of her creaky storefront with a stained carpet. Maybe they’d prefer the mystery. This Keano was no ironic meme or lofty concept artist, but a middle-aged woman in sleepy south Brooklyn, on the frayed edge of the law.
Keano seemed indifferent to the poster’s fame, or at best amused. “Someone made a T-shirt?” she said. “An article?”
Over the course of months, Keano was uninterested in submitting to any sort of straightforward interview. She preferred, rather, to cast her story as enchanted.
Pages of phone and property records offer glimpses of a more prosaic sort.
Before she was the subway psychic, Keano was born Vella Nicklas in Manhattan. Ms. Nicklas, now 61, shifted between cities up and down the East Coast, in Florida, Connecticut, New Jersey, Virginia and New York. She also spent several years in California.
She seems to have ground out a living on the margins and off the books. She once told me her name was Keano Miller but, in truth, she has used several different first names — sometimes Vella, sometimes Keano — and alternate spellings of her surname.
On the swampy outskirts of Orlando, she and her business partner Angelina were based out of another psychic shop some years ago. They did not grow rich; that shop is now closed. (When I asked her on the phone if she was, in fact, Vella Nicklas, she said no. That was her sister-in-law, she said.)
I had finally found Keano, but it felt she might flutter away any moment.
One drizzly evening, I overheard Keano speaking with another client on the phone. “Thank God it’s over,” she said in a soft coo. “I see some brightness flowing around you. Be yourself. I don’t want you to be worried.”
Then her voice sharpened: “You just have to do exactly what we discussed. Yes, I told you, $750. To me. Call after. I love you. Bye.”
On a late summer afternoon, I met Keano in her usual perch for what would be one of the last times. I asked if we might return to the topic of her life.
She had other plans. “I am so glad you came,” Keano said. She beckoned.
“I had a vision of you last night. There was a dark mist.”
She went on. “There is a black spot. It’s small” — she pinched her fingers together — “but we need to do some research.”
Keano hesitated for a beat. “It’s going to cost you this time. No more small stuff.” She thought maybe $600, the exact price depending on what the guardian angels said. After that, she said, maybe we could talk more. She’d do this plain interview I kept asking for. But only after.
The street had grown quiet. Mila and Ruby peered from the window. Keano, at that moment, looked tired; her throne more like a chair with frayed cushion, the thin gold paint chipping. She waited.
Credit where it’s due. It was clear that Keano knew why I came again and again: Not for my fortune, exactly, but to write her story. And why give it away for free?
She’d made her sell, the one I was told was coming. Was I prepared to tumble with Keano into this enchanted mist? I considered it for a long moment. Then said I could handle the guardian angels myself.
Keano clapped her hands. She said, “Well, we can’t keep meeting like this.”
I had absent-mindedly picked up a handful of pyramid fliers as I stood to leave. Her face wrinkled with a frown. Reaching across the table, she said, “Those aren’t for you.”
She shuffled them back into a neat stack.
“Those,” she said, “are for the train.”
Two weeks later, I returned once more to Keano’s shop. She had, to my surprise, agreed to pose for a portrait. But when I arrived, the curtains were drawn and there was no answer.
Damp leaves had piled by the door. Keano’s throne was empty.