On Jan. 9, 1939, William C. Haight, a writer with the Works Progress Administration's Federal Writers' Project, climbed the stairs to the Orange Lantern Tea Room on the third floor of Portland's Central Building at 1225 SW Alder St. to interview the resident fortune-teller, "Miss Smith." Miss Smith was fat and sported an exaggerated Gypsy aesthetic: gingham handkerchief on her head, beaded moccasins on her feet, and fake braids "obviously pinned on for the day's work." She was tucked away in a cluttered waiting room. "A friendly, informal atmosphere would best describe the 'feel' of the room," Haight wrote. Haight probably had one of those little up-twirling mustaches, and probably licked his pen before jotting that note down with bureaucratic precision.
Nearly 70 years later, "friendly" and "informal" would definitely be two words to describe the new Mademoiselle Noelle's Fortune Tea House, which opened in August on Northeast Fremont Street. Mismatched vintage furniture dots the small, bright shop, and a single bookshelf, full of occult miscellany, stands in the corner. As much as Miss Smith fit the part of the classic Gypsy fortune-teller, the proprietress of Mademoiselle Noelle's, Christy Noelle Desko, looks like any thirtysomething Portlander: jeans and a dark tank top, bobbed blond hair, butterfly tattoos. "You and me probably go to the same shows," she says. But fashion and musical tastes aside, Desko says she's "part of the old school of fortune-telling."
Indeed both clairvoyants, Desko and Miss Smith, share strikingly similar life stories: Both knew early and definitively of their gifts; both bounced around shitty jobs while telling fortunes on the side; and both ended up peering into the future full-time in small Portland tea rooms.
When I came in for a tea-leaf reading one afternoon, Desko saw a fish, a triangle and a mushroom in my cup. "The triangle represents some kind of base," she said. "With the mushroom, it means you have a good, earthy base to build up to something in the future. Are you building up to something big right now?" Only the rest of my life, I guess. She stared at the cup for a few seconds more and suddenly asked, "Do you have mice in your house?" I do. "You need to get rid of them immediately," she said with concern. "There's a reason why there was a plague in Europe!" Maybe I'm building up to buying a whole mess of mousetraps?
That was two weeks ago, and now I'm back for a follow-up interview. Desko is pissed I didn't tell her I was a reporter when I had my tea leaves read, since honesty is a key to accurate readings. "I'm not too thrilled about the whole undercover thing," she says. She's especially wary because she had recently been grilled by another skeptical reporter. "You know, people can believe me or not," Desko says. "I'm not here to convince anyone."
Back in the Orange Lantern Tea Room circa 1939, William C. Haight didn't need convincing. "Her clientele are mostly old customers," Haight wrote of Miss Smith. "She solves practically all of their problems." Miss Smith had been fortune-telling in Portland for many years, but not without incident. When she first started up in the city she had been hauled down to the police station and arrested—probably under City Ordinance No. 17968.
The ordinance, passed on June 11, 1908, reads like the Greatest Hits of Universal Human Longing. Ordinance 17968 made it unlawful "to tell fortunes or reveal the future to find or restore lost or stolen property; to locate oil wells, gold or silver or other ore or metal or natural product; to restore lost love, friendship or affection; to reunite or procure lovers, husbands, wives, lost relatives or friends; or to give advise [sic] in business affairs or advice of any other kind or nature...by means of occult or psychic powers."
But Miss Smith knew she had the answers. She found a loophole and was licensed as a "psychic psychologist" after collecting 10 taxpayers' signatures. And, on April 8, 1937, she found herself formally accepted in the Portland business community when City Council lifted the ban on "gazers into the future," so long as they obtained the approval of four landowners and were "of good moral character."
Today, even those few regulations have been lifted. "It was easy," says Desko of registering her own 2-month-old fortune-telling business with the city. The banalities of running a small business occupy most of Desko's time now—working 70 hours a week and trying to get the word out. "I still haven't been able to sit down and enjoy this whole thing yet," she says.
In a little less than a century, fortune-telling in the city has gone from a public menace to one of those quirky businesses Portlanders love. It's easy to look back at the dull seriousness of the City Council ordinance and mugshots of downtrodden
gypsies booked for fortune-telling (both available at Portland's Stanley Parr Archives and Records Center, see photos, above) with a smug sense of "Look how far
we've come!" Heading back from Mademoiselle Noelle's, I
have to pity Haight with his stupid mustache in uptight 1939. Today, Portlanders can recognize fortune-telling for the silly diversion it is: Desko can run her business in peace, us journalists can write about it with a knowing wink, and City Council can spend less of its valuable time regulating the occult and focus more on real problems—like renaming North Interstate Avenue.
Mademoiselle Noelle's Fortune Tea House, 5713 NE Fremont St., 998-6616. 11 am-8 pm Tuesday-Friday. 11 am-7 pm Saturday-Sunday. Single-cup reading $10, includes a pot of tea.