What's in the cards for San Francisco? Author Michelle Tea gives a reading for the city and discovers some surprising advice. Photo: Jenn Rosenstein / Illustration: Ingrid Rojas Contreras and Gabe Meline/KQED
What's in the cards for San Francisco? Author Michelle Tea gives a reading for the city and discovers some surprising advice. (Photo: Jenn Rosenstein / Illustration: Ingrid Rojas Contreras and Gabe Meline/KQED)

Reading the Cards: Michelle Tea’s Tarot Advice for San Francisco

Reading the Cards: Michelle Tea’s Tarot Advice for San Francisco

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When writer Michelle Tea first came to San Francisco, she had yet to win awards or develop a diehard following. Instead, she supported herself on Haight Street by giving Tarot readings — as she describes it, an “ancient story system, a pack of cards that tell a multitude of tales depending on the ways in which they’re placed alongside one another.” In other words, a writer’s dream.

'Modern Tarot,' by Michelle Tea.
'Modern Tarot,' by Michelle Tea. (Harper Collins)

Tea's new book, Modern Tarot (Harper Collins; $22.99), is a prismatically down-to-earth guide, and Tea is a sagacious tour guide. Hip and discerning, Tea shares personal anecdotes, shares some of her personal rituals to take each card’s meaning into her life, and, perhaps my favorite, decodes the symbolism of each card. (Tea describing the snow on which stands the Hermit, a sage old woman supporting herself on a staff: “If water is the emotions and air is the intellect, then snow is the emotions made tangible, by the cold air of logic.”)

Modern Tarot offers the most straightforward interpretation I’ve found about how Tarot cards work, and how the mythic journeys each card portrays can be used to harness a personal moment. So naturally, I’ve asked Michelle Tea to give the city of San Francisco a reading.

Below, Tea trains her eye on the City — and finds, among other things, that the tech bubble is not a bubble that will burst just yet; that the city needs to work on its partying; that it must get in touch with the emotional impact of its existence; and, she says, “If San Francisco can’t get itself together to honor the feminine, the feminine will just storm the castle.”

You’ve been warned, San Francisco.


Michelle Tea.
Michelle Tea. (Jen Rosenstein)

San Francisco: The Future is Female

A Tarot reading by Michelle Tea

A reading I like to do, for myself and for others, is a general Celtic Cross. The Celtic Cross spread is a popular one for a reason — it’s simple, it’s thorough, it provides a good overview of what’s happened, what’s going on, and what’s on the rise. I shuffle the deck and ask in a broad sense what the outcoming and incoming energies are right now, and this afternoon, I asked on behalf of the city of San Francisco.

Card 1 ~ The Present: Three of Pentacles

Hmmmm, I was afraid of this. Right now, San Francisco is all about work. The card – I’m using the Rider-Waite deck, with art by the wonderful Pamela Coleman Smith – depicts an architect getting the thumbs up from a couple of moneybags. Hooray, they’re going to pay him to design their castle! The Bay Area has gotten the thumbs up from moneybags everywhere from the continued development of all things tech. An old story, but what’s interesting is, this card is a three – we’re still at the start of this current work cycle. We know this bubble isn’t a bubble at all. It’s got stability, staying power, and it’s only going to grow from here. Good news for many, I’m sure, but all work and no play makes Jack a dull town.

Card 2 ~ What Crosses the Situation: Queen of Cups

Verrrrry interesting. This card represents what ‘crosses’ the present, what influences it, either helping it along or slowing it down. The Queen of Cups is a heavy-duty feminine energy card. It represents the realm of emotions. A Queen, it is a mature card, it thinks before it acts and considers the way a behavior could wound or heal. It is a poet and a dreamer.

This to me looks a lot like the battle between good and evil enacted in San Francisco for decades now — the masculine-fueled work drive opposing and being opposed by a feminine-fueled emotion drive. My read on this is that industry in San Francisco will not be able to fully, truly grow until it begins to mature out of its little-kid, I-want-it-all phase and responds to the emotional impact of its existence. By integrating not just poetry but poets, not just dreams but dreamers into the scope of its vision, San Francisco’s work life will begin to achieve some balance. Until this happens, the pressure that these more artistic realms place on the corporate will not let up.

Also, though it is true that in the Tarot, masculine and feminine energies are embodied by all genders, so for this particular reading I would say that San Francisco’s industry needs to take a look at how it treats women — and female-identified people need to continue putting pressure on growing powers to make sure they are included in the bigger picture of city life.

Card 3 ~ Conscious Thoughts and Goals: The Star

San Francisco has always dreamed big. The Star is about taking your wildest inspirations and somehow bringing them down to terra firma and making them real. I’ve long felt that San Francisco is a place where people come to see if their theory can be put into practice, whether on an intensely personal level, a community level or within larger cultural movements.

The city sees itself as deeply innovating, whether what is being disrupted are algorithms or the gender binary. There is special energy here that can make things happen, and it favors movements with high ideals, inclusiveness and accessibility. The Star is connected to Aquarius, which is the sign of the future. The future starts in San Francisco (or at least the city’s ego believes this). I see this card as evidence that collectively, San Francisco knows it needs to dream bigger and work harder to make idealistic situations exist for more of the city.

Card 4 ~ Unconscious Thoughts and Motivations: Two of Cups

In San Francisco’s heart, it’s always been the Summer of Love. It’s not a coincidence that this famous moment occurred here, or that the country’s queer community gathered and thrived here. Deep down, it is love that rules this place, that makes it work. It’s the foundation that everything is currently built upon, the big hearts of the city’s ancestors and their forgotten labors of love that made the city great.

The image on the card is two people exchanging cups, and it’s this human connection, emotional communication, that is still the heart of the city — very deep and hard to extinguish. There is a channel between this underground love and the conscious idealism of The Star. The city thinks of itself as a loving place and needs to draw upon that history in order to manifest more progressive projects.

Card 5 ~ The Past: King of Pentacles

Okay, it is not a coincidence that San Francisco’s recent past is the richest dude in the deck. The King of Pentacles is materialistic, he’s great at business, he earns his money and spends it luxuriously. The past always brings us to the future, so it is the work and influence of this man (these men) that has made San Francisco the epicenter of industry it currently is. But it’s done so at the expense of the city’s spiritual and emotional aspects, as seen in the Queen of Cups. One tarot reader explained to me once that she sees that crossing card as the bridge that brings us from the past to the future, and if that is the case, the serene, emotional queen is taking our hand, pulling us away from big daddy moneybags and leading us to...

Card 6 ~ The Future: The Empress

The Future is Female, ya’ll. With all my fingers crossed, I hopefully report that the energies native to the feminine — healing, nurturing, love, beauty, abundance, giving, serenity, creativity — are ready to lovingly ambush San Francisco. Out with the yang, in with the yin: a feminine renaissance, with intuition, healing arts, art in general and a need for equality as the city’s zeitgeist. Precedence given to the experience of female-identified and otherwise feminine people. A movement to ease the burden on mothers at all economic levels, and a sense that San Francisco is our mother, and all of us her children, and let’s start taking better care of her and of each other.

Card 7 ~ The Self: The Wheel of Fortune

Yes, San Francisco won the karmic lotto, if high-paying jobs and skyrocketing rents are how one defines fortune. The city has established itself as a world-class location with all the cash and prizes that go along with that. It is, in so many ways, blessed. But the "what goes up must come down" rule applies to this card — we may currently be that Sphinx, riding high, but the jackal and the snake will get their turn, too. Better for the city to keep its eye on the center to better able ride out the inevitable downs that come with these magnificent ups. But no matter what ever happens, the city always rises. It is The Wheel of Fortune.

Card 8 ~ Environment: Ace of Swords

This card represents the environment the querent finds themselves in, but as the querent in this reading is an environment – err, uh, hmmmm. I guess this card stands for you, all of you, the citizens of San Francisco, influencing her vibes and character on the daily. And generally speaking, the people of San Francisco are new. They think thoughts that haven’t been thunk before, they try things that haven’t been tried, they live lives that haven’t been lived. And they love it. Thought, literature, communication, media, these are all ruled by the Ace of Swords and they rule the people of San Francisco. Debates, healthy and otherwise. These are a people who will go to the mat for what they believe. On some level, everyone knows that they are at the vanguard of our culture, and the city loves this about her children.

Card 9 ~ Hopes and Fears: Knight of Pentacles

This card is the anxiety card of the spread, and we’ve got the dull, plodding — if capable – Knight of Pentacles. While the fantasy of big King Pentacle in the city’s past is pretty attractive to pretty much everyone (even I wouldn’t mind eating grapes off his lap), this Knight of Pentacles is the average Jo’s reality: a working stiff whose job eats her life and who doesn’t have much time for anything cool or fun or creative. Is this what the city is afraid of becoming? I see this as all the inspired people who moved to town with dreams only to find themselves with big rent they need to work hella hard to pay, leaving them too exhausted to pursue their real life at the end of the day. San Francisco, don’t let this be you! It suggests to me that the city is aware that it’s becoming a bore, and it keeps them up at night.

Card 10 ~ Outcome: Queen of Wands

The card that ties it all together, and here we have the magnificent Queen of Wands, emphasizing the already-strong message that it is time for feminine energies to take the wheel. This Queen builds upon the watery power of the Queen of Cups and the nurturing abundance of The Empress and sets it ablaze. If San Francisco can’t get itself together to honor the feminine, the feminine will just storm the castle. Queen of Wands is crafty and powerful, full of energy and ideas, has tons of endurance and stamina, creativity and chutzpah.

Artists, lovers, politicians, activists: this Queen makes shit happen. You’re either on her train or you’re eating dust. All aboard, San Francisco! It’s time to leave the past behind.

Thanks to Michelle Tea for this week's Tarot reading. 'Modern Tarot: Connecting with your Higher Self Through the Wisdom of the Cards' features updated, feminist, and queer-friendly reading of Tarot, personal anecdotes, and spells. Yes, spells.


The Spine is a biweekly book column. Catch us back here in two weeks.