OCEAN CITY - A Tarot reading on the city's Boardwalk turned ugly this week after a fortuneteller told a gay client he was going to hell.
The reading led to a loud public argument, a police investigation and an anti-discrimination petition circulating among Boardwalk merchants.
Jamie Cohen, 22, of Los Angeles, is in Ocean City this week for an annual family reunion. On Sunday, he accompanied his grandmother on her annual summer visit to Cora's Readings on the 10th Street Boardwalk.
The store was busy, with a line stretching out the door. June Mitchell, the daughter of the store's owner, greeted Cohen and began a half-deck Tarot reading.
Almost immediately, the conversation got off on the wrong foot, Cohen said.
"She said, 'Your parents don't accept you for who you are,'" he said. "I said, 'No, they accept me.' She told me they were lying."
Mitchell said the cards did not bode well for his love life, either. When Mitchell informed him he was full of negative energy, Cohen said he had heard enough. He stormed out of the store without paying the $20 fee.
Cohen accidentally left his phone under his chair. When he went back to retrieve it, he said he got into a shouting match with Mitchell, who ordered him out of the store and, in front of a crowd, called him a slur used to denigrate gays.
"I just wanted to go home to Los Angeles after that. I wanted to crawl up in a ball with my boyfriend and not move," Cohen said.
His grandmother, who overheard the exchange, hugged him, he said.
Mitchell on Wednesday admitted she used the offensive word. But she said Cohen called her a Gypsy, a claim Cohen denied. Mitchell said she was upset by Cohen's reaction during the half-finished reading and the way he walked out without paying.
"I'm sorry if I offended him. That was not my intention," she said. "I wanted to make him happy. That's what I get paid for."
Mitchell, a born-again Christian, said her religious doctrine opposes homosexuality. She conceded this same doctrine does not exactly condone Tarot reading, a skill she inherited from her mother.
"It's not compatible with my religion. But I was raised with it," she said. "And I've stopped people from killing themselves and doing drugs. I'm a cheap psychiatrist."
Mitchell said Cohen would have been pleased with the full reading but the conversation quickly deteriorated.
"I read for 20 gay people a day," she said. "I don't judge. God gave us free will. I try to make my clients happy."
Cora Mitchell, the store's owner, said she has many gay friends and clients who are always welcome at the store. She said the argument merely was about two people who said things they would later regret in the heat of the moment.
Mitchell said Cohen shouted at her, "I have a right to be gay!"
"I said, 'But you're going to hell. God does not forgive people who are gay,'" Mitchell said. "All I asked him was if his family was OK with him coming out so young."
Mitchell said Cohen was welcome back to finish his reading, free of charge. But Cohen said the incident soured his vacation. He said he was returning to California on Thursday.
Cohen went to the city's Police Department on Ninth Street to file a bias complaint but decided not to. Police Lt. Steven Ang said officers later interviewed Mitchell, who likewise decided not to file a complaint for the unpaid reading.
"It's a he-said, she-said situation. Cooler heads could have prevailed," Ang said.
Cohen circulated a petition and collected 154 signatures from Boardwalk merchants disavowing discrimination against gay people. He tried to present the petition to City Hall, but officials there told him it was a private dispute, he said.
Mayor Sal Perillo on Wednesday said his only response to Cohen this week was an e-mail saying the issue was under police review.
He declined to comment without knowing more about the issue but asked how much the Tarot readings cost.
"Twenty dollars? Usually, someone is willing to tell you to go to hell for free," he quipped.
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