October 30, 1997
Cleaning Out Those Pesky Old Poltergeists in the Closets
By Tracie Rozhon
Sunshine Eagle, her face as strong as Georgia O'Keeffe's, gently shook her waist-length black hair and demonstrated how to exorcise evil spirits from a client's apartment, a ritual that she says she has performed dozens of times.
First she chanted. Then she picked up her rattle made of llama and vicuña toes, and showed how she circles an afflicted domicile, the rattle making the clickety-click sound of a terrier scampering along a highly polished floor. Standing in the middle of her white-painted office in the basement of an Upper West Side co-op building, she lighted a smudge, a bunch of dried sage. The smell was pervasive, definite; the spirits were supposed to get the message and clear out.
Ms. Eagle, who grew up in the Andes, one of a handful of New York City women who are loosely termed "smudgers": spiritualists who drive bad vibrations from co-op, condominium or stabilized rental. In New York City, smudgers cleanse apartments of the spirits of old boyfriends, old wives, old tenants – just about anything that might trouble an anxious owner. The smudgers interviewed charge anywhere from $75 to $200 an hour.
Barbara Corcoran, president of the Corcoran Group, one of Manhattan's largest real estate firms, treats the smudgers with respect, and so does Frederick W. Peters, president of Ashforth Warburg Associates, a midsize firm. Both executives say their agents have recently called in smudgers when all apartment that should have sold did not.
"It's kind of covering all bases," Ms. Corcoran said. "As wacky as it sounds, smudging is at least another attempt to get more money for your clients. Whether we think it works or not, we must try it. We've suggested it to one owner - actually it was an estate - and they took it very tongue in cheek, but they let us try it."
That apartment sold, Ms. Corcoran said; the buyers, she said, were never told about the ritual. "Maybe it would have sold that particular morning, or not, but it was really bizarre," she added.
Smudging, now loosely applied, is an ancient American Indian rite for driving away bad spirits with the burning of sage; so-called smudge sticks are available in hundreds of storefront New Age shops. At the Open Center, a hub of New Age workshops and seminars in downtown Manhattan, Paul Rush, a spokesman, gave out the names of some local smudgers. He said the center did not offer any courses in smudging, which is not so well known as the Chinese art of feng shui.
Michael Taussig, a professor of anthropology at Columbia University, said feng shui and smudging are two completely different things. "To use a Western vocabulary, feng shui is a divination, the feel of an environmental vibe, which bodes well for the settlement of a house, a stable, a city," Mr, Taussig said. "Smudging is all age-old purgation, which the Greeks used as much as the New World people; it is one of many components - costumes, prayers, chants - to remove evil sorcery, baneful influences from the home."
Kia Woods, who sees much the same distinction between feng shui and smudging, usually smudges her own three-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side, but for her 50th birthday party, she hired Sunshine Eagle to do the job for her.
Eduardo Marceles, a writer who has lectured on cultural rituals and customs at the New School for Social Research, described a smudging ritual in his native Colombia.
"My mother used to have this done," he said. "The neighbors brought different kinds of incense to the house, they burned charcoal and they sometimes put in different kinds of herbs to drive out the evil spirits. Whether it was psychological or not, they do feel the house was cleansed of evil spirits."
In Colombia, he said, people did not charge for smudging a house. "But of course in the U.S., when you render a service, you have to charge, because the bills don't wait," he said.
Dr. Simone Charlop said that besides visiting the troubled house she can work from a graph-paper plan of it - as long as it is hand-drawn by the tenant. Donna Henes, a Manhattan shaman and house cleanser, uses "oils, crystals and semiprecious stones." She also uses blueing to ward off bad spirits by painting the (removable) laundry liquid around door frames and other boundaries; homeowners in Mexico, Greece and the Southwestern United States use more permanent blue paint.
Other countries, other customs: Strings of chill peppers and blue glass charms against the evil eye in Greece; in Nepal, bits of mirror around the door frame and a goat's head over the entrance aim to deflect bad spirits. In Manhattan, a multicultural metropolis, the smudgers use multicultural techniques.
"I honor all traditions," Ms. Eagle said. "I honor all cultures "
Eleni Santoro sat cross-legged on the couch, the paraphernalia of her trade on the coffee table in front of her, in a rented studio apartment in a white brick post-World War II building on Third Avenue near 18th Street. The studio is home to Jenna Mikos, 25, who works in the marketing department of a chain of gyms. Ms. Mikos lived in the apartment for two years, but when she and her new boyfriend decided to live together, he insisted on finding a place that wasn't just hers.
Then they ran up against the real estate market - "rents are astronomical," she said - and decided to keep her $1,650 a a month sublease in a co-op building. "So I had to promise him I'd have it smudged," she said. "For a real fresh start, let's get the bad stuff out. I wanted him to feel comfortable. I'm a spiritualistic kind of person anyway."
Ms. Santoro was hired. She began cross-legged on the sofa, meditating. Then she picked up a plastic zip-top bag containing High John the Conqueror Incense, special-ordered, she explained, from the House of Hermetic in Eagle Rack, Calif. She poured the incense into a small bronze bowl and lighted it.
Ms. Santoro also unpacked African beads and a small Indian bell, which she placed on a silver tray. She plugged in a small tape player and inserted a tape of mountain stream sounds. Later, she changed the tape to Japanese drummers. Then she changed from her street trousers tapered black slacks - into her sheer white Indian pants.
"There's a lot of confinement here," Ms. Santoro said, viewing Ms, Mikos's furnishings - an overstuffed couch, an overstuffed sofa, a smaller loveseat, a large round dining table, a maple armoire entertainment center, a queen-size bed, a screen with cut-out metal animals and two television sets, one big enough for a sports bar.
"We always light a white light to call in the spirits," she said. "First I will ask that we all be protected; I feel something across the forehead and down in the spire: rude."
She laid out crystals, "to absorb negativity." And since she had just been to Sedona, Ariz., "I bring part of the rock of Sedona," she said. She painstakingly arranged stone heads, "to signify fertility, mating and all those good things,"
After the smudging the couple returned to their apartment.
"It feels more homey," Ms. Mikos reported a few days later, "and you won't believe this, but during the last week, we were really right on with a lot of things; you know, like more together. I felt a real difference."
"Eleni told me I had opened my home and my head to him, but not my heart," she said.