IF YOU want to hide something in Grand Central Station, make it big. For weeks I had been passing through New York's largest subway terminal, never noticing the large, fiberglass cubicle recently built there. Inside that plastic cage sprawls Astroflash, the enormous IBM computer which, after great financial success in Paris, has invaded America's largest city. When equipped with a subject's place and exact time of birth, the mechanical monster will spew out an "astro-psy-chological portrait" and "an astralcalendar for the coming six months," at the rate of 1100 lines a minute. Trilingual as well as speedy. Astroflash I'l (its parent and predecessor remains in Paris) embodies, as the sign outside says, "a marriage of the ancient art of astrology and modern computer technology."
Astrology in my mind is associated with gypsy palmists and gray bearded men in starry dunce caps. Although I have never bothered to explore astrology, I still view this cybernetic intruder with distaste, in rather the same way I regard the industrial concerns which ravage the forests I have never taken time to visit. Some things should just be left alone. As a picturesque fantasy, astrology is rather quaint; when it takes on scientific pretensions, it becomes a cheap fraud.
So it was not exactly with sympathy that I entered the machine's bailiwick. Outside the structure was an enormous map of the United States, each county labeled with a number which doubtless contains great significance for the computer. Girls at desks punched out computer cards, and the customers waited outside as the machine recorded its insights on blue-and-white striped paper monogrammed with a starry "A." I walked up, introduced myself, and began talking to Michael Lutin, one of the astrologers who works there. He explained to me that astrology locates a person as a specific point in time and space, and then describes his "potential harmony." Lutin, like Astroflash, was very careful to emphasize that astrology is not a for tune-telling device. As Astroflash puts it: "Above all." remember that while the stars influence, they do not summarily dictate your future." Lutin brought me inside the air-conditioned box and introduced me to fellow astrologer David Damaska, who presented an analogy.
"If you were given all the materials, supplies, and tools you needed to build a boat, you could still choose to build a tractor." he said. "But if you use what you've got, you achieve a certain freedom."
Both in their twenties, Lutin and Damaska also draw up private, individual horoscopes by hand. For this, they charge from 50 to 75 dollars. Sometimes the job takes them as long as two weeks. Astroflash performs in minutes, and the price for the combined portrait and calendar is a relatively moderate five dollars.
However, the computer is still in its rudimentary stages of development, and while both men believe cybernetic astrology is "the order of the future," neither considers the computer in its present form equal to its human counterparts in judgment or synthesizing power. Both men are strongly committed to astrology. Damaska radiated enthusiasm from his bright blue eyes and his wiry brown hair that effervesced from his head. He wore agray-brown suit, a blue-and-green. striped-and-flowered tie, and a full beard. Lutin wore a pink shirt and a collarless blue sports jacket. An ascot was tied around his neck, and his greasy black thinning hair was stretched sparsely across his scalp, painfully trying to cover the bald spots until it could relax in a thick growth at the bottom of his neck. When I asked him what types of people came for horoscopes. he was exuberant. He had obviously been waiting for the question. His finger jabbed at the air, his mouth pouted open, and his large brown eyes looked over my shoulder at nothing as he searched for an epigrammatic reply.
"Everyone." he said with childlike delight. "From little old ladies from Pasadena to Madison Avenue types who pretend to have missed their train to Wall Street types who examine the hardware to the hippies who come about ten o'clock at night. We've had two rabbis, a priest, and a nun."
MY ANALYSIS had arrived, and I was eager to see it. Lutin and Damaska scanned the first page, which is technical information about houses, planets, conjunctions, and opposition. They then proceeded to take astrological pot shots at me, explaining the significance of the way I was dressed, demonstrating how it was all indicated in my conjunctions. Damaska was surprised that I am a Virgo, confessing he thought I "come on like a Sagittarius." I retreated hastily and watched from a distance to see what kinds of people pay money for this thing.
Lutin was right. I didn't see any clergymen, but all sorts of other specimens did appear. They were attracted to this clever conglomerate of circuits and bolts. fascinated by its mystical aura and scientific precision. Damaska had said he considers palmists to be his "spiritual cousins," but these people, would never go to a palmist. Or to a private astrologer, for that matter. The first is too unconvincing, the second too expensive and exotic. For a people living in the Moon Age, the cybernetic version of the astrological moon can be just as believable as the sandy satellite visited by an astronaut. Perhaps astrology is the religion of the future. At any rate, the crowd at Grand Central was bisexual, biracial, and bigenerational. And almost everyone was fascinated.
So was I. And, against my will. I still am. Because the machine was right, upsettingly accurate, again and again. Its personality profile ("Your tendency to over intellectualize," the machine informed me, for example, "may make you lose sight of concrete goals,") came unpleasantly close. Its forecast, though not immediately verifiable, seemed plausible. I could rationalize it all away, but I don't. Astrology used to be a medieval relic, a creation of the imagination comparable to the visions of Blake, Shelley, and Yeats. In its own, non-scientific, metaphorical way, it was beautiful and intriguing. Today, packaged and chrome-plated, gushed'over by teenyboppers and prattled about in dimestore books, astrology has become a chapter heading in volumes on the new "Youth Culture," an inspiration for composers of "tribal rock musicals," and the subject of a daily column in the Daily News. Behold the tinsel moon of the New Astrology.
There's nothing good in the world but the rich will buy it:
Everything sticks to the grease of a gold note....
We laid the steel to the stone stock of these mountains:
The place of our graves is marked by the telegraph poles!