A fleeting glimpse of him—that’s all we’ve gotten. We’re bored, hungry, and in the two-plus hours we’ve been in line, Uncle 9 has appeared precisely once. Still, for a moment, the spirit did indeed become flesh, manifesting itself as a small man in a flowing maroon robe, a sneer on his face, a can of air freshener in his hand. He held it aloft and sprayed the crowd in great arcs, then quickly disappeared into the mist and down a hallway lined with oranges and pineapples. Was it a sign? A threat? Nobody could be sure.
But that was eons ago when the day was new. Now the waiting room is somber and the crush of our fellow disciples oppressive, as is the air, pungent with incense. An iPhone goes black, sending a fidgety millennial into a panic. A middle-aged woman tries to surreptitiously make contact with a wrinkled bag of M&Ms in her purse. She is immediately found out. Hungry faces stare, daring her to ignore the poster on the wall about Buddhist selflessness. A tense moment ensues, after which she hands strangers some of the brightly colored candies, doling them out with great seriousness, as if we’re a Uruguayan rugby team trapped in the Andes instead of a motley assemblage of spiritual truth-seekers trapped in a tiny office-temple sandwiched between a print shop and a nail salon.
“He told me I was about to meet my future husband and I laughed,” says a real estate agent in line with us, Mrs. E, a well-dressed boomer who prefers anonymity even though she’s been visiting Uncle 9—né Cau Chin—since the 1980s. “Sixteen days later, I met him.”
We have heard many such stories in the past and so have journeyed to a place beyond Beltway 8 in southwest Houston, specifically the Lydo Center on Boone Road, to inspect this Nostradamus of strip city for ourselves. What we’ve gleaned from photos on the waiting room walls, conversations with various volunteer acolytes, and a bit of gossip with fellow pilgrims, is that Uncle 9 is 61 years old, although he appears decades younger. A Buddhist monk and Thai native, he performed his religious studies throughout Asia before emigrating to America in 1983, subsequently building a solid reputation as a Houston psychic and healer, one happy to exercise his soothsaying abilities on anyone willing to venture inside the temple.
And venture they do, six days a week, sometimes lining up outside well before sunrise (Uncle limits his readings to 60 a day), elderly Hispanic women and young Vietnamese women mostly, a tiny few men among them. Most arrive wearing faces of dismay, although whether this is due to spiritual torment, poor treatment by temple staff, the erratic prophet himself, a language barrier, or parking conditions is impossible to say.
We detect a hint of commotion in the front of the room; soon, dozens of pairs of eyes dart in that direction. Sure enough, Uncle has returned, this time with a spikey-haired Spanish translator in tow. Apropos of nothing, our spiritual leader launches into a strident and somewhat muddled 16-minute diatribe, cradling a statue of a golden turtle even as he rails against the false prophets of our age, among them Oprah Winfrey, who hasn’t come under fire like this since the launch of OWN. “You see magazine with Ricky Martin and Oprah using Buddhism, but God not do commercial!” Uncle announces. It is a dizzying performance not without moments of practical clarity.
“You should know, you plant mango, you get mango,” he continues, pressing his face toward one young woman in the waiting area, who shrinks from the bombardment. “You should know, you plant orange, you get orange. You should know, when you drinking, sooner or later you get DWI. Take responsibility!”
Once more, Uncle is gone.
Morning becomes afternoon and still we sit, a few dozen of us, in the temple waiting area. And we’re the lucky ones. All of the faithful are handed laminated numbers upon arrival, but only the low numbers guarantee a seat (ours is 43). A bad one means standing, sometimes at the end of a line that snakes out the door.
Augmenting the tedium is a continuous four-minute loop of flute music accompanied by a monotone ooooohhhhhhhhmmmmmmmm that at first stimulates the brain, then tenderizes it, and finally, after a few mind-numbing hours, makes of it a gelatinous ooze. Noticing the general atmosphere of malaise, a young volunteer with an empty smile on her face reminds the crowd that meditation is the best way to endure the marathon waiting period, which is a bit like telling someone starving to cure his hunger by abolishing thoughts of food. Still, a few take her up on the offer.
The rest of us look away, perturbed, or stare despondently at the walls—the tapestries, the paintings, the autographed portrait of Missouri City’s Crystle Stewart, a.k.a. Miss USA 2008. It is a distinctly unholy-feeling waiting room, but still a step up for Uncle, who was once forced to give readings in the back of a wallpaper store, and before that private homes.
Or so we’ve heard. We’ve tried confirming his career trajectory with temple staff, along with certain other details (whether he is or has been married, say, whether he has children, where the other 8 Uncles are). But his minions are either unable or unwilling. “I’ve learned not to pry,” says one, curtly.
Slowly, the line inches forward. The next stage on our trip to the divine is the penultimate one, the holding rooms in the back. There are two of them, both small and overloaded with clutter—boxes, family photos, candles, pieces of Buddhist iconography. It is Purgatory as imagined by Public Storage. We watch as a few patrons are summoned there from their chairs, some looking uneasy.
This is understandable, as Uncle frequently exhibits behaviors on the far side of absurd and threatening; he is sometimes downright cruel. Abruptly and without warning, he has been known to shift from the coy guru with an enchanting smile to a barking, bullying, browbeating parent. During such angry outbursts, Uncle often wields a sweeping shawl to dramatic effect, all the while savagely interrogating his victim with shouts of “Do you love America?!” and the like. Even on a good day, Uncle has been observed throwing food, water bottles, and other objects at his followers.
Readings usually take place in one of a series of dimly lit rooms even farther back in the temple, although Uncle may, if he feels like it, pull patrons aside in the hallway and begin a reading right on the spot. You might expect the prophet’s inner sanctum to have a hallowed feel; instead there’s just more clutter, pieces of fruit, old electronics, a child-size Buddha statue dressed in clothing and eerily perched on a chair.
As the session begins, the master sing-speaks a rhythmic mantra of sorts. It is plainly unintelligible, although each line ends with the word hey, inexplicably. As for what’s next, anything is possible. There might be card play, there might be slapping. Uncle may suddenly grab a pen and scrawl an obscure message on your arm or leg. You just never know.
Eventually he gets around to the stuff you came to hear: his message of consolation or prediction, depending on the case. An unscientific survey reveals that these run the gamut from the generic (“When you love, you love hard”), to the profound (“You are going to meet and marry a Nigerian oil baron you meet at the Galleria”).
Notwithstanding their unshakeable faith in Uncle’s powers, some seekers leave the temple crestfallen, complaining privately that he seems only to be going through the motions (often as he dutifully cleans his quarters). Far more often, however, they depart satisfied, astonished to find that Uncle has wandered into their innermost depths and returned with priceless spiritual booty, including news about business prospects, marriage proposals, even murder plots.
At last, number 43 is called. We pass into the holding area, and then one of the reading rooms, where we are sitting when Uncle arrives. Without acknowledging us, he enters and begins straightening up the place, all the while mumbling to himself. Only as the four-minute session progresses does his small bald head slowly turn toward us. His attention follows, and soon he has revealed not only the date we will marry, but the birth dates of our unborn children.
Subsequent to this, he reminds us to drive safely in August, and then, starting at the number 1, counts upwards by two until he reaches 89. This, it turns out, is our expiration date, whereupon we discover that we have another 59 years. He references a recent breakup and notes that we closely resemble our mother before revealing our lucky number, his voice sounding almost trance-like now, as if coming to us through a thick mist of air freshener at the end of a long hallway. Finally, taking a seat beside us, he rests his elbow on our shoulder and whispers a parting question: “When you leave this planet, what you want to leave behind?”
We wonder if Uncle is being rhetorical but are too nervous to look him in the eye and find out. He doesn’t wait for an answer, instead leaning down and reaching for something under his chair. We can’t help but flinch, expecting it to be a water bottle or maybe a mallet; instead, Uncle hands us a white paper bag. With that, he smiles and says goodbye, his parting expression vaguely flirtatious.
A few minutes later in the car, we open the bag to discover that all our Western skepticism about Uncle 9 is unfounded. He truly is a psychic and healer. Inside the bag is a perfect, fluffy and apparently untouched—croissant. At long last, it appears, we have found a man capable of both divining our inner states and mitigating our suffering, and four hours of waiting was all it took.