The two African American women arrived separately at Stanley Drug Co., both searching for guidance.
Behind them stretched a mural of Jude, patron saint of hopeless causes, along with prices and terms for seeing the Tarot card reader.
One, a Catholic wearing a gold cross, came because she suspected that a neighbor and gambling buddy had put a spell on her to steal her luck. The other noted that even the Bible mentions people who can see the future. And so both awaited the card reader: $35 a reading, by appointment.
Hoodoo, or folk magic, has been at work in the American South for generations. It was preserved by compounding pharmacies in African American neighborhoods like Houston's Fifth Ward, where Stanley Drug opened in 1938.
Once one of the city's three thriving black downtowns, the “Bloody Fifth” was plagued by violence and carved up by urban renewal to make way for interstate highways. Now Stanley Drug is one of the few survivors among the ward's overgrown lots and abandoned storefronts.
From the outside, Stanley Drug looks like a warehouse. Inside, herbal remedies perfume the air and counters boast all manner of ingredients — Chinese “business powder,” devil's club root, coffin nails, African mojo wishing beans, and coyote skin, teeth and penises.
The pharmacy shut down long ago, but the name remains on one of the few hoodoo shops nationwide.
“Hoodoo and root work is a very Southern thing. You can be Baptist and do this,” said Stanley Drug owner Stephanie May, whose family once owned a plantation.
It is easy to dismiss Stanley Drug's wares as a ruse. But is the superstition at work here all that different from trying not to step on sidewalk cracks, walk under ladders or cross paths with black cats?
Many customers are devout Christians, including preachers in search of more love from their congregations — and donations.
Unlike voodoo, which is considered a religion, hoodoo incorporates the reading of Scriptures and using spices and charms found at Mexican yerberias and Caribbean botanicas. Practitioners strike matches at their door to entice the devil out with sulfur. They boil bayberry to cleanse their homes at New Year's. For protection against evil they keep a bowl of lemons near the door and hang bottles and television tubes in
“There's a lot of this, hoodoo, all over the country. People just don't see it,” May said.
Many customers are African American and Latino, and their desires are a barometer of the community's well-being. Often they look for control in an uncertain world — over court cases, job searches and relationships. Women seek relief from abusive and unfaithful men. One recent visitor sought protection from being cursed by the wife of the man she'd been cheating with.
Increasingly, as plummeting oil prices have prompted layoffs across Texas, Stanley Drug's clients have bought lucky candles and mojo bags to take to the casinos.
“We have a lot of people coming in looking for financial stability,” said Esther Sanchez, whose co-worker Crissy Schutz recently returned to Stanley Drug after losing her oil field job.
“The tone has got more serious,” said May, who has worked a variety of jobs, including as an oil and gas accountant. “We went from selling a lot of ‘get a man' candles to ‘I need a job.' We sell a lot of ‘steady work' candles.”
Some people fear May because they believe she has unlimited power to do evil, despite her wide smile, halo of gray hair and folksy ways (she runs a holistic farm on the side). She said enemies have left evil handiwork in the parking lot: feces, occult candles, dead animals.
May keeps a pistol-grip shotgun in the corner of her office. The shop has no public restroom because, she says, “You can do the worst evil against someone in their bathroom.” She practices what she preaches, but only the good spells.
“Doing evil rarely pays,” she said.
Last year, a Mexican woman arrived with a child in tow, looking for a candle to protect her from an abusive, drug-addicted husband who worked for the notoriously violent Zetas drug cartel. This was no time for candles. May and her employees told the woman to disappear. She took their advice, and months later called to say she was safe.
“It's a really stressful job because you hear everybody's problems. It's like being a psychiatrist,” May said.
Employees won't stay after hours, having seen one too many shadows lurking. Recently, four customers insisted they saw a man resembling the former owner, May's late uncle, Wayne Ford, stroll past his framed portrait and into the back room.
May described Ford as a flamboyant gay man who discovered the shop while working as a tour guide. He bought the place and ran it for 15 years, holding court outside, puffing on Virginia Slims cigarettes and sipping Diet Coke, at times in a caftan.
“They called him Dr. Ford,” May recalled of his loyal customers. “People with real serious problems would go straight to him.”
Ford typed dozens of recipes into a manual that employees memorized, including instructions for making “evil-removing bath salts,” “seven African powers spray” and “law-stay-away” candles. Sanchez, who studied at Ford's knee, told a customer how to make his charmed candles work.
For love, he had to read Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd…”) and the Song of Solomon nine times a day. For the second “stay away” spell, he had to recite Psalms 100 and 59 (“Deliver me from my enemies, O God…”).
He needed two candles: one for love, one for “stay away.”
“You can't mix things to draw and repel,” she explained. “You're contradicting.”
The man sighed, then paid $16 for two candles. Scores more were burning in the windowless black altar room, warm and fragrant as a hothouse.
The parking lot was packed with customers. One woman took a cab and kept it idling while she rubbed the belly of a lucky Buddha on the front desk and placed her order. She took her place in line beside a cancer patient with a silky scarf wrapped around her head and a construction worker in a reflective shirt. Also waiting: a Baptist in a pressed white T-shirt and red shorts who drove from out of state to spend $80 on a lucky candle and other items to help sell his vintage white 1970s convertible with tan ostrich interior.
In the back, oils used to dress candles lined the walls: narcissus, black tulip, myrrh and more.
“If you need big money,” May said, flipping through a well-worn Rolodex of typed recipes, “it's violet and bayberry.”
Sanchez was busy pouring oils onto a candle designed to “release money to me.” The recipe: one-third “control,” one-third “money-drawing” and one-third King Solomon oil.
“What's in ‘control'?” May asked.
“Orange blossom,” Sanchez replied as the sweet smell filled the air. “She's trying to win the bingo.”
A rattlesnake skin lay coiled in a zip-lock bag tacked to the wall.
“Snakes can be for good or evil,” May explained, and the skins can be filled with nutmeg and other lucky items, then sealed with bayberry wax to make mojo bags, the charms blues singers lament losing or having used against them.
“There's actually spells to put snakes in the body,” May said as she passed a hunk of brown beeswax used, she explained, to make small figurines.
Stanley Drug can't always give customers what they want. Those who come searching for human skulls or mercury for their mojo bags won't find it here, although staff will tell you an old Mercury dime works just as well.
May recalled a woman who burned candle after candle, spending good money after bad trying to prevent her house from being foreclosed.
“I said, ‘You need to just step back; a door is going to open,'” May said.
The house was eventually sold at auction — to the woman's brother, who returned it to her.