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Zorel Zone foretells Washington’s future and remembers its past.
The Washington Post headline on June 2 read, “Elian Asylum Appeal Dismissed.” But I knew that before I picked up the paper. Or, at least, I knew something like that was supposed to happen. The previous day, I’d gone sightseeing with Washington psychic Zorel Zone.
“Unless a miracle happens,” Zorel told me, “Elian is going back to Cuba.”
Zorel, as he’s known professionally, also hazarded assessments of a few less easily gauged situations: Zorel’s chauffeur, Sam El Shabassi, needs to help his wife relax and relieve her stress headaches, and I have a guardian angel, the soul of a brother who died before I was born.
A talkative, bespectacled man, the Cuban-born Zorel makes straight-up predictions that reel out like an unedited videotape of the past, present, and future. He claims to have foretold the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the reunification of Germany, and the death of Gianni Versace. His resume boasts stints with both U.S. and Israeli intelligence—though CIA public affairs officials disavow any knowledge of him. And he’s been in the psychic business for 30 years.
Today, the graying prognosticator leads walking tours in Washington and renders psychic readings of famous people and places. The price for a peek at the videotape in Zorel’s head is $45 per person, per tour, and he offers tours of Embassy Row, Lafayette Park, the waterfront, and Georgetown. (He doesn’t promise to foresee manhole cover explosions.)
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Zorel rises from Dupont Circle’s Q Street Metro entrance like a jack-in-the-box. The 17 walking-tour customers see first his beaming smile, then the white collarless cotton shirt, psychedelic vest, black pleated dress pants, and, last, black leather shoes. He comes up the escalator waving. On his left ring finger, he wears a diamond ring with four rubies. On his right one, he sports an eight-sided onyx.
The group consists mostly of D.C. tourism and travel professionals who want to check out the act. Zorel is not bashful about the commercial dimension of his gift. “Spiritual people are always told money is evil,” he says. “But money pays the bills. Everyone has to make a living. Even psychics live in the physical world.”
To Zorel, it’s just business, but there’s also an academic component to the stroll. Tour co-leader and architectural historian Clift Seferlis, a guide for Washington Walks, provides the straight dope on the history of the buildings we pass on this tour of Embassy Row. Still, there’s a surreal energy about this Sunday afternoon psychic tour—enhanced, perhaps, by the backdrop of a marching band practicing on the plaza behind the subway entrance.
“I feel the presence of an elderly person who is still in this house,” says Zorel of a red-brick mansion at 2000 Massachusetts Ave., getting the tour under way. “I don’t want to say it’s haunted. But her soul is earthbound. She doesn’t want to leave. But it’s nothing to be scared of.”
At the Greek Embassy a few doors up, Zorel senses the soul of a little girl on an upper floor. “I hear crying, and giggling,” he says.
“Can you ask the spirit what she wants?” a woman in the tour group asks.
“I tried, but you’re dealing with a child who is young and confused,” replies the seer.
At Sheridan Circle, Seferlis puts Zorel to the test. He points to a spot in the circle and asks the psychic for his sixth sense of the place. “I smell blood,” Zorel says. “I’m not Dracula, but I smell blood.” The spot, it turns out, holds a small monument; it’s the site where Chilean dissident Orlando Letelier and his companion, Ronni Moffitt, were killed in a car bomb explosion on Sept. 21, 1976.
“It’s like watching a tape,” says Zorel, explaining his technique. “I see walls coming down. Walls going up. Sometimes it’s running so fast it makes me dizzy.”
Zorel may be able to see the future, but, by his own admission, he sometimes has trouble finding his way around the present. He gets lost driving from Silver Spring to Bethesda. He forgets people’s names. He doesn’t know the winning numbers to the D.C. Quick Cash. In other words, he’s just a regular guy. “I get up in the morning looking for the bathroom and a cup of coffee,” he says. He lives in a modest Cape Cod house in suburban Silver Spring with his ailing mother and a Lhasa apso named Benji.
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“This is where a psychic lives,” says Zorel, welcoming me into his home on a recent weekday morning. It’s a world of chimes, soft jazz, porcelain dolls, earthen Jesus statuary, brass Buddhas, candles, incense, and oxygenated water. There’s a glory wall of photographed celebrities—one shot shows Zorel and Sylvester Stallone’s mother, herself a psychic. A framed letter of appreciation from the University of Miami credits “Mr. Zone” with sniffing out and averting “a potentially disastrous fire” in 1991.
And though Zorel says he sees the future, he doesn’t believe it’s written in stone. “I want people to walk away from your article knowing that we do have a choice,” he says. “We do have options. Don’t despair. Don’t think it’s weird. What’s weird is not knowing what’s coming. If I know I’m going to get hit by a bus, I can move. I’m a sensible person.”
Zorel saw his first bus coming when he was 9 years old. He had a vision, he says, of the upcoming revolution in his native Cuba, which happened three years later. He says he literally saw red flags “and a dictator masquerading as a man of the people.” He and his mother got out on a flight to the U.S. in 1961. He lived in Miami before coming to Washington; he’s traveled around the country a lot.
For Zorel, the tourism circuit is just a step up, or down—depending on your point of view—from his work in the ’70s doing psychic readings for the Pentagon’s infamous Operation Stargate. The program, shut down in the mid-’90s, took some heat in Congress once it was revealed that the U.S. defense establishment was developing intelligence on the Soviets with the help of “remote viewings” performed by salaried psychics like Zorel.
After the Pentagon gig fell through, Zorel peddled his schtick on Geraldo, The Maury Povich Show, and The Ricki Lake Show, as well as his own radio and cable-TV programs. He found that his skills improved when he went directly to the people, and now he’s abandoned mediated viewings for walking tours.
As a city politics reporter, I’m more interested in Zorel’s insights into the Williams administration’s future than the Van Buren administration’s past. Sensing this—those gentle questions might have tipped him off—Zorel graciously offers to give me a special tour of some D.C. landmarks whose futures are less than certain. We meet on a sultry and hazy afternoon (Zorel warned me it would be hot) and hop into a black Lincoln Town Car, courtesy of Gilt-Edge Tours International—Zorel’s Arlington-based partner in the psychic-tour business. Tour owner Gilda Caudron rides shotgun. And we’re off for an afternoon of drive-by predictions.
First on the list is RFK Stadium. D.C. United, and the city’s baseball boosters, seem to want a new ballpark. Is RFK about to join the ghosts of Redskins past? El Shabassi pulls over. To Zorel, it feels like fireworks going off in his head, with alpha and beta waves colliding inside his brain. “It is all going to be knocked down and rebuilt beautifully,” he pronounces. “It will be modern and high-tech.”
But he won’t hazard any sports results. Not since he got “a visit from the Mafia” after doing too well at the roulette tables in Atlantic City, N.J. “I was just playing $25 chips on red and black,” he says. “I did well enough to go on a cruise. But then they closed the table on me.”
Next, I guide El Shabassi onto the Anacostia Freeway to see what the future holds in store for St. Elizabeths Hospital. Again, the earthly powers that be have decreed that this place has outlived its usefulness. What will replace the historic campus that Ezra Pound once called home? On the way, we hit a traffic tie-up from a bad accident. “You should have asked your psychic,” Zorel needles.
But as we approach the hospital on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, it’s clear that Zorel’s greatest fascination lies with its most famous resident: would-be Reagan assassin John Hinckley Jr. “His girlfriend is pregnant,” Zorel declares.
“How?” Caudron exclaims.
“Hello?” Zorel shoots back. “They weren’t eating ice cream!”
After that revelation, St. Elizabeths’ fate seems almost too humdrum to mention. But, yes, it will be torn down eventually and replaced with housing, as planned. Well, I think, that much could be divined from a good educated guess—especially given the looks of things in this decrepit walled facility.
On the way back downtown, we pass the Navy Yard and the Southeast Federal Center, where Mayor Anthony A. Williams has staked his hopes on a riverfront revival. Good news for the mayor: Zorel sees the revival, too. “It’s going to be wonderful,” he says. “I’m looking forward to it. Because I like to go out and party. I like to have a good glass of wine with friends. You know, I can’t sit around and meditate all day long. It’s boring.”
The next leg of the trip through downtown brings national news: The United Nations is considering a move to D.C., and, unless a miracle happens, a Republican president will invade the White House by this time next year. “I get a strong feeling about that,” Zorel says.
After a couple of hours of predictions, the clairvoyance begins to lose its shock value. El Shabassi, who has been driving for several hours, starts to look as if he’s had a long day. We decide to call it quits, pulling over at Starbucks in Rosslyn. Zorel orders mango juice. He also gets one for El Shabassi, who has stayed outside with the car and grips hard on a smoke. “I’m sure he’s seen a lot in his job,” Zorel says in an aside. “But I think I was the icing on the cake.”
But can Zorel turn off the video camera in his head and relax? The answer, unequivocally, is yes, he says: You have to turn this stuff off to live a normal life. “If I’m going to go out and have sex, I’m not going to use my psychic ability,” he volunteers. “Could you imagine having sex with somebody and seeing the future at the same time? I’m not going to do that.” CP