Smudgers are New Age spiritualists who cleanse apartments and buildings of the residual energy left behind by ex-boyfriends, wives or tenants, and generally stop bad vibes from sneaking up through the floorboards. The cost of having a smudger in to freshen up your living space can be steep, at anywhere between $75 and $200 an hour, but in spite of the price tag business is brisk. Smudging has its roots in Native American tradition, but now clients include people from the hard-nosed world of New York's real estate broking, who are employing smudgers to help them shift property they cannot sell.
Eleni Santoro, whose business card reads "Balancing Energy-Interiors" is currently working on an assignment to balance the energy of an apartment in City Spires. It has been on the market for six months now and so far no one has shown much interest. The plush two-bedroom apartment is on the 49th floor of the building, a block away from Carnegie Hall, with panoramic views of the city. Even in New York's vastly inflated real-estate market, a price tag of $1.525 million may be the reason potential buyers are hesitating, but Santoro has another theory.
"In this apartment, there is a lot of activity, a lot of ambivalence," she says, surveying the space as she walks into the millionaire's living room decorated with post-modern furniture in rich blue and purple. "Someone coming into the apartment can feel that. From a real-estate point-of-view, people won't make a bid." And unless the place is smudged, Santoro insists, the bad vibes will perpetuate themselves, keeping customers at bay. "If a client verbalises negativity, it stays within the apartment and re-vibrates, closing down the energy. The negativity gets trapped in corners," she says. "What we need to do is open up the space to allow the energy to flow in."
Santoro has been hired before by real estate broker Lisa Calka, who is handling this sale. She will usually consider smudging an apartment if it isn't selling after four to six months. "Some unique apartments are going to take longer but by now one of the deals should have clicked," says Calka, who has no problem justifying the $500 cost for the smudging. "There's definitely an impact, because I've seen it," she says. "You could just say it's the market, but someone who's sensitive can feel a change in the vibrations."
To begin the smudging session, Santoro sits cross-legged on the floor in the centre of the room. Then she lays out the tools of her trade on a silver tray, a multifarious collection of objects from all parts of the world, including silver Tibetan bells, a statue of Ganesh - the Hindu god of prudence and sagacity - an antique Chinese bell, an African necklace of yellow, red and green beads and a silver bowl containing three limes. Santoro explains that the limes have the capacity to absorb negative energy. There is also a small bronze bowl into which Santoro places a jade-green powder, High John the Conqueror incense, specially ordered from the House of Hermetic in California. "What you're looking at is what came to me in meditation this morning," says Santoro, as she lights the incense, wafting the smoke over the makeshift altar.
Having meditated for several minutes, shuffling a slim pack of "angel- cards", she picks three. Or rather, as she later explains, it is the angels who pick the cards - LIGHT, RELEASE, HUMOUR - best suited to this interior. The smudging session also has a soundtrack - sounds of mountain streams or Japanese drums - emanating from a small tape-recorder that she regularly feeds with different cassettes. The smudging begins when the barefoot Santoro moves around the room with the incense, paying special attention to the bad vibes lurking in the corners of the apartment. Then she does the same with the Chinese bell,a Druidic bell and a lime that she rolls between her palms.
"I knew that I needed to move through with the lime," she says, carefully placing the infected lime on the table apart from the other two. "I will take this home tonight and I will slice it, put it in a bag and toss it. And that breaks the negative energy."
Santoro says that after a hard day's smudging, her clients can always feel the difference in their apartments. Arianna Caroli, a New York artist whose space was smudged last year, felt compelled to move away from her beloved apartment after Santoro helped her realise the space was all wrong for her. "Eleni really moved the energy and she opened the door for me," she says. "It helped detach me from the apartment." A more recent project involved cleansing the apartment of a young woman whose boyfriend had just moved in. "There was an imbalance between feminine and masculine energy," says Santoro, who also suggested clearing out some of the excess furniture from the room. "I was balancing out so that his energy would not be blocked." The smudging improved their relationship.
Not all smudging is done for commercial purposes. Every so often, a group of smudging advocates will meet in an apartment to cleanse a space, whether or not it's on the market. A recent gathering of eight women on the Upper West Side of Manhattan celebrated the ritual, smudging the apartment, the altar and then each other with lighted mix of sage, pine, lavender and sweetgrass. "The closer we come to the new millennium, there will be more and more gatherings like this," says Kia Woods, who has been smudging for 12 years. "I trust that people are using smudging. I think it's a way of getting people closer to their spirituality."
According to Kia Woods, "Smudging is a way to make relationships and make them sacred." Having studied the Ritual Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, she is sensitive to the more traditional roots of the ceremony which involves burning a smudge, a small bundle of dried sage. "Smudging is used to begin all ceremonies in native American traditions," says Woods, who also conducts smudging rites of passage for puberty, menopause and for the new moon. "We're coming to a point now where we don't follow any particular tradition," says Sunshine Eagle, a native American smudger who grew up in the Andes. "But I feel honoured that everything comes from way back."
It's a tradition that has crept back into the heart of contemporary American life. Recently Santoro did an energy-balancing job at one particularly difficult interior in New York City. "I was asked to do an apartment that OJ Simpson and Nicole Brown rented a long time ago. That needed a lot of breaking through," she says. "It had an energy that unbalanced and crushed one's spirit even though it had been years since they'd been in that apartment."
Because of the negative energy in the apartment, Santoro says people didn't feel well when they entered it. It also attracted what she described as "dishonourable residents". That was before the bad vibes were sent packing. "I was totally wiped out when I came out of that space," she says. And as for OJ's former home in Los Angeles? "They should really have cleansed that house," she adds shaking her head in disbelief. "Can you absolutely imagine the turmoil in there?"