Prophets and losses: the futures market for phone psychics.
Other futurists were born of business schools and training in computer modeling, but for me the impetus was chronic insomnia. During the middle of the night, when my mind is too foggy to read, I lie in front of the television. Even with cable, the viewing menu is limited: novice anchors mumble state news, C-Span's motionless camera shows a political rally in Oregon, and giddy home-shopping hosts peddle things like the four-piece White Shoulders bath-gel gift set ($34.99, regularly $81). The omnipresent half-hour phone-psychic infomercials are gripping by comparison. Most are hosted by has been black celebrities and combine intricate plots and testimonials, a range of emotions, and Muzak that never changes key. Some are heart-wrenching, others are suspenseful, and still others are hilarious. The hot lines all run disclaimers that the psychic encounters are for "entertainment purposes only," but the disclaimers cannot compete with the promises of finding love or money or happiness or all three.
And so although the infomercials are maudlin and cheesy, they work. Telecommunications analysts estimate that the psychic hot lines gross about $1 billion a year, and revenues are expected to double by the end of the century. The industry took off in 1984 when the Federal Communications Commission deregulated the amount of time broadcast stations could dedicate to advertisements. What seemed at the time to be a minor rule change launched the infomercial industry and its subset: the psychic hot lines. The psychic, hotline industry is extremely secretive, comprised of privately held companies that never open their books and often require psychics to sign nondisclosure contracts. Virtually no details of the industry's culture have been published.
JULY 25, 1996
I've spent nearly every night of the last few months watching psychic infomercials. Like a lot of the characters in the ads, I'm concerned with my financial future, but unlike them I decide it would be more lucrative to become a psychic than consult with one. I track down the phone numbers of eight networks' corporate offices from ads on TV and the back pages of The Cable Guide. The man who answers the phone at LaToya Jackson's Psychic Network greets me with, "Yeah, and what the fuck do you want?" Before I can finish, he hangs up. At the Kenny Kingston Psychic Hotline a gum-chomping secretary spits, "No, we're not hiring. You should have known that since you're, like, the psychic." Three networks take my name: Psychic Friends Network (PFN), Psychic Encounters, and Psychic Believers Network (PBN).
Becoming a psychic is like applying to college all over again. Dionne Warwick's PFN is my safety. Like a big state school bursting with professors, they have psychics for everything: love, career, money, and the lottery. One PFN psychic I interviewed says she specializes in giving readings on "hair days." "You give me any date in the next twenty-seven weeks and I will tell you if you'll have a good-hair day," Sharonna explains. "Nothing can fool me--I'll know if you get the frizzies from humidity or because you had a boy over late the night before rustling your bones up." PFN's nightly ads signal a growing business in need of more psychics. I figure with a Midwestern accent and an Ivy League education, I'd be a shoo-in. On the other hand, Psychic Encounters is a little more challenging. No one alleges their fortune-tellers use scripts, which means I might actually have to try and predict the future. PBN is my reach--the Harvard of psychic networks. Sharonna and her husband "dream" that their newborn will someday work for PBN. They pay their employees more. Their advertisements brag of having only real psychics. They never use scripts.
This morning I get a call from Ruth, PBN's administrator, whose voice resembles a soprano Darth Vader. It might be due to illness, but as if she never learned to breathe and talk at the same time, Ruth holds her breath while she speaks, then, after each half,sentence, she pushes air out through her mouth and laboriously sucks more back in. "You looking for ... wooooosh ... whooooop... a job as a psychic ... wooooosh ... whooooop ... with PBN?" That's right, I say very quickly, realizing that when I speak, she's holding her breath. She asks me if I have psychic powers. "Many," I say. She explains that PBN only hires "real psychics" and asks if I "fit that description." I say yes. She asks me again if I have psychic powers. "Very many," I say this time. She still doesn't seem to believe me. "Well Susan will . . . wooooosh . . . whoooooop ... have to check you out," Ruth mutters. "If you're not a psychic ... wooooosh ... whoooooop ... give up now. 'Cause we'll ... wooooosh ... whooooop ... find out."
Around 8:00 P.M., my home phone rings. It's Susan. In a Kentucky accent that runs like thick syrup, she tells me she manages the psychics for PBN. At the end of every sentence, she calls me an affectionate term. The interview lasts for nearly two hours. We talk about Michael Jordan. She calls me "sweetie pie." We talk about people who've died of AIDS. She calls me "honey." We talk about the rising cost of produce. She calls me "rosy cheeks." We even talk extensively about The New Republico my "day job." She says she used to read the magazine but hasn't touched it in a few years. I ask her if it's because the current editor, Andrew Sullivan, is more conservative than Michael Kinsley, as some readers have complained,
She picks right up on my cues. "Nope. You see, Michael Kinsley was someone special, sugar plum. I could channel with him. I've tried to connect with Mr. Sullivan, but, honey bun, all I get is bad vibes, static, interference. Oh boy."
During a conversation about how Kellogg's attaches sugar to the flakes in Frosted Flakes, she interrupts me: "Candy apple, I think you're gonna work out just great." Was it my empathetic voice? No. Was it my engaged listening? Wrong again. Susan was impressed that I speak English correctly. "So many people call me talking with so many ain't's that I can't put them on the phone," she said. "Who cares if they're psychic, cotton candy. No one will think they're psychic." Susan tells me to fax her a resume and cover letter about my life as a psychic. If I seem qualified, I will have to give her a reading.
After six drafts I ultimately decide that the key to my letter is modesty. Susan probably receives a barrage of testimonials from people claiming to have predicted Hurricane Hugo and saved dozens of lives. Hopefully, a more sincere letter will stand out. I write that simple bouts of childhood deja vu lead me to think I am a psychic: "I merely saw my mother feeding my brother and me lunch. The peculiar aspect of the vision was how she handed us the plates--using her left hand instead of her right.... [Then, the next day] I saw my mom use her left hand to serve me a peanut butter sandwich." Years later, I write, Oxford tutors honed my psychic skills. Since Susan had warned me she would check my references, I had already told her that my mentors--Laertes, Julius, and Juliet--had met with tragic ends. I fax Susan the letter.
Anxious to begin preparing for my test reading, I leave work fifteen minutes early armed with six issues of American Astrology and a place mat I nab from a Chinese restaurant that tells you what animal year you were born in. I am a rat, which seems particularly appropriate. Next, I call the Psychic Friends Network and take notes on how they give a reading. At $3.99 a minute, the call is expensive, but, like an interview suit, it's an investment to get a job.
The psychic I pick is named Sally. Before I can even tell her my birthday, she says she's getting "hot-jump vibes" and says I am under great stress.
"Yes," I say.
"Your stress is about a soon-to-come conversation."
"Yes. Tell me more."
"The talk will be with a woman."
"You're on to something. More, more."
"The outcome of the talk will mean many late, late nights for you."
"Yes. Yes. What is she going to say?" I reply, very impressed.
"She's going to say she's pregnant."
My body physically deflates. I don't have a wife. I don't have a girlfriend. I reflect on my sex life for the past nine months--sadly, a long dry spell.
"Yes, I see it now. Congratulations! It will be a daughter," Sally says enthusiastically, not realizing I'm no longer with her. I exhale loudly and explain to Sally that I'm supposed to do a trial reading. She gives me a few pointers ("talk slowly" and "he vague") and her home phone number. I promise to call her after the interview.
Susan never calls. I fall asleep at 5:00 A.M. with the cordless phone next to my head.
I wake up an hour late and check my voice mail. Susan didn't call. I stumble in to work unshaven at 9:45 A.m. but can't concentrate for fear that Susan hated my letter. I read The 100 Top Psychics in America and try and get her off my mind. Three times I start to dial Susan's number, but each time I change my mind. Like a high,school sophomore about to ask a girl on a date, I draw up a pro/con list. Eventually I rule out calling Susan--I don't want to look pushy--and decide to call Ruth and ask her if she needs any additional information.
"What else wooooosh ... whooooop ... would I need?" she breathes.
I confess that I was just worried because Susan didn't call me the night before.
"Look she just ... wooooosh . . . whooooop ... got a promotion ... wooooosh ... whooooop ... She's busy."
Ruth explains that PBN brass made Susan chief of psychic affairs, the most coveted job at the network. She no longer does as many readings but spends hours coordinating the psychics' schedules. I feel better.
Around 8:30 P.m., Susan calls. She begins by asking me if I use tarot cards or astrology. Despite all my planning, I am stumped. I can't say astrology, since all I know about the movement of the constellations is how to locate the Big Dipper. But I also can't say tarot cards, since I only know two or three. Quick on my feet, I tell her that I use a combination of tarot and playing cards, adding comments like "Since the days of the pirates, the six of clubs has had a long history of predicting romantic entanglements." She seems to buy it.
Susan says to begin the reading when I'm ready. Ruth's leak about Susan's job promotion becomes the cornerstone of my reading. Right off, I tell her I've turned over the four of hearts, which "bleeds the passions of the workplace." How about her romantic life? It will be put on hold while she works harder. And her family life? They will miss her while she commits herself more to work. What about money? New riches. On and on, I let this one piece of insider information dictate the entire reading. Forty-five minutes later it's over and I am sweating. There is a dramatic pause.
"Sugar plum, you are the best!" Susan yells. "You're A-1 hired."
I don't start for another five days, but Susan calls me to go over the rules. Each night I call a toll-free number. I punch in my extension and two passwords. I also provide the number of whatever phone I'm using, so the network can forward my calls. Once I sign in, I will listen to a voice-mail recording of the daily newsletter in which Susan reads psychic news and gives tips on "keeping up vital energies." Then I hang up, sit back, and wait for the phone to ring. For every minute I keep a caller on the line, I get 35 cents, which comes to $21 an hour. The network's take varies slightly depending on special promotions, but it's usually about $3.95 a minute, or $237 an hour. PBN's Boca Raton headquarters sends out paychecks twice a month, less 20 percent deducted for taxes. In the psychic world, this is a very big deal. Susan says it proves that PBN is a "classy organization."
The chief of psychic affairs runs through dozens of rules. Don't chew gum. Don't ask callers to send you money. Don't let friends answer your psychic phone for you. And never put callers on hold. Susan has me make a short "carousel message" to sell myself to callers who don't have a regular psychic, and tells me to answer the phone with the generic words "psychic network." She says PBN subcontracts with other psychic networks so that when unexpectedly large volume prevents the rival company from fielding all of their calls, a computer routes some of the callers to PBN's psychics. "When someone out there needs a psychic," she tells me, "our goal is to make sure they get one. We wouldn't want anyone to go without necessary advice. We're not in the business of busy signals. People have times when they need help, and we're there."
Tonight I giddily surf the infomercials taking careful notes on technique. For the most part, phone psychics thrive on telling people what happened to them in the past. Although this impresses the callers, it seems pretty silly. Callers are paying lots of money to hear someone who wasn't there tell them what has already happened. I resolve to focus on the future--it's a lot harder to be proven wrong. Around 9:00 P.M., I call Sally. She answers the phone "Hello, Stephen" before I even say who it is. She wants me to think that her psychic powers told her it was me calling. I think she's using Caller I.D. but don't mention it. I tell Sally about my new job, and she says she's excited for me but claims she already knew. That's how the whole conversation goes. I say something, she claims to already know. I don't know why she even answered the phone. We could have had the entire conversation telepathically, saving me a long-distance call.
Over the next twenty minutes, Sally tells me about her worst calls ever and teaches me phone-psychic slang. The most common terms:
Crystal ballbusters: Callers who try and test you. They most frequently ask the psychic, "How many fingers am I holding up?"
Scarecroppers: Psychics who always predict doom and gloom, so the callers keep coming back.
Seersuckers: Callers who believe psychics' words literally.
Sexhic: Psychic who also works on a phone-sex line.
Phonies: Fake phone-psychics.
For at least ten minutes, Sally rants about how she hates phonies. It's like talking to a supernatural Holden Caulfield. She says if she ever caught a phony, she would cast a "green-eye-blink-spell" on him. She says that spell is so bad, no one in her family has cast it since "Mamma Joe's incident with the salesman" in the late 1840s. I stammer a bit, say I'd do the same, and hang up quickly.
It's my first night. Bell Atlantic still hasn't installed the new phone line in my apartment, so I receive calls on an unused fax line at The New Republic. For the first forty-five minutes no one calls. I stare at the phone. I try to read. I pace. I stare at the phone some more.
At 10:50 P.m. the phone rings for the first time.
"Psychic network. How are you doing tonight?" I announce with a shaky flourish.
"Oh-kay," the female voice on the other end of the line says slowly.
There is a long pause. I have forgotten that I am leading the conversation.
"Ex-cuse me. I don't really want to pay for nothing," she says.
I apologize twice and ask for her first name, birthday, and hometown. She says that her name is Rochelle (whose name, as well as the names of all other callers, has been changed) and that she was born in 1975 in Cleveland.
Using a deck of Delta Airlines playing cards a stewardess gave me many years ago en route to Florida, I shuffle loudly to lend my act some credibility. After shuffling I realize I have no idea how to lay them out. I shuffle twice more and then slowly deal five piles as if I'm playing some form of solitaire, slapping each card sharply so Rochelle will hear the noise.
I flip the last card over--it's a two of clubs. I squint my eyes, hold my breath, and concentrate as hard as I can. It remains just a two of clubs.
"Oooooh. These cards are very, very interesting," I tell her.
"Really? Really?" she pants.
"Really," I say. "What would you like to talk about?"
I say nothing more for ten minutes, as Rochelle spins a winding tale of a love triangle at the local McDonald's. Rochelle is a cashier dating Dwayne, who cooks the hamburgers, but in the past few days a new employee, Juanita, the long-legged cashier next to Rochelle, has been flirting with Dwayne. Yesterday this erupted into a fist fight that ended when Rochelle threw a bucket of "special sauce" at Juanita, missed, and hit a customer. In short, Rochelle wants to know if she will get her job back.
That seems easy enough.
"Rochelle, Rochelle, Rochelle ...," I say very, very slowly, remembering that I am being paid for every minute I keep her on the phone. ". . . the cards are very, very clear. You see I have turned up the two of clubs followed by a jack of diamonds. You know what that means, right?"
"Yes. Yes. It means I won't get my job back, right?"
I confirm her suspicion and tell her that good luck can come only if she writes a letter of apology immediately to her boss, the customer, Juanita, and Dwayne. Rochelle thanks me profusely and hangs up. She has spent twenty-one minutes on the phone at a cost of $84.
I take a few more calls and fall asleep.
Susan's thrilled that I am "working out so well, sweetie." I tell her that I really didn't do much talking. She says that's common; many callers just want someone to listen. Throughout our conversation, she tells me to "keep up the great average." Like baseball players, psychics are rated by statistics. Every morning Susan gets a printout of the psychics' box scores that tells her how many calls we received and how long they lasted. Psychics get salary bonuses for high averages. Although Susan won't tell me how high one's average has to be to get a bonus, she hints that it's about fourteen minutes, or a $55 call. Susan says her average (fifteen minutes/$60) is one of the best at PBN. There's a time ceiling as well. PBN limits calls to somewhere around forty minutes to prevent customers from complaining to the phone company that they were unaware of the pricing plan or that they did not fully hang up their phone. To get around the limit, many customers will call back as soon as they are disconnected.
My favorite caller of the night is Erik. Born an Aquarius thirty-six years ago in Minneapolis, he works for an insurance company and is calling because he can't find his car.
Where do you think the car might be, I ask.
"Don't know. That's why I called you."
I ponder the possibilities, but the obvious one--theft--will end the call once I advise him to call the police. Instead I say: "The cards are telling me that someone else might have a key. Who else might have a key?"
He tells me his mother, sister, and ex-girlfriend, Cindy, have keys. Using the process of elimination I guess it's more likely his ex-girlfriend than his family who took his car.
"I am beginning to get a sense from the cards that you guys broke up," I tell him. (My clue, of course, is that he told me she was an ex-girlfriend.)
"Yes, yes, that's amazing. She broke up with me. How did you know?"
I am also getting the sense that it was a bad breakup.
"Way bad. You're amazing. How are you doing that?"
I pepper Erik with questions. As we talk, he tells me much more than he realizes. He tells me that Cindy always accused him of loving his car more than her. Erik tells me Cindy broke it off when he slept with an old girlfriend. And he mentions (although Erik thinks that I mentioned it) that her parting words were: "I'll get back at you and your fucking car."
At this point, anyone could figure out that Cindy probably took the car; she had the motive and the means. Anyone, that is, except Erik. One of the reasons phone psychics seem so good at foretelling the future is that their clients can barely understand the present.
"Erik, the cards are telling me that Cindy may have taken your car. You should go to her house and see if it is in the driveway."
He tells me he is going to do that right away.
Although I'm not working as a psychic tonight, I can't fall asleep and find myself watching the infomercials. The one that bothers me the most is hosted by Nell Harper for the Psychic Revival Network. The story is about Aaron, a suburban high-school student who has trouble reading. The scene begins in his classroom as Aaron's teacher asks him to read the Gettysburg Address aloud. He blurts out partial syllables: "Fo' . . . ou ... sco' . . . rey ... and ... sev." As Aaron struggles, the camera cuts away to his peers. A popular-looking blonde girl giggles. A preppy boy sticks out his tongue. The camera pans the room. Everyone is laughing. Everyone but Aaron. Scene Two: Jan, Aaron's mother, sits on her living-room sofa thumbing through a magazine. As the narrator matter-of-factly states: "Even though she was in the midst of a finance, crisis, Jan was determined to help Aaron team." Aaron bursts into the house, takes the stairs two at a time, and locks himself in his bedroom. He says he's too stupid for school and plans to drop out. Jan stands outside his bedroom, her face scrunched up in agony. The scene cuts to Jan talking with Aaron's teacher, who says he's a "nice boy" but she won't be able to graduate him. The almost mechanical voice of the narrator reappears. Jan needs "a fresh perspective," he says, so she calls her psychic, Tina, a spherical woman with white bushy hair. Tina tells Jan, who has already taken Aaron to three optometrists, to see an ophthalmologist. Jan does, and Dr. Shay, a kindly graying physician, discovers that. Aaron's vision is so bad he can't read words longer than three letters. At the climax, Dr. Shay hands Aaron glasses and says, "You'll be reading like a champ in no time." How this severe vision problem eluded the optometrists is never explained. Outside the clinic, Aaron asks his mom how she knew. She replies, "A very special friend helped me." Back in the studio, audience members choke up; one wipes away tears.
I've now talked to many psychics and don't think any of them would know the difference between an ophthalmologist and an optometrist. So I call three in my network and give them the exact scenario. None of them send Aaron to the physician; two tell him to "try harder," and one says, "It'll never work out." Perhaps more troubling is that Aaron and Jan are virtually the only whites I've ever seen featured in the psychic testimonials.
I sign on a half-hour early, thinking this is the easiest way in the world to make money: Just sit back, listen to complaints, and PBN will send out the check. In the company oral newsletter, Susan congratulates my first-day averages (about twenty minutes) and calls me one of "America's most promising young psychics." Then she announces today's "vital energy tip": always eat enough green vegetables to maintain "inner force fields." I write that down.
At 11:00 P.M. the phone rings.
"Hi, you've reached the psychic network. Can I get your name and birthday please?"
"'Dis be Lowell. Uhhh ... November 15, 1951."
"Hi, Lowell. What can I do for you."
Over the next eight minutes, Lowell tells me he needs to know if he's going to win the lottery soon. The father of seven children by five different women, he lives in one of Chicago's worst neighborhoods and says he can't afford to feed or clothe any of them. He doesn't like how his children smell because they wear the same underwear every day. Since he's unemployed, I ask him if he has registered for welfare. He says yes, but he can't spend that money since he "be savin' up for a VCR." I ask him how he can afford to call a phone psychic. He quickly replies: "Ain't you the man who be able to tell what lucky numbers I be able to pick at the Illinois lottery? That's your work."
For a few minutes, I forget that I am supposed to be a psychic and try to reason with him about the lottery. We discuss the odds and how unlikely he is to win. But no matter what I say, he just wants me to read the cards. Over and over again he tells me, "Give it to me straight." I shuffle the cards loudly.
"Lowell, you have the seven of spades showing. Do you know what that means?"
"You be the psy-chic. You speak it to me," he shouts back.
"Lowell, that means you won't have lottery luck for at least seven years," I tell him. "There's no use in playing."
"Man, you're the worstest psy-chic I ever gone to," he says. "You ain't givin' me no numbers, just pessimist advice."
We talk a minute or two more. Lowell is mad at me for telling him there are no good numbers but says he doesn't plan to play "'cause of the cards." Lowell is similar to many of the other, often more desperate, callers I get. They're not interested in reason or counseling. They will, however, follow the same advice if they're told it's what a spiritual force says. Believing that their lives are completely ruled by fate, callers hope I can tell them a little about what fate has in store for them. They're resigned to the notion that they can't affect their own lives.
Today I get a call from Tinsel, a psychic on a different network who has been trying to unionize phone psychics with little success. Most of Tinsel's gripes with the networks center around salary and health insurance. But a smaller issue, which has actually drawn the most support for the union, is her group's opposition to the racial imbalance of the callers. Tinsel's study shows that 70.2 percent of phone-psychic usage is by minorities and that 48.3 percent of callers are very poor. She also reads me reports she's stolen from several networks. She quotes one as saying, "Blacks are our target audience ... they are spiritual but can be drawn away from their religions." Another report says direct mail should be targeted to minority communities. And still another report says, "The average user of our service has less I.Q. We should focus on the black and Hispanic markets."
I can't get my mind off of callers like Lowell and those in Tinsel's study. Susan reassures me that our network does not target racial or economic groups. But she also says I shouldn't worry about their ability to afford the calls. "That's patronizing. It's their business, not mine, how they spend their own money," she says. Although that's undoubtedly true, it just doesn't sit right. Looking through my notes, I realize that more than 70 percent of my callers are black and more than half told me they had money problems.
After a week, I've fine-tuned being a psychic into a science. I sit at my desk in my apartment surfing the Internet with one eye trained on a muted television set and a stopwatch timing the calls. Most nights the playing cards never come out of the box. Susan tells me my twenty-minute average makes me PBN's rookie of the year.
Three rules always guide my readings. First, I tell callers that they are going through a "sensitive time" in their life. The callers always agree. The phrase "sensitive time" is perfectly vague. It can apply to your family, love life, or career, and "time" can mean hour, month, or year. Everyone, in some respect, is always going through a sensitive period. Especially anyone calling a phone psychic at 1:00 A.M.
Second, I am the family-values psychic. No matter what cards I turn over, I tell callers they should go back to school, go to church more regularly, wait until they're married to have sex, and that they have been born under such a dark cloud they will never win the lottery. This alleviates my guilt a bit, and, Lowell aside, most callers eat up the advice.
Third, I listen to the tone of their voice more than what they are saying. Other psychics develop complicated formulas to read tarot cards and horoscopes. Sometimes they're right, sometimes they're wrong. Not me. If the caller is crying, I tell him that he's sad. If he's laughing, I tell him life is going well. This way I'm virtually always right. In fact, I've come to realize that thinking you actually have psychic powers would probably be a severe handicap.
Finally the golden rule to being a phone psychic: never let a conversation end. On the phone, there is always a natural conclusion to a conversation. The phone psychic delays this as long as possible.
Tonight, for instance, Beth, a thirty-two-year-old woman originally from Connecticut, calls with a simple question: Will she and her husband grow old together or will their current troubles derail the marriage? After I tell her it will work out, I ask her dozens of questions about her children, her home, and her new job. When she seems ready to tire, I tell her I just turned over a card with some interesting details about her forty-fourth birthday. "Beth, do you want to know what happens that day or do you really have to run?" She, like everyone else, stays on the line.
After more than twenty-five minutes (and $100), Beth seems on the verge of hanging up, so I ask her if she is alone. She says yes. I explain in hushed tones that I would like to introduce her to a whole new area of the paranormal. But it would have to remain a secret because it is such a revolutionary technique. Would she be interested? Forgetting she planned to end this call, she readily agrees.
"Beth, are you familiar with graphology, the study of handwriting to understand personalities?" I ask.
"Sure, I've heard of that," she says, obviously confused.
"Well, I'm an expert in, um, um"--I rack my brain, unsure where to take this tangent--"um, voiceology. The study of voices to understand personality quirks. Do you have something plain you can read to me, like a newspaper or a magazine?"
Beth has a phone book. I ask her to read me entries from the White Pages. She reads five or six names and their phone numbers, and I say, "By the way you pronounce your eights, it seems that there is going to be a computer-oriented stress in the coming weeks at work." The way she says "Mary" indicates her children are going to do well in school. This tactic extends our conversation for another twenty minutes; another $80 for Beth, and $7 for me.
I was so troubled by the job I didn't log on today. I realized that what psychics love about being psychics is the power they have over other people. Callers are almost always experiencing some kind of spiritual void. They talk to me as if I am a direct conduit to God. I could make Beth act virtually any way I wanted, since she desperately believed I had the information she needed. I am beginning to think that even if I give good advice there is something repulsive about what I am doing.
Since I have decided to take the day off, I call the publicists of Dionne Warwick and LaToya Jackson to ask how these "stars" can promote the hot lines. No one calls me back, so I call Inphomation, the Baltimore company that owns the Psychic Friends Network. They tell me Dionne Warwick believes in psychics: that's why she does it. I don't, so this does nothing to appease me.
Today's "vital energy tip" is to take lots of breaks and eat plenty of asparagus. Seconds after I log in, my phone rings. It's Georgette. Georgette is a ninety-five-year-old drunk insomniac who refuses to tell me where she lives because she thinks CIA agents are tapping her phone. She is also my best client. Whenever she calls she pants as if she has been running for hours and tells me the government is desperate to learn her secrets about the Ottoman Empire. She goes to great lengths (switching phones and credit cards to avoid CIA detection) to talk to me two or three times a week. Georgette has also taught me another secret to being a successful psychic: be extremely flexible. Georgette always starts by asking for a seance with her dog Jumbones, an Irish setter killed by a car six years ago. I play spooky music and tell her to light and extinguish candles in a complicated order that I make up as I go along. Each time I tell her I am getting a stronger reading than the conversation before.
"Tonight, Georgette, the vibes are particularly strong. I can feel him exerting power. He is in dog heaven, I see him rolling in Purina, eating all he wants", I say with lots of dramatic pauses. "Jumbones has a very special message for you tonight: three sharp barks, a grrrr, one more bark, and a slurrrpp."
Georgette tells me that Jumbones is trying to tell her to move since "the CIA is hot on the trail." She asks me to cast a spell on the CIA and the actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. She says she just rented--the movie Single White Female and doesn't like Leigh's role. I oblige, making Georgette repeat phrases like "oooogely oooogely bop--make J. J. Leigh end up not on top." Then I walk Georgette through a recipe for a potion of milk, orange juice, a splash of soy sauce, and saliva. We hang up after twenty-one minutes. Georgette promises to wash her hair with the potion before she goes to sleep.
Tonight the network doesn't accept my password. I type it in three times, but I can't log on. Desperate and confused, I call Susan at home. "You've been downsized," she sighs. "Your contract is over." Downsized? Although my averages were high, Susan explains, I wasn't working enough hours. "This country was made great by people toiling into the wee hours," she lectures. Farmers tilling their soil before dawn? Yes. Assembly-line workers on the job after midnight during the war? Sure. But phone psychics? Doubtful. Still, we strike a deal. I agree to work three consecutive all-nighters, and she gives me my job back.
It's a compact I quickly regret. Around 11:30 I get a call from Radha, who lives in suburban Washington and is the only caller to ever figure out I am a fraud. After I tell her that it is a sensitive time in her life, I ask her what she wants to talk about. She tells me she is worried about her relationship with her husband. I tell her, as I always do, that they need counseling but that the marriage is salvageable. Radha tells me I am wrong. She says her husband left three days ago to join the Indian army and enlisted for ten years. His parting words to Radha were: "Being in a war is better than being in the house with you." What I was trying to say, I tell her improbably, is that at least her child loves her. She again tells me I am wrong. This morning the boy stole her credit cards and bought an airline ticket to India. After about six minutes Radha announces, "You are an incredibly bad psychic, possibly the worst ever," and hangs up.
As the night drags on, the callers get weirder. Georgette calls four times from four different phones. Every other time she talks in a deep voice and tells me to call her George so the CIA doesn't "catch on." Each call only lasts a few minutes because she's on the run crisscrossing the South in her RV but needs to keep checking in with Jumbones to make sure the CIA agents aren't "gaining" on her. These quickies are causing my average to rapidly sink.
I'm waiting for one more long call, which comes in the unlikely form of John, who is mired in middle management at a large Kansas corporation. He proves that no matter how skeptical callers may sound, they all want to believe in psychics. John is a classic crystal ballbuster. His first words: "What color is my shirt? I don't believe in psychics." The stars don't know anything about color, I demur, as they are blinded by the "vapors in the empty space between Earth and the constellations." I redirect us back to a long discussion of what a sensitive time it is for him. As he begins to trust me, out pops his big question: "Will I be laid off?" As a rule, I have found that questions like this one are the reason people call psychics. The problem is, once you've answered them, they hang up. I decide I will have to draw John,out to save my average.
"I'm sorry, John, the negative energy is too strong to tell right now," I reply.
"But ... but ... couldn't you just try a little harder?" he begs.
"John, isn't it you that has to try a little harder? Maybe if you were to do five or six push-ups we could get your energies flowing a little more cleanly to get a better reading."
"But I'm sixty-two years old."
"So at that age the information is even more important to you. Come on, you can do it. I'll count you through it." After five push-ups we discuss John's general job outlook. For every subsequent piece of information, he must perform an exercise. By the end of the reading, he'd completed nine jumping jacks, four sit-ups, three love-handle crunches, and eight leg lifts.
John's call does wonders for my average. just before I fall asleep, Georgette--er, George--calls again. She needs me to tell Jumbones to meet her in Mississippi tomorrow.
I feel like I want to throw up. I talked to Susan this morning and she is thrilled with my averages. She told me I am being rewarded with a bonus for keeping people on the line so long. "You could use that money to buy yourself something nice," she prompts me.
I don't acknowledge her praise. Instead, I ask her if she's ever thought that PBN tempts us into an essentially abusive relationship with the caller. She doesn't understand what I'm saying. The product is only attractive, I explain, to people who are spiritually desperate enough to think that God can provide specific and mundane guidance to them through a person.
She disagrees. I look at my tabulations. Over 74 percent of my callers are black. Nearly 85 percent say they are having money troubles. I read the numbers to Susan and tell her that if the advertising is not targeted, these distributions seem statistically impossible. I call Tinsel and join her fledgling psychic union.
This is my last all-nighter. just as I am about to sign off a woman calls. "The psychic network. How are you doing tonight," I say with confidence.
"Not well," a small voice peeps, She introduces herself as Laurie and says she calls phone psychics three or four times a week. Tonight, she says, she chose M extension because her regular adviser was off duty.
Laurie was born in 1960, the only daughter of a used-car dealer in a small town in northern Wisconsin. Her mother died when she was five years old. When they came home from the funeral, she says, her father stripped her, lashed her naked to a tree in the back yard with a garden hose, and gave her the first of hundreds of beatings. At least once a week for the next thirteen years, he whipped her with belts, rope, his walking stick, and most often a bicycle chain he rolled in his hands while he watched the Green Bay Packers on television. Each time the opponent scored he struck her with the chain. "Those years, Green Bay didn't have a good team," she says. "Let me tell you, I know." Laurie's voice becomes staccato, then dissolves into tears.
When she turned nineteen, Laurie and her high-school sweetheart, Pete, eloped to Milwaukee. For the first time, life seemed exciting and full of opportunity. They traveled the Midwest, getting as far south as Kansas and as far west as Colorado. She waited tables and he worked doing odd jobs. They never had much money and fought often, but he never hit her. For the past three years, they have lived in a small city in Illinois. She knew that the marriage was troubled but directed all of her energy toward their two daughters. Then, two nights ago, Pete told her he's having an affair with Kim, a neighbor whom Laurie describes as "a trashy, jean-shorts-wearing, dyed-blonde, long-legged but cellulite-filled, out-of-work hooker." Last night, Pete told Laurie that he'd prefer her to sleep on the sofa. She says she was okay with that. I hear squealing in the background and ask Laurie if it's her daughters. She tells me it's Kim and Pete having sex in the next room. "He likes it loud," she says. "I never got into that." Ten minutes into the call Laurie is crying uncontrollably and chokes out the question: "What do you think I should do?"
My hand is over the mouthpiece so she can't hear me crying as well. I have no idea what to tell her. I'm twenty-three years old. I was never trained for this. Horror stories like this one never make the infomercials. I say nothing. For two minutes (and eight dollars) no words are spoken. The only sound is Laurie panting, trying to catch her breath while she cries.
Unsure what to do, I stammer out a suggestion: "Umm ... do you umm ... want to know umm ... what the cards say?" In a tiny voice she says yes. I turn off the television and pull out the deck of Delta Airlines cards. Like my first time, I deal like I was playing solitaire. I decide if the last card is a face card, I'll tell her to leave him. If it's a number, I'll tell her to stay. "Shit, it's an ace," I mutter inadvertently.
"What?" Laurie asks.
"Umm ... I said I'm umm... getting some vibes from space," I recover.
"Really, what are they saying?"
I tell her the cards are very clear. Pete, I say, will always be emotionally abusive to her. I tell her to get out of the relationship. I want to direct her to a counselor, but earlier in the conversation she told me she is scared to tell anyone about their fights, so I decide that I have to trick her into getting some help.
"Laurie," I say in a wispy voice. "The cards show two paths for your future. One of misery and one of joy. Right now you are headed on the path of misery. There is a bridge, though. A very rocky, almost treacherous path back to the golden road of joy. Do you want to know more?"
Laurie says yes, and I tell her I have visions of a church in her town. I give very vague descriptions, like it's a brick structure, there is a nice minister who works there, and it's warm inside. Soon she shouts out the name of a local church where she spent Easter. I tell her to visit the youngest minister there, tell him everything she told me, and he will help her. She promises to go there in the morning and we hang up. Laurie spent twenty minutes on the phone with me at a cost of about $80. Just before she hangs up she tells me I was the first psychic not to tell her she'd have to commit to an hour-long psychic session every day before her life will get better.
I sign off, physically drained.
Susan calls to congratulate me. My average is twenty-two minutes, which is the highest in the company. She says I must be over that "silly stuff" I was talking about the day before. If I keep it up, she says, I'll be psychic of the month. When Susan asks me if I'm excited, I say no and repeat Laurie's story. Susan listens attentively but tells me that Laurie's story is common. Every day thousands of women call psychics for emotional advice. Susan says her job is to listen. When I ask her if there is anything immoral about charging these lonely, abused women $240 an hour to listen to them, she reminds me that PBN had given me domestic-abuse hot line numbers but says, "You're thinking about it too much. Come back in a few days."
I have never signed on as a psychic again. My carousel message says I'm restoring vital energies. Susan occasionally calls, asking if I'll be back, but I've told her it's not in the cards.
Stephen Glass is an associate editor at The New Republic. He lives in Washington, D.C.
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|Title Annotation:||proliferation of telephone-based fortune-telling|
|Date:||Feb 1, 1998|
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