posted 04-29-2001 03:53 PM
Confession of a Telephone Psychic
By Michael Goodspeed
(A Semi-Fictional Account Of My First Day as a Telephone Psychic)
If there's one thing I dislike about insomnia (even more so than the wall-eyes, short-term memory loss and nausea), it's the paltry selection of television viewing choices which border on the excreable. Unless you are charmed by late-night's offering of poseur comedians with protruding chins and gap-toothed grins spewing out the jokes of lazy hacks, your options are limited to B-movies starring Shannon Tweed and James Brolin, or 7 straight hours of SportsCenter highlights. For those with more discriminating tastes, a VCR and a plentiful collection of Northern Exposure and Simpsons reruns make for good company on a sleepless night. But on the occasions when I'm too fatigued to reach for the remote, I'll resign myself to whatever is offered by the channel I've landed on. On these occasions, I'm forced to endure the ad campaign of a nation-wide industry that you're all familiar with. They have as their spokespersons ex-pop divas and poorly paid actresses whose cloying voices return to me one of the most dispiriting experiences of my life.
It was the winter of 1997, and I was an unemployed 22-year-old high-school dropout whose work resume consisted of three abbreviated telemarketing jobs over 5 years. I had my creative interests, including writing, to use as an excuse for putting off my passage into the American work force, but my parents had finally grown weary of my refusal to cover even the most basic living expenses. For the first time since I was a truant junior-highschooler more interested in playing air guitar than attending class, they issued me an ultimatum: either get off your sloth-ridden ass and do some honest work, or get the hell out. I decided to choose the former, sort of; I went looking for work, but what I did find could not be described as honest.
After calling every telemarketing and office job in my area and finding nothing of interest, I came across an ad that caught my eye. It read, "Psychics...tarot readers...astrologers wanted...no experience necessary...work from home...earn $12-15 per hour." And here was the kicker: "24-hour service...set your own schedule." I felt like I had won the lottery; although I knew little about tarot or astrology, I'd had an interest in the paranormal for a long time, and this seemed like it would be the easiest most fun work I could get.
I called the business and talked to the owner, named Bill. He told me there was nothing more to it than shuffling a deck of tarot cards, laying them out, and reading the explanations on the back. I eagerly agreed to an interview that afternoon.
The address I found was a small, brown abbey office building. I walked to the front door with my heart racing in anticipation; I had no idea what to expect, and the task of work was so alien and foreboding to me, I always experienced some terror when faced with its reality. I inhaled deeply and slowly, trying to keep my composure as I walked a flight of stairs up to the suite where my new job awaited.
I gingerly rapped three times on the door, waiting a few seconds and getting no answer. I could hear voices in the background, so I knocked three times again, this time more forcefully...still no answer. I thought I heard some shuffling of feet in the background and waited a moment. Finally, I pounded as hard as I could four or five times and heard what sounded like a bowling ball crashing to the floor. I checked my watch to make sure I had arrived on time. Suddenly, the door was pulled open by a slightly obese, balding man dressed in a tattered blue t-shirt, khaki shorts and sandals. The butt of a smoldering cigarette lay dangling from his lower lip. Huge, brown bags the color of over-ripe bananas swelled below his narrow eyes. He looked like a dephiled, cancerous version of the actor M. Emmet Walsh.
He stared blankly at me for a pregnant moment, then two. Then I could see the dim glimmer of recognition behind his glazed eyes. "You must be Michael," he said, a half-grin cracking his bluish lips. What appeared to be dried oatmeal lay caked on his stubbled chin.
I felt like laughing and throwing up simultaneously. A huge waft of stale cigarette smoke, cat urine, body odor and human misery overwhelmed my olfactory nerves, making me feel dirty, violated. In my life, I've always tried to practice the art of non-judgment, seeing every human being as a child of God, but I couldn't stop these two nasty words from shouting from my subconscious: WHITE TRASH. A thousand episodes of COPS and Jerry Springer flashed in my memory.
I stared gaped-mouthed at him for an instant, thinking of saying, "Michael? No, I must have the wrong building," but I was hypnotized by this man's dead-eyed gaze. Instead, I managed to croak, "Uh, you must be Bill," and offered my hand in greeting. It was seized by a warm, leathery grip that had very little strength.
He led me into a tiny office building that was no bigger than a studio apartment. Cigarette smoke hung so thickly I seemed to be breathing cough syrup. My throat and lungs felt as though I had inhaled volcanic ash. In this office were 7 other people, 6 females and one male. 4 were young white girls between the ages of 15-20, 1 one was an African-American female dressed in what appeared to be pajamas, and the other was an impossibly unhygienic young man with matted greasy hair, a scraggly red beard, and a shirt so worn it was nearly translucent. Cigarettes burned between the fingers of all. No windows were cracked in the tiny office.
They all started at me with vacant owl eyes, seemingly shocked that a normal-looking person would dare to enter their strange little world. Bill walked me over to the corner of the room and we both sat down on rusty metal chairs parked in front of a TV-tray. He didn't bother to introduce me to anyone. And no one seemed to notice or care.
Spread out on the table were a deck of cards which were stark orange on one side, and displayed pictures and writing on the other. Bill gathered up the cards, shuffled them briefly, then laid out nine cards, in sets of three-by-three, on top of each other. He looked up at me and cracked a wan, feeble grin.
"Have you ever read tarots before?" he asked in a sadly aged voice that sounded like it came from an invalid.
I answered, "No, but I've always found this kind of thing very interesting. I'm open-minded to anything." I bit my lip and tried not to let my pity show through.
Bill showed me the bottom sides of the cards where the explanations were written. "When you take a call, all you have to do is hello, give your name, and ask the person what their question is. You lay the cards out, and read what's on the back. Does that sound like something you can do?" I said it was.
"Then let's start your training."
MY SIXTY MINUTES AS A TELEPHONE PSYCHIC
With a flimsy set of headphones attached to my crown, a call-sheet with the words: Operator Name, Log-in Time, Log-Out Time, Call Began--Call Ended printed on it, and a thick deck of orange cards laid out on my TV tray, I waited anxiously for my first call. I was nervous enough for my teeth to start chattering in that baking, stuffy, smoke-filled boiler room. I felt totally unprepared and naked, but if all I had to do was read the back of cards until the caller hung-up, how hard could it be?
After five or six minutes, the phone rang, causing my heart to nearly seize in terror. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath (again nearly choking), and pressed a black button at the bottom of the phone.
"Thank you for calling the Network, my name is Michael at extension 347, may I have your first name, please?"
"Peggy," the voice responded, a thick southern drawl readily apparent.
"And may I have your date of birth."
She gave it to me, speaking in excruciatingly slow, broken speech.
"And is your question personal or professional?"
A pause of ten or twelve seconds. "Hello?" I asked, worrying that I may have accidentally hung up on her. Finally, she responded, "Uh....no....uh....I...want...to...ask...about...my...husband...and?if...he's going to... leave me...cause...I...told...the...police that he...was...beating...on...me..."
It took less than 2 seconds for my surge of enthusiasm and interest to completely disintegrate. I had found myself transported to the surreal dimension of Sally Jessy Raphael and Ricki Lake. Suddenly, an unspeakably cruel yet hilarious thought sprang, unwelcome, from my mind. With this woman's slow, southern speech and obvious mental infirmities, she sounded exactly like the female version of Forrest Gump.
I was dumbfounded, unable to speak. I looked frantically around for one of the other readers to help. "I...uh, well...just...that's something I'll have to ask about...can you wait just a second?" I managed to ask.
Pause of 10 seconds.
Finally she responded, "Okay."
One of the girls, dressed in a red sweater with straight, brown her down to her rear, noticed my distress and came over. "What's the problem?" she asked, and took a deep pull from her Camel cigarette.
"Well, this woman says her husband's beating her and she's like, mentally..." And I made the universal gesture of craziness with my index finger. "What should I do?"
She looked at me like I was from another planet. "Nothing. Just keep her on for as long as you can."
I stared gape mouthed at her, totally bewildered. "I should just keep talking with her and do a normal reading?"
The girl turned and grabbed a laminated booklet from the desk behind her, and dropped it on the TV tray. She turned to a page with a long list of phone numbers. She pointed to one which read: Spousal Abuse Hotline.
"You can give her this number if you want, but just keep her on as long as you can. Every call should last an average of at least 30 minutes."
I started doing the math in my head. At 3 dollars the first minute, five dollars each additional minute, it would cost this lady no less than 150 dollars. I doubted she was able to earn that much in a week.
As it turned out, the call didn't last for 30 minutes...it lasted 60. I started the reading the way Bill had told me to, laying out three cards at a time, going from past, to present, to future. None of this seemed to matter to Peggy, though. Through most of the call, she seemed barely to be listening; at one point she actually set the phone down and walked away for five minutes. I sat at my TV tray, wanting nothing more than to press the hang-up button and slam the headphones against the wall. But I didn't. I kept blathering on about how the cards showed the future looked very bright for her, that she was a talented woman who would find her niche in the world in no time at all. Money, happiness, and health were all clearly forecast by the magical tarot cards. At least if her husband didn't kill her first.
It goes without saying that I never returned to my job as a telephone-psychic . For a few days after this experience, I thought about making a report to a consumer affairs agency, but what was the point? These people were working entirely within the framework of the law. Even the smoke-filled environment was legal, since the workers were all technically independent contractors who paid their employers for the right to use the office.
I've written this account in the off chance that some frequenters of your website might be sufficiently lonely, gullible and desperate enough to hand their money to these chicanerous bozos. One can rationalize the legality of psychic-hotlines by arguing that every person who calls does so of their own volition; but I can tell you, such reasoning does little to assuage the guilt one feels over milking money from the most vulnerable of people.