I swill some water, clear my occupationally hazarded throat. I figure I've got about 60 seconds of sweet silence before the next call.>"/>
I swill some water, clear my occupationally hazarded throat. I figure I've got about 60 seconds of sweet silence before the next call. I began my shift around 10 this morning. It's now almost 11 and already the neurons in my head feel like automatic-weapons fire. For the last hour I have been inundated with the voices of America's dashed hopes, dilapidated dreams, debilitated romances, and derailed schemes—sprinkled with requests for lost car keys and pregnancy diagnostics. That last call was a keeper. I jot down a quick note in my logbook to remind myself of the conversation's content. It reads: 10:50am. Guy wanted to know if I knew anything about Princess Di's whereabouts on the astral plane. He sounded like Robert Blake.
See end of article for related links.
I told him I didn't make it a habit to disturb the deceased. He told me I should brush up on my seance skills.
"People are paying $3.99 a minute for this service ya know."
And then he challenged me: "That old guy on the other psychic infomercial talks to Marilyn Monroe all of the time. If he can do that, why can't you tell me some stuff about Diana?"
I rolled my eyes and said, "Because that old guy thinks he is Marilyn Monroe." A short pause and then, "Something strange has happened to his clairvoyant circuitry. It's a bad neocortex misfire. It's like he's reading into himself. In the psychic biz we classify that as SCWIS, or self-generated circumnavigational walk-in syndrome."
My humor didn't even register. The caller plowed forward.
"Well, I still would like to know if Diana is in a safe place," he persisted. "So what's the number for that other psychic network?"
And that's when I said good-bye. I don't have that number. And I don't have Marilyn or Lady Di's either. Sorry.
Can you read me?
My Plantronics PLX-400 telephone and headset seems to shimmy a little when the next call comes in.
"Hi. This is Frederick, and thanks for calling the psy... "
"Hello? Hello! I'm premenstrual... " The voice on the other end is taut, almost out of breath, and there's a weird grinding sound coming from the background.
G鲡rd Bau베said: "The voice is a second face." But lately I've come to envision the works—head to toe—and in this case: a good-sized woman wearing lots of lipstick and a troubled perm, working up a frenzy on her StairMaster. I try to finish my greeting, the one the company I work for requires. But she isn't having that and continues:
"Does that matter, I mean, to do the reading properly? I thought maybe the PMS thing might disturb the vibrations or something. You know, the frequencies in the reading. So, can you read me, because, you know, like I said I'm premenstrual?"
"Well," I think to myself, "I'm postmodern! Just look at my job."
Imagine turning 40 and landing a job as a telephone psychic. When I first told a few of my friends, the kind of friends you can actually trust with a secret, that I was a bona fide—REAL LIVE—psychic pal, I was prepared for some derision.
"Look," I said. "I'm having an out-of-money experience, so I took a job working for one of those big 900 psychic networks."
My friend Vedika thought it was charming.
I wasn't so sure. I'd envisioned myself, at 40 for christsake, doing so much more: an accomplished artist, published writer, or at least managing my own Wendy's. Phone psychic: It wasn't exactly the opportunity of a lifetime to work in a business that's hawked on midnight television by former Love Boat crew members and LaToya Jackson.
Always a bit of a Zen-like adviser, Vedika countered my objections. "See what you can learn from the experience, just go with it for a while, something is going to be revealed here," she said. "What's your problem with it exactly?"
I had spent years as a professional astrologer and tarot specialist. I thought my objection would be obvious. "Look, me on a psychic hotline is like Dr. Christiaan Barnard answering calls for Dial-A-Nurse. I'm overqualified, don'tcha think?"
"Sounds like a little bit of hubris to me. Consider it this way: like you've taken a vow of service, to all humankind. You know, a bodhisattva sort of thing," she offered.
I laughed, but a month later, after fielding my umpteenth call, that's exactly what I did. Her suggestion quelled my damaged self-image. And she was right. The array of insights I gleaned, from the hearts and minds of a cross-section of Americans, was enough to send a Gallup pollster into a swoon.
My plan: Gossip and get paid for it
"If you hear any noise, it ain't the boys, it's ladies night."
Kool and the Gang are going at it, thumping and pumping. But I'm not at the Re-bar. During slow slumps on the lines, when the calls dribble in, I load my CD shuffler with Rhino Records' Soul Hits of the Seventies, and blast the classic disco and R&B through my office. The upbeat songs help dispel the dust storms of distress that caller after caller leave in their wake. When the phone finally rings I hit the pause button and slip into oracle mode.
One of the first network managers to train me for the hot lines, stressed, as she put it, "The cardinal cosmic law: Positivity neutralizes negativity." She repeated this over and over. At the time I didn't think much about the hokey bromide, but I should have taken it as a serious caveat. People don't call me to declare joy or exhilaration. They're usually in a crisis, usually romantic. Out of the 3,287 calls I've fielded over the last year, I'd say 3,286 centered around l'amour.
Love may have one central theme—the merging of two souls into one symbiotic joy fest—but the myriad ways that this affection can go awry are legion. Being mortal myself, and not the angelic source of light and vision depicted on the infomercials, I can relate to many of my callers' plights. Ultimately this made me a damn good psychic. I've been there too: disheveled and drunk, chasing my love object down a dark downtown street at 3am and whining for them to "Come back, please, let's just give it one more try." If I were a psychic-reading junkie that's the exact moment I would have thought, "Go home and pick up the phone and call. You need some divine intervention. Some love potion no. 9."
I started working the lines after leaving my life in Hawaii and making an impromptu move to Seattle. I'd lived in Honolulu for 20 years and, in tandem with my burgeoning interest in metaphysics, worked hard and burned out as an art director for several network affiliate TV stations. In my free time I built an impressive clientele for my counseling skills as an astrologer. After a friend explained that he was working for a psychic network out of Florida I decided a job like that would be freaky and fun and convenient, and that I too could make money working out of my apartment as an electronic soothsayer. With all my free time I'd read all the books in the world that I'd always wanted to read, continue to work on my journalistic enterprises, and kiss the world of graphic design goodbye. I figured I'd invest a month or two of my time until I planted myself in the local job market. That was more than a year ago.
Friends want to know why I've remained on the phones so long. My pat response: "The money is good." And that's true. But when I loathe the job, the callers, and my ball-and-chain association with the phone, I'm less gracious: "I'm bi-polar, mildly masochistic, and suffer from a Tourette-like habit of speaking in tongues." And then, somewhere between those two responses: "I'm a curious kind of guy with a penchant for gossip and hobnobbing with strangers while playing a wizard—and I'm gonna write a book about it."
My time, and Jimmy Jack's
W.H. Auden once told a radio interviewer: "Gossip is the art form of the man and woman on the street, and the proper subject for gossip, as for all art, is the behavior of mankind." In my line of business the man and woman in the street is, indeed, everyone of us; not only the plebeian, but the people who live up on the hill. Everyone calls psychics: housewives, students, CEOs, doctors, nurses, prisoners, prisoners' spouses. I once took a conference call from a woman and her incarcerated husband. The consultation was unnerving. I was a novice, and this arrangement was the first time I realized how bizarre the job was going to be. The woman's name was Tara and her boyfriend's name was Jimmy Jack (because psychic networks require their operators to sign nondisclosure agreements, names in this article have been changed), and the conversation went like this: "So we really need to see what is gonna be our future together," Tara said. "How this relationship is gonna work. What we can look forward to."
I shuffled the cards and laid them carefully in front of me. The tableaux wasn't looking good. In fact it was gloomy. But then what did I expect. Jimmy Jack, who had the proverbial record as long as his arm, was in jail for nearly killing Tara's former lover.
"I feel like I need to be frank about this. The cards indicate some difficult challenges for the two of you," I cautiously offered.
"Well what in the fuck do ya expect. I'm in jail," yelled Jimmy Jack.
"I understand that. But Tara was telling me that there were problems between the two of you before you even went to jail. Is that true?"
"Hey, you're the friggin' psychic. Do I really need to answer that, Tara? How much are you paying for this shit?"
"Jimmy J, let him talk about this stuff 'cause you gotta lotta time to think about whatever he is gonna tell us." And then Tara prompted me to continue. The pressure was really on.
I shored my voice. "How long are you in for, Jimmy Jack?"
"Ten to 12 more years," he growled.
The spray of tarot cards went blank. I was accustomed to providing readings for people who were free to walk the sidewalks of America, contemplate new jobs or relationships or the consequences of committing murder. What do you tell a couple that already knows what the future holds for them? The best way to bake a file into a cake? As it turned out I didn't need to say much. Instead I sat back and just listened—to their complaints, their accusations, their stories. The gossip.
We talk, yammer, tell fish tales, swap rumors, and gossip as a way to soothe our issues with the present and our apprehension about the future. Something magical happens when we move our mouth and utter words about ourselves, about others. Talking is a seemingly innocuous act, but cogent and healing, as Auden noted in that same radio show: "When one reads in the papers of some unfortunate man who has gone for his wife with a razor, one can be pretty certain that he wasn't a great gossip. . . ."
Right after gossiping, folks want the enchanted, the otherworldly, the mystical, the religious, to influence their lives—and they want that experience now. Forget prayer, mantras, and meditation. People are too busy. Psychics fill a spiritual vacancy that might be left blank if not for the electronic oracles' key-pad accessibility.
One African American woman, after a lengthy 40-minute consultation, told me, "I'm a religious woman and when I'm confused and have trouble hearing what God is trying to tell me, I call a psychic."
"Does it work?" I asked her.
"Oh sure, I talk about my problems, feel better, and then carry on with my day."
When I started to suggest that the $4-a-minute rate was a little high, she interrupted me: "No, it's worth every goddamned penny!"
So what's the scam?
Journalists always take the cheap shockumentary approach when reporting about psychic networks. Every expos頰aints the same picture: the lovesick, loopy, and lost dialing furiously to connect with some rogue who is waiting on the other end of the phone to snare and stall them long enough to purchase a new Acura. Even a recent airing of NPR's This American Life, where an overly distressed-sounding Ira Glass interviewed a spook storytelling former telepsych about his con game stooped to the same tabloidy approach. Sure, random duping happens on the phones, but there are ne'er-do-wells in every occupational field—bogus doctors, dubious contractors, sloppy homemakers, bad writers. But that's a moot point in the face of the incredibly wild popularity of the psychic networks.
In a recent Harper's article, writer Stephen Glass noted that telecommunication pundits estimate that psychic networks gross about $1 billion a year. As the millennium approaches, those revenues are expected to double. When I was with Psychic Readers Network, one of the nation's largest lines, it was fielding more than 20,000 calls a day. There's a lot of divinatory yacking going on. Companies like AT&T are very happy—they pull about 35 cents a minute on those calls for all the equipment and computers they lease. The companies that run the lines are happy. Most of the psychics are happy (the last line I worked for paid me $24 an hour) and—sorry to burst the victimization balloon—most of the callers are happy too.
Dialing for Dionne
Talking to a psychic satisfies a deep, anachronistic religious instinct. Consulting oracles is an age-old phenomenon. Every culture has its medium. The Chinese forged intricate coins. The Italians created cryptically illustrated tarot cards. The Greeks consulted an oracle at Delphi. Nordic cultures picked engraved runes from a pouch. Americans? We have our impatience, a phone, and Dionne Warwick.
And I just had to talk to her.
When I heard Dionne was in Seattle searching for a new home, I bugged Linda, a realtor friend, to help me track her down.
"There's so much I want to ask her," I told Linda.
"Well, if you meet her, bring a gas mask, because my associate who is showing her properties says she smokes like a chimney."
"I really want to know how she became interested in metaphysics. Maybe I could even look at her horoscope. I wonder how she feels about being the queen mother of the psychic networks?"
Dionne never moved to Seattle. Her Psychic Friends Network filed for bankruptcy and she went to another part of America—South America. But I still kept at it. I eventually called her manager and asked if she could set up an interview.
"Whatever for?" She sounded genuinely perplexed.
"Well, I'm writing a book and I'm including a section on the history of the psychic lines. So I want to know why Ms. Warwick decided to become involved. What her spiritual impetus was."
"Oh, well I can answer that for you. The company that owns the lines offered her a tremendous amount of money."
I was disheartened but not surprised. As the Sufis say, "Trust in Allah—but tether your camel."
I am the phone psychic's psychic
After several months on the phones, my computer instincts went into hyperdrive and I was shooting the cybershit with just about every New Age specialist in the world who would share their impressions about the electronic oracle craze. I put up a Web site, and four months later I was regarded as the telephone psychic's psychic. I started fielding questions and culling as much information as I could from fellow futures freaks. One conversation with tarot scholar Mary Greer struck me as revealing. She viewed the psychic networks as "the piecework of the '90s. It is interesting to find it linked with what could be called 'folk therapy'—the unacknowledged and disregarded psychological counseling that every culture has created for itself to fill the needs of the people."
I agree with Greer's spin. Despite my goofy set-up, I'm sincere with each of my callers and share whatever psychological wisdom I can glean from the tarot or their horoscope. After a month or two I stopped worrying about their financial status. I knew if I didn't take their call they'd just redial and connect with someone that would. The fact is they want to talk and need to be listened to. The people who call may or may not believe in the paranormal; but what's common is their effort to find an alternative approach to solving their problems. The majority of my callers are intelligent, and if not intellectually bright they've a brand of street savvy that is commonsensical and impressive. Most of them are employed, educated vocationally, and very inquisitive. They are also vulnerable; most wear their hearts on their sleeves. I believe that if a person is taking the time to admit their quandaries and explore their options and remedies, then—psychic lines or not—that person is on the right track.
Once I got online, I e-mailed a question to Camille Paglia's "Ask Camille" column in Salon. "What do you think of our culture's love affair with telephone psychics?" Her response was nearly immediate: "Telephone psychics function as populist psychiatrists for the lower-middle and working classes, who can't afford either the time or the money required for the kind of systematic, superindulgent therapy that has become such a clich頯f middle-class life in the United States. . . ." Paglia also pointed out that most believers in psychic assistance feel the spiritual, emotional, and intellectual insufficiencies of both traditional and organized religion. How American: What we want is something both profound and entertaining.
Although I don't believe that the future can be predicted the way most of the tacky and maudlin psychic network infomercials claim, I do know, from years of working with individuals privately and over the phones, that divination provides a novel opportunity for a person to evaluate and reconsider their life. My motto has always been, "Forget the future, let's face the truth about why the present is so fucked up." And my callers agree. At the onset of their reading they'll say to me, "Just go ahead and tell me the truth." So that's what we end up talking about.
The phone offers anonymity, and horoscopes and tarot cards provide a magical way for the caller to gain temporary distance from their predicaments. And that anonymity and distance is valuable—it provides objectivity. And I've come to see that my callers—after their litanies of complaints, their mystifying uncertainties, their vibrant gossip—wanted just that: a new way of seeing things.
So, a year later, when people ask me what I do for a living I tell them I work with poetry, symbols, metaphors, images—and the telephone. I'm Robert Bly with a headset, evaluating Marshall McLuhan's vision of America.
Again with the princess
About the PMS lady: We hit if off splendidly.
"Yes. I can do premenstrual," I assured her. "But postmortem is out. I just don't go there."
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"Well, people sometimes call wanting to know how folks like Jimmy Stewart or Kurt Cobain or Princess Diana are doing in heaven."
"Really? That's interesting. But I suppose it's the nature of the business you're in."
"Tell me about it."
"So the PMS thing isn't going to be a problem? I'm new to this sorta thing and thought I'd better ask."
"No, no problem," I say. "So what sort of topic would you like to explore today. What's on your mind. How can I help?"
"I've got several different things I want to look at. My job and my love life. I guess the thing with my boyfriend is what I'd like to talk about the most. But before we start; can I ask—how is Princess Diana doing?"
Frederick Woodruff writes about culture for various publications, including Salon. His forthcoming book, Secrets of a Telephone Psychic, will be released this fall by Beyond Words Publishing. If not telepathically, he can be reached on the Internet at http://zenpop.home.mindspring.com and via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Psychic Choice Community Center
The Psychic Zone