Bored out of my mind from stuffing envelopes eight hours a day, I started poring over the classifieds. One ad caught my eye. Earn $10/hr. receiving incoming calls in your own home! Make your own hours. If you are a people person and like giving advice, call…

I called. A recording announced that I could earn money as a psychic reader. All I had to do was show up at Ann Sather’s by 2 PM that day.

I took the el to the restaurant. “Is this were I can find the psychics?” I asked the hostess.

She smiled and said mock mysteriously, “You have come to the right place. Go upstairs.”

The crowd assembled upstairs was mixed: a black man in a suit, an unshaven white guy with several piercings, a middle-aged white woman. I sat down next to a young woman, who whispered, “Are you going to do this thing?”

“Why not?” I said.

“I have to. I started this painting business–we paint murals and pictures. But sometimes there aren’t any clients. So I figured why not?”

“That’s right. Why not?”

“Leon,” a grayish, bloated figure in a pinstriped shirt and tie, passed out white envelopes that contained terms and conditions, a pay schedule, and a contract. There were also dos and don’ts and descriptions of numerology and astrology: a crash course for the would-be psychic.

Leon spent most of the next two hours talking about how he’d got into the psychic-advice-line business, explaining that we’d be independent contractors and therefore solely responsible for whatever we said, and recommending books and products and strategies. “You’re going to get lots of calls,” he said. “Many will be curiosity calls, and they’ll hang up after the free time. But you’ll be surprised–people are going to call you, and they’re going to want help. After a week of working, I’ll ask you, ‘Have you helped anyone?’ and you’ll probably say yes. That’s what’s so wonderful about this job–it’ll make you feel good. Like doing a good deed.

“You’ll be surprised. A lot of people will just want to talk. They may not even want you to use your psychic powers. But you need to be prepared. I recommend you buy tarot cards with explanations so you know what they mean. Always have something to say. You want to keep callers on the line for an average of 17 minutes. How do you do this? Engage them. Let them talk. Tell them things–anything. But think. Think or you will make mistakes.

“I was talking to a caller about her lover. She asks, ‘Is my lover a man or a woman?’ Without thinking I said, ‘A man.’ You know why that was stupid? Because if it was a man, she wouldn’t have asked the question.”

Everyone laughed.

“You’ll get the hang of it,” Leon said. “Give it a few weeks. Sometimes you’ll even think you are psychic. Things will slip out, and they’ll be right–and you won’t know why. Your callers, they’ll call you back and say, ‘How did you know?’ That’s when you’ll find real satisfaction and maybe a little awe. Because we all, in some way, have psychic powers–or intuition. Your job is to use your intuition.”

Most of us signed the contracts. Leon said the New York office would process them in a week, and then he’d call us back.

A week later he called and gave me an 800 number and a PIN number. For the psychic reader, going to work is simple. It’s a matter of cracking open a beer, lighting a cigarette, dialing a few numbers to log on, and waiting for people who want to spend $4.99 a minute calling a 900 number.

But I was no psychic. I was a recent college graduate who’d come to Chicago with no goals, a little cash, and only the hope that something would happen. I’d come because I’d got a fortune cookie that said “Depart not from the path which fate has set for you” around the same time a friend had said offhandedly, “Why don’t you move to Chicago? It’s a nice city.”

And here I was–stuffing envelopes and entering data. I drank a martini and waited for my nerves to drown.

I hadn’t bought cheater tarot cards. They were too expensive. I figured I was creative enough to make up my own routine. And I figured anyone ignorant enough to call a psychic line had to be ignorant about the conventions of psychic probing.

I typed and drank. When I finished I had seven single-spaced pages of psychic jargon. I could offer callers Lotto-number picks, slot-machine hints, and readings of tarot cards, auras, and even past lives.

I taped the pages to the kitchen wall, then called the 800 number, logged on, lit a cigarette, and waited.

The phone rang. I waited two rings–we’d been instructed to wait for two–and lifted the receiver. “Hello, welcome to the network. This is Mark at extension 2765. May I have your name and date of birth, please?”

The voice belonged to a young man. “Can you tell me why I called?” he said, his voice a mixture of cockiness and fear.

“Why don’t you tell me?”

“I’m going to trial tomorrow. I want to know, am I going to jail?”

I looked at the pages on the kitchen wall. There were no answers there. And it suddenly seemed criminal to fool someone who was concerned about going to jail.

“What are the charges?” I said.

“I don’t want to say.”

“Did you do it?”

“Don’t you know that?”

“What do you think I am? Psychic?”

He chuckled. “No. I didn’t do it.”


“So, am I going to jail?”

I paced around the apartment, downing a second martini. The kid didn’t want me to be human. He wanted help from a higher power.

“Whatever happens, you’ll be free,” I told him, “because you know yourself to be innocent of the crimes you might be persecuted for. The system is stacked against you, but your true power is within. In jail or out of jail, you are only as free as your heart.”

I went on like this for a while. Finally I said, “And one thing more. Do you own a suit?”

He paused. “Yes, I do.”

“Tomorrow you must wear that suit. Appearances are everything in a court of law. Wear a suit, and justice may be swayed in your favor!”

I’d run out of steam. Wear a suit? Why hadn’t he hung up?

He was still taking me seriously. He asked for a tarot card reading. I read from the script.

“Oh, yes. Oh, yes,” he murmured after I described each image. “I see what that means in relation to my life. The snake squeezing the life out of the tree–that’s like the trial tomorrow, taking my life away from me.”

I stifled the desire to tell him I was making this all up. The call lasted almost 40 minutes. The kid had spent close to $200 to talk to me. I felt horrible.

When I’d told my mother about my new job she’d said, “Oh, Danny! Don’t you think that’s preying on people?”

“They know how much it costs when they call. They know from the ads it’s ‘entertainment only.’ If it’s predatory, it’s preying on people who want to be preyed on.”

“OK,” she’d said. “Try it. See how it makes you feel.”

If people were calling for genuine help, I figured the service I’d provide would be something like a shrink’s. A recent study I’d heard reported on the radio had found that trained and untrained counselors had equal success in alleviating client depression. All I had to do was use my natural intuition and speak from the heart. After all, the basic principle behind psychoanalysis and tarot card readings is the same: people need people to spill their guts to, and when they can’t find that in a friend they’re willing to pay a stranger to listen.

Of course, I also thought this was kind of like mental prostitution–selling intimate conversation to people who can’t get it from loved ones.

And then there were the economics. Psychologists cost around $100 per hour. A psychic reader costs up to $300.

Leon had told a story in our training session about a reader who’d been talking to a housewife for five minutes before she told him to hold on. She never came back. The reader listened to her family eat dinner for 45 minutes. He must have heard the clinking of forks and thought, “I’m making something for nothing–I should hang up!” But he didn’t. “When should you disconnect if that happens to you?” asked Leon. “Let your conscience decide.”

The gin was working. I chatted away with several callers who had serious problems. I gave them advice and kept telling myself I was helping them toward solutions.

Then a woman called whose voice was worried, tearful. “I’m thinking of suicide occasionally,” she said.

“Are you thinking of it right now?”

“No. I’m not going to do it.”

“Good. But you’re thinking of it a lot?”

“From time to time I think it would be so easy.”

I looked at the pages taped to the kitchen wall. The first sheet was a list of numbers–all free–that Leon had given me to pass on to truly screwed-up callers. One was for the suicidal. “Would you like to call a hot line?”

“No, I’m not suicidal tonight.” She sighed. “Here is what I want to know. Is it ever gonna get so bad? Am I going to kill myself? Can you tell me that?”

“Do you think you are?”

“That’s what I want to know. That’s why I’m calling.” She was silent for a moment. “I’m also an alcoholic. But I’m not drunk now.”

“That’s good. That’s very good.”

“I’ve met a good man. I don’t need to drink with him. He takes care of me. But I’m afraid I’m going to get drunk. He’ll leave me–and then I’ll kill myself.”

“Do not kill yourself. Do not kill yourself!”

I wanted to hang up. I was an independent contractor, and if I gave this woman bad advice and she did kill herself I could get sued. The network had no liability. I imagined her hanging up on me and shooting herself. Her family would find a bill for $300 from AT&T and trace it back to me. What family wouldn’t want to take revenge?

But instead of suggesting that a suicide hot line would offer better counseling, I kept her on the line. This was money in my pocket. This was the nature of the job. “You are a valuable human being!” I insisted. “Stay away from drink! It will only drag you low when you can climb so high!”

After the call ended I felt terrible. I was drinking Bombay Sapphire straight from the bottle.

All callers want to know is that things will work out because they’re meant to work out. It’s written in the book of fate. There’s order in their lives. But even if one or two callers found comfort in my fabrications, it wasn’t worth it. Better they spend their money on a psychologist. At least medical insurance would cover it. At least they would share their desperation with someone who believed he could quiet their demons.

Yet just stopping wasn’t enough. A week later I logged on to the network again. “I need to tell you something,” I told my first caller, an older woman with a husky voice. “Just so you know and won’t call this line again. I am not psychic. You are just as psychic as I am. You know how I got this job? I walked in off the street. There was no test of my psychic abilities. I signed a contract, and here I am. Just the same as you–a voice on a telephone wire. Only you’re paying to hear me.”

“Then I won’t waste my money on you. I knew it was fake anyway.”

She hung up. But I could tell from the tone of her voice that she would call back.