LIFE
05/11/2019 8:06 AM AEDT

I Was A Psychic Phone Line Operator. Here's What Really Happened Behind The Scenes.

Though most of the people working there were true believers, there were some who seemed to understand things were not quite what they seemed.

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The phone rang. I answered it. 

“Psychics-R-Us. This is Taliesin,” I said into the receiver. “How can I help you?” 

“This is Dwayne,” the man said. “I need to get rid of a curse.” 

“A curse?” I said, trying to buy a little time. I had no idea how to respond, but my minutes were down, and I needed to think of something. 

“Yeah,” Dwayne said, “this lady, she put a curse on me, and I gotta get rid of it.” 

I recalled reading a science magazine article about curses. 

“Research shows curses only work on people who believe in them,” I told him. “Don’t believe in it, and everything’ll be fine.” 

There was a long silence. 

“Yeah,” Dwayne said, sounding unconvinced, “I just need to know how to get rid of this curse, man.” 

***

It’s true. I once worked for a psychic hotline in the late ’80s. I’m not a psychic (I knew you were wondering), but that didn’t matter. 

It was a paying job that didn’t require me to expend any physical effort. I was tired of kitchen work. On my feet for eight hours, low pay, driving home late smelling like bleach and garlic. It sucked. I was done. 

I wrote for the college arts paper for a short time. That was much better than filling five-gallon buckets with sliced onions. I needed another job like that one, and my only other marketable skill was reading tarot cards. 

I remember being in bookstores as a kid and seeing the signs for the “occult” section. Something about that word always interested me, and I liked to look at the artwork in the books. The decks of tarot cards reminded me of Dungeons & Dragons. 

When I was older, the mother of a friend gave me a reading. Some of what she said made sense to me, and the whole thing appealed to the fantasy- and comic book-reading part of my brain. I was surprised to find that people said my readings were accurate. 

I didn’t learn until later in life that this can be attributed to a psychological phenomenon called the Barnum effect. Vague language, which can apply to anybody, seems tailored to us when we are told that it is. There’s a viral video that shows people reading and agreeing with astrology descriptions that they were told were for their sign but which were actually for a different one. They still found the descriptions accurate. 

As a 19-year-old, I didn’t know about any of this. All I knew was that Psychics-R-Us was hiring. My friend Dave got a job there, and he said it paid well. The people who I’d been giving readings to for free said they found them helpful. I didn’t see a problem with it. 

***

I put Dwayne on hold. 

I turned to Glenda, a more experienced psychic who sat next to me in The Golden Obelisk Room. It was an ordinary room in an office building with acoustic ceiling tile and fluorescent lights. There was a large poster on the door of a golden obelisk, though, covered in hieroglyphics. All the rooms had half-assed themes like this. 

“Do you know how to get rid of a curse?” I asked. 

“No,” she said. “I’d ask Oswyn.” 

That made sense. If there was anyone who’d know how to get rid of a curse, it would be our resident druid. 

I headed to The Sage Garden Room to find him. 

***

Psychics-R-Us was an information service. Information service phone numbers arrived in the U.S. in the 1980s. Phone companies billed their customers on behalf of the information service providers and kept a cut of the charges. Those customers were legally protected from losing phone service over nonpayment for these services if they otherwise paid their phone bills in a timely manner. 

I felt pretty good about this. No matter what, I wasn’t the cause of anyone going broke. It seemed harmless. 

To get the job, I had to pass an audition by demonstrating my ability to talk to people convincingly about their problems. I gave an in-person reading to a Psychics-R-Us employee while the manager, Cassandra, observed. 

I failed the first audition. My lack of experience giving readings to strangers showed, and my performance wasn’t credible. Cassandra told me to practice and return in a couple of weeks. 

I took her advice, and the second time I passed. I gave a reading to Sarah, another psychic who worked there, and we talked about her love life. It was the kind of conversation I’d have with any of my friends. I didn’t think it was such a big deal, but that didn’t stop Cassandra from fawning over me. 

She told me how blown away she was by the psychic abilities I had at such a young age. She couldn’t imagine how powerful I’d become as I got older. I was going to be of great service to all the callers out there who needed my guidance and wisdom, most of whom wanted to know, “Does he love me?” 

Turns out “most” was a bit of an exaggeration. Most of the calls, by far, were lotto calls. 

Psychics-R-Us’s ads portrayed lotto winners getting their winning numbers from psychics like me. The cost of the call was $4 per minute, but the first five minutes were free. Our goal was to convert free lotto calls into full-length readings. 

ilbusca via Getty Images
"Psychics-R-Us’s ads portrayed lotto winners getting their winning numbers from psychics like me. The cost of the call was $4 per minute, but the first five minutes were free. Our goal was to convert free lotto calls into full-length readings."

We were offered tips to maximize call times. “Sit in silence for a few moments with the caller to tune into their energy,” for example. We were also told to try cobbling together a reading by drawing tarot cards for the lotto numbers. 

Psychics-R-Us did its best to preempt any development of remorse by playing to our vanity. This meant lots of assurances that we were “incredibly powerful psychics” helping people in need. 

Cassandra held weekly meetings with us to go over our numbers. She emphasized there was a reason why those particular callers reached our phones. We needed to explore that psychic connection, to help solve the real problem driving them to call. 

Most callers just wanted numbers and would disconnect before five minutes passed, no matter what. But there were some who wanted to talk. In a country without universal health care, a psychic was the closest thing many of these callers had to a therapist. 

Callers with serious problems were directed elsewhere. Abused women were directed to women’s shelters in their area. Suicidal people were directed to hotlines. There were binders in every room with these numbers. Fortunately, these calls were rare. 

Some of the calls could even be fun. 

One guy called because he was a professional who liked to smoke pot, and he wanted someone to tell him that was OK. I was happy to take 12 minutes to oblige. 

The funniest call I had was the elderly woman who called on a busy Sunday morning. 

“Are you really a psychic?” she demanded. 

I affirmed that I was. 

“Then I denounce you, and I denounce what you do, in Jesus’s name,” she declaimed. 

“Ma’am, thank you,” I said, feigning contrition. “It really means a lot to hear that from you. I think my co-worker needs to hear this, too.” 

“Put him on,” she said. We got her to spend 20 minutes denouncing several of us in the room. 

We were expected to humor the callers provided they weren’t pulling pranks, like the young woman who called wanting to know about her boyfriend. 

“I see the Death card,” I said, drawing from the deck. “Things may be going well now, but there could be an abrupt change soon.” 

“Well, you’re wrong, ’cause I’m doing him right now!” she crowed as she hung up on me. 

Cassandra overheard my end of that call and asked me what happened. When I told her, she insisted I let her clean my aura. I tried to refuse, but she was implacable. 

She led me to her office. Long sheets of blue and aqua rayon draped the room, tucked under the ceiling tiles. A tabletop water fountain burbled. She had me stand in the center of the room, arms outstretched, eyes closed. I peeked from behind squinted eyelids. 

Cassandra vigorously pantomimed a wiping motion with her hands, a few inches from my body, breathing deeply, exerting great effort. I tried to stifle my laughter. After a few seconds of this, she said I could open my eyes. Beaming, she told me my aura was clean. She sent me back to the phones. 

***

Oswyn was finishing a call. I waited. 

A large man in his late 40s, he had a red beard, a round face and wore his jeans tucked into knee-high moccasins. His desk was decorated with dreamcatchers and wolf drawings. He had encyclopedic occult knowledge. He hung up the phone and turned to me. “What’s up,” he asked. 

“I have a caller wanting to get rid of a curse,” I said. “Can you help him?” 

“Of course!” he exclaimed, bolting out of his chair. Oswyn was always happy to show off. I filled him in on the few details I had as he followed me back to my phone. 

***

The office park where Psychics-R-Us was located had seen better days. It was wedged between two interstate highways near a corridor of auto body shops and fast-food restaurants. The buildings needed paint jobs, and the parking lot needed repaving. 

Somehow I hadn’t noticed on my audition days what a dump it was, but now I was an employee and nervous time was over. I arrived for my first day of work and the new hire orientation. I was sent to a conference room where the other newbies had gathered. I bought some Sun Chips from the vending machine. 

There were six of us scattered around the room munching our snacks in silence. Cassandra entered and stood in front of the whiteboard with a serious expression on her face. 

“Before we start,” she said, “there’s something you all need to know. This office park is in the center of an incredibly powerful psychic vortex.” Her eyes widened and she scanned the room, making sure we had internalized the gravity of her statement. The sound of crunching had stopped. 

“If it’s 50 miles an hour out there,” she said, pointing toward one of the highways, “it’s 150 miles an hour in here!” Her spiel seemed absurd to me, but when I looked around the room, everyone looked to be taking it seriously. 

“At the end of your shift,” she said, “take time to pause and center yourselves before leaving. After all, you don’t want to be going 150 miles an hour when everyone else is going 50!” 

“We also suggest,” she said, “that you keep something in your car to help you stay grounded. Corn is a really grounding influence, so it’s a good idea to just keep a bag of corn chips in your car.” 

Someone raised their hand. 

“Go ahead,” Cassandra said. 

“What about corn muffins. Do you think those would work?” 

“Oh, definitely,” Cassandra replied. “Corn of any kind is really effective.” 

Len DeLessio via Getty Images
"Some of the calls could even be fun. One guy called because he was a professional who liked to smoke pot, and he wanted someone to tell him that was OK."

***

Oswyn picked up the phone. 

“Hi, Dwayne. This is Oswyn,” he said. “Tell me about this curse.” 

Oswyn listened solemnly, slowly nodding along. After a few moments, he responded. 

“Here’s what I want you to do,” he said. “Light a candle, put it in front of a mirror facing your front door ...” 

Oswyn had it under control. I went outside for a smoke. 

***

Cassandra took a trip to Egypt. Before departing, she went around the office soliciting orders for mystical scarabs. As a child, I loved looking at pictures of ancient Egyptian artifacts. Given the prices Cassandra quoted, I expected these to be elaborate amulets made from turquoise and copper. 

When she returned, she went around the office to deliver everyone’s scarabs, fishing them out of a brown paper lunch bag. They were about 1/2-inch long, fashioned from clay and resembled pinkie toes, lumpy with poorly applied pottery glaze. But very powerful spiritual energy! You could just feel it! That was the word around the office, anyway. 

It was a new-agey scene, and Dave and I never quite fit in. We were a pair of smart-asses, and the earnestness of our co-workers paired with the cynicism of the call-lengthening strategies gave us a case of cognitive dissonance. 

Though most of the people working there were true believers, there were some who seemed to understand that things were not quite what they seemed. The ones who worked there the longest got their start at Psychics-R-Us’s sister business, a phone sex line. They had no illusions about what the job was. 

One of them, Millicent, came by The Golden Obelisk Room on one of my first nights of work. She stood in the doorway, introduced herself and asked me what my sign was. She was wearing stretch pants and a tank top, sipping from a Big Gulp. I detected a whiff of her armpits. I meekly answered, and then she asked me to guess hers. 

“Cancer?” I said. 

“No,” she said, “Sagittarius, but I’m as horny as a Cancer.” She rubbed her crotch against the door frame, leering at me. Fortunately, the phone rang, interrupting the moment. I was never so grateful to have to do my job making up lotto numbers. 

What a thing to be paid to do. 

They say that free-market capitalism is the most effective system at allocating resources, yet here I was being paid decent money to make up lotto numbers for callers who were so broke that gambling seemed like their only way out of poverty. 

When I read books on how to give tarot readings, much of the guidance was about the importance of the human connection and making a good-faith effort to connect with the questioner. This job turned all that on its head, and I didn’t fully come to grips with what that meant until I worked at an in-person psychic fair. 

The fair was organized by one of my co-workers, Florence, a grandmotherly septuagenarian, and her husband, Bill. He cut quite a figure in the drab community center where the fair was held. He looked as though he stepped out of a Dickens novel, wearing a feather in his trilby, a bow tie and a woolen waistcoat. He walked with the aid of a crystal-topped black cane. 

Bill told me that he and Florence met in England, where they were carnies. His English accent and courtly presentation gave him the air of a gentleman, but something about the look in his eyes made me feel as if he was sizing me up to spot my weaknesses. I spoke to him as little as possible, assuming that pickpocketing was just one of the many dark arts he had mastered. 

Bill worked the room, identifying marks and bringing them to Florence, who effortlessly separated them from their money with a smile. 

That day was a sobering experience and was the beginning of the end of my time at Psychics-R-Us. I only talked to one person at the fair, a very nice man who seemed to have some kind of cognitive impairment. I did my best to make him feel good, and he left the table grateful and happy, but when it was over I felt like I needed a shower. Talking to disembodied voices on the phone is one thing ― sitting across the table from someone giving you $20 of what little money they have is another. 

The job became a lot less amusing to me, and I started having trouble keeping my minutes up. Whether it was guilt or boredom, I couldn’t say. 

I started volunteering for nightshifts when the call volume was low. I was often by myself in The Golden Obelisk Room, lying on the floor with the lights turned off, zoning out to Music for Airports. I told people I was meditating. More than once I was jolted awake by someone coming in to see why I wasn’t answering my phone. 

I was eventually fired. I didn’t even last a year. 

***

Oswyn came outside to let me know he had finished up with Dwayne. 

“I gave him some stuff to try,” he said. “Curses can be tricky.” 

“I tried telling him curses weren’t real,” I said, snuffing out my beedi. 

“Unless you believe in them,” he said. 

I thanked him for his help as we walked back into the office. On returning to my desk, I saw the call with Dwayne went 25 minutes. Not bad, I thought. It’ll definitely bump up my minutes for the week. 

NOTE: Names and some identifying details of individuals and certain events in this essay have been changed or slightly altered to protect privacy.

J. Sibelman lives in California. He spent his 20s flailing about in search of gainful employment, which led to him holding a number of unusual jobs — none for very long. He’s previously written for Fahrenheit, San Diego City Beat and Ale Street News.

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