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Confessions of an Ex-Phone Psychic (Part 2 of 2)

Posted 20 August 2003, 5.50 am by VanGogh

Note: This is the second half of a story I started telling on August 9th, 2003. If you haven't already, you really should read part one first. Scroll down to find it.

I can still remember my very first call. A soft voiced lady with a southern accent. She quietly answered the mandatory questions about name, address and e-mail address, and obediently wrote down the 1-900 number and my personal extension. With tarot deck in hand, I asked her what she wanted to talk about. Without hesitation, she asked me to look into the cards and see what her husband's reaction would be if she shared her secret with him. Not quite settled into the whole “I’m a magical psychic” role yet, I asked her what her secret was. She answered, “I used to be a man.”

Yeah, this job was going to be special.

On average, I’d work the lines for four or five hours a day. Even so, I wasn’t always making money. Fact is, unless I was actually on the line talking to someone, I didn’t make a cent. When I was on, I’d make anywhere between 20 and 23 cents a minute, depending on when I was signed on, and how heavy traffic was. For the mathematically challenged, that means I was making between $12 and $14 for every hour I spent talking. Not bad money really, especially when you take into consideration that I was often sitting around in my pajamas while doing it. On the other hand, if you consider what the network was making on that same hour of talk time, what they paid me was something of a minor crime. After all, an hour of call time grossed them $299.40 . I assume operating costs ate into that figure a bit, but somehow I don’t think Ms. Cleo or her gang were ever in fear of living the poor life.

Still, I was paid to wheel and deal the tarot cards, and that is what I did. In the beginning I relied on the cards a lot. I don’t know who wrote the text for the cards, but they should be crowned ‘King of Hot Air’. Never has so much been written without actually stating anything. I’ve always been a smooth talker, what they call a ‘Closer’ in sales circles. But bullshitting gets a bit trickier when the caller wants an answer without telling you what the question is. Instead of wasting time making up things to say to the caller, and then hoping I was close, I just delivered the information on the cards, and focused my energies on reading the persons voice to see if I was hot or cold. Reading the voice was the real trick of it all. I learned that on the first day.

More times than not, people will tell you everything you need to know about their lives with nothing more than the sound of their voice. Don’t believe me? Think about a time when you’ve been out in public, maybe at a restaurant. You heard the couple behind you fighting. You couldn’t hear what they were saying, and they weren’t yelling or anything so obvious, but all the same you knew they were fighting. How’d you know? The stress of their voice. The way they breathed. Pregnant pauses in the conversation. A thousand little clues that come together to deliver an instant and fairly accurate forecast of the emotional weather over at Table 9. Being on the phone is no different. Sometimes it’s even easier.

In the course of taking calls I soon learned that there were three basic types of callers: The bored, the curious, and the desperate.

The bored rarely stay on past the first three free minutes. They spend their time trying to prove that you aren’t REALLY a psychic. They ask typically impossible questions just so they can feel the thrill of proving what a scam it all is. The most typical type of question from the bored set is to ask you what they are wearing. But when you skip the obvious answer, which is that you don’t know, and instead reply, “clothes”, it seems to throw them off of their game. They usually hang up sounding more confused than victorious. Of course, that was little comfort to me when I knew that they just made my goal of a 19 minute average call time that much harder to reach.

The curious are a tossup. Some I would lose before I could even get their name, some I lost as soon as charged time kicked in. But a small percentage of them are willing to be flipped. (To ‘flip’ someone is to turn them into a believer.) These are people who know the horoscope in the paper is junk, but still find themselves reading it everyday, just in case. If you can get a curious to call late at night, when the world is dark and their troubles are weighing heavy, you can sometimes take them to a place where they believe, if only for the evening, that you really are psychic. I had several callers who started out as curious, and then flipped to full on desperate. You can hear it when it happens. The ominous sound of skepticism melts from their voice, and then nothing but awe and hope remain. When that happens, you own them.

The last type are what I call the desperate, because that is exactly what they are. Though the specifics of what they are desperate for tend to vary. Some want answers, other want advice. Most just want a friendly ear. They are the reason that the psychic lines exist. They are true believers who are at the mercy of the psychic. In the manual, it says a talented psychic can keep a caller of this type on the phone for up to an hour. I call that underachieving. It was nothing for me to keep a desperate on for 3 or more hours. My record stands at 6 and a half hours, a call that we will get to in a moment. Needless to say, these were the moneymakers for both me and the company.

The calls themselves ranged from the mundane to the extraordinary, from the cute to the truly bizarre. One common question I received was what the caller should name their newborn child. At first, this question stumped me. Aside from the fact that relying on a psychic to name your child struck me as incredibly stupid, I simply didn’t have a clue as to what to tell them. I flipped through the tarot cards looking for some ideas, but unless the caller thought that “Eight of Wands” was a great baby name, the cards held no answers. Then inspiration hit, and I was never at a loss again.

I told them to name the child ‘Jaime’. I figured if it was good enough for me, then it was good enough for their kid. I always made sure to tell them to use my spelling of it as well, since the way I spell it is a tad unusual, at least in Ohio. In my time working as a psychic, I was probably asked to name a child 3 or 4 dozen times. Whenever I need a smile, I just think of the small army of Jaime’s I set loose upon the world.

Another common request was to pick lucky numbers. There is a way to do this using tarot cards, but I soon tired of using them, and instead developed my own process. I’d pickup the nearest thing I could find with a barcode and start reading numbers off of it. Once a guy called me back and thanked me, said he hit the pick three for $500 using my numbers. Go figure.

By far my favorite calls were from people having money problems. They never ceased to amaze me. They’d call and ask questions about how they could get out of debt for an hour or more, all the while running up a huge phone bill with me. It was always on the tip of my tongue to say, “Well, the cards tell me that if you grew a brain and stopped paying $4.99 a minute for my bullshit, you’d be well on your way to positive income.”

By far the easiest part of the job was when I got a lonely caller. I just clapped my hands and prepared for some easy money. I had several lonely women call who would just talk and talk. At first, I tried to provide advice, but soon I learned that they didn’t want it. Didn’t want me to talk at all actually. They just wanted someone to listen. And so that is exactly what I did. I’d hear about new grandkids, new neighbors, new recipes. I’d hear about it all, and all of it at $4.99 a minute, simply because I was willing to listen.

My most amusing calls were always from the desperate. And sometimes the desperate were also idiots. For example, take my personal best call time of 6 and a half hours. During this call, the women did all of the following:

Had me give her psychic reading.
Had me give her reading again, so she could tape record it for later study.
Had me give her a full reading for her cat.
Had me give her another reading for her mom’s dog.
Try to make contact with her dead uncle.
Put me on hold for over 20 minutes so she could Finish watching the movie Titanic. She owned it, but really wanted to finish it, since it was her favorite part and all. ON HOLD. FOR OVER 20 MINUTES.
Put me on hold seven other times, for a grand total of 40 minutes, so she could answer her call waiting.
Walked outside, handed the phone to a neighbor, and had me do a reading for her. Just so she could see I was, and I quote, “The real deal.”
Had me tell her what numbers she should use for her locker combination at work.
Had me look into the cards to see whether a gentlemen she slept with was HIV positive.
Had me look into the cards again to see if her husband of 20 years knew about the other guy.
Asked me to advise her on what kind of car she should buy. This conversation lasted over an hour. I know nothing about cars. I ended up telling her to buy the same model car I own. She was thrilled. No really, she was.
Asked me, and I swear this was a serious question, what she should have for dinner. She seemed concerned that the hamburgers might me bad. She wanted me to check for her. I told her to opt for pizza.
Put me on hold, called her mother, and three-wayed her into the call so she could introduce me to her as “the new friend she met”. I was invited over for dinner.
The last hour of the call was spent with me staring at a wall, listening to her yell at her kids and tell me what she was watching on TV, and how Jerry Springer was the greatest thing since sliced bread.

The call only ended because the battery on my headset phone was dying. She was disappointed when I said I had to go, and promised to call back in. And call back she did, every week for as long as I worked.

For those of you keeping score at home, that call cost her somewhere in the neighborhood of $2,000. I’ll allow you a moment to get your chins back into their upright positions.

Of course, not all of the calls were fun. I got calls from women who wanted to know what they could do to get their boyfriend or husband to stop hitting them, who really believed it was all their fault. I got calls from moms who wanted to know if their new boyfriend was sleeping with their child. Calls from scared teens who were pregnant, and needed to know if they should get the abortion. Calls from people who were looking for someone to stop them from killing themselves. Those calls take all the air out of your lungs. They remind you that it isn’t a fucking game. These are real people, with real problems. And what I may think of as nothing more than a witty answer to a borking question, they take as serious instructions for how to live. In short, it’s real easy to fuck up peoples lives when they believe the gift you have is psychic ability when all it really is is a natural talent for bullshitting.

When those calls came in, I stopped the bullshit and tried my best to just be their friend. I gave them the same advice they were probably getting from everyone in their lives who loved or cared for them. Sometimes they even listened. I think maybe that's because they chose to call me, chose to ask me for help. Those were the calls that scared me to death. Those were the calls that burned me out. But they weren’t the calls that made me quit.

That call came from a soft voiced lady with a southern accent. For all I know, she might have been the same lady whom I spoke to on my very first call. She quietly answered the mandatory questions about name, address and e-mail address, and obediently wrote down the 1-900 number and my personal extension. When I asked her what she wanted to talk about, she told me that her husband had committed suicide less than two weeks before. All she wanted to know was whether or not he had made it to Heaven.

For reasons that I’ll never be able to explain, I didn’t just fake the reading and give her the answer she was looking for. Instead, I got out my tarot cards. It was the first time I had used the deck in over two months. I had abandoned it as soon as I memorized most of the text on the cards. Since that was all I needed them for, actually dealing out cards become a pointless exercise. But now I took them in hand and shuffled, then dealt out the top three cards face up.

Death
The Hanged Man
The Devil

I just sat and stared.

Each card has meaning beyond that implied in the name, but as the old manual states, sometimes the cards mean just what they say. Knowing that this was NOT what I wanted to be telling this woman, nor what she needed to hear, I shoved the cards back into the deck and shuffled. I told her that the first reading had been fuzzy, so I was doing a second. I shuffled for what must have been a minute or more, all the while giving her a smooth patter of soothing words that I wasn’t feeling at all. Then I dealt out another three.

The Devil
The Hanged Man
Death

Same three cards, reverse order. I put the deck down and explained to the woman that I wasn’t getting a clear reading, and asked her to call back in to talk to someone else. I hung up without waiting for a response, and put the deck away. I signed off the network and never took another call again.

If you’ve read through this article, then you can speak with some authority on that which you've always suspected, that psychic lines are scams. Psychics are nothing more than talented cons who merge the arts of conversation, entertainment and psychotherapy into some sort of wondrous brew that the general public just can’t get enough of. I agree with all of that. I’ve experienced it from both sides, and I know how the show works. I know it.

I also know that I’ll never be able to explain my last call. I’ll never be able to rationalize it. I know that everything that I experienced in the business was fake, except for those three cards. And in the end, I think that’s as much explanation as anyone needs for why the psychic industry just keeps on rolling along. Because even when you know it all, you still have those three cards. And then you don’t know a thing.

Green Mamba
on 20 August 2003, 6.28 am
That was a fucking brilliant story, Jaime (I even emailed it to a psychic friend of mine)


Assassin13
on 20 August 2003, 5.57 pm
Jaime, I held off on commenting until you were done writing it but those ast few paragraphs hit home. I think everyone has unexplainable things happen in their lives that hold truth and meaning. I own a Tarot deck and play around with it from time to time and I have had similar things happen but not to that degree of severity. Life throws you curves to keep you on your toes for a reason. Just curious, but have you ever picked up the deck since?

Great story.


Arwen
on 20 August 2003, 6.02 pm
Wow that is truly disturbing! I don't think I'll be able to get that out of my head for a while. It has definitely gotten me thinking.


VanGogh
on 20 August 2003, 8.09 pm
I don't touch the cards. I've done a few demonstrations for friends, mostly to show how easy it is to convince someone that I have a psychic gift, but I never use the cards for it.

I keep them locked in a box in my closet. I don't take them out, and I have no plans on using them again. At the same time, I don't ever see myself throwing them away. Ms. Cleo would say I don't throw them away because I fear angering the powers of the beyond.

Maybe she'd be right.

Regardless, I'm glad that you enjoyed the story. Thanks to all for their kind words.


Unforgiven
on 20 August 2003, 10.30 pm
Brilliant piece, as was the last one.

First time I ever actually sat and waited for someone to post a FP article.


Alexander
on 20 August 2003, 11.18 pm
Fantastico, Mr. Gogh.

Thanks for posting that.


silverchair
on 22 August 2003, 9.23 am
Very good, entertaining and thought-provoking. Thanks.


too_many_people
on 29 August 2003, 6.15 pm
I worked as a telephone researcher (we called people and asked them to complete surveys) for a few months. Most of our surveys would clock at about 10 minutes, average. But there was one time I talked to an old man for over an hour and a half (without completing the survey). The call ended only because he was tired and wanted to go to bed.
Your story reminded me of all the things that made me truly uncomfortable and confused about working in telephone research.
Very good story.


link-
on 4 August 2004, 7.20 am


link-
on 4 August 2004, 7.22 am


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Props to Green Mamba for bringing the weirdness

Hmph

80s candy bars were pretty good

only because i traded it for a candy bar in the 80's.

lol we all know you don't have a soul ghoti

my soul for some carbs...

But of course!

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