Section (C)
Life in Low-Grade Terror
The phone rang, and I grabbed it as fast as I could. "Thank you for calling the Psychic Network (通灵热线)," I said as I started my presentation. "I read tarot cards(塔罗特纸牌). I'm mixing the cards now;tell me when it feels right to stop." As usual, I made noises with the cards without bothering to mixthem, much less read them.
The first time I saw a psychic television commercial (通灵大师电视商业广告), I wasn't as interestedin the famous people advertising the service as I was in ordinary people talking about the life-transforming psychic help they had received. As I recall, an office manager said her psychic (通灵大师)told her that the first man she talked to at a Christmas (圣诞) party would become her husband — nowthey're married and expecting a child. A housewife who lost her cat found it in the exact placepredicted. But the satisfied customers — mostly women — didn't look like they could afford $3.99 aminute to talk to a psychic on the phone. At the time, I was a struggling writer. I decided to get a job asa psychic and then write about it.
To start my career, I took a nine-hour class with a fast-talking woman who made a living readingtarot cards at psychic fairs and for private customers. At the end of the course, I still felt like abeginner, so I studied the scientific reasons why tarot cards work. Israeli researchers suggest thatthere is a similarity between tarot readings and the plots of popular folk tales. By laying out a few cards,you create a story as appealing as a fairy tale, with your client as the hero. People are amazed at your"insight" because most are so vain (爱虚荣的) they can't imagine how much they have in common withthe rest of the population.
To further prepare myself, I offered readings to friends, including a scientist who makes a career ofproving popular beliefs to be false. My friend laughed as I laid out his cards and gave my introduction.
But soon his laughter faded, and later he told me he was astonished that my reading was so " accurate".
I figured I was ready.
I called the Psychic Readers Network, which immediately mailed me an application. Soon someonefrom their personnel department called, and I gave a reading. "Great," she said. "You can startimmediately."First I had to learn a long list of instructions: Always pick up the phone by the second ring. Neveranswer specific questions before doing a "general reading". This would take up a lot of time and keepthe client on the line past the first two minutes that Psychic Readers offered free.
The call could last as long as 55 minutes, which (after taking away the two free minutes) translatedinto a telephone bill of $211.47. I kept the conversation going by asking for a full name and address "sowe can send you tickets for reduced price readings." At the end I was required to say, "For adults andentertainment only."All this was strengthened by the message I listened to each time I phoned in to work. "Come on,guys," it said. "Make sure you write down the full mailing address. We have six people testing everypsychic every month. We will see if you're doing everything properly."With this pace, I lived in low-grade terror — and I was only a part-time worker. Imagine peopletrying to make a living at this job. Most were women working 20 to 40 hours a week on the phone. Forthe $3.99 they earned each minute for the company, they kept only 25 cents in base pay — with noother benefits. Each week a computer totals the average length of your calls; if it is under 14 minutes,you're in trouble.
You learn to cultivate the callers who increase your average as they take you through long stories ofcrisis and loneliness. One woman lived eight miles from town, had a drinking problem and thought shewas pregnant. She couldn't figure out what to do. I asked if she'd been to the doctor to see if she reallywas pregnant. No. She'd rather have the cards tell her. "Well," I said, "the cards show you'll be going toa store and buying a pregnancy (怀孕) test."Then I got my first call from Teneecia — suicidal(有自杀倾向的) with a recently dead boyfriend. Herswas the most extreme crisis I'd ever confronted, and at first I was terribly afraid. Then, withoutthinking rationally, I leapt into action. "Teneecia," I said. "Your boyfriend knows how much you lovehim. But he wants you to stay where you are, alive, and be a mother to his baby. And I want you to callme any time. Here's my home phone. Forget the psychic network — it's way too expensive.""Really?" Teneecia responded. "Oh, thank you. You're my psychic friend." I hung up and wept.
Before long, I dialed Psychic Readers Network to discuss their business and people like Teneecia. Butnobody got back to me. I sent a note informing them I was leaving.
Since then, I've heard that the psychic-talk business is doing poorly and that phone psychics havebeen considering another form of telephone work: phone sex. Same money, slightly different dialog.
And the work, it's said, is much easier.