Elissa Nelson

Tonight was a truly lousy night at the psychic line.

I suppose it could have been worse—I didn’t have any traumatic calls, no lunatics, no one threatening suicide. But I also didn’t make any money.

I’m a contractor on the psychic line; I get 21 cents a minute for the time I’m on the phone with the callers, minus a 1-cent-a-minute surcharge for the use of the call center. (If I worked from home, I wouldn’t pay that one cent a minute, but I’d have to pay for a separate, unlisted phone line.) If I were actually on the phone all the time when at work, I’d make $12 an hour. That’s a lot of money, in this city, for a job that doesn’t require any special training or education. But I’m not on the phone all the time—in fact, tonight I was hardly on the phone at all. I was at the call center and logged onto the system for 90 minutes before I gave up and went home. I was actually on the phone for 31 of those 90 minutes. So tonight, I made $6.20 for an hour and a half, which averages out to about $4 per hour. Minimum wage in Oregon is $6.50 an hour—I’d make more working at McDonald’s.

Someone is making a lot of money off this psychic business, but it’s sure not me. Mia, my boss, says that 80 percent of all calls go uncollected. Nevertheless, at $5 per minute, there’s obviously still a lot of money coming in. I wonder where it’s going.

Today I talk to Diana, who said she got a letter from Bobbie Gorman, “with this number on it, to call her for a free psychic reading. Are you Bobbie Gorman?”

“No,” I say. “Uh, maybe Bobbie’s on another call right now, and so you got transferred to me.” I’ve never heard of Bobbie Gorman, and I doubt she exists, but I don’t tell Diana that. I also don’t tell her that I have no idea what number she dialed, her call went into a computer system and the computer randomly spat her back out at me.

“Well,” says Diana dubiously, “Bobbie’s letter says this is a free call, is that true? Because I’ve called these places before, I don’t need any more huge phone bills.”

If someone asks us about charges, we’re supposed to tell them we don’t know, and we have a customer service number that we can give them if they want to follow up. So that’s what I do.

“OK …” says Diana, hesitating. “Well …”

I think I could keep her talking if I tried, and of course it’s her decision to hang up or not. That’s what Mia’s husband, Pete, told me to do when he trained me in. He said, “Whatever you do, don’t let them get off the phone. Just keep talking, no matter what.”

Usually I do keep them talking as long as I can, but with Diana, I simply say, “Sorry. I don’t know what to tell you. Bye.”

Three minutes. I just made 60 cents.

Short calls reduce the average length of your call, which lowers your priority in the computer system. So after Diana, I wait 10 minutes for the phone to ring again, knowing that if I had kept Diana on the phone longer, my wait would be shorter.

The next call cuts off after 16 minutes—it’s going well, I’m talking to Tanesha about her ex-boyfriend, her future love possibilities. I’m describing her next boyfriend, The One: older, established in his career, very sexy—when I hear a click, then the dial tone. I don’t know if she hung up on me, or what.

The phone doesn’t ring again for a long time, at least 20 minutes. My next caller is Patricia, who gives me her name and birth date, but when I ask for her address, she says, “What the hell is this? I keep calling, I got a busy signal, and then someone put me on hold and transferred me, and now you’re just asking me all these questions—what is up? When do I get to talk to a psychic?” I have no idea what she’s talking about.

“I’m the psychic,” I say.

“Well, I’m not going to give you my address so you can just send me more junk mail.”

“OK,” I say. “If you feel that strongly about it, we can just move into the reading.”

I am disconcerted by her refusal, and I’m having a bad night in general. I say some vague stuff about a difficult event in Patricia’s past, maybe some relationship difficulties—”or are you maybe considering switching jobs? I see some kind of a decision in your recent past, or maybe it’s your near future?”

“What are you doing?” says Patricia. “These things you’re telling me, where are you getting your information?”

I explain to her about reading Tarot cards. I tell her that it’s hard to know how to interpret the cards unless I have some information to work with, which is why I’m asking questions; I’m trying to match what I’m seeing in the cards with the context of her life.

She seems to appreciate that, and we start talking about her real concerns—she’s been having health problems, and she wants to know what’s wrong with her.

And then the phone cuts off after 12 minutes.

“I just got cut off AGAIN!” I say to Mia.

“Yeah,” she says. “That keeps happening. I think they just did a big promotion where you call and get 10 free minutes or something, and then the computer cuts you off and you have to call back for more. I’m sorry.”

I sit at my desk for another 20 minutes, but the phone doesn’t ring again. I give up, log off, and go home.