Elissa Nelson

Tonight I get to work around 10. Ann and Mia are the only people there. Ann is playing solitaire on the computer, waiting for her phone to ring. Mia, who runs the psychic hotline company with her husband, is doing payroll. Mia greets me warmly—I really like Mia: She is genuine and sweet, not at all what I’d expect of someone who runs a telephone psychic business. Mia first got involved in this business through her grandmother, who by all accounts really is psychic. Mia and Grandma (as she’s known) both started working from their homes, answering calls. Eventually Mia and her husband realized they could make more money running the business than they could working for it, so they set up a call center, contracted with a nationwide company, and advertised for employees. Like most small-business owners, Mia and Pete work very hard; the call center is open seven days a week, 11 a.m. to 5 a.m.

Mia and I chat a little before I log on to the network and start taking calls. “I was at Ciara’s last night,” I tell her, “and James kept jumping up and running into the other room whenever the phone rang.” I recently referred my friend Ciara to Mia’s company, and now she and her housemate James have put in a special phone line so they can take calls from their home. Last night we were playing Boggle at Ciara’s house, and everyone was distracted by James on the phone in the other room: “Well, Nate, I definitely see love in your future. An older woman, I think she’s a blonde.”

I chat with Mia for longer than I should. We are paid only for the minutes we spend on the phone, and the sooner I log on, the sooner the calls will start coming in. I dial the 800 number, punch my extension and password into the automated system, then press “1” to log on. I hang up and wait for the phone to ring. Mia’s company contracts with a national company that advertises psychic lines all over the United States and Canada. When someone calls, their call is fed into a central computer in Florida, then sent back out to someone like me, logged on and waiting by her phone, anywhere in the country.

My phone rings after about 10 minutes. “This is Elissa at extension 74450,” I say. I ask for the caller’s full name, address, and date of birth. Then I say, “So, Elaine, do you have a specific question for me today, or are you looking for more of a general reading?”

“I have a relationship question.”

Most of my calls are “relationship questions.” This one is standard—I get Elaine’s boyfriend’s name and birth date, tell her things based on their horoscope signs—”You’re a sensitive Libra, Bobby is a distant Leo, egotistical but sometimes affectionate.” Elaine agrees with my assessment. I don’t know what I’d do without my horoscope information—I have a short paragraph on each sign, and I can usually get about 10 minutes off that alone. It’s also a great way to establish rapport, usually enough to prove to most callers that I know what I’m doing.

I lay out some tarot cards, and I tell Elaine that the cards show that she and Bobby are definitely at a turning point; it’s clear that they both have difficult relationships in their pasts, and she will have to make a decision soon. But, I caution, she should be careful that she isn’t running away from anything, and she should not make a selfish choice based on her previous experiences. Elaine doesn’t really tell me much about her situation, so I have no idea if this is viable advice or not, but it’s what the cards say, and she seems fine with it. We talk for about 10 minutes. I could have tried to keep her on longer—we’re supposed to maintain at least a 20-minute average per call—but I’m just warming up, so I let her go.

Next call, Aaron Williams, born in 1989. “Sorry Aaron, you have to be over 18 to call this line,” I say, then I hang up on him. Teen-agers call regularly, but this is the first time I’ve ever talked to a 10-year-old.

Then I talk to Gabriel, who wants to know about love and his career future. I lay out some cards for him. “I can see that there have been some poor choices in your past, things you regret doing, maybe you listened to some bad advice? And there were negative consequences?”

“You mean like jail?”

“Uh, yeah, I guess,” I say, taken aback. “And … it looks like you are in a period of just holding steady now, trying to get back on your feet. You’re not totally happy with things how they are, but I think you’re right to avoid making big changes at this point.” I tell him that, relationship-wise, he’s emotionally unavailable, that he has been hurt and cannot share his feelings, but that he’ll have to overcome that before he can manage a successful relationship. I often catch myself deteriorating into psychobabble—I sound like a talk-show shrink—but people don’t seem to mind it. Maybe it has a veneer of authenticity, sincerity, authority, I don’t know. I’m on with Gabriel for 27 minutes, and then he says he has a call on the other line, clicks over, and I lose him—I don’t know if he hangs up or if we’re just disconnected. It’s all right with me, though; he wasn’t much of a talker, and I was running out of things to say to him. My favorite callers are the chatty ones, when all I have to do is listen and repeat their words back to them. These monosyllabic callers are a lot of work, and it’s hard to get enough information to sound like I know what I’m talking about.

I take a couple more calls, and then I log off the network and go home. I rarely last more than a couple of hours per shift; it’s emotionally draining work, and intensely focused. Fortunately, this is a second job for me—some people do this 40 hours or more a week, but I don’t think I could.