Getting hired was easy. We called a creep in Florida and got the job on the spot, no questions asked.
The summer I became a phone psychic, you could still wear shoes through airport security, Britney Spears had not yet shaved her head and no one knew I was flunking out of college.
It was 2001. I was between my sophomore and junior years at Sarah Lawrence, and was living in a two-bedroom sublet on the Upper West Side of New York City with a vegan named Heidi, her friend Laura and my angelically dopey boyfriend, Frank. My share of the rent was $600, which seemed cheap when we signed the lease and then less cheap once my meager paychecks from the Gap started rolling in. Frank had gotten a job waiting tables, which meant big bucks for him. The rest of us were broke.
When Heidi found the ad for “phone actors” in the back of The Village Voice, it seemed like the solution to everything. You didn’t have to fold clothes, and you could work from home. Maybe it could be a career!
Getting hired was easy. We called a creep in Florida and got the job on the spot, no questions asked. Well, actually, he asked Laura if she was a stripper (she was studying dance at Hampshire College), but he didn’t care when she said she wasn’t.
Our new employer was the Psychic Readers Network, a hotline known for its ads starring Miss Cleo, a motormouthed shaman with a lavishly fake Jamaican accent and a streetwise, no-nonsense approach to soothsaying. She was always barking at advice seekers: “Call me now!”
Instead, they called me. That summer, whenever I could, I stayed up all night smoking out the window and guzzling cheap wine while doling out fortunes over a landline. For some reason, the customers expecting Miss Cleo didn’t seem to mind when they got a clueless, depressive 20-year-old from the suburbs instead.
Since I was not actually psychic, the Psychic Readers Network provided me with a minimal script to read and a computer program that simulated a tarot card spread. I used neither. It worked better to make it up as I went along.
Often I slipped into one of a few personas I had invented to make myself feel more authentically magical. Sometimes I was Cassandra, a husky-voiced Southern belle who called everyone “honey child.” Other times I became Gabriel, a fey mystic with an accent that I imagined to be French-ish. People seemed to like Cassandra best, but I could never keep her up for more than a call or two. She made my throat sore.
I expected callers to see through my act, but mostly they dialed in ready to believe. Anyway, it turned out I wasn’t such a bad psychic. My two years as a submediocre liberal arts major had made me an expert at fraud. The key was just to toss out a bunch of free associations and hope one of them hit.
When a woman asked me who her true love was, I told her that the spirits were sending me a mental picture of a star. “Maybe you’ll meet him at a planetarium,” I said, affecting Cassandra’s confident drawl. “Or a Texaco.”
There was a silence on the other end. “My ex-husband is a sheriff,” the woman said, awe-struck. “You know. With a badge.”
“That’s it. Get him back. He’s the one.”
I was pleased with myself. It didn’t occur to me that my arbitrary advice may have consequences. Who could take me seriously?
But Frank was from Vermont, which meant that he believed in crystals and cosmic energy. In his opinion, I was messing with forces better left alone. What if that woman’s ex was a jerk? Also, Frank hated sleeping alone while I was up all night talking to strangers.
He had a point. I was always tired, and Miss Cleo had yet to pay me. (The network’s invoicing process was fiendishly complicated.)
During daylight hours, I’d haul myself to the Gap or to my internship at a publishing house, where I rejected 20 to 30 manuscripts a day. A month into the job, the editor I was working for told me to make my rejection letters more discouraging. If you are too nice, they will never stop bothering you, she said, and it was mean to give them false hope.
I continued sending thoughtful rejections but became more circumspect in my psychic predictions. I stopped telling people they were about to come into large fortunes and started saying things like “The Six of Pentacles tells me you should make a budget and sign up with a temp agency.”
My call average went way down.
Late in the summer, around the time my parents figured out I had flunked half my classes, rumors surfaced that the Psychic Readers Network was in legal trouble. Whenever I dialed into the system, I had to listen to a recorded message reminding me that Miss
Cleo had not been arrested; that she was a real person with extraordinary abilities; and that we, her acolytes, were providing a valuable service for people in need of entertainment.
It didn’t seem as if anyone was all that entertained. Sure, every now and then we’d get a good call, like when Heidi intuited that a woman asking if she should move to Asheville, North Carolina, was really asking if she should explore a lesbian identity. (Heidi suggested that she read Jeanette Winterson.) Otherwise, our customers were desperate and sad.
They were being evicted. They were about to lose custody of their children. They were lonely enough to pay by the minute to chat with a stranger. The fact that the stranger was me began to seem cruel.
It wasn’t worth it. I was a fraud, sure, but I fancied myself the hapless kind, not the evil kind. I stopped dialing in and went back to school, where I continued to be a flop.
These days, telephone hotlines are all but dead. Laura became a therapist. Frank moved to Toronto and married a Canadian. I’m not sure about Heidi. I stuck around school for a couple of more years but never graduated.
Sometimes I wonder if that lesbian moved to Asheville or if the woman in search of her true love reunited with the sheriff.
Lately my friends have gotten into witchcraft, and they’re only half-joking about it. They brew potions and have little altars to Stevie Nicks. It’s a whole thing. I’ve learned to read tarot, kind of, but just for myself. The cards are surprisingly reliable.
Miss Cleo died in July from cancer. Everyone joked, “I bet she didn’t predict that.” I kept thinking, “What a dumb joke.” I kept thinking: “How do you know? Maybe she did predict it.”
I know better than anyone else that Miss Cleo was a fake, but I always kind of believed in her anyway.
Bennett Madison is the author of the novels “September Girls” and “The Blonde of the Joke.” This article originally appeared in The New York Times.