If you watch any amount of late-night TV, you’ve seen her: Miss Cleo. For those of us with a remote attached to our hand like a sixth digit, she seems to be everywhere on that dial-that-no-longer-exists. Her lilting West Indian accent works its way into your subconscious, its authority and certainty at once compelling and repellent.
She is large, she is loud, she is imperious. She has the power to divine the secrets of your heartsecrets you haven’t told anyone. She is the anima of your subconscious, telling you the truths you hide from even yourself.
You don’t mess with Miss Cleo. A full-time, honest-to-goodness psychic, she is exotic, tapped into the folk traditions of the Caribbean that weurban, industrialized, air-conditionedhave lost touch with. But in her all-knowing, commanding authority, she also recalls the worst of those impossibly old grade-school teachers we had when we were kidsalways hectoring, always telling us when we were wrong. For sure, she has those eyes in the back of her head, but Miss Cleo also has eyes that see into the future.
What ifjust maybeshe does know something? It would be nice to find out the truth about the future, to stop guessing, to be on the inside track. Just for once, it would be nice not to be wrong. So, deep down in the recesses of your mind, you think about calling her (although this is, of course, not something you would admit to anyone). What would happen if you did? Would you get to talk to Miss Cleo or someone equally compelling?
Nope. You’d get me: White. Middle-class. Believer in the scientific method. Not intuitive. No connection to the soil. Only tenuously connected to my own subconscious, much less the collective one. No voodoo dolls on my mantel or dashikis in my closet.
How did this happen? How did I become a teenage mutant ninja psychic? Simple. I answered an ad in the employment section of that august oracle of Nashville’s New South hopes, dreams, and reality: The Tennessean. It wasn’t an ad for a psychic, because I wouldn’t have answered it. Instead, it was a call for counselors on the telephone, no experience needed.
No experienceI’ve got plenty of that. Unable in this booming economy to find a career-oriented job that suits my talents and/or temperament, a job with benefits and a future, I’ve been looking in the “General” section of the classified employment ads for something to tide me oversomething that would keep me housed and fed, without exposing my humiliating predicament to the world at large, as a job at the Golden Arches would do. Above all, it should be something that doesn’t require me to wear a uniform with my name ovaled over my left breast.
So a low-level gig on the telephone seemed like a great way out of my dilemma. And since it was a “counseling” job, so much the better. After all, I like to help people, I can talk to people; I’ve had some experience at the psychological margins of life, that place where you talk about the important things (depression, addiction, suicide) that underlie the fluff of middle-class life (traffic, restaurants, acne, sex).
But I never expected to be a psychic.
The pay was good: $12 an hour, about $2 to $4 more than you’d expect from these pick-up jobs. I’d get to work from home, so I could, theoretically, do something else at the same time. Plus, it didn’t require experience (I may have mentioned that before), and even more important, they were hiring.
So I did as I was told and drove up to meet my recruiter on a Wednesday midday at the food court in Rivergate Mall. Housewives with artificially “brightened,” well-curled hair were conversing amicably with one another, all taking a breather from their hunter-gatherer forays amid the brightly colored, hard-edged plastic surfaces.
My recruiter fit right into this middle-American scene. Nothing distinguished her from the many other women around her: curly-haired, cherub-cheeked, still a few years away from trading her youthful innocence for middle-aged resignation. Fortunately, I didn’t have to guess who she was, because she had given me explicit instructions on her seating location. If there was a difference between her and all these other people in the mall, it was her briefcase and papers, which made her look more businesslike. After introductions, she apologized for not having a sign, but the mall had asked her to take it down, she breezily explained, because it looked like she was soliciting.
All efficiency, she matter-of-factly handed me a sheaf of papers. There was no discussion of whether or not I was suited for the job. I didn’t have to qualify or prove my ability in any way. She never asked if I had psychic abilities, or even if I believed in a psychic’s ability to foretell the future. I would do it, if I was so inclined, and I could continue if I followed a few simple guidelines.
The papers listed the rules of the business (no call-waiting on your phone, no explicit discussion of sex, no putting someone on hold), and then my new boss drew up the guidelines of a typical call.
Athe heart of each conversation are the 22 cards of the tarot deck; each of the cards is assigned an arbitrary number. A “psychic” puts a caller at ease, as much as possible, then asks for seven numbers between zero and 21, each one corresponding to a specific card.
In the packet of information, one page described the cards and their possible meanings. Those meanings are generic, monumentally unspecific, and usually hopeful. For example, the number 3 card is “The Empress” and carries the following explanation: “A young fertile female. Can also represent material gifts. Maybe a mother having a baby or fertility in your financial situation. Gifts and money in progress. A good money card, or a female influence.” A lot of ground covered here, a wealth of possibilities.
Money and sex are two fairly consistent threads throughout the interpretations of the deck, with a sub-theme of addiction (drugs, alcohol, sex, tobacco) providing a negative area of discussion. But mostabout 80 percentof the cards are optimistic; wealth and happiness are the most common upshot.
Typically, each description ends with a leading question, something designed to elicit callers to speak about themselves, and card No. 3 is no different: “Do you know which one (female or money) it is?” Hey, you may be psychic, but a few clues don’t hurt. If the caller responds, you can usually tie in the remaining cards to the situation he or she discloses. The whole conversation then seems coherent, meaningful...and you are rendered clairvoyant.
The goal here is to keep the caller on the line for an average of 19 minutes. This isn’t particularly easy because the first three minutes are free, so many callers hope to get a lot of information without paying. There are a fair number of hang-up clicks as the first three minutes draw to a close. That brings down the average length of your calls. To counter the three-minute giveaway, I was told to ask each caller for his or her name, address, and e-mail address, so that “we can send you a free, personalized tarot card in the mail.” I assume some advertising must go along with that gift. I was also required to give out the company’s 900 number, together with my personal five-digit ID number, so that the customer could call back “in case we get disconnected.” All of that, of course, takes up most of the free three minutes.
Most of my training meeting was supposed to be devoted to figuring the average length of calls. My trainer had found that most of the psychics had trouble with this conceptafter all, we aren’t supposed to be numbers people. The training session was scheduled to take an hourwe also had to fill out forms and discuss the calls themselvesbut mine took less because I caught on quickly to the average-call-length concept. After all, I support the scientific method.
In a typical call, my trainer told me to consult my watch after I had discussed the first set of seven cards. If we had already spent 10 minutes on the line, I could take another list of seven numbers to predict the future. If I was going too fast, I had to draw out the call by interjecting seven numbers as a commentary on the present.
I asked her what was the best time to be on the phone. She said, “Between midnight and 5 a.m., because that’s when people are the loneliest.” I was told to end each call on a positive note, to remind people that “life is what you make of it,” that “attitude is everything,” or some other bromide. If it seemed appropriate, I could recommend that taking a walk or helping clean up the neighborhood was a way of taking action to get out of depression. In other words, I was there to suggest simple, basic things, providing a listening ear for people who didn’t have one. To that end, I was given three pages of possible summariesthe description of the entire tarot deck took only one pagethat would send people out on an optimistic note.
“Remember,” I was told, “they’re just looking for something to hang on to, some little bit of hope. If you give that to them, they can turn their lives around. Attitude changes everything. Change their attitudes, and you’ve changed their lives.”
To her credit, my recruiter-trainer appeared sincere about this, positioning the job as a kind of low-rent psychological service, a kind of fast-food alternative to the analyst community. (We did, after all, inaugurate this at a suburban mall food court.) We offered a positive spin on people’s lives, bucking them up a little when they needed it. We were people who could be called upon at any hour to serve up a small dollop of hope.
Most of my callsI didn’t take that many; I don’t like pretending that I am something I’m notwent pretty much as expected. The callers seemed satisfied with the vague promises of good fortune that I gave them. One of the cards always drew a response: the Strength card. It implied a determined individual, perhaps with a bit of stubbornness. Every time it came up, the callers identified with the stubbornness. I was always careful to emphasize the relationship between determination and stubbornness, so that it would seem like a largely positive trait unless taken to extremes.
For the most part, people were fairly reluctant to volunteer information unless a card related directly to their lives. Occasionally, callers would interrupt my banalities with a specific, very pointed question: Should I play the lottery today? Am I pregnant? Is my boyfriend cheating on me? Is my girlfriend’s baby mine? These always brought me up short, reminding me that people took this foolishness seriously. For the most part, I didn’t answer those questions, saying that the cards didn’t seem to be addressing the question, or that, frankly, I just couldn’t tell. Where Miss Cleo sounded authoritative, I was evasive.
For this nonsense, the caller paid a whopping $4.99 a minute. So a call of 19 minutes (minus three free ones) costs a substantial $80. I was told to remind callers at the end of the conversation, “This call is for entertainment purposes only,” but how could I remind someone I’d just talked to for one-third of an hour that they’d been had, and good?
Moreover (how should I put this? I am dangerously close to falling off the precipice of political correctness), the grammar, questions, and concernsin short, the overall mienof the callers didn’t create the picture of mental giants figuring out their future fortunes. By and large, they seemed to be mostly working-class people, the usual victims of highly promoted scams. This didn’t help my growing sense of guilt over providing nothing for a very large sum of money.
One caller told me that she had received several calls and e-mails, all telling her that “Miss Cleo really wants to speak with you” or “Miss Cleo has a message for you.” But when she called, she never spoke to Miss Cleo, only the maestro’s minions, people like me.
During the Watergate scandal, Deep Throat offered the timeless advice that if we want to know the truth, we should “follow the money.” But in this case, the trail doesn’t lead to any smoking guns or ultimate truths, only more layers of bureaucracy.
Starting at the bottom of the chain, psychics, when they are ready to take calls, dial an 800 number, give their ID number and password, and then press the “1” key to log on. This tells the computer that they are available, and they will receive calls. Sometimes, in the evenings and nights, the calls come frequently. Other times, notably during the day, I could go a couple of hours without getting anything. You are paid only for the time you spend actually talking, not for the time you are logged on to the central computer.
The next level up is my bossthe recruiter. She was getting a $3 per hour override on the time I spent talking. Both of us were employed by a company called Wekare Corporation. At first, the name seemed ironically funny. But when I got my first check, I found that they had deducted $5 just for issuing the check. At that point, I realized that they do caremightilyabout something.
Wekare is just one of many businesses that take calls for Miss Cleo. When a call comes into the central 800 number, it is transferred to the 900-number system (so that charges accrue per minute). Then the central computer searches through the list of psychics logged on to the system. The call is given to the one who has the longest average call record. These people may not be psychic, but they aren’t dumb either.
Interestingly, in that opening packet of papers, I signed a non-compete agreement, promising not to establish a business on the same level as Wekare. But after 12 months as a journeyman psychic, I could advance to become a trainer, much like my contact, and hire people to do the work and earn a $3 per hour override.
Where is Miss Cleo in all of this? Several bureaucratic layers away from me and even from my contact. Frankly, I wasn’t able to figure out if she was an actress employed by the organization or if she is involved in the upper reaches of the business in some more substantive way. If she takes calls, she doesn’t take many.
My most interesting conversation was the very first call I took. The woman started off in a hurry, anxious about the three-minute limit. But once I started with the programmed routine, she began to talk freely about her situation: a boyfriend who had threatened to kill her because she was (he thought) unfaithful to him. But he was, in her description, plainly fooling around himself, although my client wouldn’t admit it. Nor would she hear of going to a women’s shelter or any other of my reasonable, middle-class blandishments. Then she moved on to wanting to kill one of her former co-workers for some fairly insignificant offense.
My efforts to calm her down, to encourage her to take some reasonable course of action, to remind her that hurting others would ultimately harm her worse, met with a wallprobably drug-inducedof opposition. It became clear, as we went along, that she was blustering. She might feel anger toward her boyfriend, but she mostly needed to blow off steam. Like a gangsta rapper, she had to threaten to be heard, but the words were symbols, not to be taken literally. That call was much more interesting than any of the others.
After 53 minutes ($250), I cut her off. I wasn’t getting anywhere, and I felt guilty about the money she was spending. The tarot cards had long since been forgotten. It was the easiest conversation in the world to keep going. Because she was so full of anger, I had to interrupt to say anything at all.
Did I perform a service? Probably, though I kept thinking how her $250 could have bought her more time with a professional, someone who could really help her. But that conversation couldn’t have happened right then. Not in the middle of the night, and not right at the very second when she needed to talk. So I had given her something. But it wasn’t much. And it certainly wasn’t the very convincing, very compelling, very authoritative Miss Cleo.
My whole life, I’ve never liked being where I wasn’t invited. Once, when I was a kid, my sister and I sneaked into the next-door neighbor’s basementwe didn’t have anything to do, and they had the neatest toys around. I remember saying something like, “Nobody will mind; we do it all the time.” But soon enough Mrs. Kimball called downstairs in her chilling voice, “Who’s down there?” It cast a pall, even though she didn’t boot us out. We left as soon as we could without admitting our shame.
That one incident pretty much sums up every experience I ever had working as a salesman or telemarketer, jobs I held before I hooked up with Miss Cleo. I was always inserting myselfusually through the telephoneinto places I wasn’t invited or wanted. And that’s how I felt as a psychic. True, the clients had called me, but they thought they were calling someone else. And they suspected as muchI’d often hear a click on the other end of the line while I was in mid-sentence. They were being taken, most of the money got squeezed out in the middle, and I was, once again, doing something I didn’t feel particularly good about. So I quit.
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I'd be willing to take your money. Bitch.