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The lies I told as a psychic

It was 2 a.m., and by the time I got off the phone with Judy, I knew all about her dead husband, ungrateful children and the grandkids she didn't get to see enough. I predicted that she would travel and meet a new soul mate. Judy laughed a lot, cried a little and paid $300 for the privilege of speaking to me.

Too bad I wasn't a real psychic.

Actually, I was a failed actor. Long before "Glee" made choir dorks seem cool (or at least profitable), I sang show tunes and mugged my way through high school in unflattering dresses and character shoes. In college, I was cut from my musical theater program, and though I graduated with a bachelor of fine arts, I couldn't be satisfied without a theater degree. My ego needed it.

I also feared that a real job with a desk, entry-level salary and 401(k) would become my permanent station in life -- as if working at an insurance company or bank right out of college would handcuff me to that industry for the next 50 years. So I moved to Las Vegas, which seemed like the perfect place to hide from the grown-up world. Knowing my parents would only support such nonsense if I stayed in school, I enrolled at UNLV -- also known locally as the University of Never Leaving Vegas -- to pursue a master's degree in theater.

Lacking the abs of steel required to pull off the tight, shiny getups of the Vegas showgirl, I took a variety of odd part-time jobs. I made $6 per hour job coercing vacationers to sit in an auditorium, watch screenings of crappy sitcoms and fill out opinion surveys. Then I played the role of a soda jerk at the World of Coca-Cola museum, where angry tourists heckled me once they learned that I wasn't actually allowed to serve them anything to drink.

Dejected, I scoured the classifieds. Then I saw it:

"Phone actors wanted. Work from home. Make your own hours."

Could it be true? Or was this some sort of telemarketing scheme? I called the number. A friendly man assured me that this was completely legit.

"You've heard of the Psychic Friends Network, haven't you?" he asked. "This is just like that."

Yes, I had seen the commercials. My brothers and I mocked the company's spokeswoman Dionne Warwick. When we were little kids, our parents took us to one of her performances at a Lake Tahoe hotel. She sang a few songs, coughed and asked for water. It was a short show, and my parents were disappointed they had wasted money on it.

"The thing is, I'm not sure that I'm psychic," I confessed. There were times I suspected things were going to happen before they did. But did knowing my family was going to throw me a surprise party for my 15th birthday count as mystic instinct?

"That's OK," he said. "We'll give you everything you need for the job."

I called my mom for advice. She wouldn't hesitate to tell me if she thought this was a bad idea. We both believed in psychics. In fact, one of my mother's closest friends had this power. Although Grace was elderly and forgetful, she was truly clairvoyant. She even adopted a rottweiler for protection because of a premonition she had about being robbed. One day she left the dog at home, and she was held up.

"As long as you can work from home, I think it's fine," Mom said. "You're insightful, and you can probably be very helpful to people."
 

I attended one short training session, where I filled out a 1099 form so I could become an independent contractor. (That sounded so glamorous, until I learned that this meant I would get reamed when it came time to file my taxes.)

The trainer said that some of their contractors made thousands of dollars and worked constantly. He stressed that we didn't necessarily have to be psychic to do the job; we could learn how to perform a tarot card reading to achieve the same effect. I bought a deck along with an instruction booklet at one of those psychic specialty bookstores that sells more crystals than books. I also had to get rid of call waiting. Aside from the obvious distraction, it posed too big a risk of disconnecting conversations. Callers got my undivided attention. Considering I couldn't tell the future, it was the least I could offer.

The main thrust of the job entailed keeping clients on the phone for as long as possible. At $5 per minute, some lonely, needy or desperate person could pay hundreds of dollars for a chat. (By the time I joined the 1-900-number business in 1998, laws had been passed to automatically end the calls after an hour. Too many sad sacks had racked up thousands of dollars in phone bills they would never be able to pay. After lots of complaints, the government intervened.) The company lured callers with the promise of three free minutes, but as soon as they heard the beep, the meter started.

As a professional phone psychic, I would earn $7/hour until I logged in 20 hours of calls. Then I would get a bump to $8/hour. The ultimate goal was to work my way up to $15/hour while the company pocketed the rest. I never made it that far.

The trainer had also suggested that I create a nom de phone. So clients knew me as Anita, the name of one of the nurses at UCLA Medical Center who cared for my father in the first days after his liver transplant. I associated her with kindness, healing and nurturing, a good omen. At the beginning of each conversation, I told callers to ask me a question, shuffled tarot cards and tried to interpret what they meant.

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