Sarah Taylor’s Weekend Tarot will be posted Monday.
Everyone’s seen ads for those Psychic Hotlines on TV. They seem really weird, with a woman, sitting in a room full of candles and wearing a black gown, wisely advising a client on the phone. Have you ever called one? Would you ever? I wouldn’t — but I once worked for one.
When I reached my limit on writing articles about environmental poisoning, it was late autumn of 1994. A few months earlier, I had answered a Village Voice classified ad for telephone Tarot-card operators, sent in my resume, passed the “reading test,” was hired. But it seemed like a really weird thing to do. After a few weeks, I forgot that I even had the pass-codes to connect my phone to the computer. But after months of refreshing my Tarot skills and studying astrology, I felt like I could at least try, and I needed something else to do. So I dialed the codes into the telephone and activated my account.
Half an hour later, the phone rang.
First I heard a kind of audio trademark, a little puff of music followed by someone saying “Jackie Stallone Psychic Circle.” Then the caller said they wanted a Tarot card reading. So I read the cards. It took about five minutes, and the person seemed happy and the reading seemed to help. I hung up, and then a little while later, the phone rang again, and it was another absolutely random person reaching my little apartment in the woods of Rosendale, New York.
Talking to absolute strangers who had no idea who they were talking to was odd enough. I knew that I could read Tarot cards, so I trusted myself to do it. The issue I had was that readings cost the caller $3.95 per minute. My pay was a 10% commission – actually, 35 cents per minute, around $21 per hour if I worked continuously, which seemed unlikely. I was quite uncomfortable about the price of the readings; a 15-minute reading cost the client nearly $60, which seemed outrageous, particularly compared to Flo Higgins getting what already seemed like an exorbitant $40 an hour. After taking a few calls, I could tell that the clientele consisted basically of poor people being lured in by television ads late at night.
The next day I called up the company and talked to the manager, a guy named Virgil, who explained how everything worked. What became obvious was that when a client dialed the phone, somebody somewhere was going to answer and provide them with some kind of advice. So, I decided that it might as well be somebody who could actually do the work honestly — that is, without playing tricks such as frightening people to make the calls longer.
I got along well with the manager, who happened to be a Pisces, something we had in common, and in exchange for being willing to work all night, I got my priority rating bumped up to the highest level. Now when I logged on, the calls came through quickly, sometimes with just a few moments between hanging up and the phone ringing again.
Suddenly I was making $400 a week, a lot more than I was making writing about PCBs, which seemed to run at a loss most of the time. I could afford all the astrology books and charts I wanted. Plus, not having to think about PCBs, dioxins and toxic dorms was an incredible relief.
I spent many nights working like this, studying astrology in the slow moments, and putting to work what I was learning with the constant stream of new clients who were seeking advice.
One night, I got confirmation that I had made the right choice in taking the job. The phone rang, and it was a very young woman, probably under the legal age to be calling. She was shaken up, and said she’d just gotten off the phone with another operator from my company who told her that she was pregnant with a space alien’s child.
This might seem ridiculous, but I had to take it seriously. I was confronted with a scared person whose faith had been abused by an authority she trusted. And when many people seek advice from an oracle like Tarot or astrology, they may, consciously or not, consider it to be coming from a “divine” source, giving it all the more power.
I asked her basic questions: had she had sex with anyone lately? No. Did she remember any kind of an “alien abduction,” even in a dream? No. With those facts out of the way, I read her cards. She was not frantic, just really nervous. She was willing to reason through the situation.
It was not difficult to straighten out. For one thing, her own intuition had told her to pick up the phone and call for a second opinion, so she was seeking reassurance of what she probably knew. I saw no suggestion of pregnancy in her cards, much less from some extraterrestrial being. In fact, I saw nothing amiss. I told her this, plain and professional. She seemed reassured, I told her nobody had the right to scare her like that and that I would report it to the phone line manager, who I knew — and the session ended.
This was the first in the genre of “read the cards again because somebody screwed up” sessions. Basically, any prediction that any caller did not like was a screw-up. The prediction would need to be replaced with the idea that we have the power to choose, and the cards can help us see the options. This is good reasoning, and even people who call insisting to be told the future can be reassured by this line of thought.
Many intense situations happened those long nights and early mornings. Once a woman in her 20s called, saying she was facing surgery for breast cancer. She was deeply shaken and fearing for her life, and facing the grief of losing her breasts at a young age. We worked with the cards for a few moments, but mostly we talked. We soon maxed out the 40-minute per-call limit, but clearly, we were not done. The call got cut off. It felt tragic just leaving her like that, and I hoped I had done the best I could.
Then the phone rang. It was her. Against significant odds, she dialed again and reached me a second time, and we completed our session.
A number of women called over those months describing the same situation: they were taking care of four or five kids by different men, and the latest man had left them. Others called facing numerous kinds of psychological, spiritual or emotional crises, or poverty, or sickness. Most of the clients were women, driven to pick up the phone by television commercials promising them information, love, money or relief from their pain.
I began to feel like I was working for some kind of bizarre national psychic health hotline, and was grateful for my Course in Miracles training, which I soon realized was the foundation of the work that I was doing. The Course provided me with a spiritual foundation as well as provided basic information for how to handle people in crisis.
And from doing three years of therapy, I had acquired some of the tools I needed to carry on the conversation in a helpful way. I knew the limits of my work in certain regards, but also knew that there were real openings for healing if I was willing to be present, pay attention, and use my skills as a card reader judiciously.
There seemed to be times when Tarot cards were not appropriate at all. One call came in from a young woman who wanted to know if it was okay if she got sexually involved with a much older, wealthy man who was promising her “diamonds and jewels.” The obvious implication was that she’d be getting gifts in exchange for sex. I can still feel how excited she was about this, and how she pronounced the words “daaamonds and jew-els” with a southern drawl. This one threw me. I don’t think I touched the Tarot deck. After pausing for a moment, I asked her if she felt she was doing the right thing, and she said yes.
“Well then, it seems like you’ve made up your mind. Good luck…”
One night the phone rang and the caller asked to speak to Jackie Stallone. I said that this was the name of a psychic hotline, but that she didn’t actually work for us reading cards. I explained that I was just one operator among many and that I was in the middle of nowhere in the middle of night in upstate New York, and that Jackie was nowhere to be found. The woman insisted. The television commercial said that she could speak personally to Jackie. I said she wasn’t here. She kept insisting. I looked around the house. “Well, she’s not in the bathroom, she’s not in the closet,” and so on, which seemed to convince her. I might have thought it was a joke, had she not been so earnest and, well, naïve.
Eventually, I began to work astrology into the sessions. I did that using a little pocket planet calculator that I bought for a dollar at a junk store. It looked liked a normal calculator, only you would enter a birth date, such as “093066.” Then the little screen would spaz out for about 10 seconds and you would get a row of four numbers between 1 and 12. These numbers each represented a sign of the zodiac. The four different numbers represented the Sun, Mercury, Venus and Mars, which would fall into one of the 12 signs. These are four of the most basic elements you can use to suss out a personality — what are called the personal planets.
Unfortunately the calculator did not give the position of the Moon, but you need the time of birth for that, since the Moon moves so fast.
A caller would say something like, “I’m having trouble with my husband,” and I would ask for his birth date, and enter it into the little $1 calculator, listening to them talk. A moment later I would have the husband’s personal planets and make up a little story. “Well, he seems like an intense, somewhat possessive person [Mars in Scorpio] but he’s not really very emotional [Sun and Venus in Aquarius], and he seems to not say very much, though he’s always scheming [Mercury in Capricorn], and…” Usually that would be a close enough description to actually seem plausible, because it was.
When astrology starts to work, it’s a really strange feeling, because you know something that you really have no business knowing.
I got a lot of practice reading for people — and doing so quickly. There seemed to be two tricks to the work. The first was gaining the caller’s confidence in the first 15 seconds, or else they might hang up. Hang-ups would drive the call average down and that could result in getting fired. So, really making a clear statement about the nature of the first card or two was essential, which took getting that flash of a message the instant the first card appeared in front of me — and saying the first thing that came into my mind.
The way many telephone operators do this is start with something really intriguing, such as being pregnant with the child of a space alien, or telling people that something bad might happen. Then you get their attention for sure. But it’s not what you would call ethical.
The second was asking a clear question based on the cards, and thus getting the person talking about what was bothering them — then actually helping them based on that information. I realized that the cards and astrology were very powerful tools for asking the right questions, rather than just making statements. In other words, you can ask an accurate question and that’s often a lot better for the client than making a potentially accurate statement.
Eventually, I learned to work these two techniques in the opposite order, and built an entire astrological technique on using the chart to make inquiries — which I’ll explain soon.
In the process of all this, I was learning a lot about my tools, and about people. If the astrology was interesting, the people were far more so. Working for the hotline was like high-speed, decently paid, midnight astrology boot camp. In all over that winter I must have done 500 readings.
Yet it was strange work, in part because of the diversity of the calls, and in part because I was not accustomed to being so close to the problems that people were facing. And unlike my last project, investigative journalism, I didn’t have to prove anything with reams of documents. I merely needed to make contact, listen and offer empathy and insight.