Paradoxical feelings of peace and depravity wash over me each morning. The solemn streetcar ride past the procession of crackheads and homeless men is a daily reminder that my post-secondary education -- I'm currently in law school -- is no protection from poverty. I find myself telling fortunes over the phone for a sex/psychic line to make ends meet, after seeing an ad for tarot card and dream readers in one of those student job listings at U of T. I possess some tarot-card-reading skill but figure I was hired more for my ability to keep callers on the phone.
Some days I feel down and out as I contemplate my abysmal state of underemployment. I'm acutely aware that my student debt can never be paid off at the hourly wage I'm making.
The majority of my callers are women, often poor or working-class, mainly from the U.S. and often from families who have lived for generations in poverty and on welfare.
I am well aware that for these women a 25-minute conversation with me -- at $2.99 U.S. a minute -- is equivalent to a day's pay. It is a responsibility not to be taken lightly.
I do what I can to build their self-esteem, encourage an interest in furthering their education and provide information on sexual health.
These women's lack of education often means that they don't have the critical thinking skills to understand or the vocabulary to articulate what's happening in their lives. It can all be rather daunting.
At other times I'm surprised by my own psychic abilities and uplifted by the hope I impart. Those days, I am happy to be a phone psychic.
The psychics in my office in downtown Toronto are a mixed lot. There are the New Age types with their essential oils, reiki and breathing exercises; the goths with their leather, PVC and conspiracy theories; the lost liberal-artsies with their self-help and pop Jungian psychology; and the Italians, who shout in rapid, melodramatic exasperation.
Then there's Crystal, a certified astrologer and bearer of bad news. Crystal is admired for her ability to deliver predictions with damning certainty and her brazen fearlessness in hanging up when callers disagree.
She once told me that my relationship was doomed to failure: Aries and Pisces, fire and water, will never do.
She was right, but that didn't stop me from falling in love. In my experience, this kind of advice, even when warranted, never stops anyone.
Each psychic has a different talent. Some have strong predictive abilities. Others believe in free will and abstain from determinist readings. Some can speak to spirits or animals (very handy for calls about lost pets). An entirely different breed of psychics practise voodoo.
While the psychics on my line were genuine, I would be wary of those who make outlandish claims or promises to callers to reunite lost lovers. Such assertions should always be received with caution and skepticism.
Unfortunately, common sense is not common to all.
A lull in the morning rush and Crystal gives me the heads-up. Shaquita has been calling all week, asking if her boyfriend is cheating on her. Everyone knows he has been, but that doesn't keep Shaquita from calling and calling, hoping for a different reading.
Next is Sheila, a Pisces from Atlanta, who's calling about Russell, the father of her child. She wants to know about Russell's relationship with Keisha, the woman who just had a baby with him.
Does he love her? Why is she with him? Doesn't she realize that Sheila has a history with him, and Keisha will never have what they have, even if she has his baby?
The truth is, Russell is the father of five children with five different women. He doesn't have a job or pay child support to any of them. But Sheila doesn't care about that.
When I look into her cards, I see that Sheila is a smart, fiercely independent and strong young woman. If only she weren't so committed to making a life with this deadbeat, she could really get somewhere. But Sheila isn't interested in that future today. All she wants right now is to talk trash about Keisha.
My next caller is Becky, an Aquarius and a secretary in a large U.S. firm in Chicago. She calls me regularly from the empty conference room, so her company picks up the tab.
Becky has two obsessions: Bud, a manager at her firm, and her imminent move to L.A. After months of casual flirtation, Bud invited her into his office and made his move. She was appalled. He's married! What kind of woman does he think she is?
Since then Bud has kept his distance, but a year later, integrity intact and still alone, Becky regrets her decision.
Regardless of their race, class or religion, women everywhere call to ask: Does he love me? Is he cheating on me? When is he coming back? The reality is, most people ask the wrong question, and so, like Oedipus, fail to recognize the truth. Relationships themselves are rarely the problem -- they are where we project our problems.
Poor people's relationships are also coloured by systemic factors.
Like the children of teenage mothers who grow up to become teenage mothers themselves. They've grown up watching a parade of men cycle through their mothers' lives. They have limited access to resources, including education, and no one to mentor, inspire or challenge her.
In effect, they're incarcerated by their poverty and spend most of their time watching television and their neighbours.
The men in their lives, also with limited opportunity, spend their time in jail or selling drugs.
It's almost noon. Lisa, a Pisces, is calling from the Bahamas. She belongs to a non-denominational church and last week cast out two demons from her backyard.
Lisa is interested in Patrick and Hubert, both of whom are in her congregation, but is afraid one of them is possessed. I look into my cards and hope for the best. Celeste Smith is a pseudonym.