I bought my first deck of tarot cards when I was nineteen from a B. Dalton bookstore, I believe. I’m not even sure if those stores exist anymore; I think they’ve been taken over by Barnes & Noble. This deck came into my life during a precarious time—that brink between high school and college, kid and adult—and the idea of divining the future appealed to me. It still does, really.
The deck was a simple Rider-Waite, probably the most common, and I can remember feeling jealous of a friend’s deck that had what I thought were more superior illustrations. Now, I’m happy with my Rider-Waite deck; the images are iconic, and if I see the High Priestess, in a flash I get the card’s story, its positive and negative meanings, and how that might affect a querent. That’s what the person who’s asking questions is called in tarot-speak: the querent.
In college, many of my friends read tarot, and sometimes we’d sit around in a circle and give each other readings. I learned a lot from that: setting the stage, analyzing the cards and matching them up to what I knew of my friends’ experiences, and getting the story rolling. It’s like therapy, doing everything you can to make your querent feel comfortable so they’ll start revealing their worries and secrets. You’d be surprised how accurate I could be in a reading. I’ve always liked to think of my cards as mirrors, and because I knew my querents, I could give them a worthy reflection of who they were and what they wanted to be. It’s not lying; it’s weaving a story between what the cards represent and what I knew was going on in my friends’ lives.
I also would read for myself, which usually happened when I was scared, stagnant, or not sure of what direction I was going. It’s comforting shuffling the cards that are almost too big for my hands, making me stretch my palms, the sound of slapping them down on my bedspread in the shape of the celtic cross, my favorite layout. (I’ve tried more exotic layouts at times, but I always go back to the celtic cross.) I know every crease of my cards, can almost pick out which one is which without looking at its face. That’s how much I’ve used them.
My deck got quite a workout when I moved to Portland, Oregon, and couldn’t get a job for months. My friend Susan was my roommate, and she told me about how she had worked once as a phone psychic. At the time her schedule was erratic and working as a phone psychic fit since she could log in whenever and take calls. The company sent her a check every month, and though it wasn’t big money, it was money.
She’d just had a baby and couldn’t work a regular schedule, and with my dim prospects, we decided we’d start up a psychic hotline and work it together, using a combination of astrology and tarot cards. We rented out a house with four or five different roommates, so we had a separate phone line installed in our basement, where we could have some privacy. Susan scrounged up a phone—probably something that a past resident had left behind; it was clear plastic showing different-colored wires and it lit up when it rang.
Suz and I set up our work area on an abandoned futon frame and put down carpet squares beneath that. Then we had our assorted astrology and tarot books spread out around us so we could easily consult them. Before we opened up our business, we drilled each other on the quintessential celebrity for each star sign. Kurt Cobain was our classic Pisces while Madonna worked for Leo.
When we had time and were ready to work the psychic hotline, we logged into the system, letting the powers that be know we were available, and calls started being forwarded to our extension. Our ranking on the hotline was based on how many calls we took and how long we could keep a querent on the line. We were encouraged to keep people talking as long as possible because after the special rate, or first free three minutes, the charges really started to pile up.
Susan and I would log into the system and tag team as calls started coming in. The one on the phone would get the necessary information to construct a star chart and start laying out the tarot cards while the other consulted sources and drew up a rudimentary star chart that was used to supplement the reading.
We were just barely scraping by money-wise at the time and knew the value of a buck, so when people called and just wanted a quick reading, we aimed to please. Our reasoning was that they would be repeat callers, requesting us as their personal phone psychics, and we’d quickly climb the ranks. Susan and I had a steady stream at first.
I was very nervous when we started taking calls, and during my first few sessions, my voice would quake. I can remember a pushy woman from the East Coast who was concerned about if a check was in the mail. There were Pentacles in her reading, but not an immediate money card. Though I tried to tell her this, she kept saying, “So the check’s coming—it’s in the mail.” It wasn’t a question; this was what she wanted to hear.
Finally, I said with guilt, “Yes, looks like it.”
We coached each other through the calls and were learning more about astrology and just plain human nature through the stories we heard. Really, a lot of what we did was counsel people through dark times—a bad relationship, conflicts at work—but with a kiss saying that the universe had ordained it.
I answered a call from a woman addicted to drugs who wanted to know if she should get off them. I knew the obvious answer, but I shuffled the cards, used my soothing voice, and dealt out ten cards.
“You have Death as the heart of the situation.”
“Death?! I’m not going to quit if I’m gonna die.”
“No, that’s not what Death means here. It means a complete change, transformation.”
I tried more and more to calm her down, to guide her to the realization that it was time for a good change, but between her interpretation of death and worrying about when her boyfriend would get home, it was hard to keep her on track.
I think the scariest call Susan ever took was from an immigrant woman who was pregnant and suffered many miscarriages before; she called the psychic hotline when she started having some troubling symptoms. Suz ended up with the Hierophant in that reading and told the woman she saw a doctor in the cards, recommending that she seek out medical advice. The Hierophant represents authority usually interpreted as religious, but it can be a healer or assistance, too, and that was what her querent needed to hear.
These were the calls where we weren’t really qualified to help, but at the same time, through an ad on TV, we were who these people chose. Who knows if they would seek out help in any other way.
During one frenzied session, Susan and I did so many readings that our two tarot decks got mixed up together. I went to put my deck away in the dove-gray silk shirt that I’ve kept my cards in forever and discovered that I had two Eight of Cups. We separated out the cards so we each had a complete deck, but for sure I have some of Susan’s cards and she has some of mine. Sometimes I think that’s why we’ve been bonded together so long. I’ve known her for more than twenty years, lived in five different states with her, and seen her raise her daughter from an infant to the sixteen-year-old she is now.
Eventually our rating in the psychic network dwindled, and sometimes when we logged on, we wouldn’t get a call at all. Giving customers a good deal didn’t count for much with the company. We both found another job that would pay the bills, and I haven’t read cards for money since then. But it’s a skill I still cling to, thinking, If the editing work ever dries up, I’ll just become a full-time psychic. Right now, that’s my retirement plan.