Lupe the psychic was on the phone from somewhere in Arizona, and her fortunetelling wasn't coming cheap: $3.99 for each minute we spoke over the LaToya Jackson Psychic Network.
Actually, I got Lupe by chance. A recording answered LaToya's 900-number: "If you know the extension number of the psychic you'd like to talk to, press 1." As a first-time caller, I took pot luck, and pressed 2.
"Hi. Welcome to the LaToya line. This is Lupe. Who's this, please?"
"You're the psychic," I said. But sarcasm wouldn't do; sarcasm wasn't cost-effective.
"My name's Steve," I said. For the money this 900-number cost, I got to the point. "I wanna know what the future holds for Michael and Lisa Marie." I figured if anyone knew the real dope on the Jackson-Presley affair, LaToya would. And she'd pass the dirt on to her psychics.
"OK, Steve," said Lupe, pronounced Loopy. "For Michael and Lisa Marie, that marriage is not really hanging in right. I feel that Michael does love her, though."
She had a slightly slurred voice and an accent I couldn't place. She sounded bored. I wondered if she, being a psychic, knew I was thinking that. But the meter was running, faster than a taxi slaloming down Manhattan's Second Avenue. I pressed on.
"Will they have children?"
"I see two girls."
"Did she marry Michael for the money?"
"No, she's got enough money that her father left."
"Can you see what Elvis is thinking?"
"Elvis is gone."
"Yeah, but maybe his spirit . . .
"I don't see his spirit," Lupe said decisively.
"What about my future?"
"For your future, Steve, I see good things coming in your life." There was the usual psychic stuff: a broken heart, a better future, a large sum of money awaiting me, a love interest.
"You are in love with someone right now," ventured Lupe.
"How long you been together?"
"I see the relationship between you and her will get stronger. But she needs a little romance in her life."
"We ordered in Italian the other night."
"Wine her and dine her, Steve."
Final cost for my encounter with Lupe: about $30. And no Elvis, even.
Touch-toning through 900-Land is an adventure not unlike a blind date.
First, there's the anticipation. Punching up the digits, one awaits the first response, never certain what it will be.
Then there's the suspense of expense: For a 900-number that charges upward of $4 a minute, the cost of a call can easily parallel the price of dinner and a movie. Instead of asking Dad to borrow the car, you've got to borrow the phone.
But while a blind date can end in hard reality--or profound relief--a 900-call almost always aims to please. And you don't have to dress up. Or dress at all.
Lupe was my first blind date in 900-Land. She was more entertaining than the mechanic at 900-AUTO-HELP who diagnosed a rattle under the hood of the car, not nearly as sultry as the suggestive lady-on-tape at 900-HOT-DUCK who described how her "knowing fingers" would "barely graze" my "firm flesh." And not as mundane as the factoids at hand on the 900-lines. Via the pay-per-listen lines, I spent upward of $300 punching up the current temperatures in Rome (it was 81 that day, the dew point 66), learning how to report a lost pet ("Press 2 to report a lost cat. . . . Enter the tail length: Press 1 for short, 2 for long") and checked the closing quote on a stock on the Dow Jones line.
But beyond the ordinary, many of the so-called "information providers" who have established 900-phone numbers have refined the art of the gimmick.
There's the latest lawyer jokes on call, medical updates on an injured funny-car driver via the Quaker State Speedline, and Band-Aids for the psyche on lines like Summit Solutions, a therapy "advice" line for $3.99 per minute set up this year.
Establishing a therapist's couch on the information superhighway apparently hasn't met with great success. The Summit line is currently out of service as its sponsors reorganize. In fact, I was unable to connect with three other therapy lines. However, the Culinary Consulting Service did relay to me a lovely recipe for crown roast of pork with stuffing.
Even after hours of dialing, I'd just scratched the surface of 900-Land. Unexplored were the personal ads, the fax lines, the job listings and the soap opera updates.
More than $1 billion was collected through 900-phone lines in 1991, when phone sex and live "chat" lines were driving the industry, before the bottom fell out in 1992 and revenues were cut in half. The trashy aura of store-bought sex also dominated the early years of another technology--the videocassette recorder--and the 900-number industry, which has rebounded in the past two years, is hoping for similar validation.
With dial-a-porn, now only one segment of the 900-service, other portions of the market are prospering. InfoText magazine estimates billings will again reach $1 billion annually by 1998.