My name is Jason Smith. When I was 29 I had a job in a call center for a bank in Philadelphia, a job I found boring and frustrating. My personal life wasn't much better. Most of my college friends had drifted away, and my girlfriend had left me the year before.
I got badly depressed, and so I went to a doctor. She prescribed Zoloft. Up to that point I had led a normal if uninspired life. But I got a side effect that was not anywhere on the long list that came with the package. I had a strange assortment of thoughts come into my mind.
One morning as I woke I dimly experienced thoughts from the point of view of a woman. The thoughts idly drifted. I was working as a drug store cashier, and had thoughts of the boss, and then some mundane things about how to be a cashier. Dimmer memories of brothers and sisters and parents flitted about. There were memories of going to a bar recently, some drinks, being propositioned by a guy and inviting him up to my apartment. It had been the uninspired fulfillment of an urge. It had left an empty feeling along with a mild hangover.
This was not my life, and it was hard to believe it was a hallucination. There were thoughts that I could never have made up myself: details of makeup and clothing, and especially what it was like to experience sex as a woman.
I got a man's thoughts about mild discomfort in various places in his body and the content of recent TV shows, the newspaper, a daily walk, and an elderly woman companion. I got similar thoughts from an elderly woman, evidently the man's companion. Those were not my life either.
This turmoil in my mind was upsetting. Yet with just a little effort I found I could shut out those thoughts and go on with my day. That evening as I was trying to fall asleep I got similar thoughts from the same three people. I was afraid the young woman's thoughts would keep me up forever, but her mind naturally quieted when she fell asleep.
We work in cubicles, and hear the conversations around us if we don't block them out mentally. In an idle moment I heard the woman Sally in the next cube describing what kinds of savings accounts were available. Before I heard her say anything, I had the mundane thought to give the minimum balances required for the accounts, and an instant later I heard her give the balances. I didn't hear the customer's voice, but I did get the thought of annoyance that this customer wasn't very bright. I was aware that my innards hurt and I could feel fluid in, in -- my vagina? And that I had better change my pad soon. But the customer had to be dealt with.
My own next call required my concentration, but I occasionally tuned in to this other set of thoughts, including Sally suppressing her irritation while explaining things over and over, then saying that the customer could call back any time when she had thought about it some more. I in the role of Sally clicked the "not available" button before hanging up, and then as she headed off to the ladies' room the thoughts dimmed and vanished.
I as Jason took my next call and was concentrating on it when a thought popped into my head almost as if someone was calling my name. Sally, returning from the ladies' room, was noting that I (Jason) had a decent body but was a wimpy loser. Gee thanks, Sally. Not that she appealed to me either.
This really seemed like mind reading. There was no mistaking that I was getting Sally's thoughts. The cashier and the older couple were the people living in the other units in my triple-decker.
I thought about telling my doctor, but reconsidered. What would the doctor do if a patient told him he was reading people's minds? I didn't want to go to a mental hospital.
When I was up at the full dose of Zoloft, I don't know if I was really any less depressed, but my life had suddenly gotten much richer and more interesting.
If I didn't focus my mind I could get a cacophony of thoughts. I could get an assortment of thoughts from a dozen people near me in the call center. Frank's cocaine habit and cocaine-addicted girlfriend. Julia's prayers and bible study, loneliness and the struggle to think of that loneliness as God's will. Fat Martha's TV shows, desserts and chaotic attempts to regulate food, and having the hots for ... me! Well thanks for the compliment, Martha. At some level she knew that as a fat woman of nondescript personality and intelligence, a wimpy loser like me was as high as she should fantasize.
I experienced Bill's life full of TV sports, sports pages, and fantasy football. Wendy, the oldest of us: Ouch! Hatred of her husband barely concealed, dating back years in an icy relationship. Negativity was gnarled layers deep. But if I put her out of my mind, her thoughts went. That was a relief.
I drifted into the head of the supervisor Mark, married with two small children, and got the sense of chaos around the house. He had recently had drinks after work with my coworker Stacy leading to sex in her apartment. From Stacy I found she had mixed feelings about Mark. She didn't want to get involved with a married man, but she saw him as a successful and decent man picked on by a demanding wife, and a man who cared about Stacy and was coming to love her.
Back to Mark, I could have told Stacy she was wrong. Mark's thoughts about Stacy began and ended with screwing her hot body. From what I had seen it was an alluring body, and through Mark's eyes I saw it naked and remembered with relish Stacy's uninhibited lust. Encouraged by that juicy thought I wondered if I was in Stacy's mind anywhere? Nope. Just a piece of furniture whose name she knew enough to say Hi to.
All the thoughts of all the people around me were way too much, but I could focus on them in different ways. I could zoom in on any particular person by thinking about them. But if I was interested in strong feelings I could get those quickly (the winner was Wendy's hatred). Physical discomfort? Sally's cramps were pretty bad. Happiness? Stacy: Male interest from every quarter, good sex with Mark, happy times with sisters and mother, a life of opportunity ahead.
I could read thoughts out on the street too. The full range of human thought: working out, make-up, porn, cancer, babies, lottery tickets, mother ambivalence, unpaid bills. Food, constipation, sore feet, bad backs. Sex fulfilled, sex frustrated, sex newly discovered, sexual desire suppressed, lots of cases of sexual urge diminished to the undetectable. Lots of quiet desperation.
It took me several days to adjust to all these thoughts.
It took much longer to learn to use the information I got from mind-reading judiciously. Once my boss came by my cubicle to ask me what days I was available to go to lunch with the group and I said "any day except Thursday" before he had even asked the question. I got out of that one my claiming I had overheard him asking someone else.
The potential for disaster was lurking. I had to keep track of what I had learned from mind-reading and what I knew from my ordinary senses and not reveal information contaminated by mind-reading unless I had an excuse for how I could have found out through some other means. It was like living a big lie, and it was tiring.
In anonymous places I could pull it off, even if it was reckless. A high school boy and girl were chatting on the bus. They were both good kids, neither all that attractive to the ordinary person, but they both thought the other looked OK. She was hoping he would ask for her number, and while part of him was dying to ask her, he wasn't going to. She was going to get off in a couple blocks and he would never see her again. I got up my reckless courage and simply said to him, "215-555-0505. Trust me, you both want to meet again." They both looked embarrassed and stunned. As she didn't correct the number, he worked hard to commit it to memory. Fortunately I could get off at the next stop and escape their bewildered stares.
A visitor was feeling confused and needed to know where the 107 bus left from. I stopped to ask him for directions. "Say, do you know where the 109 leaves from? There's a stop for the 107 down there, just two blocks away, but I can't find the stop for the 109."
And so it went, giving out information when I could pull it off and without drawing attention to myself.
I began wondering if I could put my gift to good use for my own benefit.
I hated my job. Could I use this power to make money? How about playing poker? It worked easily enough. At first I came across as phenomenally lucky, then realized that was no good. I had to lose some of the time too. Still I was hauling in the dough, and these people really didn't like to lose to me day after day. I got scared and quit.
.... There is more of this story ...