God has a sense of humor, and Sallee Rigler has a radio show. She sometimes wonders if the two might be related.
For four months now, Washington's WRC-AM has been paying psychic Rigler to do what she can't help, which is but to wonder, and never has the radio station's Official Attempted-Call Counter been busier. As a first-time guest in December, Rigler broke the station's all-time phone call record, luring some 6,000 curious listeners to their telephones in one hour. As a host in May, she is pushing 14,000 attempted calls per hour.
Only nine to 15 people get through each day. The cards and letters from those who don't (and from those who do) flow in, 25 to 50 a day.
The big attraction is not getting through to Sallee, however. It is vice versa:
A woman who once called about her husband's health was told very gently that "the man seems to have a foot in both worlds, if you know what I mean."
"Yes, I think I do," said the woman, who discovered shortly afterward that her gravely ill husband had entered a coma 15 minutes before her phone call to Rigler.
"Don't feel bad or guilty about this," said Rigler, "because you should understand that it's all sort of supposed to happen this way."
The man dies later that day.
"Did you find your quarter?" Rigler asked the first caller on a Tuesday morning. The caller had no idea what she was talking about. Neither did the next four callers, each of whom was asked the same thing. "Did you find your quarter?" she asked the fifth caller.
"Yes," said a woman's voice. A short pause. "How'd you know about that?"
"A relative with the middle name Lee has something wrong with the front left side of her car," Rigler told a confounded middle-aged woman. Shortly after hanging up, the woman realized she had an aunt out West with the middle name Lee. A quick phone call caught her aunt just after she' returned from the auto body shop for work on the left front fender of her car.
Sallee Rigler has presence, as they say in broadcasting.
But she looks so -- well, so normal. Her hair, neither green nor glowing mysteriously in the subdued light of the studio, is your basic mortal brown -- done in a sort of bouffant, actually. Her not-so-tall, not-so-thin frame is draped not in a billowing black silk cape but in polyester coordinates; the only billowing in the room comes from the ashtray on her left. cThis is no psychic -- this is somebody's mother, this is the lady next door. Why is this woman popular?
"The essence of Sallee's success is not magic," says a colleague. "It is hope. Sure, she quotes from ghosts. But you'll notice that the ghosts never say "Boo." They say, 'Listen, kid, you got problems. This is what you should do . . . "
About 12 years ago, Rigler was, as she describes herself, an "unhappy, uptight, scared type of person," and she'd gotten herself "pretty sick." She says a "voice" came to her in the depths of her rottenness and said, more or less, wise up. You aren't crazy, it said. All those voices and those ghosts you've seen since you were a child have a purpose, it said.
"I was in a situation where it couldn't have gotten a whole lot worse, far as I was concerned," says Rigler, who is 38, widowed, and lives on the other side of Baltimore with her two sons and a garden. "So I listened, and my life has changed dramatically. Basically the advice has to do with accepting your job in life, your uniqueness as a soul -- it had to do with my psychic ability. I was never really listening to my intuition or whatever you want to call it: I was always trying to justify everything, intellectually, as most everybody does.
"But the thing that will make you a, quote, bigshot in life will probably not at all be an intellectual thing. Do you get married because it justifies your intellectual dignity, or have children for those reasons? The important things we do don't have anything to do with it."
"The Important Things" wouldn't be a bad title for the show Rigler hosts weekdays from 9 to 10 a.m., starring, in alphabetical order: Health, Love and Money -- and of course us, their loyal servants.
"I'd like to know about what's in the future for my career," said one caller the other day.
"Okay," said Rigler, scibbling some numbers and a diagonal lines on a sheet of paper with one of a dozen pastel-colored felt-tips heaped nearby. "I need to know your age."
"Forty-eight," said the woman.
"Okay, I had you down for 47," said Rigler.
"Oh," said the woman, "You're right. I'm 47."
Pause. "Listen you guys," said Rigler, her voice rising, "I would like it if you knew how old you are when you call. "It's tough on a psychic if I know and you don't know."
"Sorry," said the woman, sheepishly.
"Okay, you asked me about your career but I have a feeling your love life is a little more important to you right now, is that right?"
"Oh," gasped the woman in a blatant amalgam of relief and dread.
Rigler went on to chronicle two years of hard time, lovewise, which the woman confirmed, and then predicted the appearance of an "entirely brand new man" next April, followed in all probability by marriage.
"Oh," gasped the woman. This time it was pure relief.
Sallee Rigler's flamboyance is of the intense, long-term kind. Personally, she tends toward marriage and home and family, she says; on the air, she deals with the epidemic eccentricity of many callers' love lives with straightforward, down-to-earth charm. It's all right for the callers and the letter-writers to call her "Sally," so if she were your ordinary, next-door Sally; in the long run, however, two e's are two e's. You don't mess with them.
"The thing that most people want to believe is that this is just magic, and that very few people are really gifted, and blah, blah, blah -- and I don't believe that," says Rigler. "I think there are a few good psychics, but most of them are really just not so good because they start believing their own press clippings, and they start getting very out of hand -- never getting their hands dirty, just sort of floating around out there . . .
"This is a job," she says suddenly. "This takes a commitment."
So what is a good psychic, she is asked.
"Accurate, positive, ethical, honest," she says. "People that have great integrity and are not always out for a dollar. I can't tell you how much money we've sent back to people to say, sorry, you know, we can't do that. I do have a private practice, but we're talking now about four or five people a week, total."
"I trust her as a person," said Warren, 47, of Alexandria, who'd gotten through to Rigler the other day and was interviewed later. Rigler told him his career and marriage closely paralleded each other ("Boy, she was dead right about that"), and that it would be good for his career to talk to a "John" ("I've been trying in fact to reach a guy named John for about three weeks now").
"I have a very traditional Waspish background," said Warren. "I've never done anything like this before. But I feel that I'm a sensitive person and a creative person, and I think being this kind of person makes you open to the Sallees of this world.
"From our conversation. I'd say she was on my circuit," he said.
Rigler says her batting average -- which she gleans from what callers tell her on the air, and from the cards she asks they send (to be used toward a probable book or two) -- is pretty close to .900, though she likes to think it's higher. She says the 'no' answers she gets on the air to the questions she poses -- questions like "Can you find me a Frank?' or Can you recall some kind of illness in your 32nd year?' -- generally wind up as 'yes' answers later on, when the callers get a chance to think about it.
"I hate to say this," she says, "but I really am almost always right."
One day, shortly before the show went on the air, Rigler says, "a man appeared. Over in the corner, he just sat there, plain as day, said his name was Uncle Harry. It got to the point where I had to ask people as soon as they called. The first caller said, no, didn't know an Uncle Harry. But when the next caller got on the line, he started jumping up and down and waving, you know? He turned out to be that caller's only uncle. He was watching over her, had some advice."
Wait a minute. Why is everyone here nodding?
"I believe in what she's doing," says Sol Levine, 25, Rigler's producer. So naturally this means Levine believes in his psychic stuff, yes?
"No," he says. "I don't know."
"She's amazed me on an awful lot of things," he says.
Has Levine ever asked Rigler for a prediction? Has he ever wanted to?
"No and no," he says, quickly. "One time I half-seriously asked her about my love life, and she broke out laughing."
Rigler's average audience (which is figured in a manner which would keep most psychics busy for months) is estimated at about 48,100 -- a 6.3 share of the 9-to-10 a.m. audience. WRC figures that puts her in the top five among the Washington area's more than 35 stations.
It takes Rigler an hour and a half to drive to work. One of her sons is 4, and as if that weren't enough, the other is 18. After the show ends every day at 10, she spends at least a couple of hours, sifting through mail, coffee, cigarettes, phone messages, soothsaying requests from the cafeteria staff, hallway acquaintances and friends of friends, and work sessions on a possible short network feature for NBC, which owns WRC.
"Well, I kept hoping and thinking that all of this would sort of simmer down," she says, sighing cigarette smoke. "But it isn't. It's just getting more intriguing and more intriguing."
She says this with one of those slight, unassuming, slow-blinking smiles commonly associated with charm.
Rigler says she doesn't know what she'll do about what have become 12-hour work days. She might find a home closer to WRC, or she might not. She hasn't decided. Psychics don't weigh pros and cons about such things anyway, one is given to believe.
"Almost never do I make a logical, analytical decision. When I want to buy a car, I point; when I buy a house I do the same thing," says Rigler, who's been quite happy with the Olds Cutlass she most recently pointed at. It's just that no houses nearer to Washington have yet called out to her.
The question of how a psychic deals with the glimpses she may have into her own future has entered the room and proceeds to wave and jump up and down.
Rigler looks off. "No matter what my life brings in eight, or 10, or 12 years, or what negative things might happen," she says, "you just make up your mind that you're not going to worry about it." A pause. "I'm very childlike in my faith -- I really believe God will take care of me.
"Corny, yes," she says.
Death and other cosmic ironies are not lost on Sallee Rigler, but neither do they keep her up nights very often. The "integration" she embarked upon 12 years ago (which led to nearly as many years of extensive research into esp at Johns Hopkins University, the Washington School of Psychiatry and the Psychic Research and Development Institute of Maryland) took her through the death in 1977 of her husband, veterinarian Robert Rigler. She primarily took consolation in the belief in an afterlife -- a natural outgrowth of her psychic studies.
"If you believe that life is a learning experience of the soul -- and that maybe there are many lives involved -- you become sort of nonjudgemental about what is unfair and what is cruel and what is just. We just don't know," she says. "I'm not really indifferent -- I think I'm an extraordinarily caring person. But I do know that no matter how traumatic a situation seems to be, you can always find something good that should be coming from it." s
It is primarily for the skeptics that Rigler became an employe of NBC, for what she sees more as a mission of teaching than of anything else. "I love skeptics," she says. "Used to be one myself."
It is the dishonest who really gum things up for Sallee Rigler.
"I hate to own up to this," she says. "I have almost no defense against somebody whom I have, shall we say, let into my life if they don't tell me the complete, absolute truth. If you lie to me and I'm feeling one way and you're telling me something else, for example, it's like the computer says, "This does not compute, this does not compute.' My son, occasionally, being naturally 18 . . ."
Tries a little fib now and then?
"I tell him, look, I don't care what the answer is, just don't overload me don't lie. He will try it of course occasionally -- I mean who wants a mother knowing anything?And who wants a psychic for a mother anyway, at 18?"
Scott Rigler actually, thinks what his mother is doing is just fine; of course, this may have something to do iwth what he terms growing evidence of his own psychic ability.
"The phone will ring and I'll say 'It's for you,' before answering it. Of course, she'll say 'It's for you to me before the phone even rings."
And when Scott is going out and Mom says "Be careful," boy is he careful. The last time she said it, he later found himself in the midst of a bar room brawl (which he escaped, per her advice).
The first thing Scott mentions, how ever, is the futility of trying to lie to his mother.
"I didn't realize how much it bothers me," Mom says.
Perhaps because she says this with one of those "Nevertheless" smiles, it appears a good time to inquire about a comment made earlier -- something about God having a sense of humor?
"Well, look," says Rigler. "Years ago I was unhappy, uptight, all those things. And now I'm a gypsy. I'm a gypsy, that's what I am. That strikes me as kind of funny."