Staring at a laptop on his mother's kitchen table in Pottstown, B.J. Ellis ponders the meaning of life.
But not for too long. Someone, somewhere, has spent 99 cents to ask this red-haired stranger a question for the ages. The sooner Ellis answers, the sooner he can move on to easier queries such as:
How many people has Jack Bauer killed on "24"?
Answer: 181 over six seasons. A superfan, Ellis adds that the TV counterterror agent lays waste to an average of 1.3 victims per hour.
Is it safe to give a cat cow's milk?
Answer: No. Most cats are lactose intolerant.
How heavy is a cloud?
Answer: The water in a typical rain cloud weighs 550 tons - the mass of 100 elephants.
Are there any Wiccan covens in South Jersey?
Answer: Red Oak Grove is a group of Neopagan Druids in South Jersey.
Whatever the subject, Ellis fires back fast, in 100 characters or fewer.
Because when you're working for the KGB - the cheeky Knowledge Generation Bureau, whose mysterious commercials have been running nonstop during March Madness - time and brevity are of the essence.
Being right? Always a goal, but not a guarantee.
Surely, you've seen KGB's ads, which urge anyone puzzling over anything to "text 542542" from a cell phone ASAP.
Ellis did, went to the Web site (www.kgb.com), and became one of nearly 10,000 "special agents" who fire answers back in a flash.
The 27-year-old substitute teacher/improv comedy troupe leader - look and laugh at www.phillyncrowd.com - feels uniquely qualified for the bizarre part-time gig, which pays pennies for his thoughts.
"I'm a master of will-not-get-you-a-job trivia."
Launched in January, KGB is an offshoot of a major international directory-assistance firm.
If it's hard to imagine pals in a pub dropping a buck to learn a tidbit they could Google for free at home, you probably don't go out much. Those who do - and who obsessively text-message - require responses in a nanosecond.
"The typical customer," chief executive Bruce Stewart says, is "looking for a restaurant recommendation."
Or wondering what that Nikon camera he or she is eyeing in a store would cost online. Or trying to win a bar bet about the number of cities in the United States.
(Answer: 18,443, give or take.)
"We get a lot of questions about math and geography," Stewart says. "I know for a fact that folks are using it as a homework helper."
Life on the fly
Ellis took the KGB agent's gig as a lark to kill time.
"I only do it for an hour or two," he says. "I get antsy."
(Agents earn 10 cents a question. Ellis usually makes $3 a night.)
In just a few months, the "textpert" has noticed many questions being asked over and over. While we chat over the squeals of his Yorkie, Gizmo, a text arrives from a hungry soul seeking "stuffed grape leaves in Kennesaw, Ga."
"Look," says Ellis, searching KGB's database. "This was asked five hours earlier from a different number in the same area."
In seconds, he reveals the phylum of mammals (Chordata) and location of the Alamo (San Antonio).
Can you get pregnant while on your period?
Ellis winces, then types that while it is possible, the KGB does not deliver "medical advice."
Some customers try to stump the agents. So do some agents.
For kicks, Ellis once texted a request for the recipe of the "Whop Me Down, Sweet Jesus" drink served at the Boro Bar near his alma mater, Edinboro University.
"It took 15 minutes," he says, but KGB delivered.
Knowing how to re-create the good times? "Well worth a buck."
So, back to the meaning of life.
That one allows KGB agents to improvise. And Ellis loves to perform.
"Life is a stage, and we are all its actors," he often answers. "You're on in five minutes. Don't blow it."
Contact Monica Yant Kinney
Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/yantkinney