Best of Phoenix

Superstitious Phoenix

Superstitious Phoenix
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From long-ago inhabitants to chefs, musicians and merchants, Phoenicians are full of superstitions. Here are a few.

Superstition Springs

Arizona is built on and around the land of 20 different Native American tribes. But it’s not easy to get Natives to talk about superstitions, because, well, they’re superstitious about doing so. The Pimas believe it’s especially dangerous to relate myths or share superstitions in the summertime, because they will be bitten by rattlesnakes.

Despite the sometimes silence on the subject, Native culture is rich with superstition, says James Barajas, the buyer of American Indian art at the Heard Museum in Phoenix. The museum gift shop moves a lot of Zuni stone-carved fetishes from New Mexico.

“They resemble animals and represent different animal spirits that have different properties of good luck,” Barajas explains. “So if you want better luck while hunting, you can take along a fetish that you’ve tied an arrowhead onto. The Hopi have kachina dolls that hold special powers to ward off evil. Others bring blessings, like rain during the summer or help with improving your health.”

The Navajo have a special medicine basket they use for blessing sand used to make sand paintings; Barajas sells these paintings at the Heard. “They’re not just any old painting,” he explains. “They’re made in a Native hogan, while the artist is saying a particular spiritual chant. Without the chant, it’s just another painting.”

Sick with flu, or fighting with your mother-in-law? No problem. The Navajo say you can cure ills with one of these paintings. Making them is a skill they learned from the Pueblo Indians. The finished artworks are also used in healing; to bless people, animals, events, and homes; and to create and restore harmony. But if you’re a lousy artist, the spell won’t work. Every detail must be exactly right. And after you finish the painting, you have to destroy it.

A similar Apache superstition claims a sand portrait of a sick person must be painted while that person is ill, Kahl says. A medicine man must be the artist, and while 12 Natives sing and masked dancers perform, the patient enters from the east. After the singing ends, the dancers scrape the sand paint colors off the canvas and rub them on the sick person. If he doesn’t recover, it means the painting wasn’t good enough, or that the gods wanted him to be sick.

All of these firmly held beliefs pale in comparison to the legend of the Superstition Mountains, that majestic range just east of the Valley.

“You’re talking about more than 150 years of being afraid of a whole pile of land,” says 97-year-old George Johnston. He’s president emeritus of the Superstition Mountain Museum.

“The Pimas believed if you went up in those mountains, you’d disappear,” Johnston explains. “Their dead ancestors lived up there, and they knew that because they would hear strange sounds or see lightning coming from up there.” Salt River Valley farmers heard these stories in the late 19th century and dubbed the mountain range Superstition.

“When you’re talking superstitions,” Johnston boasts, “it doesn’t get bigger than a whole mountain.”

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Games of Chance

Several years ago, Arizona Cardinals right guard Deuce Lutui ate a day-old Wetzel’s Pretzel before a game.

“And we won,” he says. After that, Lutui considered eating a day-old pretzel before every game, he told reporters. No one was all that surprised, because athletes — a whole bunch of them, anyway — are big on pregame rituals.

Former Phoenix Suns guard Kyle Macy (now a coach at Transylvania University) famously pulled up his socks and bounced the basketball three times — never twice or four times — before every free throw. ASU Sun Devils head football coach Todd Graham routinely sends players out onto the field carrying either the Arizona state flag, the American flag, or a sledgehammer. Following a team victory, a rock with the opposing team’s logo is crushed on the locker-room floor by a player wielding that hammer.

In 2009, the Cardinals hosted a pep rally before leaving for Super Bowl XLIII against the Pittsburgh Steelers. At that rally, then-mayor of Phoenix Phil Gordon ignored Coach Ken Whisenhunt’s warning not to disrespect the Terrible Towel by blowing his nose into it. As a result, Whisenhunt says, the Cardinals lost the Super Bowl.

“Athletes are traditionally superstitious,” reports Phoenix Suns public relations director Carlos Manzanillo, who used to work for the San Antonio Spurs. “Sports routines are already repetitious. That lends itself well to rituals and superstitions.”

But athletes typically don’t like to talk about those rituals and superstitions, Manzanillo says. “Kawhi Leonard wears a special shirt to shoot baskets in when he’s warming up,” he says of the famous Spurs team member. “The shirt has to be different from whatever the other team is wearing. But he doesn’t like to make a big deal out of it. Athletes are often shy about that stuff.”

That may be why Arizona Diamondbacks’ senior media director Casey Wilcox demurred when asked about his team’s famously superstitious player, closer Jose Valverde. “I think I’m the best,” Valverde (now pitching for the Washington Nationals) told the New York Times in 2009, then went on to list the many rituals that make him the best: He must chew three pieces of gum before taking the field. He will not step on any foul line. And he doesn’t speak out loud to anyone, not even his wife or child, before a game.

But would he eat a day-old pretzel for good luck? “Sorry,” Wilcox says. “Nothing comes to mind … about player superstitions.”

Maybe the Diamondbacks are superstitious about discussing superstitions.

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Dancing With Brooms

Superstitions inform Latino tradition like yellow and heat inform the sun.

“They’re everywhere in every Latin culture,” says journalist and Mesa Community College instructor Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez. There’s almost no such thing as being Latina and not hearing about mal de ojo, the “evil eye” custom her nana passed down to her. “You had to wear a bracelet or earrings with red and black stones in them,” Arroyo Rodriguez recalls, “to ward off the bad luck when someone put the evil eye on you.”

Alcazar Creative founder Thania Betancourt Alcazar remembers her father telling her the black magic of mal de ojo could be held at bay by placing a red string on her forehead. “Also, you should put an egg under your bed to pull out all your bad energy,” the Mexican immigrant says. Speaking of beds, “If you say something bad about your dead relatives, they will pull your feet while you sleep.”

Alcazar lives by a long list of superstitions. “For manifesting more travel, my abuelita always told me to put maletas (suitcases) outside of the house or near my front door on New Year’s Eve to bring more travel. You get extra points if you run around the block with them!”

ASU professor Pierina Ortiz says if you spot a dog peeing, you’ll grow a new mole. “An itchy palm means good luck,” she’s been told all her life. “So buy a lottery ticket if you find yourself scratching your hands!” Arizona-based travel blogger Maira Garcia remembers growing up with the rule that you should never sweep your floors after the sun goes down, because you’ll sweep all your luck away.

Brooms come up a lot in Latino culture. Downtown artist Irma Sanchez has heard the one about how running a broom over someone’s feet forever dooms them to spinsterhood. And there’s the one about never taking a broom with you when you move; you should buy a new one once you get to your new home. But the superstition Sanchez lived by for many years involved never passing a standing broom. “A broom had to be properly put away in a broom closet,” she says — preferably a closet with a lock on the door. “Barring that, placing something in front of a broom, like a laundry basket or a potted plant, is a good idea.”

When Sanchez worked at U-Haul several years ago, there were brooms everywhere. “U-Haul is very serious about keeping their floors clean,” she remembers. All those brooms made getting to her office difficult, until Sanchez located a back entrance that didn’t have any brooms near it. She eventually overcame her sweeping fears thanks to her father, who deliberately stuck a broom near the front door of their home. “I had to touch the broom to move it and get into the house. It got me over my broom-dance dilemma.”

Natalia Ronceria Ceballos, owner of local business-consulting firm La NRC, says growing up in Colombia means practically living by superstitions. “If you find a spider in your home, you’ll have good luck,” she insists. “But a dark butterfly or moth in the house is an omen that someone will pass away soon.”

Keep a dollar in your wallet all year, and it will bring you money, she promises. “But don’t leave your purse on the floor or you’ll lose money.”

Underwear is important, Ceballos swears. “Colombians know if you put on new yellow undies, it will bring happiness and money. Red undies bring love and passion.” On top of your unmentionables, she says, you should wear new clothes on New Year’s Eve, so you’ll get new clothes in the coming year. “That night, put lentils in your pockets so there won’t be a shortage of food next year. And don’t forget to eat 12 grapes at midnight and make a wish on each one for each month of the new year, and your wishes will all come true.”

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Lucky Charms

“I’m a shiny-penny gal,” Valley Realtor Sherry Rampy says. “If I see a penny, I’m picking it up. Even if it’s not heads up, it means I’m going to have a good day.”

Rampy knows the whole find-a-penny thing is just superstition. But so is burying a statue of St. Joseph upside down in your front yard to help sell your house, and she’s certainly seen that happen often enough. “People go buy St. Joseph, and he comes with a prayer attached. He’s the patron saint of families, so he’s good if you’re buying a family home. St. Joseph is sort of the ultimate stepdad.”

Rampy’s heard tell of a man who wrote down his intentions to buy a particular house, burnt the note, and scattered the ashes on the lawn. He bought the house, and many years later, she got the listing to resell it. Fire isn’t always a good thing, though. “My friend Jan buried St. Joseph to sell a house, and the house burned down the next day. She says she’ll never do that again.”

Changing Hands Bookstore co-owner Cindy Dach doesn’t worry about her bookshop chain bursting into flames. Her wish for good fortune is made real by smudging both her Phoenix and Tempe stores with sage to keep them safe from harm. When the Tempe store was broken into a few years ago, it got an extra smudging.

Georganne Bryant sells a lot of lucky charms at Frances, her popular Camelback Road boutique. “It’s just that hopeful, positive ritual stuff that people are drawn to,” she reasons. “For me, I just like the look of them. There’s the evil eye, a Greek or Israeli eyeball charm, to protect you. We sell a lot of pretty four-leaf clovers, and a ton of milagras that all have different meanings and powers.”

Lately, Bryant has noticed customers collecting artifacts to create altars with. “It’s the political climate. There’s an uptick in people wanting to feel confident about what’s coming next. That’s also why we’re selling more Ouija boards. People are really into asking the afterlife what to prepare for.”

Bryant calls all these items she sells “mystical, magical curiosities.” But palm reader Sher Trueblood thinks buying lucky charms is a waste of cash. “Just draw a pentagram on the palm of your left hand,” she says. “Or better yet, just below your chest. That will keep you safe and save you money.”

Trueblood, who runs an appointment-only palm-reading service from her Glendale home, thinks rabbit’s feet are another rip-off. “Oh, please,” she moans. “And don’t talk to me about lighting candles, either. It’s what you think about in this life that brings you good or bad fortune. Not what you’re carrying around in your purse to bring you luck.”

Maybe. Sherry Rampy isn’t so sure. “My biggest real estate quandary was the time I saw a shiny heads-up penny in a disgusting house in a pile of cat litter,” she recalls. “I thought about it for a minute. Did I want hepatitis, or good luck?”

She picked up the penny.

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Solid Advice

There are so many superstitions around preparing and serving food and beverages, according to Sean Donnelly, it’s a wonder anyone ever gets anything to eat or drink. A lot of waiters don’t like to talk about a slow night when they’re having one, reports Donnelly, the director of food and beverage at downtown’s DeSoto Central Market, “because then the night can get busy in a rush, and the wheels can fall off immediately.”

The same rule holds true in many local restaurant kitchens, where talk about how well-timed everything is can lead to chaos. Lee Hillson, executive sous chef at Chandler’s Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass Resort, cautions against ever “talking about the bus.” That’s his euphemism for having a busload of people show up at the restaurant at the same time. In short: If the kitchen is in the middle of getting slammed, don’t complain about it while it’s happening. It will just make it get worse. Say something about how it isn’t happening, and it will eventually slow down.

Many servers won’t discuss tips until the end of shift, Donnelly says, because it can jinx their night if they do. Old-school restaurant managers will keep the same host or hostess “running the book” for an entire night. “If you change the book person mid-shift,” Donnelly explains, “the night goes south.” This is especially true on holidays, for some reason. “That’s why you’ll frequently encounter a very beleaguered host or hostess at the end of an all-day service on Thanksgiving or Mother’s Day.”

From all reports, talking about how well things are going is a terrible idea in any restaurant. “So don’t say the air-conditioning is working fine,” says Christopher Gross, chef and owner of Christopher’s and Crush Lounge, “because then it will stop working on a Saturday afternoon, when you’ll pay double to repair it.” Tempe-based baker Tracy Dempsey of Tracy Dempsey Originals will speak no client names aloud after 1 p.m., because that can lead to the client turning in a late order for baked goods.

Pretty much no restaurateur or cook wants to receive a knife as a gift, reports ramen king Josh Hebert of Hot Noodles Cold Sake in Scottsdale. “You have to tape a penny to the knife. The penny is the gift, the knife comes with it.” Hebert also advises against servers saying a table is “the last table of the night” before closing, because someone will always walk in right after.

Scottsdale food blogger Thimetis Molina ( likes the old rule about never passing a salt shaker to a fellow diner, because it’s bad luck. Just set the shaker down on the table, her grandmother used to advise.

Bartenders also have some wonky rules. Some won’t count tips until the end of shift, according to Travis Nass of Tempe’s Caskwerks Distillery, because it can cause tips to stop coming. So can accepting drink orders for a Cement Mixer, Berlinger white zinfandel, and anything bottled by Boone’s Farm, Nass insists.

Like restaurant folks, cocktail servers don’t like to say it’s “slow tonight” or that things are going smoothly, because that will make everything change. Nass remembers how for years it was considered unlucky to refuse the offer of a drink from a customer. Nowadays, accepting a drink is considered unprofessional and bad form, but there are newer superstitions related to toasting customers at the bar. So no raising your glass or clinking yours against theirs, he warns, or something bad will happen to both of you.

Some of this stuff is just funny, Nass admits. “Like how if there’s less than an ounce in a bottle during inventory, you have to drink it.” There’s a notion he can get behind. “That’s not so much superstition as solid advice!”

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Backstage Rituals

Local musicians are too cool for school, but they also have some hinky rituals they must perform before every gig — or else.

Phoenix-based recording studio owner and record producer Bob Hoag says it’s important to him to wear only vintage clothing when he’s performing. If it’s an especially important performance, he has to wear a vintage undershirt. Hoag, who’s been drumming lately with El Sonida de Reposa, prefers ’60s fashion — but he gets good vibes from ’40s and ’50s threads, too.

The same holds true for vintage eyeglass frames, which he also collects. “I was really sick with pneumonia last year, and I almost died,” Hoag says. “I can’t wear the eyeglasses I had on in the hospital anymore, because they’re bad luck in my mind.” The same is true of glasses Hoag wore when things went especially right. If an out-of-town gig goes well, he likes to wear the same pair of glasses the next time he travels.

“The other thing is, I’m very weird about even versus odd numbers,” Hoag admits. “When I’m setting a tempo on a metronome, I always set an odd number for good luck. This kid I knew in third grade told me an even number was bad luck, and I believed him. Now I can’t change it. That can be tough, since music is often in 4/4 time.”

Rob Kroehler of Phoenix fave band Ladylike (and a New Times contributor) says, “I’m a big believer in focused energy. As the band leader, I feel like I’m far more likely to jinx the performance if I don’t gather the troops backstage beforehand and have a ‘hands-in’ moment to synchronize our collective energy and focus, before we hit the stage. That’s my big ritual. That and whiskey.”

Childsplay actor Katie McFadzen has her own superstitions. “The stage manager calls ‘Five minutes to places!’ and I know I better pee even if I don’t have to, because once I get to my entrance, I’ll have to pee. Even if my bladder is empty. It’s magic.”

Her other superstition is also peculiar: McFadzen breaks a Fisherman’s Friend lozenge in half (“because they’re intense and I can only handle half of one”) and then has to offer the other half to a castmate (like a priest offering Communion), always saying the phrase, “Lozenge of Christ?” She is afraid to find out what would happen if she didn’t perform this ritual.

Louis Farber, associate artistic director of Stray Cat Theatre, doesn’t wear his superstitions on his sleeve. He wears them on his feet.

“I have this one pair of socks,” Farber explains. “Not your typical socks that a man would wear. They’re knee-high, pink-and-purple argyles. I wear them every opening night, for luck.”

If he’s acting in the play, Farber can’t always wear his good luck charms onstage. “They’re sort of difficult to hide. But I do wear them all day on the day the show opens. It’s less about the magic, I guess, than the ritual of doing what makes me feel better and more secure. I do feel like I would have a weird panic attack if I didn’t wear those socks. I sort of rely on them to bring me good fortune.”

His bright argyles have become a weird kind of trademark, Farber reports. “People expect me to post a social media photo of me in my socks before any opening night. It’s kind of weird.”

Not as weird as some of the superstitions dancers hold dear. Frances Smith Cohen, artistic director of Center Dance Ensemble, has a long list of those. “Whistling in the theater is really bad luck,” she says. “And when I start choreographing a new work, if the first rehearsal goes really well, like I’m on fire, I wear the same rehearsal clothes for every rehearsal till it’s finished. I do wash them!”

Dancers shouldn’t say Macbeth in a theater, Smith Cohen says, but they may say “merde” to wish someone luck on a dance performance. “But never, ever ‘break a leg’,” because dancers do break legs, and it can ruin a career. Also, she warns against a dancer ever admitting her worst fear about a routine she’s about to perform. “Because if you say it, that worst fear will happen to you the next time you perform.”

With all these rituals to ward off their lists of fears, it’s a wonder performers ever take the stage at all.

Research by Abigail Hebert.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela