Best of Phoenix

The Gift

The Gift
click to enlarge CRAIG LAROTONDA
Craig LaRotonda

See all of Best of Phoenix 2017 here.

I was an arrogant, ambitious fledgling reporter working in a moldy basement for the Arizona State University student newspaper when my crusty editor assigned me a story about psychics.

“They’re gypsies!” he said. “I hate them! Go figure out what idiots are asking Mrs. Rita for advice. I hate her!”

It was 1996, and his Mrs. Rita rage wasn’t entirely uncalled for. Before the days of chain breweries and taco mania, Mill Avenue’s charmingly sticky basement bars served cheap pitchers of Miller Light and were home to a live-music scene that produced a few mainstream bands. We liked to think it was a mini Seattle. Only with sunshine. And less depressed grunge.

Tempe’s own Gin Blossoms sang about the hometown roadside psychic, and that song could be found on the radio every single minute of every single day. “Overplayed” was an understatement.

“I hate that song! I hate Mrs. Rita! I fucking hate The Gin Blossoms,” my editor boomed. “Go! And take him with you,” he ordered, wagging his finger at the closest photographer.

The photo guy and I brainstormed about the best way to approach this important piece of investigative journalism.

“Let’s just drive over there,” I said. “They’re psychics. They already know we’re coming.”

Baseline Road provided a straight shot from my college apartment in Tempe to my grandparents’ trailer in south Phoenix. The country road was flanked by flower farms owned by Japanese families with names like Watanabe, Nakagawa, and Kishiyama. Many were World War II internment-camp survivors who came to grow stunning roses, daisies, and carnations in the unforgiving desert. My grandpa called that heroic. I was too young and self-absorbed to understand what he meant.

I just thought the hundreds of acres of colorful fields rolling into the foothills of South Mountain were pretty. The pastel sales shacks stood roadside. Bunches of bright flowers peeked out of the top of water buckets. Posters promised a “Pick of the Day” for $5. I made this drive most weekends and loved it.

One Sunday a few days before my psychic assignment, my boyfriend tagged along while I conquered the weekly chore of driving my grandma to the grocery store. He kept my cancer-ridden grandpa company while Grams and I zig-zagged through Smitty’s.

Cheez Whiz, check. Salami, check. Green Jell-O. Graham crackers.

With the family elders’ nutritional needs met, we headed back down Baseline Road toward my apartment. I had exactly $5 cash — “gas money” my grandma wouldn’t let me leave without taking.

Flower money.

I asked my boyfriend to pull over by a flower shack. He declined, mumbling something about catching the last few minutes of Sunday football. And with the unbridled fury that only a psycho, PMS-y 19-year-old girl could muster, the fight began.

Fuck him. And fuck the flowers. This was bigger than the flowers. If he isn’t going to accommodate my simple request now, this relationship has no future. He probably doesn’t even love me. I mean, seriously, if he loved me, I’d have flowers. And I’m pretty sure I asked him to do something else last week and he didn’t. I can’t remember what, or where, but I’m mad about that, too. We should just break up. He should stop staying at my apartment. Here, I will help him pack.

Hours went by while I screamed circular nonsense at the inconsiderate asshole I was dating. The same jerk who, without complaint, had helped my wheelchair-bound grandpa poop while we were gone. What a dick.

Somewhere around 2 a.m., I finally shut up. The boyfriend explained that despite my commitment to torturing him, he wasn’t leaving. Ever. We went to sleep. Flowergate was forgotten.

Several days later, my photographer and I were deep into our psychic assignment. We’d visited two already. Both were in rickety houses marked with neon “Open” signs. Floral couches, filthy wall-to-wall carpet. It all smelled like old cigarettes and false hope. And although they nailed the creepy/cheesy combo, neither psychic used a crystal ball — much to my photographer’s disappointment.

“Con artists are conning people. No shit,” I quipped, thoroughly annoyed by this waste of an afternoon. “Let’s wrap this up.”

Our last stop was in a bright-blue house-office hybrid of a mother-daughter future-seeing duo. They, too, got the memo on traditional psychic dress and decor. Jet-black hair flowed down their backs. Incense wafted. Their long skirts and lace drapes fluttered. The balding, well-worn velour couches made me wonder how many fools sat here before us. Suckers.

Sans chitchat, I started my interview.

“Soooooo, when did you realize you had the gift, too,” I asked the young, beautiful, red-lipped daughter, my words dripping with arrogance and annoyance.

She started to answer. Mom flashed her a look. She stopped. I swear the temperature in the room dropped 20 degrees. Two minutes of awkward silence felt like two hours. Mom squinted her big, dark eyes and looked at me so intently I was embarrassed. Or nervous. Maybe sorry? Something.

A smug smile spread across her face.

“You know, Stacy, if you want flowers, you should just go buy them yourself.”

The boyfriend and I got married in 1998 and have a pretty rad trip planned for our 20th anniversary. My grandparents are long gone. So are the flower farms. But you can still find a shack or two along Baseline — right in front of the massive housing developments.

I still buy myself flowers.

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