The idea behind palmistry is that the lines in the hand are more reflective of neurology than the actual mechanics of closing the hand. If you paralyze your arms, the lines in the hand will disappear. If you get Alzheimer's, the lines will disappear as well. Palm readers generally depend on the shapes, features (warmth, flexibility and smoothness) and lines of the hand to form their predictions.
In Phoenix the ornate domiciles of palmists/psychics number in the dozens; more are accessible through classified ads. And we found one on Seventh Street north of Van Buren. I went in as a skeptic, but certainly willing to be to be baffled by an extrasensory experience.
The brick house is trimmed in blue with awnings over each window. A wishing well filled with dirt sits in the front yard; an old Cadillac with fins hogs the driveway. A fuchsia sign with the image of an open hand stands outside, telling us what we are looking for: "Palmistry, Gifted Advice, Love, Marriage and Business: Madam Helen."
With no place to park, we pull into the neighbor's yard and kill the engine. The neighbor's house, a grim dwelling with a dirt yard littered with toys, cardboard and futility, is seemingly bereft of anybody older than 10. Latino children dart in and out of the house, shirtless and shoeless on this nippy January night, doing whatever kids do when there are no adults to get in the way.
I ask one three-footer up on the porch, "Okay if we park here?"
"Sure, man," he says, then turns and bolts inside, leaving the door wide open, just as it was.
We get out, lock up and move to the front door belonging to palm reader/healer/adviser Madam Helen. I knock. The Madam opens, smiles and offers up a warm "hello" and invites us in.
"Are you Helen?"
"Yes, I'm Helen. Who do I look like?" she answers sarcastically.
Right away I notice her dialect sounds suspicious, not like the exotic New Delhian I had expected after reading her flier, which claims she hails from the far corners of India, but more like American Spanish. And the house smells not like the exotic incense I'd hoped for, but pizza.
We step in and she closes the door behind us.
The interior to the place is as wonderfully gaudy as a Mexican whorehouse: coral-colored velvet lamp shades; mauve silk couch and chairs; gilded draperies trimmed with purple woolly balls that dangle like tree ornaments over white lace curtains that block out the downtown world; two mirrors in faux gold frames reflect various plants while a glittery chandelier is suspended in the middle of the room.
"Thanks," the Madam says, nodding.
Madam Helen stands maybe five-feet-five, she is brown-skinned and zaftig with sharp brown eyes and straight dark hair. She looks young, mid-20s perhaps, and is very pretty. She is dressed comfortably and conservatively in a white top and skirt, not exactly the Gypsy I had hoped for.
She invites us into the parlor, through French doors just off the main room, where the Madam gives her tarot readings, advice and "hand jobs." The walls are covered with crimson antique wallpaper with Chinese characters.
"That wallpaper is old," she says, noticing my inspection. In fact, to nearly everything I examine, she says the same thing. Everything is old.
There are statues and figurines everywhere, with no shortages of cheese quotient: bestial boys, flowery girls, eerie elves.
Christian imagery abounds--short and tall Marys and crucified Jesuses. Two tables with silk runners contain things like framed Jesuses, prayer candles, greenish-gold-colored Bibles, small wooden jewelry chests, well-worn tarot cards and a spray bottle containing holy water. The room is marred by a stained, lime-green carpet. A small, eager black dog named Pretty Boy bounces around, offering annoying, chirpy barks. The Madam shoos him out.
We get down to business. I sit opposite her and give her my palm. Her grip is soothing, warm, making me sleepy. She hands me a chunk of crystal to roll around in my other hand. I am told to make three wishes and tell her two.
I tell her. She launches into a round of weighty foretelling that to me sounds more Bazooka Joe than intuitive reading:
"I see you taking a trip near water," she says, looking deep into my eyes. "I see you moving to a higher road in your life; I see a lot of movement in your life; what does that mean to you?"
"I don't know. You tell me."
She says she sees a big check coming to me via the mail.
"My New Times check, those come in the mail," I tell her.
"Oh, no, no. Not that kind of money, I would have told you it was little checks. This is biiiiig," she says, her eyes sparkling like pesos in a fountain. "Like 20 or 30 . . . thousand."
She is waiting for a big response, but I look at her and say flatly, "Oh, really?"
Like the true psychic she is, the Madam senses my disbelief and asks, "Do you know anything about this?"
"Well, you're going to have to sign some papers for it," she says, as if that somehow imparts credibility.
She then goes into a bit about girls, and noticing my wedding band-free left hand she says, "So you're not married?"
Good one. "Uh . . . no," I respond.
"You have a girlfriend, yes?"
"This is the one for you," she relates, then adds, "But you just want to be the hot guy, not telling anybody, right?"
She says, "Well, don't lose this one."
More sagacity ensues until finally she summarizes my future: "You are gonna have success and wealth. You will be happy."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, I am never wrong!"
Madam Helen tells of her Gypsy lineage, saying her father is from Romania and her mother is from India. But I would swear she is Latina. She said she went to school "back East," and her mother taught her the palmistry ropes. She says what she knows can't be learned in books; rather, it's something inherent.
"Isn't palmistry the blending of scientific info about the hand with mysticism? The idea that a person can read the hand with a scientific eye and speak from intuition?" I ask.
She's a bit taken aback.
"What? . . . They say that they can read (learn?) palm reading in books, schools or in magazines, or they hear it from somebody, or somebody else's palm," the Madam says, explaining her "gift" with a clever and disarming series of non sequiturs. "And they read it. It's nothing. You're just reading some of your own life to somebody else. You could read it and you can do anything you want but you're only reading someone else's life, it's not your own."
"Oh, I get it now."
It's a new year, so I ask for her predictions.
"Things are gonna be a lot different than we expect them to be," she says. "Things have changed so much since before."
The Madam is more serious now, her face flushed with revelation. "Things have changed so much since the past, and they are going to keep on changing."
Then the Madam smiles for the New Times camera.
We pay her for the readings and leave.
Perhaps forking over $25 to hear someone fill your head with optimistic vagaries is not such a bad thing. Perhaps, what she really does is peddle hope masquerading as prophecy. I wonder, as we drive off, is there anything really wrong with that? There are worse ways to make a living.