When I was a child in the late 1950s, the streetlights ended two blocks before our neighborhood on the edge of our small Ohio town. Given the midwestern custom of early dinners, my friends and I often played outside afterward. On dark, moonless nights in late fall and winter, familiar yards were transformed into mysterious black voids relieved only by trash burning here and there in an oil drum.
The waiting room in the ER at Rome’s Policlinico was a vast rectangle with four banks of chairs set facing each other in a much smaller rectangle. One group of chairs was missing a front stabilizer, which meant that any time someone sat down or stood up, the rest of the chairs moved in unison.
It all started with the floor loom. My friend Robin said her mother was downsizing and wanted to sell hers. I had taken a basic weaving class at the local art center the year before, and the place mats I had made for Christmas gifts on a very simple table loom—only a step up from a Playskool toy—had impressed the recipients.
During the day, I taught English to junkie kids at Morris High, deep in the East Bronx. At night, I wrote and played music at a Soho recording studio way downtown in Manhattan. After that I would stay up late drinking cheap Scotch from sea-green bottles and watching old movies. I liked the Marx Brothers’ free-floating insanity and W. C. Fields’s misanthropic grace. It was both entertainment and avoidance.
Dad is still next to the phone, looking at the place where Mom was just standing. Normally he would follow her into the other room and say something like, “Now wait just a goddamn minute,” but nothing has been normal lately. Instead he turns to me—I have been setting the table with the good silver and linen—and raises his eyebrows. I almost feel sorry for him. . . .
Some superstitions have persisted into modern times. There are still Amazonian farmers who think that nightjars are messengers of malign spirits, while in my birding travels in Asia and Africa, I have been taken aback by the number of locals passionate in their fear and hatred of owls. To call a belief, or feeling, a superstition is not to say it has no ground in reality.