halloween

Elmhurst was a treat on Halloween

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, October 16, 2022.

It was a week before Halloween and my best friend, Chris, and I were in trick-or-treat planning mode.

We’d mapped our Elmhurst neighborhood, delineating in red ink the route we’d take to haul in the most candy. And there had been deliberations over costumes. Chris was going as his favorite football player, wide receiver Homer Jones of the New York Giants, and I had notions of dressing up as a vampire.

Oh, and there was talk of egging our elementary school.

Elmhurst was a trick-or-treater’s dream in 1969. Houses stood close together, candy-givers were generous, and on the streets there wasn’t a parent in sight. From 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., kids ruled.

And the vague notions I had about dressing up as a vampire? Turns out they were too vague. My idea was to smear holly berries all over a white shirt in a macabre display of bloodletting (for some reason, ketchup hadn’t occurred to me). But when I did, a half-hour before going out, the crushed fruit simply looked like I had been sloppy eating a strawberry jam sandwich. What could I do now?

My mother came to my rescue, steering me into our downstairs half-bathroom. She slid a black wig on my head and broke out her make-up bag. Five minutes later, I looked in the mirror and shrieked. Red lipstick, rouge cheeks, and thick black mascaraed eyelashes had transformed me into the sister I never had.

When I showed up at Chris’s house, his older brother, Jeff, looked at me with raised eyebrows.

“You’re weirding me out,” he said.

Pillow cases in hand, Chris and I hit the streets. Most porch lights were aglow, and people greeted us with smiles and good wishes.

“Oh, here’s a football player,” one woman said. “And a pretty girl.” Chris laughed.

On Sharon Street, a kid in blue jeans and a crisp white T-shirt streaked past us holding a pillow case as plump and weighty as a sack of potatoes.

“That’s Jody,” Chris said. “Is he dressed up as a ghost?”

“I think he’s dressed up as Jody,” I said.

We ran to the next lit porch. Chris coveted Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, while I prized Snickers bars. When a house gave us both, we’d double back and try for seconds.

On Nelson Street, a pack of girls approached, including one I had a crush on. I abruptly made a detour onto Wabun Avenue.

“This isn’t our route,” Chris said, following me under protest, but I insisted. I didn’t want to weird my crush out, too.

When we finally crossed Smith Street and passed the buzzing neon clock at Nocera’s Liquor Store, it was 8:30 p.m. Robert F. Kennedy School loomed a half-block away; it was now or never. From his pillow case, Chris pulled a carton nestling four eggs. Miraculously, none of them had cracked.

A new wing had been added to Kennedy, and the second-floor classrooms had huge plate-glass windows.

“That’s your room, right?” Chris asked, pointing to the last window. It was. I had Miss McAndrew for fourth grade.

We flung our eggs like Little League outfielders throwing home – Splat! Splat-splat! Splat! – and then scurried back down Jastram Street, across Smith Street, and into the safety of darkness.

The next morning, Miss McAndrew noticed egg yolk streaks on our classroom window and wondered aloud who would have done such a thing.

The orange streaks would remain till June, a daily reminder of the night Homer Jones and his wigged accomplice added a trick to their Halloween treats.

Believe it or not, many superstitions endure

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, October 17, 2021.

Pop genius Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” topped the Billboard Hot 100 on Jan. 27, 1973. That’s not surprising. The song’s funky groove and exuberant horns are irresistible. Wonder’s lyrics hook us too, tapping into our fascination with the supernatural.

In the chorus, Wonder sings that “superstition ain’t the way,” and he’s surely right. Yet, superstitious practices endure, whether we believe in them or not.

Merriam-Webster defines superstition as “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation.”

Have you ever knocked on wood to ward off bad luck? One theory says this common practice is rooted in the pagan belief that good spirits live in trees. By rapping on wood, you summon the help of the good spirit within.

Do you avoid walking under ladders? If so, you are being influenced by an early Christian belief that the triangle formed by a leaning ladder represents the Holy Trinity. When you walk under the ladder, you break the Trinity and invite the devil in.

Many of us say “God bless you” when someone sneezes. That connects the person doing the blessing to several superstitions. One is that the heart stops beating during a sneeze, and a request for divine intercession helps restore cardiac function. Another: sneezing is the body’s response to an invading malevolent spirit; “God bless you” serves as a shield against the invisible demon.

In Rome during the plague of 590 AD, Pope Gregory I commanded people to say “God bless you” to anyone who sneezed, as sneezing was believed to be an early sign of infection. While the plague eventually abated, the custom of saying “God bless you” prevails to this day.

Athletes are an especially superstitious bunch. Tennis pro Rafael Nadal never steps on court lines before or after points, while Serena Williams wears the same pair of unwashed socks in tournaments as long as she keeps winning. NASCAR drivers won’t shave on race day. And Tom Brady donned the same pair of shoulder pads for 25 years, reconditioned annually, before upgrading last season. Leave it to Tom to flout superstition and still be named Super Bowl MVP.

I was sitting in the bleachers at Fenway Park on the night of Sept. 2, 2001, when Yankee pitcher Mike Mussina was one strike away from a perfect game. I may have crossed my fingers, hoping to witness history – only 16 perfect games had been pitched to date. And then Carl Everett hit a bloop single. Someone at Fenway must have violated baseball’s most sacrosanct superstition: never mention a no-hitter or perfect game while it is in progress.

Superstition twists the wishes that we extend to stage performers. We tell them to “break a leg” because, the story goes, saying “good luck” will bring them just the opposite.

Many cultures consider the number 13 to be bad luck. Some cite the betrayer Judas as the 13th guest at the Last Supper; others note the traditional 13 steps to a hangman’s gallows.

I can’t prove that pessimistic associations with the number 13 are justified, but I do have this: As a junior in high school, I wore number 13 on my away-game basketball jersey. Our team had a so-so year. I switched to number 30 the following season and we went 19 and 4.

In 1921, my maternal grandparents got married on superstition’s high holiday: Halloween. Their union spawned an extended Italian family, into whose lively and loving embrace I entered almost 40 years later. I was the 12th of Vincent and Etta’s 13 grandchildren.

I would tell you how happy and successful the 13th grandchild is, but I don’t want to jinx my younger brother.

Believe it or not, superstitions endure

13

In anticipation of Halloween, a re-post of my Op-Ed piece from the Providence Sunday Journal last October.

Pop genius Steve Wonder’s “Superstition” topped the Billboard Hot 100 on Jan. 27, 1973. That’s not surprising. The song’s funky groove and exuberant horns are irresistible. Wonder’s lyrics hook us too, tapping into our semiconscious fascination with the supernatural.

In the chorus, Wonder sings that “superstition ain’t the way,” and he’s surely right. Yet, superstitious practices endure — whether we believe in them or not.

Wonder’s song endures, as well. Forty years after reaching pop’s highest perch, it was featured in a series of TV ads for Bud Light. The spots celebrated the bizarre game-day superstitions of National Football League fans, concluding with the wonderful tag line, “It’s only weird if it doesn’t work.”

Merriam-Webster defines superstition as “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation.”

Have you ever knocked on wood to ward off bad luck? One theory says this common practice is rooted in the pagan belief that good spirits live in trees. By rapping on wood, you summon the help of the good spirit within.

Do you avoid walking under ladders? If so, you are being influenced by an early Christian belief that the triangle formed by a leaning ladder represents the Holy Trinity. When you walk under the ladder, you break the Trinity and invite the devil in.

Many of us say “God bless you” when someone sneezes. That connects the person doing the blessing to several superstitions. One is that the heart stops beating during a sneeze and my request for divine intercession helps restore cardiac function. Another: sneezing is the body’s response to an invading malevolent spirit; my “God bless you” serves as a shield against the invisible demon.

In Rome during the plague of 590 AD, Pope Gregory I commanded people to say “God bless you” to anyone who sneezed, as sneezing was believed to be an early sign of infection. While the plague eventually abated, the custom of saying “God bless you” prevails to this day.

Athletes are notoriously superstitious. Detroit Tiger pitching ace Justin Verlander once ate Taco Bell religiously on nights before his starts. But after he had an off year in 2013, “Live mas” was no more.

I love to watch Rafael Nadal play tennis. His attack on the ball (and his opponents) is relentless. But Nadal may be more entertaining in between his virtuosic volleys. Among his legendary superstitions: in changeovers, he points the logos on his water bottles toward the side of the court he will be playing on; he never steps on court lines before or after points; and when he does cross a line, he always proceeds with his right foot first.

I was sitting in the bleachers at Fenway Park on the night of Sept. 2, 2001, when Yankee pitcher Mike Mussina was literally one strike away from a perfect game. I may have crossed my fingers, hoping to witness history — only 16 perfect games had been pitched to date. And then Carl Everett hit a bloop single. Someone must have violated baseball’s most sacrosanct superstition: never mention a no-hitter or perfect game while it is in progress.

Superstition twists the wishes that we extend to stage performers. We tell them to “break a leg” because, the story goes, saying “good luck” will bring them just the opposite.

Many cultures consider the number 13 to be bad luck. Some cite the betrayer Judas as the 13th guest at the Last Supper; others note the traditional 13 steps to a hangman’s gallows.

I can’t prove that pessimistic associations with the number 13 are justified, but I do have this: As a junior in high school, I wore number 13 on my away-game basketball jersey. Our team had a so-so year. I switched to number 30 the following season and we went 19 and 4. Sure, we had a better squad. But I wasn’t taking any chances.

In 1921, my maternal grandparents got married on superstition’s high holiday — Halloween. Their union spawned an extended Italian family, into whose lively and loving embrace I entered almost 40 years later. I was the 12th of Vincent and Etta’s 13 grandchildren.

I would tell you how happy and successful the 13th grandchild is, but I don’t want to jinx my younger brother.

Believe It or Not, Superstitions Endure

13

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal on October 19, 2014.

Very superstitious, writing’s on the wall

Very superstitious, ladders ’bout to fall

Thirteen-month-old baby, broke the lookin’ glass

Seven years of bad luck, the good things in your past

Pop genius Steve Wonder’s “Superstition” topped the Billboard Hot 100 on Jan. 27, 1973. That’s not surprising. The song’s funky groove and exuberant horns are irresistible. Wonder’s lyrics hook us too, tapping into our semiconscious fascination with the supernatural.

In the chorus, Wonder sings that “superstition ain’t the way,” and he’s surely right. Yet, superstitious practices endure — whether we believe in them or not.

Wonder’s song endures, as well. Forty years after reaching pop’s highest perch, it was featured in a series of TV ads for Bud Light. The spots celebrated the bizarre game-day superstitions of National Football League fans, concluding with the wonderful tag line, “It’s only weird if it doesn’t work.”

Merriam-Webster defines superstition as “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation.”

Have you ever knocked on wood to ward off bad luck? One theory says this common practice is rooted in the pagan belief that good spirits live in trees. By rapping on wood, you summon the help of the good spirit within.

Do you avoid walking under ladders? If so, you are being influenced by an early Christian belief that the triangle formed by a leaning ladder represents the Holy Trinity. When you walk under the ladder, you break the Trinity and invite the devil in.

Many of us say “God bless you” when someone sneezes. That connects the person doing the blessing to several superstitions. One is that the heart stops beating during a sneeze and my request for divine intercession helps restore cardiac function. Another: sneezing is the body’s response to an invading malevolent spirit; my “God bless you” serves as a shield against the invisible demon.

In Rome during the plague of 590 AD, Pope Gregory I commanded people to say “God bless you” to anyone who sneezed, as sneezing was believed to be an early sign of infection. While the plague eventually abated, the custom of saying “God bless you” prevails to this day.

Athletes are notoriously superstitious. Detroit Tiger pitching ace Justin Verlander once ate Taco Bell religiously on nights before his starts. But after he had an off year in 2013, “Live mas” was no more.

I love to watch Rafael Nadal play tennis. His attack on the ball (and his opponents) is relentless. But Nadal may be more entertaining in between his virtuosic volleys. Among his legendary superstitions: in changeovers, he points the logos on his water bottles toward the side of the court he will be playing on; he never steps on court lines before or after points; and when he does cross a line, he always proceeds with his right foot first.

I was sitting in the bleachers at Fenway Park on the night of Sept. 2, 2001, when Yankee pitcher Mike Mussina was literally one strike away from a perfect game. I may have crossed my fingers, hoping to witness history — only 16 perfect games had been pitched to date. And then Carl Everett hit a bloop single. Someone must have violated baseball’s most sacrosanct superstition: never mention a no-hitter or perfect game while it is in progress.

Superstition twists the wishes that we extend to stage performers. We tell them to “break a leg” because, the story goes, saying “good luck” will bring them just the opposite.

Many cultures consider the number 13 to be bad luck. Some cite the betrayer Judas as the 13th guest at the Last Supper; others note the traditional 13 steps to a hangman’s gallows.

I can’t prove that pessimistic associations with the number 13 are justified, but I do have this: As a junior in high school, I wore number 13 on my away-game basketball jersey. Our team had a so-so year. I switched to number 30 the following season and we went 19 and 4. Sure, we had a better squad. But I wasn’t taking any chances.

In 1921, my maternal grandparents got married on superstition’s high holiday — Halloween. Their union spawned an extended Italian family, into whose lively and loving embrace I entered almost 40 years later. I was the 12th of Vincent and Etta’s 13 grandchildren.

I would tell you how happy and successful the 13th grandchild is, but I don’t want to jinx my younger brother.

 

Superstition, Triskaidekaphobia, And Halloween

Very superstitious, writing’s on the wall

Very superstitious, ladders ‘bout to fall

Thirteen month old baby, broke the lookin’ glass

Seven years of bad luck, the good things in your past

Superstition” by Stevie Wonder topped the charts in the United States the week of January 27, 1973. Yes, the song’s funky groove is irresistible. But perhaps the 22-year-old pop genius had also tapped into something else: our fascination with superstitions.

Merriam-Webster defines superstition as “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation.” Do you avoid walking under ladders? That perpetuates an early Christian belief that the triangle formed by a leaning ladder represented the Holy Trinity. When you walk under the ladder, you break the trinity – not a good thing to do on the road to heaven.

Do you knock on wood in order to avoid jinxing yourself? One theory says this common practice is rooted in the pagan belief that good spirits live in trees. By rapping on wood when you say something hopeful, you summon the help of the good spirit within.

Athletes are especially superstitious. Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander eats Taco Bell the night before every start. When I played basketball in high school, I always wore the same socks for games.

Superstition confounds the wishes that we extend to stage performers. We tell them to “break a leg” because we believe saying “good luck” will bring them just the opposite.

Triskaidekaphobia is the fear of the number 13. The word derives from the Greek: tris (three) + kai (and) + deka (ten) + phobia (fear of). Many cultures believe the number 13 to be bad luck, with some citing Judas as the 13th apostle. As a junior in high school, I wore number 13 on my away-game basketball jersey. We didn’t make the playoffs that year. I switched to number 30 the following season. We went 19-4.

I wish George Carlin could come back to us on Halloween, superstition’s high holiday, just so I could hear him say one word: friggartriskaidekaphobia. It means fear of Friday the 13th.

On October 31, 1921, Vincent Pantalone married Antonia (Etta) Caione in Providence. I always thought it was cool that my grandparents chose Halloween for their wedding day. Their union spawned an extended Italian family, into whose lively and loving embrace I entered almost 40 years later. I was the 12th of Vincent and Etta’s 13 grandchildren.

Lucky us.

With thanks to my cousin, Lorri Mainelli, for including me in her recent research into our shared family history.

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