Caitriona called at 8 o’clock. She was hiding out from the Trick or Treaters. So was I. Nearly fifteen years into our friendship, we were happy to discover yet another shared neurosis over which to bond. She’d been pulling the pregnancy card to send her American husband to the door all day. He couldn’t understand her reluctance, but I got it immediately: a grumpy, guilty, oh-shit reflex at an unexpected doorbell, a dislike of big celebrations, and the lack of a clue about what kids expected in a new neighborhood.
I wasn’t always such a grump about Hallowe’en. As a child I studied Judy Blume books intently as primers on how Americans lived. The climax of Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great was the Most Original Hallowe’en Costume competition, for which ten-year-old Sheila had prepared for weeks. She went as a flenser, smug in the belief that among the fairy princesses and superheroes no one else would dress up as a person who stripped blubber from whales. She wore rubber boots, a raincoat, a sou’wester, and a sign around her neck that said FLENSER. She had a bucket and some kind of knife, as far as I remember. She thought the prize was hers. But in one of the great tragic reversals in literature, the competition was won by some bozo dressed as a fried egg. A fried egg!
The whole description impressed me deeply, especially the genius of the fried egg. It hadn’t occurred to me you could be anything other than a witch or a ghost. We did have Hallowe’en in Limerick, but like much of early eighties Ireland, it was half-arsed and pinched. There were four choices of masks at the Five Star checkout: a clown, a monster, a witch, or a ghost. The cheap plastic squashed our noses flat and usually cracked by the time we got them home. At school one year we made witches hats out of greyish paper. Some ambitious kids stuck their heads through a bin bag or an old sheet, but most didn’t bother to dress up at all. We didn’t decorate our houses or carve pumpkins (though we did bob for apples).
The biggest thrill was the barm brack ring. Barm brack was the sweet currant bread my father loved and ate year round, spread with butter. We had no interest in it until the Hallowe’en barm brack came on sale in October, containing a gold ring wrapped in greaseproof paper. We wanted it desperately, though I don’t know why. If you got the ring it meant you were going to get married, which wasn’t that exciting. Every year, Dad said that only people who were loyal to barm brack should have a chance at the ring. At the very least, only people who were willing to _eat_ the slice of boring old curranty bread should get the ring. But we were desperate, and eventually he let us paw through slice after slice until one of us got the little ring, which was about as substantial as a Coke ring-pull.
At eleven, through my private brand of Voice of America, I became infected by longing for Judy Blume’s New Jersey Hallowe’en, which seemed so much more…wholehearted.
I was also worried about being cool back then, so I projected this fantasy onto my sisters and her friends, who were small enough to fall in line. I had the idea that real Trick or Treating meant some kind of performance–this being the Trick part, I thought–so that October I spent weeks drilling seven or eight small girls in a large repertoire, including “My Irish Molly”, which held the RTE Radio One playlist hostage at that time. The girls ranged in age from three to seven, so they thought this was terrific fun. They sang “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” and “We’re in the Money” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “Simon Smith and His Amazing Dancing Bear”. There were dance steps, and actions, and I found a tambourine.
There were no street lights where we lived, so I led my little band from door to door by flashlight. The neighbors stood in the cold as the small girls arranged themselve in height order and launched into their performance with great, unIrish verve. At the end of each song the neighbors would try to drop mini Mars Bars and small apples into the swag bag I’d brought. With a smile I suspected was dazzling I explained that, no, we intended to delight them further. Claire got out her tin whistle. Trapped in the porch light drizzle, our neighbors were resigned and cheerful.
“Aren’t ye very good. Aren’t ye great girls altogether.”
But the true warmth in their smiles came when we stopped, collected our tribute, and shuffled triumphantly to the next house through the dark puddles.
Dear God, if someone made me stand through a twenty-minute recital by talentless toddlers tonight, I’d put razors in their apples.
It seems unlikely in any case. Brooklyn Trick or Treating is industrialized. I live near–but not in–Park Slope, a stroller-yuppies’ ghetto, and today they thronged the streets and the park with their sprogs. It was a golden fall afternoon; warm enough to be early September but for the lovely autumn leaves. Costumed parents followed their costumed kiddies, cameras clicking.
The real action was on Seventh Avenue, where the stores are. In Park Slope (and maybe everywhere, for all I know) the stores give out candy too. At four o’clock I couldn’t get into Aveda, as kids streamed in with their bags open.
“Trick or Treat. Trick or Treat. Trick or Treat.” After several blocks of collecting they hardly had the energy to drone the request, and their store-bought swag bags already bulged. In front of the lipstick stand, extra staff stood ready to drop in Tootsie Rolls. “Say thank you!” I wanted to bark, but the kids were already on the way to the next store and more had come to take their place. On the side streets, people sat on stoops under fake cobwebs and handed out candy from plastic pumpkins. The kids barely stopped,like marathon runners at a water station. Ungrateful little shits.
The costumes divided sharply by age, gender, and breeding status. Most people aged zero to three were dressed as bugs, fruit, or furry animals. These were my favorites, only because they see nothing funny about their appearance. Dogged ladybugs and serious bumblebees marched with their bags held up, mouthing “Tweat.” The girls aged four to ten are fairy princesses, with the occasional leavening angel. Of this politically retrograde group, I liked to see the shy, plain ones, to whom it means much more to be a princess for the day. At the same age, the boys are superheroes, mostly, with plenty of masks and lycra and sword-like objects. The characters were unrecognizable to me. The teenage boys did the minimal dress-up necessary to demand candy. Mothers dressed mostly as unthreatening witches; sweet Glindas, or smiling Morticias. Fathers were the most inventive, and were willing to look like dorks. My favorite dressed up as a soccer goal, with a large net stretched across his chest and his head in a white bathing cap painted up like a football.
Those still looking to breed took a different tack. On the Bowery at midnight last night, there were angel trollops, nurse trollops, French Maid trollops, Bush Twins trollops, Marilyn Monroe trollops, Morticia trollops, butterfly trollops, and Paris Hilton trollops. As long as they could do knee-high boots and teeny skirts–and preferably fluffy blonde wigs–the costume was a go. They needed them to beat out fierce competition to catch the attention of the bar-hopping guys, who had all borrowed the costumes of the seven-year-old boys in Park Slope.
Superpowers and trollops: on Hallowe’en, we are more upfront than usual about the drives of evolutionary biology.