Hallowe’en in my mind smells like Noxzema. Really.
It occurs to me that now I’m as old as the people who opened their doors to me as a young trick-or-treater in 1960s Brooklyn. For decades I haven’t had to buy eggs for throwing, shaving cream for smearing, or chalk socks for walloping– real commodities that we saved weeks to pay for, ultimately reveling in the outraged shrieks of pain and / or disgust that out investments guaranteed.
Eggs were usually ground into the hair of our enemies, or dropped into jockey shorts and then splattered from without. (Boys only; you never did that to girls because it just wasn’t nice.) Or we’d lob them into open windows, never sticking around long enough to be caught. Shaving cream also went into hair and pants and shoes, or onto store windows and car windshields, and chalk was packed into socks, stomped into a powder, and then wielded as a cudgel against heads, butts, and thighs.
We’d end up at home bruised and sticky, but enervated and exhilarated; I’d usually be in the throes of an asthma attack thanks to all the excitement (and the Noxzema fumes), and would catch hell because it’s practically impossible to wash dried egg out of hair, ears, and jockey shorts.
It’s a fact that we victimized one another, or those second stringers– half-friends who lived on the next block– but you never went after the REALLY scary guys. We had gangs in the neighborhood in those days, packs of characters called the Eighth Avenue Midgets and the Park Rats. These guys you didn’t go near, even if we were friends with their beehived, mascaraed molls. Well, they really weren’t molls– they went to school just like any girls– but they were tough. (After one especially memorable girl named Joanie rid the McKinley playground of undesirable elements from a distant neighborhood, she was dubbed Queen of the Park.)
It wasn’t all mayhem though; we did actually bring stolen A&P paper bags with us on our rounds to people’s houses, and in those days a lot of the candy came unwrapped. Who worried? Not us. All we knew to look out for were apples with razor blades embedded in them, or Milky Ways studded with thumb tacks. I don’t know anyone personally who ever came across a treat like that, but we all knew a friend of somebody’s cousin’s aunt’s sister-in-law who lost her lips thanks to a razor blade apple in 1946. We did get some strange candies once from a strange woman known as the Cat Lady– it looked like she’d dipped feathers and bird seed in chocolate– but we just laughed maniacally like the idiots we were and then threw them in the street after having shaving-creamed her front door.
I remember a few costumes– Mom was very good at transforming me into something the neighbors wouldn’t recognize, lucky for her, and so I usually traipsed the streets as a bum or a ghost: either covered with burnt cork “dirt” or draped in sheets, nobody should know that Vel’s kid was at large looking like THAT. (Not Lois, though; my beautiful, blonde little sister went out as Honey West one year, and all the old ladies smiled and sighed.)
As an adult living in Florida, and obligated to attend Hallowe’en parties because that’s what my people do, I made a nun’s costume out of black broadcloth and worked it for years. The best part was that all my rosaried blackness parted the crowds at the bars, as I was practically escorted to the front of the thirsty lines: “Make way for Sister!” One year I dragged around a Catholic school girl mannequin with me, subjecting her to verbal abuse when it was time to act like the mean nun I was trying to be; I was going for someone very forbidding and medieval, but I’m afraid I came off like Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary’s, because a good heart was beating underneath all that heavy material.
My last two forays into the night world of adult costume parties had me portraying Connie Francis one year, and a stewardess the next. Nowadays I don’t have a recording contract, and that airline is in receivership. Go figure.
We meet at a friend’s house and carve pumpkins, some of us using Martha’s professional templates, the rest of us gamely chopping hacking away chunks of orange and the occasional thumb, and then we line up all our creations and take pictures. (They last about a day in the Florida dampness.)
These days I enjoy seeing little kids dressed in costumes, and it takes me back, even though they’re accompanied by phalanxes of adults wielding flashlights, and I think– what these kids need is a can of shaving cream and some eggs.