Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Halloween: The Once-a-Year Confrontation with Where We Live



My book opens on Halloween, and it is, of course, now almost Halloween, a holiday that once seemed completely innocent and joyful to me. A number of years ago (8?), it changed, however, when a man came to my door on Halloween night, asking for money so he could take his kids out for hot dogs after trick or treating. I wrote about this confusing experience in an essay that was published in the Chicago Reader. Since then, Halloween has become an unwelcome event for our whole neighborhood. You see, we live in a town that borders the west side of Chicago--a mostly black and depressed part of the city. What happens on Halloween is that large groups of people--adults and children--come into our town from the west side to trick-or-treat. What they do makes perfect sense: Our neighborhood is more affluent (and perhaps safer) than theirs, and we give out large quantities of candy. We (I'm certain I speak for most of my neighbors when I say this) would prefer to give this candy to the children from our own neighborhood who come in cute little costumes, but Halloween is a holiday on which one opens one's door to whomever rings. And need I say that I never open my door to strangers on any other night?
     These west-siders often arrive in large vans that park on our streets, and when we come to the door, 10 or more people may be standing on our porches, often with no costumes at all, asking for candy. Sometimes a person in the group carries two bags and says the second one is "for the baby," suggesting we should put something in that second bag too. For a number of years, I tried to keep up with the demand, but now I buy only two or three bags of candy, and when that is gone (usually within an hour), I close up shop, and my husband and I go out for dinner, often with an agitated and unpleasant taste in our mouths and a sense that the good old days are long gone.
     A few nights ago, I was at a small gathering of neighbors, to say farewell to one who is moving away due to job loss. These are all fine, generous people--well-educated, politically and socially aware, and tolerant of diversity. But the subject of Halloween came up, and everyone pitched into a discussion of how much we had come to dislike the holiday, sharing stories about the offenses and crude/rude behavior we'd witnessed. Gradually, the realization came to me that this conversation was a disguised conversation about race differences. We might as well have been my ancestors whispering about the schwarze. So it occurred to me that Halloween has become a time when we who live in this community have to confront our uncomfortable feelings about the place we live, about our proximity to a neighborhood and a population that have far less than we do. 
     This is one time during the year that convention allows "them" to come to "us" and ask openly. They're only asking for candy. It's nothing compared to what they probably really need. It's not even good for them. Far better if we gave them big pots of soup or stew, some of the fabulous apples or good loaves of bread from the farmers' market. Far better if we tutored them in reading or math, took them into the city to show them the world of art and theatre. Far better if we became activists, working to insure that all people had decent housing and health care and education. Some of us actually do some of these things, but the need is great, bottomless, overwhelming. Too much and too disturbing to even contemplate. Much easier to distribute a few bags of candy and complain about feeling used.

5 comments:

Patry Francis said...

An honest and thoughtful post. Though we don't live in a very affluent neighborhood, we get vans full of strangers, too. This year, for the first time, I wondered how long the tradition will continue. Every year it seems the kids get older; less of them even bother to say thank you; and there are more houses in darkness.

Susan Messer said...

Patry,
Thanks so much for stopping by. Interesting that something similar happens in your neighborhood. It's hard to resist "those were the good old days" sentiments or "the end of civilization" sentiments. Or perhaps just the end of a tradition as we understood and experienced it. This year, Jim was home for trick or treating, and he made it seem a little more fun, cajoling people when they asked for candy for the baby ("You know that's not for the baby"), or telling them to "say what you say," which always prompted them to say, "trick or treat" rather than just stand there with their bags held out. Oh, I could go on about the subject of Halloween . . .

Anonymous said...

I had the same experience as you while living in northwest Detroit (Grand River/Telegraph) until 2006. There was a gradual decline in the number of houses that would put their porch light on and pass out candy as the neighborhood changed. There would be "rolling" parties of beggars with a car accompanying them. When I balked at passing out candy for a beggars' second bag, he yelled back at the car "He won't give me nothing". Because of the arson fires associated with Devil's Night, the Mayor usually placed curfews on youths under 18 those two nights. This sharply reduced the number of kids, if any, venturing out unless they were accompanied by parents.

Anonymous said...

I had the same experience as you while living in northwest Detroit (Grand River/Telegraph) until 2006. There was a gradual decline in the number of houses that would put their porch light on and pass out candy as the neighborhood changed. There would be "rolling" parties of beggars with a car accompanying them. When I balked at passing out candy for a beggars' second bag, he yelled back at the car "He won't give me nothing". Because of the arson fires associated with Devil's Night, the Mayor usually placed curfews on youths under 18 those two nights. This sharply reduced the number of kids, if any, venturing out unless they were accompanied by parents.

Susan Messer said...

Thanks to you, Anon, for stopping by. It's interesting to think of Halloween as an indicator (the canary in the coal mine?) of larger trends in the culture.