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.