By Ed Staskus
“It’s one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, now go, cat, go.” Elvis Presley
Some folks turn on the living room and porch lights Halloween night and wait for the doorbell to ring, others sit on their front steps or stoop, while others plop themselves down on lawn chairs at the base of the driveway. Those who don’t want to bother make sure all their lights are off. They sit sulking or watching whatever on their phones and tablets. They think Halloween is just for kids and that grown-ups have better things to do.
When I was a kid and went trick or treating with my sister, brother, and our friends it was, next to Christmas, the biggest show of the year. It didn’t matter what exciting show was on TV or what show and tell we had going on the next day at school. What mattered was making sure we stuck to our battle plan. We planned our route days beforehand, which was left out of our house on Bartfield Ave., left on E. 128th St., left on Locke Ave., left on E. 127th St., down Coronado Ave. to Lancelot Ave. and back home. We knew we had about two hours and if we banged on a door every minute we would have gotten to more than a hundred houses and hit the jackpot. When we did we ran home to survey what we had gotten.
My sister and I hid our loot from our brother. We had to. He had a non-stop sweet tooth. He believed in sharing, like us, but Sharing Street to him was a one-way street.
All of us hated dark blank houses. Time is candy, we reckoned, and wasting time evaluating a dark house was time lost. We imagined mean old men and women lived there, better left unseen, although we also thought they could have shown their faces at least once a year. Halloween was the one day of the year when we were OK with seeing their wizened selves.
We weren’t scared about anything anybody threw into our pillow cases, except when it was pennies and apples. The day of crazy people putting razor blades and poison into candy hadn’t arrived yet. We didn’t want money and we got more than enough apples at home. Our mother fed one to us every day to keep the doctor away. When we got sick she gave us cold Ginger Ale and hot slices of liver and onions. The soda was refreshing. The liver and onions were sickening.
A neighbor high school boy told us there hadn’t always been any such thing as Halloween. We were aghast. How could that be? We ignored him. We found out later he was right, although by that time we weren’t trick or treating anymore, so it didn’t matter.
In Romania the holiday is Dracula Day. In China it is the Hungry Ghost Festival. In Mexico it is the Day of the Dead. In the Middle Ages in England ‘soulers’ went around begging for round cakes or ‘souls’ during All Hallows Eve to remember the dead. It was the soul kitchen.
My parents didn’t know a thing about Halloween until we got to the USA. It’s not a traditional celebration in Lithuania, where both came from after WW2. It was only introduced there after the country kicked the Russians out in 1990. It wasn’t much of anything in Sudbury, Canada, where I was born and bred, either. There was usually snow on the ground by the end of October in northern Ontario and nobody went out dressed as a skeleton in zero weather sponging for sweets.
Before there was Halloween there was nothing, just the end of the month and the beginning of the next month. Then the Irish Potato Famine happened, and millions of Irishmen came to the USA. They didn’t have any food, but they had culture. They brought Samhein with them. The Irish New Year started on November 1st and Samhein was the day before that. It was when the spirits of the dead returned to the world of the living for one night. Paddy lads and lassies dressed up in costumes and went door to door begging for food and money. Their parents carved ghoulish faces on turnips to ward off evil. They put candles inside the turnips to let kids know they could bang on their door for treats.
Many youngsters without a drop of Celtic blood in them got into the spirit of it but the powers that be didn’t like it. They blanched at the complaints of vandalism, houses splattered with eggs and toilet paper littering shrubs and trees. Enough is enough, they said, and put a stop to it wherever whenever they could. They didn’t care that some parents wrapped their kids up in toilet paper to look like mummies. After the post-WW2 baby boom there were too many families making too many demands to make the holiday official, and they were forced to bow to the popular will. Halloween broke out all over.
It busted loose just in time for the candy companies and us. Old timers used to parcel out nuts, fruits, and trinkets. They thought we would have fun bobbing for apples. They were wrong, just like everybody who gave us candy corn was wrong. Candy corn was originally sold in the 1880s. It was like chicken feed with rooster images on the boxes. Nobody ever ate it unless they wanted a jelly belly. It didn’t matter that the last pyramid-shaped penny candy had been slurried together during the Roaring Twenties. Every year it was repackaged and redistributed. By the mid-50s real candy became the treat of choice. We were all in on the new tradition. We didn’t know it would grow into the second-largest commercial holiday in the country, raking in more than $6 billion dollars.
It doesn’t do it in on the shoulders of kids going door to door anymore. These days only a third of people hand out candy. Another third leave candy out in a bowl, while the rest keep their lights off. One year my wife and I were going out to dinner with friends. We left a big plastic bowl full of goodies on the front porch with a sign saying, “TAKE ONE.” We were pleased to see it empty when we got home, until we ran into one of our neighbors the next day.
“Two boys just ten minutes after you left wiped you out. They turned the bowl over and poured everything into their bags. When I went up to them to say something they ran away.”
We loved getting Clark Bars, which were peanut butter and spun taffy, Zag Nuts, which were peanut butter and toasted coconut, and Mary Janes, which were peanut butter and taffy molasses. We had a soft spot for peanut butter. Treacle was a close second. We hated Necco Wafers. They were tasteless except when they tasted bad. We liked candy cigarettes, which we could pretend to smoke and eat at the same time.
Many more than less of everybody stays home nowadays and watches a scary movie instead of trick or treating. “Hocus Pocus” is the number one Halloween movie followed by “Friday the 13th” and “It’s a Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown.” In the late 1950s and early 1960s nobody stayed home watching any stinking movie. Everybody beat feet the second it got dark enough for the starting gun to go off. When it did we raced outside and took a left.
A decade later, when my trick or treating days were behind me, I lived in Asia Town. The old school Cleveland neighborhood had plenty of Chinamen, Eastern Europeans, Puerto Ricans, the working class, trailer trash, beatniks and hippies, and college students. I fit in somewhere between beatnik and college student. I joined the working class whenever I ran out of money. It was an affordable place to live with all of life’s necessities within walking distance, which worked for me because most of the time I didn’t have a car. The rest of the time I had a car that didn’t work most of the time.
Joe Dwyer was one of my friends who lived one block over. We had gone to high school together and were both some-time students at Cleveland State University. We were dodging the draft as much as we were reading “Paradise Lost.” At least I was reading it for one of my English classes. I was majoring in English with a minor in Unemployment. Joe was an art student and didn’t read anything unless it was necessary. He painted houses whenever the need arose.
His house was on East 33rd St. between Payne Ave. and Superior Ave. It was narrow as a one-lane road and as cluttered as the Animal House. He smoked reefer like nobody’s business. He made sure it was nobody’s business. In those days cops were always throwing young adults into jail for toking on the weed. Dying in Vietnam was OK. Smoking pot was not OK. He had two white cats with mismatched blue and green eyes. There was a disheveled garden in his postage-stamp sized yard. He collected and decorated gourds.
One day in mid-October, passing by his house, I heard hammering. When I took a look-see I saw he was hammering a coffin together in his backyard.
“Who died?” I asked. I didn’t put it past him. He was crafty in more ways than one.
“Nobody died, not yet, at least,” he said. “This is for Halloween.”
He was making the coffin so it would stand on its hind legs. He painted the outside a glossy black and the inside a glossy fire engine red. He was going to park it in his front door on the big day. When kids came up his stairs they would have to approach the vertical lid of the coffin in the doorway. When they did, spotting them through a peephole, he opened the lid, dressed as a vampire, and handed out treats.
Nobody in that neighborhood at that time took a pass on Halloween, especially not that year. The holiday was on a Friday and that made it Halloweekend. It didn’t matter if the children were from China or West Virginia. Every child who could walk hit the mean streets of the near east side running. Every teenager did the same thing. Even some elderly Slovenian women dressed up as themselves went out, their babushkas tied tight under their chins. I sat on a front porch next door to Joe’s house with some college friends. We had a family-size bag of Lay’s potato chips and a 12-pack of Stroh’s beer for ourselves and tossed Home Run gumballs into everybody’s bags, but not before getting our two cents in about the costumes we were seeing. We tried to be nice. The gumballs were right up our alley, costing us close to nothing..
Joe had somehow rigged up a mirrored stardust ballroom light. It strobed, throwing shards of colored light on the ceiling, walls, and deck of the front porch. Once the trick or treaters were on the porch there was no missing the coffin, especially since a purple floodlight was making it look creepier than coffins usually do.
At first, everybody was cautious about approaching the coffin. Some kids didn’t even try. They took one look at it and left for greener pastures. Some kids recoiled when Joe slowly swung the lid open, the hinges creaking, extending Nips in assorted flavors. Nips were pint-sized Coke bottles made of food-grade paraffin filled with colored syrup.
Some kids fell backwards in surprise when Joe’s hand floated forward reaching for them, landing on their behinds, and scuttling away. A few screamed and ran for their lives. Joe’s vampire get-up featured pancake make-up, fangs, and fake fingers a foot long. His lips were and eye sockets were blackened. He was dressed in a stitched together tuxedo a starched white shirt, and a black bow tie. There were few parents accompanying their children so there were few irate parents to give Joe a piece of their minds.
Not that it mattered. When word got out, Joe’s house became the place to go to for fun and fear in Asia Town. At first the line was down the walk. Then it was down the sidewalk. Then it was around the block. Everybody had to see the coffin for themselves. When Joe ran out of Nips I ran to Stan’s Deli on the corner and got more of anything he had.
Stan was a Polack who ran a combo meat counter and beverage store on Payne Ave. He was short and heavy-set and always wore a white apron. It never had drops of gore or blood on it, which was surprising since he so seldom washed it. It was plain dirty all the time. He sold a grab bag of wares besides ground beef and beer. He had a box of old flavored wax lips he said I could have at a big discount. I bought those. He had bags of old cotton candy. He slashed the price. I bought those, too. He had wads of World War Two-era Orbit chewing gum. I bought those and rushed back to Joe’s house.
He was still there, standing outside his coffin, telling monster stories in lieu of handing out treats. We dished out what I had brought back until it was all gone and then called it a day. “Hey mister, you got any candy corn to go with that gum?” a pint-sized Long John Silver asked. The next morning Joe told me he was so tired at the end of the night that he threw himself down on his sofa still clad in his Bela Lugosi outfit and fell right asleep. “I slept like the dead last night,” he said.
At the end of the first “Halloween” movie, after Dr. Sam Loomis pumps six bullets into Michael Myers, he catches his breath on the balcony and looks down at the sidewalk. He doesn’t see the boogeyman lying there. He’s gone! When that happened, everybody knew there was going to be a sequel, just like everybody knows after the big night that the next Halloween is exactly one year away.
Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”