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JOSEPH N. BELL

Halloween in '89: It's More Business Venture Than Adventure

October 28, 1989|JOSEPH N. BELL

I'm going to be away this year at Halloween, and I'm not sorry. Of all the holidays to which we are subjected by the business community, I like Halloween the least. It has deteriorated into a handout orgy with rules as rigid as professional baseball or contract bridge. And like a lot of other modern-day activities for kids, such organization has taken much of the spontaneity out of it.

I suppose I could just ditch that night and go to a movie, but I'm always the one left at home to dole out the Hershey products while the 11-year-old kid is out hustling the neighborhood, and my wife and other local mothers are keeping an eye on the proceedings.

Now I know these little kids are funny and piquant in their costumes. Hell, I have a whole gallery of pictures of my grandchildren dressed as bunnies and pirates and Batmen for Halloween. But when the panhandlers get bigger than I am and arrive in the neighborhood by car, I get a little irritated. They seem to me a natural outgrowth of the systematized way we go about Halloween today--and that's what irritates me the most.

My late mother-in-law had a game she played with trick or treaters. She would weigh their question for a few seconds, then say, "Well, I guess I'll choose the trick." It always left the kids dumbfounded to find someone who wasn't playing the game properly. I've tried the same gambit a few times with the same result.

I've discovered that you can't joke with trick or treaters. The little buggers are all business. "Let's get on with the candy, Jack, so we can check out the house next door."

This is one-upmanship in its most advanced stages. I know my handout is being compared to those up and down the street, and I'm sure there is a lot of note-swapping when the collections for the evening are done.

"Did you hit that cheap guy at the gray house with the slippery walk out front and the little dog that yaps all the time?"

"Yeah, I know the one you mean. He gave out Mr. Goodbars as small as his dog. My sister tried to take two, and he wouldn't let her."

They count their loot afterward like bandits after a heist. We have in the bottom of our refrigerator booty from Halloweens of 1987 and '88--and I strongly suspect from '86, as well. The 11-year-old kid and his buddies don't eat this stuff; they bank it. Maybe they see it as their earthquake stash--Butterfingers for the Big One. They get it out periodically and run their fingers through it, like Silas Marner with his gold. Trouble is, unlike gold, it eventually turns green and smells.

I've learned to be deeply suspicious of any sentence that starts out "When I was a kid," but when I was a kid Halloween emphasized the tricks rather than the treats. But we didn't turn over random outhouses or soap random windows. We did it to the grouches who had been anti-kid all year--who told our parents if we walked on their grass or sneaked a smoke behind their garage or called the police if we played ball in the empty lot next to their house and an errant foul crossed the property line. The only treats we got were at Halloween parties after the ends of justice had been served. Of course, in passing, we also used to amuse ourselves with such activities as soaping the tracks so the streetcars couldn't make it up a neighboring hill. The thing was, we didn't do this stuff the rest of the year, and we never hurt anybody. We just made some social statements, many of which I think our parents secretly approved.

Now, I know all this happened in a world that no longer exists. And I realize I'm talking it up for the good old days--when we used to do real tricks instead of scooping candy off a dish at somebody's front door--in a time of gang warfare and street violence. But the gang dichotomy never prevailed then. There was a lot of individual creativity in what we did, and maybe it let off some steam that made it easier for us to conform the rest of the year. That's a matter for social scientists or shrinks. I just know that there was little or no anti-social content to our activities. What we did was individual, disorganized and usually impulsive. If we got caught, we paid the price.

By contrast, today virtually everything our kids do is organized--from Little League to dance lessons. I don't know how many years it has been since I've seen a bunch of kids converge on an empty lot--if they could find one, although empty schoolyards work pretty well--choose up sides and play a ballgame without an adult in sight. If yearning for a rebirth of that sort of activity seems a long way from disenchantment with trick or treating, it isn't. Both feelings result from the same organizational pattern.

I suppose I'm sounding like those grouches whose windows I used to soap. Oh, well, there are some bright spots in all this. There are certain kinds of treats the 11-year-old kid doesn't like that he gives to me. So I'll be pulling for the neighbors to lay a lot of Clark bars on him this year. He has instructions not to trade them on penalty of having his '87 loot confiscated. I'll be hoping there's a stash waiting for me when I get home. Come to think of it, trick or treating isn't all bad.

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