I liked Halloween as a kid. As an adult I find it to be the most annoying, pointless holiday ever. It’s bizarre to me, how adults so often do harmful things to children to make them happy. If I hated children, and I wanted to lure them down the road to sugar addiction, obesity, and heart disease, I would go around the neighborhood dressed like a clown and give them all large bags of free candy. Halloween saves me the trouble. Except that I don’t hate children.
I get that Halloween is the one American holiday where people get to dress up, which is fun, and ridiculously cute with small children, so for this reason Mollie and I grudgingly participated in Halloween when our children were younger. The first year our oldest child went trick-or treating, he didn’t know what candy was, so we didn’t tell him. He has a disability, but despite his visual impairment, he enjoyed the experience. He came home with his jack-o-lantern bucket full of candy, played with the unopened candy for a couple of days, enjoying the crinkling sound of the candy wrappers, and then we threw it all in the trash when he lost interest. Of course, eventually he had 4 sighted siblings, so we couldn’t get away with that any more.
Recently I ran across an old letter I wrote to some friends after they moved away from Kansas City. Our kids used to trick-or-treat in their neighborhood with their kids before they moved away, because their neighborhood was nicer and safer than ours. The following year, since our friends were gone, Mollie and I decided to try trick-or-treating in our own dicey, inner-city neighborhood. Our “historic” Northeast Kansas City neighborhood was near the red-light district on Independence Avenue. I’d always heard that Northeast KC was once an Italian ghetto controlled by the Mafia – an isolated pocket within the much larger, black section of town. By the time we lived there it was very racially and ethnically mixed, but the names of several local businesses still bore Italian names, like “Spalitto’s Drug Store.” It was still a pretty rough neighborhood.
This particular Halloween the streets were mostly deserted. Most of the local kids were standing in humongous lines at the Kansas City Museum and the surrounding old mansions, where they traditionally gave away cool stuff. (There was a rumor that the museum was handing out Beanie Babies, while they lasted.) We drove by, but then Mollie and I convinced the kids that they might come up empty after waiting in line all night, since the lines were already quite long. Plus it would be boring. So we decided to drive around and visit the houses with decorations and lights on.
At one point, we finally saw some houses that apparently had working electricity, so I pulled over and the kids piled out. Right away I began to get hints that this might not be the most warm and fuzzy area in the ‘hood. But I thought, “Well, we’re out of the van. We might as well go to the door. It will be an adventure.” Besides, we had Batman, a Ninja Ranger, and an angel in our company. In the distance I heard the sound of either a gunshot or a firework going off.
There were 2 houses on this dreary block that seemed to be lit up for Halloween. At the first, an eerie red porch light bathed the plastic, fake wrought iron door and the astro-turf covered steps. Our cute little children innocently waddled up to the door and shouted “Trick or Treat!” A prostitute opened the door, smiling broadly down at the children. Okay – it was Halloween, so maybe it was only a lady dressed as a prostitute, who happened to like decorating her red living room with lots and lots of big synthetic animal-print pillows, and giant mirrors. The children thanked her for the candy and we headed across the street to the other house.
A chilly October wind sent garbage and dead October leaves swirling around our feet. An empty beer can clattered down the street. We approached the house, stopping at the chain-link fence enclosing the front yard. For the first time, I actually looked at the poorly lit decorations draped across the screened-in front porch. It was Santa and his six and a half reindeer, along with a few blinking Christmas lights. This made me pause. A kid said, “C’mon Dad.” Ignoring him, I whispered nervously to Mollie, “Honey…this person doesn’t even know what holiday it is…” We paused longer as I tried to assess what could possibly go wrong. “Daaaaaad…”
“Well,” I thought, “We’re here…we might as well see what happens.”
We opened the gate and approached the dismal house, which featured a pitch black, open doorway inside the dark, screened-in porch. No TV on inside. No noise. But we thought we recognized a candy bucket next to the yawning black hole. The children cheerfully shouted into the void, “Trick-or-Treat!” Immediately two snarling, crazed black animals with bared teeth hurled themselves out of the black doorway, smashing into the screen door and spraying us with hot saliva. My 2 year old, who I was holding, clutched me and screamed, burying her face into my chest, becoming a very sad little clown. Over the sound of the barking dogs, from the depths of the darkness we could hear an angry human-like voice swearing and shouting at the dogs to shut-up.
As the tiny hairs on the backs of our necks began to settles back down, a small, round woman appeared in the doorway. She approached, alternately smiling at the children, and grimacing angrily down at the dogs, kicking at them, “Git back! Git back #@%#&^$*#!!!” Eventually she got the screen door open enough to fit her hand through. The children thanked her for the candy. My 2 year old stopped sobbing, leaving a cute little splotch of red make-up on my jacket where her nose had been.
I couldn’t resist saying something. “Getting an early start on Christmas this year, huh?” I said cheerfully. She chuckled back, “Yeah I just figured I’d turn ‘em on since it’s Halloween.” I’m not sure what she meant, but I had to admit the overall effect was very creepy. Especially with the live killer dogs and all. I guess we should’ve considered ourselves lucky; a lot of people pay money on Halloween to get the crap scared out of them. But in our old Northeast KC neighborhood, there was always plenty of real fear and creepiness for free.
A few blocks away a siren wailed. We hurried the kids back into the van as another firecracker (?) went off in the distance.
Back at home, we learned that Halloween in Northeast KC doesn’t end when the small children are in bed for the night. In my mind, Halloween was over, but at around 11:30 came the second shift of “trick-or-treaters.” There was a knock on the door. I looked at Mollie with raised eyebrows. In our neighborhood, a knock on the door late at night could mean almost anything. When I opened the door, there was a group of about 7 older teens in hoodies, (that’s right – hoodies.) holding pillowcases open. They weren’t wearing costumes, and they were too cool to bother with saying trick-or-treat. The thought occurred to me to ask, “What are you guys supposed to be?” but I decided to keep my mouth shut, cooperate, and put the candy in their bags. I still can’t decide if it would have felt less or more like a robbery had they been wearing masks.
Halloween in Northeast Kansas City was so confusing.