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In preparation for this evening, I spent some time researching Halloween customs. Initially, I’d assumed Halloween was an exclusively American tradition because Halloween, like America, is awesome. So I was surprised to discover it’s actually one of the world’s oldest holidays, dating all the way back to 5th century – that’s over 100 years ago, before Benjamin Franklin and Moses were born. And according to historians, the custom of trick-or-treating, or some semblance of it, first appeared a couple of years later, in the 9th century. The custom was originally called “souling,” because back then it was required that everything have a Christian name – for example, breakfast was called “The Resurrection, with Toast” and oral sex was called “Bobbing for Jesus.”

Today, Halloween is still celebrated around the world. In Mexico and many Latin American countries, October 31st is an occasion to honor the dead who, it is believed, return to their earthly homes on that evening. Instead of Halloween, the holiday is called “El Dia De Los Muertos,” which, in English, means “Zombie Christmas.” As a way of honoring the dead, homes are adorned with flowers and foods, as well as photographs of deceased relatives. In some homes, the family will even morbidly display the body of a recently deceased relative. To protect children from this ugly shock of mortality and decay, they are often given decorative blindfolds to wear. Then the blindfolded children are handed sticks and invited to beat the corpse of their dead relative until it bursts forth with candy, toys, and gold fillings.

In England, Halloween traditions officially ended with the spread of the Protestant Reformation. But don’t worry; Halloween-style mayhem occurs every November 5th, on Guy Fawkes Day. Fawkes was a Catholic extremist who was burned as a traitor in the 17th century for attempting to blow up Parliament. To commemorate this day, the British light small bonfires across the countryside and toss effigies of Guy Fawkes into the flames – not much different than the after-math of every Manchester United game, ever. Interestingly, the burning effigies were originally meant to symbolize the burning of the Pope, and not Guy Fawkes, until many years later when the Catholic Church said, effectively, “Hey, guys – come on. That’s not cool.”

In certain parts of the country, the English have even preserved a form of trick-or-treating that is very close to the American tradition. Children carry around their own small effigies of Guy Fawkes, and go begging door to door, asking for “a penny for the guy.” If they come to your door and you tell them, “I haven’t got a penny,” the children traditionally reply, “then a hay-penny will do.” And if you explain further that you haven’t got a hay penny, the children throw acid in your face.

Some form of trick or treating exists in many other countries like Egypt, Ireland, and some of the smaller, crap nations. From region to region, the custom changes slightly – kids beg for cookies and fruit in some countries, for death to all infidels in others – but there remain pretty fundamental differences. However, in all the literature I combed through – well, in both of the literatures I combed through – I mean, not really “combed through” but sort of glanced at…OK, what I’m trying to say is the “Did You Know?” information bubble on the back of my package of Dr. Dracula Glow-in-the-Dark Fright Fangs contained a lot of information about Halloween customs but indicated nothing about whether there is an internationally recognized age limit on trick-or-treating. Even the Fright Fangs advertised themselves as being suitable for ages “8 and Up.” But how far up?

The last time I went trick-or-treating, I was fourteen years old. In retrospect, this was well beyond any reasonable age limit for such activities. I had a moustache – and not one made from burning a piece of cork, but a real moustache made of hair and nervous sweat. I’m pretty certain I was too old for Halloween but no one was willing to convince me of this when I was fourteen, just as no one tried to convince me that the painter’s cap covered in artwork for the band, Journey, which I wore religiously, was a tremendous mistake. When I look back at myself at age fourteen, usually through laced fingers over my terror-stricken eyes, I truly cannot believe my daily decisions were not more stringently regulated by some constructive criticism. It’s as if my friends and family treated me the way people treated Frank Sinatra – very gingerly – and were all frightened to oppose even my most obviously troubled choices – “Naw, naw, Todd. I think that white fedora looks real nice on you. I wasn’t laughing or nothing. You’re da boss.”

I campaigned heavily with friends for trick-or-treating, and masked my true intentions – candy! – with what I felt was the most compelling argument I could make as a high school freshman. Halloween would be a chance for us to meet up with cute girls from our high school, and spray them with shaving cream and Nair. Back then this is what we called “flirting.”

For the weeks leading up to Halloween, kids would approach you in homeroom and ask, “You going to Melrose this year?” Melrose was infamous. This two-block long strip of residential property in an affluent section of Albany would become transformed, once a year on Halloween, into Ground Zero for unspeakable and unlegislated acts of adolescent chaos. After each Halloween at Melrose, a new and horrible legend was born. Some kid got his teeth knocked out with a can of shaving cream. Another girl lost her eyebrows. A gang from one of the outlying suburbs descended on the street, armed with Molotov Cocktails. Last year there were fire trucks. A S.W.A.T. van. Dobermans. Piranhas. Melrose was kind of like the monster in the closet for Albany teenagers, but it was also where all the girls would be. Girls whose excited screams of terror as they fled from hurled eggs and wet toilet paper wads would be the closest any of us boys would get to hearing screams of actual female pleasure for many, many years. And for some of us are still waiting, patiently. (Call me.)

So, I begged my friends Simon and Dave to accompany me to Melrose. I assured them we would all be knee-deep in the shit, yes, but it would very essential to health of our social lives that we show up in school the next day as survivors of the prior evening. And, I added, we could bring pillowcases for candy – you know, just in case.

[This is only tangentially related, but clutching pillowcases for candy represents a major shift in trick-or-treating. The pillowcase says, “I am no longer some little baby, begging for candy with a plastic Spider-Man head or free plastic ‘Safety First’ Halloween bag they gave out at school. I’m a grown-up, begging for candy.” Halloween costumes also change dramatically as you get into the teens. When you’re a young kid, costumes are limited only by the imagination of the parents. You can be a Dracula, or SpongeBob Squarepants or a peanut or whatever. After you turn 13, your choices are limited to the following: zombie makeup, scary rubber mask with street clothes, witch hat with street clothes, hooker, or punk rocker.]

We were going to be punk rockers. We took a trip to a drug store after school on the day of Halloween, and loaded up on supplies: magic markers, colored hair spray and, at my insistence, face paint and fake blood. Don’t ask. I just really wanted some fake blood on me. It was sort of a secret pleasure of mine back then, and remains one today. We also purchased cans of Barbasol shaving cream – two each. I chose the mentholated kind because I thought it might sting more if it got in your eyes, and I enjoyed the fragrance.

We all held our breath when we got to the register, praying the cashiers wouldn’t bust us on suspicion, for stocking up on shaving cream on this particular day. I don’t think it helped our case that, after successfully purchasing his shaving cream without incident, Simon high-fived me then ran out of the store, giggling.
As a historical footnote, the year was 1985, which was slightly before the advent of EdgeGel shaving cream. As most delinquents know, those gel-based shaving creams will shoot pretty far when you depress the button. Comparatively, regular shaving foam only worked if you got really close to someone, which wasn’t always easy to do, especially if that person was armed with a spiked ball on a chain, as we’d heard many kids would be this year at Melrose. But as the expression goes, stupidity always finds a way. And local folk knowledge taught us that if you put a lighter to the nozzle of a can of shaving foam, and melted the large opening shut, then inserted the end of a paper clip into the nozzle before it cooled, you could create a tiny little opening that would allow you to shoot the shaving cream out very far, in a narrow stream. It’s one of those things that sounds much easier than it is – like getting free cable or opening a beer bottle with a lighter. And usually, the same people who can do those other things are also really good at modifying shaving cream cans. Simon, Dave and I, however, were helpless dorks.

We made Simon’s house our headquarters for that evening’s preparations. This was mostly because Simon was an only child and his mother was the most liberal parent we knew. She let Simon listen to Ted Nugent’s “Wang Dang Sweet Poontang” completely without moral censure. She even allowed him to place Wacky Packs stickers on his bedroom door – my mother would sooner see me in a coffin than let this happen – and, most incredibly, Simon’s mom bought him a Farrah Fawcett latch hook rug to hang on his bedroom wall. I loved that rug. It was that famous bathing suit image of Farrah that sold millions of posters in the late seventies and, if you rubbed the latch hook the wrong way, the colors would get more intense. Trust me.

After rigging our shaving cream cans with varying degrees of success – Dave’s was the only one I’d call exemplary – we worked on our costumes. Our basic costume template was jeans, sneakers, denim jackets (where available – Dave had to wear a quilted winter vest) and a white Hanes t-shirt, strategically ripped, safety-pinned, and scribbled on with various “punk” slogans. I did a lot of consulting in the area of costuming because, even though at age fourteen I still mainly listening to Billy Joel, Styx, The Beatles, and an occasional Bowie song, I was somehow able to convince Simon and Dave – and myself – that I knew a great deal about the punk counter-culture.

And you know how, if you can’t really draw, you might have an image in your head in its most perfect state – like a guy jumping through a hoop of fire on a motorcycle – but then, once you apply a pencil to paper, it comes out looking nothing like the beautiful picture in your head and, instead, it just looks like a tiny monkey on a girl’s bicycle, entering a sprinkle doughnut? That’s what our costumes were like. I was sure I had the punk thing down but the results were positively laughable. We looked like punk extras on an episode of CHiPs or one of the lesser gangs from that movie, The Warriors. I emptied can after can of colored hairspray on to my head, but the color would just get lost in this dense, wiry, black nest of hair. Plus, I couldn’t get the mousse to stiffen Simon’s flat, greasy hair enough to stand up straight for the Road Warrior effect he requested, so he ended up with bright green bed-head. He also had green ears from my over-zealous application of hairspray, and some of it even flecked the lenses of his glasses, which were these tremendous David Hockney owl spectacles. The only punk argument one could make for Simon’s glasses was the small safety pin he was using to hold the frames together on one side.

Our friend Dave didn’t work out much better, possibly because I’d covered his t-shirt with slogans like “We Don’t Need No Education,” “Punk it Up!” and “Oy!” – spelled O-Y, the Yiddish way. And, for reasons that still remain a complete mystery to me, for my costume I insisted on applying thick scab make-up to my forehead. The scab makeup, which needed to be heated in boiling water, had a terrible odor, both in the pot and on my face. When it was all done, I frowned in the mirror, asking myself, “Is this punk rock?” My answer was, unfortunately: yes.

Then we hit the streets. We felt as confident as three 14 year-old boys with overbites and bad skin could feel about anything. In our ripped t-shirts and sassy hairstyles, we looked like we were just returning from being mildly gay-bashed although, really, the bashing had not yet even begun. Along our way to Melrose, we made several detours – candy! On one street, we saw a pack of slightly older teenagers, stripping candy from kids half their size. It struck me as incredibly unjust, and I let this be known – at least to Simon and Dave, as the three of us laid face-down on the wet lawn behind someone’s shrubbery, which is where we all hid instinctually hid at the first sign of danger. When the trouble passed, and we had made it beyond our working class streets and into more wealthy neighborhoods with driveways and multiple-car garages, the inevitable discussion of what lay ahead of us at Melrose began. Since none of us had ever actually been to Melrose before, the speculation quickly spun out of control.

There would be bottles thrown from bikes, Dave said. And some of those bottles would be filled with urine. There were rumors that certain boys in rubber Halloween masks would be grabbing breasts and then running away very fast. I had heard something about switchblades – no, butterfly knives. The rules of the blade were: to be fair, there would be no stabbing, but slashing was allowed, as long as you didn’t slash girls. There were kids – older kids, from bad neighborhoods – who had trained their dogs to attack only Jewish kids. Someone else had gotten his hands on a bazooka.

This talk continued, turning over and over, until our footsteps slowed. Our bodies grew unwilling to carry us to Melrose. “No,” our feet said. “I will not take you to Melrose Place to be attacked by anti-semitic German Shepherds and nunchucks. If you are unwilling to love yourselves, we will have to do the loving for you.” (Our feet were extremely eloquent.) Finally, after receiving full-sized Milky Way bars at one home – I love rich people – Dave bravely addressed the group.

“My feet hurt,” he said.

Naturally, we called him a pussy – punks never quit! – but, you know, sometimes pussy also means “savior.” Simon and I never publicly admitted that we didn’t want to walk into certain death with poorly rigged shaving cream cans, and exactly two eggs each, but that was because we had more at stake, socially. Dave didn’t go to our high school, and therefore his popularity would not be hinged on whether or not he was seen tonight on Melrose, being assaulted with bottles of urine. It was an easier decision for him to make. And thanks to that decision, Simon and I had a convenient scapegoat.

Of course, we couldn’t just go home. We had left our safe houses, looking for mayhem – candy! – and to return to our neighborhood as uneventfully as we’d left it would be a marked failure. So here’s what we did instead: in the middle of quiet Ridgefield Street, ten blocks from the Babylon of Melrose, we attacked each other with shaving cream. We punched each other’s chests, exploding the eggs secreted inside our pockets. Brother turned against brother. And, when our shaving cream cans jammed, and our eggs were spent, we beat each other with our candy-filled sacks. We must have looked absolutely insane to passers-by, because we were absolutely pummeling each other but laughing hysterically the entire time, experiencing the peak of our adolescence right there with every burning dollop of shaving cream we rubbed in each other’s eyes and noses. It was exhilarating.

I entered my home at 11:30 that night, with great stealth. I was still covered in shaving cream and egg yolk. I must have smelled like a eucalyptus leaf omelet. A runny mess tailed me across our porch and in our foyer. Eager to check myself out in a mirror, I let the trail continue up our shag-carpeted stairs, across our wood paneled walls, and around the doorknob of our upstairs bathroom. When I caught my reflection, I noticed the hair spray had started running, and left fiery orange streaks down one side of my face. My scab had fallen off hours ago, and only a little debris remained, along with a pink welt that was probably the result of an allergic reaction to the chemicals in the scab make-up. In other words, I looked great.

The noise from the bathroom must have awakened my father, because he popped his head in to investigate. Seeing me in this state, he just shook his head, half-amused and half-bewildered that this foamy, color-streaked idiot was the product of five years in the Albany public school system’s honors program. In retrospect, I think his expression was exactly the correct severity of reprimand my evening demanded.
Before going back to bed, he said, “Do you mind if I ask how this happened?”

I wiped some shaving cream from my eye and said, “Melrose, dad.”

“Morons,” my father replied, and shuffled back to bed. I sort of felt sorry for my father. He was just too old and out of touch to really understand punk rock.


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