In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking, now, Heaven knows, anything goes.

At Wisconsin and M, in the belly of the blast, it was like an Easter parade of freaks, geeks and tweaks--to say nothing of the flashers who offered outrageous peeks. As Washington staked its claim as San Francisco East, glitter and gloss were everywhere and the roar of the greasepaint and the swell of the crowd engulfed Georgetown, magically transpoofing it into an androgynous and anthropomorphic street fair. Men dressed as women; women dressed as men (the men often had the best legs); men and women dressed as things that could heal the sick, raise the dead and make the little girls talk out of their heads. Acting out their most sublimated fantasies, strutting their stuff, whirring and purring like figurines on an elaborate cuckoo clock. As Butch said to Sundance, "Who are those guys?"

They came as Coneheads, as Catpeople, as Lady Di and Prince Charles, as Boy George, as the Pillsbury Doughgirl, as World War I doughboys, as a Hershey's Kiss, as a Swiss Miss, as Sheiks, Skunks, Spots, Ghosts, Goblins, Gargoyles, Devils, Angels, Prom Queens, Drag Queens, Bees, Bunnies (was Barbara Honegger that influential?), as Santa Claus, as Superman, as Darth Vader, as E.T., as Mr. T (lots of Mr. Ts--black and white), as Clowns, Convicts, Grim Reapers, Grateful Deads, Devils, Draculas, Gauchos (sorry, no Falklanders--how soon they forget) Vamps, Vampires, as Reagan, Nixon and Weinberger ("Caspar, the Unfriendly Ghost"), as Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, Raggedy Ann, as Great Pumpkins, as Punkers with tinted and spiked hair, as Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy, as Werewolves (lots of werewolves--what is this, London?), as the Blues Brothers, the Fruits of the Loom, the Beefeater Gin Man, Howard Hughes in the final days, Chiquita Banana, as Frank Buck in jungle shorts, dragging a man in a gorilla suit on a chain behind him, as Marines in camouflage fatigues crawling down the street on their bellies, as Wizards, as Lizards, as Bottles of Beer, as Delta House brothers in togas, as things covered with blood, as (God help us!) Lawyers in three-piece suits with shark masks. Even as Gumby, walking splayfooted down M Street repeatedly screaming, "I'm Gumby, dammit."

Heard on the street:

(Three Mr. Ts deep in conversation) Mr. T No. 1 : "I'm the baddest." Mr. T No. 2 : "No way man, I'm the baddest." Mr. T No. 3 : "Say what? I'm the baddest, and I pity the poor fool who says I'm not the baddest."

"Yeah, sure, but now I gotta study all day tomorrow."

"Oooh, there's a TV crew. Let's get on the news."

"I think America is getting sicker, and, by God, don't we love it?"

(As a Blue Thunder police helicopter hovered overhead, one cop to another) "Here comes the best part--they're gonna H-bomb everyone."

And though most of them were students, there were people in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s as well, bearing cameras, children and even grandchildren. And though there were the expected political masks, this was not political, not counter-cultural, not street theater--this was simply street-walking, joyous and communal, and, despite the scary countenances, most of all, fun. People by the thousands, of all sizes, shapes and persuasions roamed the streets, unlocking the closets of their ids, many having their faces painted for free--courtesy of Backstage, a performing arts store--in the foyer of Nathan's, smack on the southeast corner of Wisconsin and M, a button-down-and-wingtip-lizard den if ever there was one.

Russ ("I'm not telling you my last name") was in the process of getting his bare chest painted with a huge set of ruby red lips when he tackled the obvious question--Why? "Because it's very difficult to be free in the 20th century, and this is one of those times. It's a way to express things about yourself which you couldn't do normally. I'm studying for my master's in American Studies at George Washington University, and we study exactly this thing. If you want an anthropologist's answer--culture is suppression. This says that we're trying to vent our energies constructively for our own enjoyment, and we can't through conventional methods. Halloween serves a function of release not provided by other contemporary practices. It's a free-for-all, and dressing up like this says something about us and who we want to be."

Russ then got up and revealed the extent of his costume: One sportscoat. One pair of black panties. One garter belt. And one pair of black mesh hose.

And you wondered what type of students the American educational system was turning out lately.

Awards:

Most Effective Costume: To Michael Williams and Karen Lozano of Alexandria, inside huge, yellow cardboard housing as "Pac-Man" and "Ms. Pac-Man," blaring with a tape-recorded soundtrack from that assaultive video game.

Most Ingenious Costume: To Rick Ripley, a law student at GW, as "Walking Hibachi," with white and black bricklike hat and torso and dry ice creating a smokestack effect from the top of his head.

Most Conceptual Costume: To Skeeter Phillips, as "Already Been Chewed Gum" in a pink sheet with a small chair taped on top of his head.

Most Contemporary Costume: To Joe Jones of Manassas, as "Hand Granada" in a grenade suit of fatigue green. When asked why he chose that outfit, Jones said, "It's an explosive situation, isn't it?"

Most Precarious Costume: To Elizabeth Fay, as "High Tech Trash" in a lawn and leaf bag and Day-Glo green glasses. "My problem is I went too cheap. This bag was on sale at Grand Union. It isn't double lined, so if some fool walks up to me with a cigarette, I torch."

Best Line of the Night: Again to Elizabeth Fay. When informed that the girl standing next to her was from New Jersey, Fay asked, "Which exit?"

Clearly, Halloween has become a two-tiered holiday. Trick-or-treat for the kids; flash-and-trash for the adults. What does it say about us as a culture that we indulge our fantasies like this, that we enthusiastically undergo these role and sex reversals in this officially unsanctioned, semi-spontaneous folk festival, and that above all, we do it out in the streets?

One could talk about the collective personal frustrations of living in a technological age, how this depersonalization leads to social anxiety and aberrant behavior, how the adults have co-opted what was essentially a child's forum and replaced its innocence with deliberate shock value, how such a blatant cry for attention through the flaunting of psycho-sexual symbology bespeaks an endemic insecurity, a debasing of the culture and a corruption of its morals. Or some such junk.

But standing in Georgetown, mostly at the corner of Wisconsin and M, for four hours on Saturday night, you couldn't help but be impressed that during that time, as many thousands of people paraded back and forth--in an event that grows larger as its legend circulates, attracting people from an ever-widening radius--you didn't see or hear a single argument, not a single threat or a single act of violence. You never had the slightest apprehension that anything ugly was in the air.

Whatever else all these costumes, all this grabbing for attention, all this elaborate role playing says about us, when that many people gather in that tiny a place and the only blood spilled comes out of a makeup case, it says here, that's not half bad.