Halloween has gone yuppie on us. The cops have to seal off Georgetown from 6 p.m. on, because M Street is packed solid with junior executives letting their personalities out for one night in the year.
We even get them at the door: hulking adults in Zorro suits with shopping bags and mortified grins. One year we had a daddy come by with his kids, holding up a shot glass and demanding his treat with the same grin. I hope he got home.
The fact is that Halloween is our most other-directed holiday. It goes with the trends. Trick or treat was invented in the '40s, the same time the public relations business began to take hold. Then in the get-ahead '50s we had those UNICEF drives and other unfun ideas. Glum kids would appear on your doorstep holding little cans, and you were supposed to give money to a good cause rather than waste it on candy. A very do-gooding decade, the '50s.
The whole thing kind of died out in the '60s because we were too serious for such frivolity, but Halloween came back in the '70s. Except that by then the magazines were telling us that we hated our own children. That was when you began to notice the talk about razor blades in apples and so on.
Now the night belongs to the yuppies.
Before we lose sight of the occasion entirely, I think I should tell you about the real Halloween. When it was just Tricks.
Sticking pins in doorbells was for tiny tots. A bunch of us would crouch behind the Johnsons' syringa bush and send up the smallest one in the crowd: A little figure in a devil suit with the mask pushed up on his forehead because he couldn't see a thing otherwise would sprint onto the brick porch, take a deep breath, then push the doorbell with a thumb and jam the pin in with his other hand so it stayed ringing, and then we would all rush off into the night.
Slightly higher on the scale was to make a buzzer with a button and string, get it spinning this way and that like a midget yo-yo, and hold it against a window. It made a terrible clatter on the glass, like a demented locust.
Some neighbors flew out the front door at the first sound, at the first shadows creeping into the syringa. They probably spent hours watching behind the curtains. If they saw you they would yell, and if they recognized you they would yell your name, and that was bad. You'd hear about it in the morning. Other houses were silent and dark, seemingly abandoned for years. They were the scary ones. It never occurred to us that the occupants had simply locked up and gone to the movies so they wouldn't have to bother with us.
All through the evening, bands of kids would scurry giggling and whispering across the front lawns. We knew where to expect trouble. We knew which coups really counted. "You knocked on the Bremers' door? Wooo," someone would breathe. A kid could be famous for a week from what he did on Halloween.
Sometimes he could be too famous. A cousin of mine put on one of those rubber monster masks that goes over the entire head -- they were very much a novelty in 1940; his father probably got it for him in New York -- and huddled beneath a neighbor's window. This was in the country, where Halloween has always been vestigial anyway.
First he rapped on the glass, then he slowly rose into sight in all his hideousness. The woman inside screamed and collapsed. There was a rumor that she subsequently had a miscarriage, but in any case the collapsing was bad enough, especially because somehow the woman learned who it was in the mask. (Had he bothered her before? Hmmm.)
If you lived in a small town, chances are the town fathers would have this great idea: Let's throw a party for all the kids and that'll keep the little monsters out of trouble. It was the birth of trick or treat, if we had only known.
Ours started at Wentworth's cider mill. Everybody lined up for a free paper cup of cider straight from the press. (That was a Halloween trick right there, because cider that fresh goes through you faster than prunes. If you were a farm kid you knew this and didn't grab for seconds, but most of these were village kids.)
Then the new hook-and-ladder from the volunteer fire department came up the street very slowly, its great engine muttering hugely, and we paraded behind it to the square, where a gigantic bonfire had been built. We all ate popcorn balls and watched the fire for an hour or so -- the smallest ones holding stickily onto their fathers' index fingers -- and were taken home.
Next morning we learned that someone had scribbled dirty words in paraffin wax on half the store windows up and down College Street. Paraffin because you can't wash it off like soap but have to scrape every inch with a razor blade.
It was a major victory for the kid guerrilla army, that phantom permanent Maquis we all would have liked to belong to except you could get expelled. We knew who they were. Some of them did get expelled or anyway suspended, but they didn't care. That was the difference between them and us.
(And yet all of us, even the ones who carried a row of pencils in their breast pocket, felt somehow, way down deep, maybe not consciously, a basic bedrock solidarity with the most outrageous outlaws, right down to Rob Monahan, who gave Mr. Greaves the geometry teacher a black eye and was sent to reform school.)
But it was what the Big Kids did that Halloween was really about. This was the stuff of myth and legend. I am not talking about streaming toilet paper around a yard.
The basic theme was moving things. Taking all the furniture off all the porches on Fountain Street and piling every stick of it on one lawn. Coaxing a horse into someone's garage clear across town. Running a bathtub up a flagpole.
Bathroom fixtures were another theme. One year it was toilets, new shiny white toilets that somebody took from Boone's hardware yard. (This was breaking and entering, of course, but people in small towns didn't think in those terms yet.)
Next day there were toilets on porches, on roofs, on flagpoles, stacked like totem poles on the sidewalk and, but this is just rumor, draped over the bronze head of Alexander Hamilton up at the college, making him look rather like the Stooge named Moe.
The worst I remember was when I was still living in Utica and some boys -- probably 16, which to us was around 30 -- took the covers off all the manholes on their block.
And a woman fell in and broke her hip.
And the cops came, and an ambulance, and someone got arrested.
You learned about this strictly from the grapevine; never in a million years would your parents tell you something like that. It was one of those events that revealed the carefully concealed fact that parents and kids were, through the ages, as fundamentally in opposition as Hatfields and McCoys, as, more to the point, Goliaths and Davids.
Maybe that was what Halloween was about, when it was still Halloween: an overturning of the natural social order, a Celtic paean to the god of the dead -- no matter the Christians and their Allhallows -- a night when sheeted skeletons roamed and underdogs howled.
We definitely owe Halloween to the Celts, you know, with their special sense of the unseen, of those who exist among us in a different dimension, of the little people and their magic and their quirky pranks. That's where the doorbell ringing came in.
Maybe, if you want to get really anthropological about it, the decline of Halloween follows the decline of the traditional family with its all-powerful parents and all-feeble children.
The more powerful the one side and the more feeble the other, the more extreme and violent and shocking the rebellion. In my father's time the standard Halloween trick was, as the encyclopedia puts it, "overturning small buildings" -- that is, outhouses.
Preferably with people in them.
Today the rebellion seems to have disappeared into the psyche. There's no trick or treat about it, you just stand there in the middle of M Street in your Zorro suit and maybe dance a little and maybe kiss somebody and maybe get drunk.
And maybe discover the real you.