Every October for the eight years I have lived in Los Angeles, I have gone to the grocery store and bought candy and apples. I usually put the candy bars in a yellow bowl and the apples in a red bowl. Then I put them next to the front door on a maple table. As soon as darkness falls, I turn on the front porch light. Then I make sure the doorbell works. Finally, I take out a book and wait for the trick-or-treaters to arrive. They never do.
For every Halloween since 1976, there have been none -- zero -- trick- or-treaters on our street in the Hollywood Hills. By 9 o'clock I usually go out in my car and look to see whether there are any trick-or-treaters anywhere nearby I can give my apples and Snickers bars to. There never are.
My wife eats the candy bars, and I eat the apples. The absence of trick- or-treaters makes me think of Halloweens past, of what it must be like to be a child today, and where neighborhoods have gone.
I grew up on Harvey Road in Woodside Park, in Silver Spring, Md. On Halloween, every child in the neighborhood would dress up in costume -- nothing elaborate compared with what adults wear in West Hollywood today -- and set out with empty shopping bags. When we were very small, adults would accompany each party to make sure that we did not wander into Dale Drive or Colesville Road. But from the age of 8 onward, children went out in groups of threes and fours and fives and rang every doorbell in the neighborhood.
At every one there would be someone we knew. Our street had 30 houses, and we knew by face and name every person on the street. There were rarely new people moving in or out, and when there were, we all got to know each other immediately. Even past our street, into the larger world west of Harvey Road and south of Dale Drive, we knew at least someone in the house -- a girl or a boy, a mother who had driven us home from school in the rain, a father who had worked in Cub Scouts.
We would come home with shopping bags filled with candy and fruit. The main danger was that we would become sick to our stomachs from eating too many Mars bars, Three Musketeers, candy corns and Hershey Kisses.
Times have changed, as everyone knows. In many cities now, children are given apples with needles in them, candy bars with razor blades inside, chewing gum with LSD. Children go out trick-or-treating and never come home. Instead of warnings about eating too much, children get warnings to taste nothing until they get home, to speak to no one, to accept no rides from anyone and, above all in this year of awareness of child sexual abuse, to let no adult touch them.
There are so many warnings, and parents are so concerned that at a certain point, I suppose, it is simply easier to keep the kids at home. That is clearly what has happened in our neighborhood.
What this says about modern life is depressing. Of course, we all know that there are sick people out there. We all know that there are fewer and fewer restraints on antisocial behavior. My main sorrow, though, is that the barren Halloween nights mean that the whole warm idea of neighborhood has gone a-glimmering.
In my neighborhood, I know the families on either side of us, but not at all well. After that, I know almost no one in the neighborhood. The householders here come and go. There are new cars, new faces every month. Sometimes I hear loud music at 2 a.m. and raised voices and then the sound of sirens. Who are those people? What do they do? Would I trust a child to be fed anonymously by them? Would I trust them to give a child a ride?
Silent Halloween is the logical outcome of a new, fractionated order in which every family is an atom unto itself, without roots or connection to the place where it happens to live for the moment.
Perhaps this is only a feature of life in Los Angeles, and perhaps only in certain parts of Los Angeles. But if it is, I have the terrible feeling that like so much of California life, it will soon be national.
The Halloweens when the doorbell never rings certainly can be sociologically explained, by me or by someone else. But I cannot accept them. I will buy more candy bars and apples next year and wait by the door for the return of a time when neighbors trusted their neighbors as second nature, a time that will probably never come again, at least not in Los Angeles.