Mama says
by Laura Fratus

(Plain Press, October 2005) Almost every Halloween since I moved to the Near West Side, I’ve dropped a Tootsie Roll into the pillowcase of a woman who claims to be trick-or-treating for her “baby in the burn unit.”

She parks her car in front of our friends’ house, where we sit on the porch passing out candy, and climbs the steps to solemnly plead her case. After collecting her Tootsie rolls and Smarties and Now-and-Laters, she climbs back in the car and drives down to the next porch light on the block. Welcome to Halloween in Cleveland.

Before we moved to the Near West Side in 1994, I had never really given much thought to Halloween. The apartment buildings and condos I’d lived in before having children were sedate places filled with busy adults who seldom took the trouble to introduce themselves to each other, much less to wait at their front doors to dole out candy to strangers.

So the urban Halloween experience wasn’t just an entertaining novelty for me; it was an epiphany moment when I realized, “Oh, so this is what city living is all about.”

Everything and everyone that is Cleveland plays a part on Halloween night. You have your givers and your takers and your enthusiasts and your holdouts. You have adults who dress up as bees and cheetahs, and adults who sneer at the whole silly waste. You have your well-meaning neighbors who hand out toothbrushes that get thrown into the street, as well as those who drive to Sam’s Club just to stock up on king-size Hershey bars in the hope that they’ll be deemed the coolest house on the block.

And of course, it wouldn’t be Cleveland — in particular, it wouldn’t be the Near West Side — without plenty of controversy. Should you give candy to everyone, or just to little kids? Do you save the good stuff, like the full-size Kit-Kat bars, for the people who smile and say “Trick-or-Treat,” but drop one measly root beer barrel into the bag of anyone with a blank look and an outstretched hand?  What about repeaters? When the same groupof teenagers circle your block two or three times, do you keep doling out the candy, or tell them to move along now? If you decide to hold back with the frowners, repeaters and no-costume-ers, do you immediately feel guilty, imagine a whole set of social circumstances that might contribute to their approach to trick-or-treating, and then dump the remainder of your treats into the next sad-sack’s sack?

On the other hand, there are some interesting elements of civic unity, beginning with the fact that trick-or-treat — at least as far as I have observed — is never celebrated on any date but October 31. While suburban communities seem to be able to convince their residents that other times may be more convenient or conducive to a proper and orderly celebration, Clevelanders would probably lump that idea in with such notions as daylight trick-or-treat, or trick-or-treat at the mall. What, they would wonder, is with that?

Whether we hand out candy for the sheer pleasure of greeting two hundred friends and strangers, or merely as a precaution to avoid getting our bushes TP’ed, our decision to participate in Halloween is, in essence, a civic action. We decide to sit on the front step and take the city as it comes, or else to go out with our kids (or, in the case of the burn-unit mom, solo) to see how the city takes us.

Come to think of it, I suspect that our attitudes toward Halloween parallel other attitudes about our neighborhoods and our neighbors. That’s one reason why I’m praying for a clear, warm night on the 31st, and for throngs of trick-or-treaters. I realize that a mutual love of candy may not be the strongest base on which to build civic unity, but it’s a start.


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