It WAS a dark and stormy night.
Well, mostly it was just cold and miserable, but it was spooky for us trick or treaters. I had planned my costume for months. I was going as Fran Tarkenton, the greatest quarterback of his generation. I was, no doubt, going to be the greatest quarterback of my generation. Atop my head and over my eye-blacked eyes, I wore a hand spray-painted Minnesota Vikings helmet that had once been a Cincinnati Bengals helmet. I also wore my coveted purple number 10 jersey, some shoulder pads acquired at a yard sale, my grass-stained football pants and brand new, super tall tube socks with purple stripes. It was the best costume of all-time…if it weren’t for those damn cleats. The year-old Pumas completed the look, but they ruined that Halloween.
You should know, cleats aren’t comfortable.
Second, they’re not practical for trick or treating because they’re made for running on grass, not city sidewalks. Third, my feet had decided to have a poorly timed growth spurt making last seasons prized Pumas this season’s ten-toe torture device. Fourth, the too-small cleats meant sacrificing the extra pair of socks I needed to keep my feet warm on a cold October night – there was no way I was wearing a coat over my number 10 jersey or a toboggan cap under my helmet. I was fashion victim personified that night.
My brother, a neighbor and I had carefully considered the intel gathered from last year’s trick or treating and used it to plot a course to maximize our haul this year. Last year we had ventured across town to a suburb in search of ‘rich people’ with big candy bars only to find that spacious lots and long driveways impeded the kind of high-volume doorbell ringing we were accustomed to in our working-class neighborhood. Our neck of town was crammed with duplexes, tract housing and narrow shotgun houses – far superior trick or treat country. Besides, nobody gave you the stink-eye for crossing a well-manicured lawn in the South End. No lawns in the South End were manicured, well or otherwise. I do remember one neighbor lady who wore too much makeup with manicured fingernails but that’s a story for another day. Mostly, we just had to avoid tripping over bikes in the yards we crossed at a jog as we sought to climb the Mt. Everest of trick or treating feats: the full pillowcase. Kids said it could be done. I doubted it, but we had to try.
Hickory Street, 7th Avenue, Mulberry Street, 6th Avenue, Walnut Street, 5th Avenue. We were fast and we were methodical – strategically avoiding 8th Avenue where the house-to-hike ratio was calculated to incur too high a time-to-candy cost. Besides that street had two old ladies who gave out homemade popcorn balls that mom would toss into the trash because “people put razor blades into candy nowadays”.
My pillowcase was only about half-full when the too-small cleats began to impede my quest for the holy grail of candy hauls.
To make matters worse, it began to drizzle, making my Pumas o’ Pain doubly treacherous on the wet sidewalks. Though our pace was blistering, I only fell once. My misery overcame me on 4th Avenue. I limped my way through one last “haunted porch”. I even put my cold fingers in their bowl of grapes-in-jello “eyeballs” before telling my brother through chattering teeth, that I had to abandon the mission so I could get warm and take off the medieval torture devices clamped to my feet. I thought he might take pity on me and walk with me back home. No dice. “OK” and “Let’s trade later” were all he said as he turned and dashed on to the next house with our neighbor Mike.
Dejected, but relieved to be headed home, I had made it nearly back to our house when I noticed a couple of teenage-ish girls hanging out at the end of ‘our’ alley. I didn’t recognize them. I thought they looked about 13 or 14. They caught my attention mostly because they both had no costume, but only plastic, little-kid masks – the type only kindergartners love. Super creepy. I was small and vulnerable, but also too tired and too cold and too miserable to cut across the street to avoid them. The blondish one had a Casper the Friendly Ghost mask, and the other one with brown hair cut like Dorothy Hamill wore a Wonder Woman mask. They didn’t say anything as I passed, so for a moment, I thought maybe my eye-black and tough football player costume might change their plans, but they weren’t fooled. It was only then I noticed that neither was carrying a pillowcase, grocery bag, or plastic Jack-O’-Lantern for candy. They should have been dressed as a pair of evil Robin Hoods.
One girl grabbed my half-full pillowcase of candy just as the other pushed me down.
I let my prize go to keep from face planting on the sidewalk. Nothing hurts like breaking your fall with your bare hands and forearms on a cold, wet concrete sidewalk in late October, except maybe the realization that this year’s underwhelming-Halloween-candy-haul was disappearing up a dark alley in the grasp of some two-bit 7th grade Dorothy Hamill hair Casper girl gang. I howled in pain and despair.
It took me a minute before the pain of my bleeding hands and frost-bitten pinched toes were overcome by a white-hot-stolen-candy rage, the likes of which hadn’t been witnessed in my neighborhood in nearly a decade. Through tears of pain and fury I twice tried to scramble to my feet. Twice I was thwarted by the slippery hard plastic of the size-too-small evil-incarnate Pumas cleats on the wet concrete. Twice I fell. Twice I had to break my fall with bleeding hands on cold, wet concrete and twice over my madness for candy-vengeance doubled.
Apparently, the gangster girls had gone only about a quarter of the way up the alley before they stopped to laugh at their easy mark and inspect their stolen loot. They were giggling as they huddled under the light overhanging Mr. Detty’s garage door as I came running up the alley. They turned as I let out a blood curdling, incoherent rage-scream that included several death threats and multiple swear words that I didn’t know I knew.
My demonic howls were clearly not in any known earthly language, but they understood it, because Casper and Wonder Woman/Dorothy Hamill took off running up the alley with my candy.
Though they were probably in Junior High School and a girl gang, and I just a third grader, my adrenalin fueled insanity had me on the heels of those candy-nabbers in an instance. I leapt onto the back of the girl with my pillowcase in an attempt to tackle her. But she didn’t go down. For a few yards she simply piggy-backed me down the alley. I had to fight dirtier. So, while I held on around her neck with my right arm, I pulled my spray-painted purple Minnesota Vikings helmet up just enough and I bit the dirty candy thief girl on her shoulder blade. It was her turn to howl in pain…
Down we went into a heap, sprawling across the dirty wet pavement and pea gravel mélange. My head hit the ground hard – my ill-fitting homemade Vikings once Bengals helmet, saving my ear from disaster. Dazed, I saw a fun sized Snickers bars and a couple of tiny boxes of Lemonheads tumble out of the pillowcase as it slid into a nearby garage door. Prone and surprised, Wonder Woman/Dorothy Hamill yelled to Casper, who stood panting 10 feet away, with teenage-girl incredulity, “He bit me!”. Still enraged and now partly concussed, I screamed yet another litany of primal, incoherent death threats and swear words through a deluge of tears of humiliation and pain. A neighbor called out from somewhere, “Who’s back there?”. With her mask still on, Dorothy Hamill/Wonder Woman scrambled to her feet and fled with Casper up the alley and into the darkness. Robbed of all pride and dignity, I bawled in the dark alley, trying to find my scattered Halloween candy. I threw what I could, along with handfuls of dirt and pea gravel back into my dirty, wet pillowcase for a few more minutes before I gave up and trudged home.
I had a hot bath and I slept under warm covers that night as the house’s old furnace cheerily battled the drafty old windows for control of the night.
I had nearly forgotten about that worst of all Halloweens some 40 years ago, until I came across my old Minnesota Vikings helmet, covered in dust in my mom’s attic. It still bore the scars that collision with pavement and pea gravel in a cold alley one October when I was nine. It reminded me that fighting back, even when your dignity is stolen by a masked not-so-friendly ghost or a not-so-super hero, is sometimes all you can do if you want that candy.