It’s a cool evening on the South side of Huntington, West Virginia and I’m at my parent’s house passing out candy to children. Tonight is trick-or-treat.
Trick or treat. For some reason, I’m the one saying it. They hold out their bags. Here’s the candy. My hands are cold. Don’t you look scary. My nose is getting snotty. Okay, bye. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
When you’re distributing anything in the neighborhood, you’re going to have many customers from out of town. I don’t know which inclement condition prevents families from trick-or-treating in their own villages, I suspect zombies, but it must be a dire one to necessitate the caravans of outsiders to our neighborhood on Halloween. My parents buy approximately three hundred to four hundred pieces of candy every year, and every year they exhaust their supply. As I’m doling out a standard candy allotment to a little girl dressed as Princess Elsa (only the 103rd so far), the grim look on her face puts my startling xenophobia in context.
Tonight is trick-or-treat. Tonight, she’s out to get.
You know the bad dream you have where you’re stuck somewhere and something terrible is about to happen, but no one is taking your warnings seriously? For me, this dream often takes place in some kind of visitor’s center. My father is busy taking pictures of the windows while my mother looks at the scenery, when I, always appearing as a child, suddenly realize a terrible thing is about to happen. I run to my parents yelling, but they don’t listen. I plead with them, but my mother says my father likes to take pictures so we’re going to wait. I get furious. They refuse to acknowledge my concern. I desperately search for a way to make them understand. Why can’t they see what I see? If we don’t get the hell out of here now, the dinosaurs are going to eat us!
Jurassic Park made an impression on me, but I digress.
This dream, the one where you’re helpless and no one is listening to you, is exactly what being a child on trick-or-treat night feels like. It’s unbelievably important, it’s ending soon, and your parents are slowing everything down because they want to take pictures.
Are those pictures made of chocolate, Dad?
Plenty of others have discussed the categorical imperative that all kids will do anything for candy. The unbridled greed for confection is nearly universal, which may render any further dialogue on the matter moot. However, I think there’s more to the manic glee that trick-or-treat inspires than a yearning for sugar. It’s a brief window of time when a child is granted agency. Power. Opportunity. The rules of the world don’t enable a kid to move up quickly, especially not in ways that result in candy, but if you’re a child during trick or treat, you’re finally given the chance to put your skills, your real skills, to the test.
Skills like wearing awkward clothing, begging, and denying the fact you’re tired.
Perhaps no other holiday stokes the ambitious scheming of children like Halloween. Christmas is Christmas, but all you have to do for that glorious event is marginally behave for an elf on the mantle and show up December 25th to claim your prize. Trick-or-treat requires planning, equipment, and grit. Look at any television show that features child characters and you will see numerous episodes about trying a new route, new costume, or some other researched enhancement to the trick-or-treat night. Maybe it’s an American thing, our culture is deeply devoted to the idea that everyone will be a millionaire eventually, but there’s a strong urge for improvement in society. Adults get to indulge this urge with their careers, personal fitness, or kale recipes. Children are denied their preferred outlets of self-improvement, like being Wolverine, and must conform to the structures they’re given, except on Halloween. During trick-or-treat, a kid can succeed on their own terms. That’s the feeling you go back for year after year. That’s why you dream of better strategies for trick-or-treat night. The candy is delicious but after a certain point, the candy, like money, is mostly about keeping score. Sounds crazy, right? But it’s true. I should know.
I trick-or-treated until I was 17.
It’s a slightly less cool evening on the South Side of Huntington and my friend Wes and I are trying to come up with a costume for the neighborhood’s trick-or-treat. We have a few days left, but our figurative drawing board is blank.The only way we can justify trick-or-treating as near grown-ups is to either tote around an infant or have a killer costume. Lacking the former, Wes and I put our heads together to come up with the latter.
Wes is one of my oldest friends. I can’t hear the sound of Legos tumbling in a box without thinking of the innumerable hours we spent building things. As we got older, this affinity for creative construction shifted to making catapults, hovercrafts, exquisite music (in a band with our other best friend), and excellent costumes for Halloween.
This Halloween, we’re faced with an extra challenge. My limitations.
Over the years, the distances I’ve been able to walk has dwindled. This year, it’s quite likely I won’t be able to walk the long distances our trick-or-treat route demands. You see, our plan involves first playing to our base, the South Side neighborhood, then sneaking over into the wealthier, Ritter Park district where, we assume, the candy will be better. Everybody knows rich people are synonymous with generosity. In previous years, we had always planned on making it to this section of candy-fertile manors, but something always got in the way. Not this year. This year, we’re making it to the land of milk chocolate and honey. But first, how do we solve my walking problem?
A wheelchair seems like the easiest solution.
Google wheelchair costumes and you’ll see dozens of awesome ways people have made a wheelchair work as part of a costume. I like to think it was out of respect for those who have to use a wheelchair on a daily basis that we shied away from presenting naive candy givers the tableau of me looking pitiful in a wheelchair. In truth, I don’t think we knew where to get a wheelchair in time. I’m glad we didn’t, not only because of what we did come up with but because it wouldn’t have seemed fair. Wes and I were both raised with the expectations of good, moral character. We wanted to succeed on our terms. And I’m pretty sure the only wheelchair costume we could come up with was Professor Xavier from X-Men.
No thanks. If anything, I’m Beast. The other difference, for those of you uneducated on mutant powers, between me and Professor X is that the Professor has telekinesis and I do not (yet). Professor X isn’t helpless in a wheelchair. I am.
No one wants to be helpless on trick-or-treat.
The solution we come up with is to have Wes dressed as a UPS delivery man and I go dressed as the boxes he’s delivering, riding on a dolly. From the outside, the boxes look like they’re several discrete units, but on the inside, they’re hollowed out to create a large enough space for me to lean. We cut a small peep hole for my vision, and a larger hole near my waist so I can reach out. We cover this hole with a sheet of paper labeled INVOICE. Also we tape both of our candy bags inside the box with me.
Fearlessly clad in his brown shorts and pushing a convincingly dolly-load of boxes, Wes looks every bit a UPS deliveryman.
Trick-or-treat doesn’t begin with a gong but it should. One minute there’s quiet, then suddenly, children. Children everywhere. Wes pushes me on the dolly, and from inside the boxes, I really can’t see much beyond what’s directly in front of us. Never one to leave me hanging, Wes keeps up conversation, although I have to think people are giving him odd looks. He appears to be talking to himself, and hands-free phones aren’t popular yet. The dolly has no shocks or suspension, so I feel every bump in my teeth.
We should have tested this beforehand, I think. Too late now.
The first house on our street recognizes us, they saw us coming down the block, and they compliment our costume. We’re ever so gracious because we know how the system works. Remember when I described how the neighborhood gets inundated with strangers every year? In order to play favorites, the people of my hood use a two supply system. The big bowl and special bowl. The big bowl has the crappy candy and it goes to random kids, infants, and teenagers with bad costumes. The special bowl has the good stuff. Full-sized stuff. Only people the neighbor recognizes and people with really good costumes get the special bowl. When you’re as seasoned a trick-or-treat goer as Wes and I, it’s special bowl or bust.
Trick or treat. Wes parks the dolly. Put it in the hole. Wes directs the person to put the candy in the Invoice covered hole. No, there’s not someone in there. The person laughs and reaches inside. I grab their hand. They scream. Okay, bye. We leave.
Needless to say, if there was a special bowl to be got, it got got.
And then, about halfway through, a funny thing starts happening. People think Wes is an actual UPS deliveryman. The farther away from our starting point we travel, the more people keep politely insisting they haven’t ordered anything or asking Wes if there’s something they need to sign.
This of course is a complete disaster. We don’t have time to dawdle at each house, we have a schedule to keep! Don’t these people know our plan?
Frustrated by our delay, I take matters into my own hand. Next time we encounter a conversation near the special bowl, I reach out from inside the box and grab the good candy from the special bowl. Through my peep hole, I don’t see any reaction, so I do it again. And again. And again.
Every single time we were engaged in a conversation, if the special bowl was within my reach, I struck.
By the time we get to the edge of our usual route, trick-or-treat is winding down. There’s a long couple of blocks between where we are and Wes’ parent’s house, which is our landing destination. Wes puts the dolly down so that I’m on my back, there’s an extra wheel for horizontal use, and pushes us the rest of the way home.
Our post trick-or-treat tradition involves dumping out the candy and separating it into piles based on willingness to trade. This year, the pile of Never Trading candy is so big, our excessive wealth zaps the life out of the usually high-spirited barter session. We’ve succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of our youth, and yet there’s a chewy melancholy sensation I can’t pick out of my teeth. Like a Milk Dud of feelings. Faced with the enormity of our bounty, I find myself unsatisfied with the experience. Why doesn’t the candy make me happy?
I think you know where I’m going with this.
Trick-or-treat isn’t about the candy. It’s about the agency. The power. When you’re old, you already have it, at least you do from a child’s perspective, but we often forget this. We take for granted our ability to be heard, to contribute in a meaningful way, and to reap the kind of rewards we want from our toil. We don’t have to dress up in a costume to be taken seriously. If you find yourself resting easy on the laurels of your life, my advice is to go buy approximately 300 to 400 pieces of candy. Put them into two bowls. Come trick-or-treat night, observe the thousand-yard stares of the participants and let yourself be humbled by the passion that brought them to this state of being.
But beware the Princess Elsa’s. They’re out to get.