It was either 800 or a thousand pieces, the math was fuzzy, but even at the miserly ratio of one bite sized Snickers per trick or treater we ran out of candy by 8 pm. I gave the last two pieces to a bumble bee maybe two feet tall, turned out the porch light and watched tiny ghosts and monsters pass by in the dark.
We went out to Elliott Caine’s pad in South Pasadena last night, like we do every year. We cover the door while he and Lei take the kids trick or treating. South Pasadena–as old as it gets in Southern California, full of Victorian homes–is Halloween heaven (now there’s a concept). All the houses are tricked out in ghoulish finery and kids are drawn from all over like moths to flame. They come in a trickle at first, then grow from bunches to throngs to armies to a vast herd of tiny little princesses two feet tall and rangy punk rockers in old Thrasher t-shirts and all the leggy moms herding them along. Trick or treat they all yelled, over the crazy screeching free jazz Elliott had put on–I remember a little bumble bee dancing to Ornette–and Fyl and I took turns dropping in a Snickers or Reeses or Butterfinger or whatever. We had more than enough candy, we thought, twenty bags full–about twenty pounds of it–but we didn’t, and after dropping them singly into an endless array of paper bags and pillow cases and plastic pumpkins, we were wiped out before 9 pm. Elliott Caine had already returned before then, exhausted. It’s crazy out there he said, giddy with it all. I dropped in the last few candies and apologized to the line of little ones that we were out. You try saying that to a pair of four years olds in matching Superman outfits without feeling guilty. Their mom smiled and walked them off to the next place. I would have given her two candies. Though I gave the dads candies too.
Empty of treats, we turned out the lights and blew out the jack o’ lantern and turned off the flapping bat with the glowing red eyes and shut the door. In the dark, ghostly, the armies of the night shuffled along, little ghouls and cowboys and monsters and superheroes. Elliott’s kids, home and exhausted, were packed upstairs to bed, and the neighbors departed with their own sleepy broods. The music had gone from screaming to swinging–Miles, Dizzy, Lee Morgan–and the air turned sweet and fragrant, the brandy was good, the beer cold, the pizza cold too. We talked of jazz and everything else late into the night and on into All Saints Day. Yawning. Time to break it up. As we drove home, grown up ghosts and monsters and super models and a Donald Trump or two walked unsteadily down the sidewalk.
I’ve never been much for grown up Halloween myself, I like to see all the kids in costumes. They’re mostly handmade now, little hand sewn princess outfits or zombie get ups made from shredded hand me downs and liberally applied make up. I like it better that way. As I drop candies into the bags it took me back to frosty harvest nights in Maine, the moon full, a chill wind blowing through the leafless trees. The ancient empty house up the street was haunted, the older kids told us, and we believed them. A whole family of headless ghosts lived there. They’d all seen them. None of us had, and we didn’t want to. We kept walking. There were unhaunted houses a half block up, with real people living in them, and big jack o’ lanterns out front. I tried not to look at the old cemetery as we passed it, wishing I wasn’t wearing a ghost costume. A cold wind blew across the headstones. Dead branches creaked and moaned. It was an endless walk, past the unruly dead in the cemetery, past the ancient wall, to the first house with all the squealing kids scurrying to the door. We were almost to the wall and I reached out to touch the lichen covered brick. A mistake. Out stepped a zombie. We shrieked and nearly bolted. Trick or treat he yelled, and laughed a dead man’s laugh.
It was the best Halloween ever, and as I drifted of to sleep that night I thought about the Great Pumpkin (that was its first year, 1966) wishing it was real. That was our last Halloween in Maine, and not a year goes by that I don’t remember just how perfect it was.
Another great Halloween in South Pasadena, hundreds of kids, ran out of candy early. And either I’m getting taller or the trick or treaters are getting shorter. Don’t think under two feet, but close. Moms are getting slinkier, too, not that I noticed. Boas are still in. I worry about the kids running down the front steps, but it was a stunning mom in six inch heels that nearly toppled over. She caught herself, regained her composure, and it was like nothing ever happened. Slinking and styling on Halloween.
Elliott Caine had picked out some crazy 20th century classical music and New Thangy free jazz vinyl to freak the trick or treaters. It blasts from the living room. Ornette getting weird. Stravinsky way out there. Some of the kids notice. That’s some weird music, Mister. They take their treat and run. Archie Shepp is really getting down now, we’re partying, handing out candy, eating pizza, freaking on some of the crazier costumes–you can always tell when mom or dad is an artist. Their kids look like an installation. Archie is screaming on a big fat tenor, a battery of African drummers generates waves of syncopation, the arrangement lays in horns like Duke Ellington. Swinging, pounding, screaming. Crazy. Trick or Treat. We toss candy in the bags. Thank you! Goblins are very polite these days.
Later, candy gone, we turned out the lights, shut the door and retreated to the inner sanctum. Time to stretch. Fyl flips through a beautiful volume of Herman Leonard, the pictures of long gone jazz players are black & white and ill lit, full of shadows, smoke haunting the frame like ghosts. Miles Davis blowing behind us, cooking, Trane comes in blowing sudden rushes up and down the scale, but Miles owns the session. Elliott stops to listen to a particularly good passage. His fingers work the solo. It’s all about Miles tonight. Fifties Miles, Prestige Miles. No Lee Morgan this year. It’s the Prince of Darkness. Fyl shows us a Herman Leonard photo. Miles with trumpet, glaring. Jazz noir. Day of the Dead. Elliott starts telling us about another old jazz cat who had died, a player, can’t recall the name now, and how his son had just given him the old man’s record collection. Two big boxes full of amazing albums. We’re flipping through them and sampling some on the turntable. All kinds of great 1950’s stuff, a lot of west coast cool, and we’re digging the sounds and the wind is blowing and shivering branches tap the window. Fyl says they’re calling us. Who? The dead. The dead? The dead jazz musicians, she says. All the ones in this book. They want to come in. We laugh when an incredible trombone solo comes out of nowhere. Frank Rosolino, on cue, on Halloween. Properly sensitized, we sit in the dark, listening to the wind and the bones and telling scary Frank Rosolino stories. A jazzman Halloween.
I used to spin music for the trick or treaters. The Residents, Throbbing Gristle, Velvet Underground, Pere Ubu, Himalayan chants and horn bellowing, voodoo drums, stuff like that. Coltrane’s Meditations, even, which for the uninitiated can be a little unnerving…. Kids would say that is scary music, mister! Crazy! They got extra candy. Some kids started up the walk sassing and I turned up Throbbing Gristle and they fled. Ha! Then as the Residents demented take on Satisfaction blasted from the speakers I looked out the door and there was the cutest little thing you ever saw in a Tigger costume. She clung to her mother too terrified to come to the door. Her mom looked at me. Your music scared her, she said. Scared her to death. I said I’m sorry. She said well I guess that’s what you’re trying to do and walked off into the night, soothing the little thing with mommy talk.
Wow. I had terrified a two years old with the Residents. That was not supposed to happen. You’re not supposed to make tykes in Tigger costumes cry. It’s just wrong, Halloween or not. I took off the Residents, and put Hamburger Lady away. Played something less scary. Couldn’t tell you what. And here I am still feeling like a creep about the whole thing twenty five years later. Trick or Treat indeed.
A friend was just bitching about Halloween. He hates Halloween. He hates everything, actually, but today he hates Halloween. I love Halloween. Not Halloween for grown ups so much, that can be annoying, but for kids. We go out to South Pasadena every Halloween and cover the trick or treat action at the door for a jazz trumpeter and his wife. They walk their little ones around the neighborhood and we man the door. There are hordes of kids, hundreds and hundreds, from cindy lou who’s a foot high to Occidental College students with a hat and a brown paper bag and that herbal smell. One time some Hooters girls came dressed as Hooters girls. Funny what you remember.
After the kids are all gone (or the candy runs out) we drink beer and eat pizza and hang and listen to Lee Morgan on scratchy vinyl and the trumpeter tells jazzy tales of woe, degradation, and soloing pure and beautiful. Later, back home, we’ll catch the tail end of whatever horror movie marathon is on. Bela, Boris and Vincent Price. Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley’s heaving bosom. The bite comes hard, with a crunch, and the blood flows and runs down Christopher Lee’s chin. Barbara swoons. My wife gnaws on a Snickers bar she copped from the bowl. I’m chewing some bubble gum. We drink beers and watch and shiver. Halloween.
It’s our connection to the pagan past, Halloween is, and to an early Christianity when death was ever present and the souls of the fallen were all around us, lost in limbo. We lit candles then, we prayed, we cowered, and we saw spectres everywhere. They were real then. They’re on the TV now. But if you let the stories get to you, really get to you, the spectres can be real all over again, and you can feel a hint of the terrors of life in the dark, dark ages.