PERSONAL HALLOWEEN HISTORY – Ragamuffins and Anarchists

>< ~ >< ~ ><  Chapter One   Halloween begins in my life
                When I was a child in the early 1940’s, we lived in a lower-middle-class working neighborhood in a section of Queens – one of New York City’s five boroughs. This area is, still, to this day, named Astoria. Visiting Queens through the last six decades has been fascinating, I might add, because it is mostly unchanged. The seven rental homes in that borough where we lived in over the timeline of my existence are, with one exception, still standing, as are the various schools I attended. Visiting my high school has been eerie!
                 In August of 1940, we moved from the crowded multi-story living of Manhattan to the relatively open spaces of Astoria  and took up residence on the second floor of a two-family home. At last I finally had a bedroom with a window and was delighted. Mom and Dad still continued to commute to work in one of the sweatshops of Manhattan, and, so, at the age of six and a half, I became a Latchkey Kid.
                Parenthetically, most of us were Latchkey Kids! When we came home from grammar school, we had to stay indoors, where we cleaned house, made beds, took care of younger siblings and pets, and folded laundry. We were required to read classics one hour a day … although most of us doubled the time.
                For those whose families owned family businesses, there was no latchkey. Instead, those children would go there after school. When needed, they would work as needed for their parents. Oh, how we envied them and their freedom! When time allowed, they would do their homework.
                Homework did not begin until after supper, which we girls helped our mothers prepare. Before homework began, however, we assisted with the clearing up and preparing of the next day’s lunch for all of us. Then, the homework was done under the eagle eye of our parents.
                Halloween was not a major event for us. We did NOT get dressed up in today’s sense of that word. Rather, we attended a party in our individual classrooms, preceded by a half hour “parade” around the playground. No prizes were given out. Mostly, we dressed in older siblings’ or grandparents’/parents’ clothing temporarily held together with safety pins.
                For both boys and girls, our biggest thrill was being permitted to wear Mom’s or Grand Mom’s costume jewelry and use their leftover lipsticks, which had worn down to the edge of the tube. They were kept for Halloween, at which time it was used on lips, faces, and hands liberally smeared with a thin coat of Pond’s face cream. Popsicle sticks, saved from the warmer days, were used as applicators.
                If our parents happened to have the money to spare, we owned a black Lone Ranger style face mask held on by tied cords. It was a treasure used for several years each October thirty first.
                The religious faiths of neighborhood orthodox families whose children attended either the Catholic or Jewish schools, did not allow participation in the Halloween dress ups.
                 For the rest of us, there were many restrictions. Demons were not celebrated because they were considered real, and they were supposed to frighten people. No Jewish child would dare to dress like The Golem – shades of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings ! (Thank you for your insight, Zachary.) Nor did the Catholics allow children to dress like Satan and his minions! Angels and biblical figures were also out of bounds. Keep in mind, also, the two deeply celebratory  faith days after Halloween  (on November 1st or 2nd, depending on the Christian denomination) were All Saints’ Day and the Mexican Day of the Dead.
                As I began reminiscing with others about the Halloweens of my childhood and the years that followed, various friends, in turn, journeyed back to their own past. Some questions came up which sent me back into the byways of memory: each question deserves its own chapter!

>< ~ >< ~ ><  Chapter Two Being a Ragamuffin and watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade Didn’t you feel deprived with this lack of Trick Or Treating? 
                 Many areas of the Northeastern United States adopted Saint Martin’s Day on November 11, as a religious celebration day coinciding with Thanksgiving Day in the 1870’s. It was a holiday that addressed the poor and disenfranchised throughout the Christian world. However, few communities took care of the real poor. Rather, it was a time for children to dress up as dirty ragamuffins and go door to door on Thanksgiving morning, begging for treats, coins, and other foodstuff. Often, informal parades were formed, and our treasures were waved over our heads. 
                (FYI: Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the fourth Thursday of November as a national day of thankfulness. In 1963, Congress made it a legal holiday.)
                Off we traipsed, often covering ten square blocks. We rang doorbells. We knocked on doors. We showed up in stores. When the residents or store employees responded, we would chorus “Anyt’ing for T’anksgivin’?”
                By the by, in 1930, the New York City Superintendent of Schools succeeded in having a law passed against the Ragamuffin excursions and “parades”, but most New York City communities, especially on Long Island, merrily ignored the law.     
                I soon became the envy of the neighborhood children because neither of my parents had to work on Thanksgiving Day. So, after I returned home around 11 am and changed my clothes. Then my parents and I traipsed via subway to downtown Manhattan to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. 
                To this day, as I watch the parade on TV, I sink into a reverie of fond remembrances. Who NEEDED Halloween, anyway?

>< ~ >< ~ ><  Chapter Three What was your most UNIQUE Halloween experience?  A Halloween Trip To the ER
                By the time I had begun teaching in 1973 in New Jersey, Halloween practices had begun to change dramatically. In the early 1980’s, and the beginning of the electronic age, a revolution occurred. The moirés of the “old days” were gone. Living and working in middle class neighborhoods meant there was too much ready cash available. Parents began to outdo each other in providing costumes. The heroes of old became passé. New heroes killed, shot, burned, and karate-ed others to death. Women wore fewer clothing. Whoever would have thought that Wonder Woman looked drab and overdressed? 
                When I began teaching in Mount Laurel, NJ, Halloween in the United States had embarked on an exercise in greed and outdoing others.
                Today, ironically enough, the practices which appalled me then seem relatively harmless. 
                Every year, the schoolrooms had more elaborate parties for the students. The parents endeavored to outdo each other with refreshments and games. Teachers and principals dressed in costumes. An hour-long parade happened after lunch, and prizes were awarded to both teachers and students … and finally, to parents. The children left school at the end of the school day, determined to fill their shopping bags to the rim with loot. Alas! By 1982 (at which time I had applied for a position in another district school), I got caught up in the fever. Each year, I had developed more and more amusing but wacky costumes. 
                Finally, my most glorious Halloween Day arrived. I would dress in a billowing gown decorated with brightly printed rainbows, and puffed out with a half dozen petticoats.  I would have a gilded soldier helmet on my head, and clump around in along in hiking boots with gilt laces. In addition I carried a gilded toy rifle to “shoot” birds flying overhead. I figured I would have the teacher prize “nailed down”. I now suspect God must have been appalled and decided to take action. 
                Since we had to have our regular morning classes before lunch, I settled my students into their groups and began teaching. The first group of students sat at the reading table and starting reading about an Olympic swimmer, who persevered in winning the backstroke swimming gold medal. She was quite a heroine. One of the students asked me what a “backstroke” was. The other five students in the group nodded their heads. 
                I tried to explain with words. No one quite understood me. So, still sitting in my chair, I demonstrated.
                “Oh, now we understand,” chorused the students.
                Gleefully pushing with my feet on the carpet tiles, and enthusiastically back stroking, I slid myself and the chair around the group while the children cheered me on to an imaginary finish line.        
                There was a sharp snap in my lower back, and I was unable to move. The pain was excruciating. Quickly I sent a student to the nurse’s office for two aspirin. Within minutes he returned with the two tablets, and I took them with water. 
                Twenty minutes later I still couldn’t stand up. It was approaching lunch time.
                After another twenty minutes, I sent him back to the nurse’s office for two more aspirin. Nurse Joan Cornew arrived with a dosage container and stood about five feet away from me, holding it up. The principal came in, too. I told them what had happened. Still standing in her position, Joan looked at me and said, “Come and get it.”
                Alas! I was unable to move. She nodded her head sagely. 
                The principal said, “I’m calling the first aid squad.”
                A temporary substitute teacher took the students to the lunchroom. 
                The first aid squad arrived, accompanied by the full fire department. I could not stand to be lifted onto a stretcher. So the paramedics lifted up the chair I was sitting in and slid me onto the stretcher on my back. They used inflated cubes to support my legs. It was humiliating.  The students, with trepidation, watched me being loaded onto the ambulance. 
                On the ride to the hospital, I had to tell the medics about the situation. They called the ER and explained about their patient. The ER doctor said, “I didn’t know there was a swimming pool in Countryside School?” Tersely, the medic snapped, “There is NOT.” 
                All the employees in ER – of course – were in full Halloween regalia. The head nurse – a friend of mine – was dressed like a witch with a green-painted face and her favorite set of fangs, rushed in and exclaimed, “Oh! My heavens! It’s John’s mom!” As she looked at my position, and heard the story, she said, “I didn’t know your school has a swimming pool?” The entire first aid squad chorused: “There isn’t any!” Explanations were rapidly made. 
                 I was admitted to the hospital. Within 24 hours the doctors had straightened out my body, although I still couldn’t walk, and I was sent home.
                By the way, my son John was, at that time, a nurse in the ER. It was his day off. When he heard what had happened, he rushed back to work, took a look at me, patted me on the head, and said just one accusatory word: “MOM!?!”      
                Recuperation time was awful. It was three weeks before I could return to school. Workman’s Compensation covered my expenses. “Only,” said MaryAnn Kirvan, our secretary, “because I didn’t volunteer extra information about our school’s pool.”           
                Anyt’ing for Thanksgivin’?

>< ~ >< ~ ><  Which of your costumes caused the greatest reaction?  The Anarchist and the Prostitute 
                Several years after getting married, my husband and I were invited to a friend’s house for a Halloween party. They lived a half hour subway ride away from us, and we were delighted to come. Another friend was driving back to the city from a work-related trip in New England, and told us he would gladly drive us home.
                I asked him about his own costume, and he said he would dress as a living spirit. After he arrived at the party, we discovered his gift of understatement. The “sheet” was a large white bedspread bespattered by rips and tears of all sizes, accentuated by red paint. He wore the spread over his head and had cut out eye holes so he could see. Once he got there, he could not partake of the refreshments, so I slit a mouth hole for him, and he wore his handkerchief loosely tied over his hidden mouth, in bandit style.
                The late afternoon of the party, my husband said he wanted to surprise me; and in turn, I wanted to surprise him. We both had all we needed for our costumes. Then one of us holed up in the bedroom, the other in the bathroom. A half hour later, we called out “Ready!’ and came out.
                One stunned look, and we collapsed in helpless laughter.
                Hubby had cut a bristle hairbrush into tiny pieces, put glue on his cheeks and chin, and spread the bristles on his face. What an unshaven mess! Then, he spread hair gel in his hair and rumpled it into hills and valleys. His clothes were ragged. He wore only one sock. He had painted large concentric circles on the soles of his shoes that looked like holes. His shirt was missing buttons and was only partially tucked in.
                In his hand he carried a black rubber ball to which he had taped a half inch diameter, ten inch long cord. It looked like a bomb.
                There was an (empty) pistol in his other hand.
                Choking with laughter, I immediately identified him as an anarchist.
                He looked at me and laughed hysterically. I had taken a bright red, tightly fitting dress and its inviting false leopard skin belt, and had cut the hemline to midway up the thighs. My hosiery was held up by extra long garters extending below the hemline. They were fastened to my black sheer stockings. My brown hair was streaked with blond and red highlights, and was almost as wild as my husband’s, thanks to my own tube of gel. I had enough so much makeup on my face, I could barely smile. When I open , my thickly smeared red lips, one front tooth was blacked out. My shoes had four inch heels. Of course, I had the foresight to bring newly purchased flip flops being sold in boutiques,  in a pocketbook bought for the occasion: silver sequins, folks. Silver sequins.
                Choking with laughter, he immediately identified me as a prostitute.
                It happened to be a warm evening, so we didn’t bother to wear coats.
                Merrily, we walked the five minutes to the subway station and soon boarded a train. Most of the people were on their way home from work. Everyone stopped talking and stared. No one said a word.
                At each station, people emptied out and people poured in. The newcomers stared at us in stunned silence.
                By the time we reached our third or fourth stop, most of the passengers had begun to laugh and started to banter with us. We played our roles to the hilt.
                Some invited us to ply our obvious “trades” in their neighborhoods. People in the 1950’s of New York City were quite aware of the realities of life.
                As soon as the doors opened and a new crowd came in, the same patterns of silence and laughter reoccurred.
     Our stop came up, and as we left, most of the passengers spontaneously sang, “For he’s a jolly good fellow”.
                 Fortunately, our friends lived only a minute’s walk from  away from the station. More fortunately, we had an auto ride home.
                Oh, yes. We won 1st prize.
                It was two days before we could get all the gunk off our bodies.
Happy Halloween.

 

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