By the time I met him, he was no longer running.
It was a quarter past four and my Oak Park street was empty. I sat on my front porch waiting for trick-or-treaters when I heard leaves crunching behind me. The gate to the backyard opened. I stood up to see who it was … a teenage boy, clad in black and holding a creepy clown mask in his hand. A stranger coming from my backyard?
Completely befuddled, I asked him, “What the heck are you doing back there?”
“Sorry, don’t worry about it, I’m leaving.”
“Not so fast. How did you get into my backyard?”
“I jumped the fence, man. I was running away from someone.”
“That means you jumped multiple fences!”
The boy was winded. He sat down on the top step of the porch. “Hey, could I get some water?” he asked. “I’m super-thirsty.”
I gave him the cup of water I had just poured for myself, and he drained it. I sat on the bench behind him.
“Who are you running from?”
“I was running away because I took someone’s candy.”
“Maybe 50 pieces.” He reached into his bag and took out a plastic Tupperware full of candy. “I told my little brother that this year I would try to steal someone’s entire bowl, so when I saw the container lying out without anyone around, I put it all in my bag. But a guy in the house saw me. He chased me down two blocks and I had to jump some fences to get away.”
“Well, you succeeded.”
“Yeah, man. Thanks for letting me rest here.”
“Maybe you should give the Tupperware back.”
“My dad parked our car right outside the guy’s house, so I guess I’ll be back there at the end of the night. Hey, could I have another glass of water?”
I hesitated. “Sure. But you better not take my candy while I’m inside.”
“Don’t worry, I’ve learned my lesson.”
I refilled his cup and went back out. He drank and said, “Alright, I should go find my dad and my little brother. Thanks for the water.” He walked down the steps.
“Wait a second, I need that cup back.”
“Aw sorry, here you go.” I took my cup and said goodbye.
Before I could process what had just occurred, two children came up the path. The girl was dressed in medieval battle-gear and her head sported a pair of mouse ears. Next to her, the boy’s face poked through a stuffed starfish.
“What are your costumes?” I asked.
“I’m a warrior mouse,” said the girl. “Do you know about the Redwall series? My name is Matthias.”
“I’m a starfish!” said the little boy.
“Why did you choose to be a starfish?”
“Because I like starfish.”
Then he pointed: “That’s a Reese’s wrapper on the bench. You ate the Reese’s, didn’t you?”
“Yes, I did.”
“That’s why you’re asking too many questions.”
I had been silenced. I told them they could each pick two pieces of candy from the bowl. Like many after them, they dove their hands into the bowl’s uncharted depths in search of some rare candy that was not present on the surface. And like many after them, their hands emerged without success. They settled for something on top.
More trick-or-treaters began to swarm the block. An inflatable dinosaur waddled across the street singing, “Doo doo, doo doo, doo doo doo.” James Bond in a dapper tux fast-walked with a fierce grip on his candy-bag. A pink princess, Black Panther, Little Red Riding Hood, and a piece of cake all roamed freely.
Batman, a soccer player, and their vampire older sister came up the steps. They greedily leaned over the candy.
“What do you say?” I asked. They stood back, puzzled.
“Happy Halloween?” suggested the soccer player.
“You say, ‘Trick or treat.’”
Recognition dawned on their faces. “Trick or treat!”
“Has everyone forgotten what to say on Halloween?” I asked the empty porch, as the kids walked away.
The answer apparently was yes. Everyone had.
The toddlers showed the most promise. Their parents would accompany them to the porch and the journey up was a big accomplishment. The mom or dad would nudge their kid, “Say trick-or-treat now.” The kid would stare at me shyly and attempt something between a mouthing and a whispering of the words. A few toddlers remained silent, but I’m convinced the words sounded in their heads.
As the children grew older, these words were forgotten.
Frodo and friends were an exception. They said, “Trick-or-treat,” before reaching the porch. Did it count if you said the words that early? I was feeling generous.
One of the sculpted pumpkins displayed on my porch was modeled after Gollum. I asked Frodo if he knew who it was. He kneeled down and eyed the pumpkin.
“Is it the Grinch?”
Frodo was out of guesses.
Then three girls approached.
“I’m Taylor Swift.”
“I’m also Taylor Swift.”
“How about you?” I asked the third girl.
“I’m Megan.” She did not look enthused.
After the girls came a gaggle of boys. One of them wore a Chiefs jersey.
“Ah ha! And you are?” I asked.
“Patrick Mahomes,” he said.
These kids had no sense of coordination.
Now a mother carried her toddler up the steps. The child wore a chicken onesie. I asked her what she was.
She whispered, “Chicken.”
She sifted the candy around with her mitten. Her hand was too tiny to grab a piece.
“Do you have any Hershey’s?” she asked.
Our Costco-sized candy-bag did not come with Hershey’s.
Her mother approached. “She doesn’t know what she likes, let me help her find something.” Mom chose a 100 Grand and took Chicken down the stairs.
Night had fallen and my feet were frozen. The trick-or-treaters slowed to a trickle. I glanced down at my journal, blackened with notes from my conversations that afternoon. On no other day in the year did strangers of all kinds approach my doorstep expecting the hospitality of a treat. On no other day was I there waiting for them.
I thought that Halloween’s ritual of front-door encounters was a powerful way for citizens to engage with neighbors they otherwise would not. The kids I met might need a reminder to say, “Trick or treat,” but their excitement at going door-to-door and talking with strangers gave me hope.
When times turn sour, perhaps our Halloween encounters will remind us to welcome the stranger, no matter the costume they wear.