By S.L. Wisenberg
We didn’t know anyone who was having a Halloween party, so we were driving north looking for a bar that might have a semblance of one. We’d gone to a performance in Old Town and afterward we’d walked along North Avenue stopping people in costume and asking them if they knew of any parties. They all said no.
I suspected they were lying.
So now we’d retrieved the car and were in Lincoln Park. Phil was driving; his girlfriend Niquie couldn’t because her wig cut off her peripheral vision. All our costumes were impromptu. The wig was one Niquie had bought to decorate a pumpkin once. It was long and black with a white streak. She was Susan Sontag or Just Dressed Up. Phil had on a beret and a coat that had been Niquie’s grandfather’s. With his mustache and beard he looked menacing. At first he said he was a pimp but then he became the Man With the Hat. My costume consisted of sequins and glitter attached to my nose and cheeks (with false-eyelash glue) and my hair pulled up high in pigtails. The pigtails looked like dog ears, Niquie had said, so I put a barrette around a tuft of hair in the middle and declared myself a show dog. Whatever that was. I perceived myself as some sort of talking dog that traveled with the circus.
It must be a sign of age not to know anyone throwing a Halloween party. In my 20s everybody was always having parties, and in grad school, costume parties for no reason. We’d dress up as the Virgin/Whore Dichotomy or Free-Floating Anxiety. (Free-Floating Anxiety told me later that she would beat her head against walls, literally.) We even had a prom. I made a dance card and collected the signatures of my partners, sure at least a few of them would be famous someday.
I lost the card and I don’t remember who I danced with, but I went to school with people you’d have heard of by now.
In my early 30s, we’d dress up as Daylight Savings Time or a Stranger in These Here Parts and drive south to Joy Darrow’s famous Halloween party in her big old house on Prairie Avenue. She was a well-known photographer and journalist. At first we were sort of invited–friend of a friend of a friend–then it became clear it was open to anyone who’d pay the cover charge. The food and drink were free, and spread among the rooms in her gallery downstairs. I remember a photographer who wore a tuxedo and was shooting people with a squirt gun. Unfortunately he startled my friend Frieda, who–I think I remember this right–threw lettuce on his head. I met a reporter there who was, for that night, Carmen Miranda, with fruit piled on her head (I think there were a few Carmen Mirandas that night). We later became friends. It must have been a long time ago because I remember a guy whose costume consisted of miniature roads and cars. He was a freeway that had collapsed during the Bay Area earthquake.
The best was John the Baptist, whose real head was covered somehow and who carried another head on a plate. Or maybe the costumed person was Salome. Time passes and we were drunk.
A couple years ago I called about the party and Joy said it had become private. And then not long ago she died.
But I swear there was a time when my real friends had Halloween parties. I think. But at some point, your friends, instead of having Halloween parties, have bowls of candy to buy and set out for the neighborhood kids, then children of their own who dress up, and then, for example, a child who is too old and independent (tenth grade) to help his father carve a jack-o’-lantern, which he used to love to do. This last bit I heard Halloween afternoon from a friend.
Seven hours later I was dressed as a glittery show dog and riding in Lincoln Park. On Sheffield near Armitage a parking space appeared and it was such an unexpected and rare phenomenon that we took it. We started walking. We passed a three-flat where a few people sat on the stoop. Phil said “Happy Halloween,” but the people just stared so we went on.
We saw a bar on a corner with pink lights in the window arranged in a way that looked like a bra or rabbit. A loose knot of costumed people was milling in front on the sidewalk. The bar had no signs in front. It appeared this was a house, not a bar. There was a small note in the front window that said to go around back. I figured the note was for us. Let’s go, I said to Niquie and Phil. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to follow two women around back and into the party proper. In fact, it felt very similar to an evening two weeks before when my boyfriend and I had rung the doorbell for a friend’s office party and joked around with several other people waiting to be let in. In fact, the Halloween party was less anxiety provoking. I didn’t have to worry I wouldn’t know enough people or have anyone to talk to. I didn’t have to introduce myself.
How do I explain how natural it felt to squeeze our way into the party, to exchange pleasantries with an Elvis near the door? (Who informed us there were six other Elvises inside.) We wanted to dance and snaked past a bank of votive candles, past witches with pointed hats and French maids and a nun or two. There was lots of that cottony spiderweb stuff, and while we danced a little we bumped against stuffed ravens near the fireplace. It was festive, like Christmas. Maybe because I saw a female Santa Claus.
Everyone seemed young and innocent and collegiate, sort of like the crowds at the parties I used to go to with my friend Jessica (aka Carmen Miranda)–non-costume parties, thrown by very young, very small people in apartments with big furniture and low ceilings and I’d think about the time I saw President Eisenhower in a parade. (It was 1960 in Houston and I was in kindergarten.) Nothing makes you feel older and more alienated than being among tiny pretty women wearing more makeup than you wore in the entire 1980s and talking about celebrities you’ve never heard of. Here they seemed as young, but welcoming, well, accepting; we were invited to the same party, no? And we were all in costume. I felt comfortable, much more comfortable than the guy in a burlap sack standing near us holding a Streetwise looked. There were three Brownies, sashes and all, sitting together on a white couch, and nearby, a woman all in red who said, in response to my question, that she was not the devil. She was something from an old animated film. You’re too young to remember, she said, and I thought, I doubt it.
Someone told us it was great upstairs so we went up two flights, realizing this was a several-apartment party, and went past bloody gloves on a kitchen counter out to a porch.
We passed a wan young person in a pinky blond wig, sitting in a wedding dress with blood on it, holding a bouquet of dried roses. Niquie recognized her as Carrie. We met a young woman in an orange gauzy outfit with a pumpkin top on her head. I asked if the pumpkin was real and if she was Peter Pumpkin Eater’s wife. She said no, she was the Halloween fairy. Niquie asked if she could grant us wishes. We snaked from the porch to the deck and talked to a cow with a nipple ring on his/her udder; Mr. Kotter, with his fake mustache in his pocket; a plainclothes cop and one in uniform; a man in a long slim dress; and Harlem Globetrotters. By this time people were asking us what we were, and we didn’t have good answers. Niquie said I was a poodle and she was my owner. But then what was Phil, who was Italian/French/a pimp? Oh, we decided, we were all French, including me, the poodle.
We talked to Lake Michigan (Michigan T-shirt with beer can, fish, seaweed, crabs safety-pinned to his shirt). He’d already gotten a lot of ribbing for the crab. I swear someone dressed as Lake Michigan at a Prairie Avenue party. Lake Michigan told us that the party was given by the seven Elvises. He worked with one of them, who had paid $300 for his costume and $400 for decorations. He was clean-cut and looked like a lawyer but later Phil said he must be an accountant. I tried to find clues about our hosts from the walls and refrigerators, but all personal effects were taken over by the holiday decorations and the exigencies of party giving.
Later Niquie said she was surprised I was talking to all these strangers, but it seemed natural, because for me, this was not idle party chitchat. There were vital things I wanted to know. Like: who are you supposed to be, how did you attach that beer can, are you Bob Greene? (No, he was Kotter without his mustache.) All conversation was concentrated on the essentials: who we were, what we were, how we put our costumes together, how many Marv Alberts we’d seen. No one once asked us what we did.
I got the hiccups, and Phil said boo a few times but it didn’t help. We went downstairs to the kitchen for some water, but that didn’t help. We passed the Streetwise vendor, who looked like he hadn’t moved.
Once outside, we found another party right away. It seemed older (noncollegiate; 25 at least, said Niquie) with framed black-and-white Famous Photography and a dartboard on the walls and a disco ball circling on the ceiling sending out its dizzying flashes of white. We danced for a while until I got woozy from the lights and the warmth and my continued hiccuping. (By the way, none of us had anything to eat or drink at these parties except tap water. After all, there’s a difference between a crasher and a moocher.) There were cheerleaders at this party and doctors in scrubs, and when we got back outside, we encountered a confused person in a wig, sunglasses, golf pants, and a bowling shirt, who broke down under intense questioning about his costume. There were people walking behind us and I turned to them and said we’d follow them to the next party but they said they were going to the 7-Eleven. We went too. I bought water for my hiccups, and saw one of those lovely tableaux you see only on Halloween. There were about six people in line, two in black-and-white stripes. I think they were prisoners. There was also a cat at the cash machine, with a nice sturdy black tail, which I envied.
As we were about to go, we saw this guy buy a pack of Coors. He complained about the price. The civilian-dressed clerk said soberly, “No matter how much you pay for beer–it’s worth it.” And everyone laughed.
Outside, Phil was buying a Streetwise from a real homeless person, who was much more garrulous than the ersatz one at the party. The guy told Phil that he needed something, man, and he reached into his bag and retrieved just what Phil needed–plastic horns and cow ears. He told Phil to pick the price. Phil gave him a five-dollar bill and put on the adornments, which complemented his dark hat.
The rest of the evening pittered on. Other parties seemed too intimate to crash and it was getting late. Niquie mused that it’s too bad people don’t dress up their whole houses. I imagined apartment buildings with giant ears on them and elephant trunks.
Niquie and Phil had to get up at six the next morning to stand in line to reserve a Park District building for their wedding in June. We had planned, once we were back at their apartment, to carve a pumpkin, but instead Niquie put it in the window among some big plants and I went home.
When I got home I started taking off my sequins and glitter. I used soap and water, oil, Vaseline, and finally a punctured vitamin E tablet. It took about 30 minutes and still I had pink ridges where the eyelash glue had been thick and where the pink glitter had faded into my skin. I imagined being marked like this, by Halloween, the rest of my life, but figured most of it would be gone when I got up.