One day, while traveling the back roads between Exeter and Lindsay mid-afternoon in September’s last heat, I was forced to stop and wait while the school bus unloaded at the little market in Tonyville. There, embedded in scenery most people would find embarrassing if not shameful, was a parade of beauty I felt lucky to witness.
Its last stop, the bus emptied slowly. Children from the first six grades gushed out the doors, talking and laughing, dragging or wearing their hooded sweatshirts and backpacks. Waiting on the sidewalk were the mothers and aunties, big sisters and brothers barking orders in Spanish as they gathered their flocks to guide safely home.
A young girl, maybe third grade, caught my attention as she passed by the market’s gas pumps, her bare arms and legs moving freely. She was wearing a dress I would have loved in junior high and would have been forced to save for special occasions: a black A-line shift, sleeveless, with a magenta panel running vertically down the front. High energy, well-defined, it seemed to suit the little girl even though it was big enough to serve her for several more years. I could imagine feeling proud to be wearing that dress. She made it look good.
It was the kind of dress that 20 years ago some middle-class mother would have removed from her daughter’s closet for being out of style even if not outgrown, and sent to the thrift store. I grew up wearing these rescued treasures, I, the oldest of four children of a carpenter and a housewife, people who once were thought of as middle-class until the expanding number of white collars took that category from the blue ones.
Money was always a scarce commodity. Building houses in those days, though technically not seasonal, had boom and bust cycles like the alternating pattern of good and bad years for olive growers. Rain or shine, Dad did everything except pour concrete, which required a rainless spell to dry. Dry was hard to come by some years on the wet side of Washington state, and if the boss didn’t time the foundation work right, they would be laid off for weeks, even months.
I still prefer to shop second-hand, to pick from other people’s first choices. One of my favorite treasures is a white cotton choir robe I found in a Dinuba thrift store after the 1998 freeze, when I was in that town to report on Presbyterian efforts to provide relief to the citrus belt communities. That robe is the foundation of my angel costume that I have worn every Halloween since then, adding only a crooked halo to my outfit.
“Are you an angel?” some of the kids ask, wide-eyed when they come to my door.
“No, but I try,” I tell them, dropping a single Tootsie Roll Midgee into their bag.
One of the real (though secret) reasons I moved to small-town Lindsay more than two decades ago was to reinstate the trick-or-treating tradition in my life.
During the preceding two decades I had lived in urban and suburban settings where parents kept their kids off the streets for safety’s sake, and I was hoping that hadn’t happened here. When I mentioned this to my new neighbors, they whooped “Oh, you’ll get trick-or-treaters, alright.” They said “You’ll be swamped,” adding sourly, “They bus them in from Tonyville.” Nothing to do but keep their front porch lights off and not answer the door, they said.
That first Halloween I was prepared for 50 children and ran out of candy before sunset. The next year I ramped up my efforts, and still ran out early. The next year, poor, I hid out at a friend’s house in Springville and came home ashamed.
Then I discovered the big bags of Midgees, 575 pieces at that time, and sparingly handed out one apiece. One bag got me to 7:30 p.m. The next year I asked a friend to join me, and we made two bags go around, just barely. Now the bags contain only 375 pieces and it takes three, but we still enjoy between 750 and 1,000 pint-sized pirates and pumpkins annually, with never one bad incident or too much (if any) candy left over.
“Can you say ‘trick or treat?’ ” we ask them. “Twekatwee” the preschoolers chirp, while the toddlers look down, embarrassed, into their bags.
“Next year,” we say as the tiniest piece of candy on earth slides into their sacks. Last year a parent told me that he used to come trick-or-treating here when he was a child. He was carrying his infant son, swaddled in bumble-bee fur and bobbing antennas. I thanked him, and all the parents, for bringing their children out that night, grateful, so grateful, for this continuity.
The kids don’t come for the candy, despite what my old neighbors thought. They come for the privilege of asking for a piece of candy. They come for the novelty of a night out on the town, walking through neighborhoods, their own and others’. They come to participate in an American cultural event even we don’t understand, a relic of potlatch instincts and harvest sensibilities: celebrating abundance and sharing.
So I’m praying that little girl from Tonyville will end up on my front porch Halloween night, along with the other children on that bus. I don’t care if she has a costume or comes as her real self, bearing a bi-color sleeveless shift perfect for a night out on the town. I don’t really even care if she can say “trick or treat.”
That will come with time if we keep at this project of being part of each other.
Trudy Wischemann is an imperfect angel who writes and waits for Halloween in Lindsay.