Fight for Our Right to Candy

Four years ago this week, overnight on October 29 and 30, Hurricane Sandy blew through the Northeast. By the time it got to my hometown, New Haven, its winds had lost some of their huff and puff, and we were largely spared the worst of it. But some trees did fall on power lines; there were power outages; school was cancelled for two days. And on October 30, Mayor John DeStefano issued a press release cancelling Halloween for the city. “I would suggest folks skip trick-or-treating and stay home and have a wonderful time,” DeStefano said. “It’s the safe and right thing to do.” He urged people to wait a week, until November 7.

At one end of my street, a huge tree had been uprooted, blocking traffic and destroying a sidewalk. But the segment where I live, the two middle blocks of the four-block street, which draw the most trick-or-treat traffic every year, were mostly free of debris. My children, and many others in the tiny, friendly world of the surrounding blocks, were up for trick-or-treating. And some of us parents saw no reason they should wait. So we took to Facebook and e-mail and let it be known that — in defiance of the mayor’s request — our houses were open for business.

“About 15 West Rock Avenue (and vicinity) families have agreed that Halloween is tomorrow, 6pm on, as planned, in Westville,” I wrote, on October 30. “The mayor cannot re-schedule holidays. See you then!”

To me, this seemed like a minor act of civic rebellion, by an upright guy not known for anarchy or resistance. (I mean, I remember to use hand signals when turning on my bicycle.) And I saw it as a New Englander’s stiff-necked refusal to submit to bad weather. In an age when school seems to be cancelled for even a threat of snow, I was insisting that rain and winds cannot bend our spirits. Sticking to October 31 was a gesture of solidarity, among neighbors who every winter share shovels, snow-blowers, and jumper cables without a second thought. During the great snows of January 2011, when our street became impassable by cars, several neighbors built a fire pit in the middle of the street, where they roasted hot dogs and smoked cigars.

But our small clique of pro-trick-or-treaters touched a nerve, or rather many different nerves. Our alderman, whom I have known since we were in graduate school together, and whose children go to elementary school with mine, was concerned with safety. “I’ll be out tonight, clad in fluorescent yellow, urging people to go home,” he wrote on Facebook. One friend, a mother and teacher, wrote, “No one can postpone Halloween … but reasonable adults (and children) can agree that postponing trick or treating in the current circumstances is sensible and humane.” Writing in the comments thread a local online newspaper, my friend Jim, a father of two, framed his objection in terms of political ideology. “I don’t think we have to be pioneers or ‘libertarians’ about this,” he said.

Late on Halloween afternoon, about two hours before I was to take my daughters trick-or-treating, I knocked on the door of one neighbor who had been among the most vociferous online opponents of business-as-usual plan. I’d become concerned that there would be some sort of irreparable breach in the friendship if she saw us out that night, knocking on doors for candy.

“Why are you so upset?” I asked, standing at her door. “How does it hurt you if some of us try to have a normal Halloween tonight?”

She paused, as if searching for the exact nature of her objections. “I guess,” she finally said, “that I just feel that children have to learn to take no for an answer. Parents have to teach kids that they don’t always get what they want.”

So those of us who chose to defy the mayor’s Halloween postponement were unsafe — or inhumane — or over-indulgent of our children — or “libertarian.” Our critics agreed that trick-or-treating in the aftermath of Sandy was somehow unseemly, even if they could not agree precisely why.

It went unsaid, of course, but lurking in the background of this discussion — like so many discussions in New Haven — was race. In Sandy’s aftermath, most of the neighborhoods that suffered power outages and extreme debris were heavily African American, for the simple reason that most of the city is heavily African American. The two neighborhoods whose residents decided (again, principally through Facebook) to stick to October 31, part of East Rock and my stretch of Westville, were heavily, although by no means only, white.

But our neighborhoods had also suffered power outages and fallen limbs and smashed cars. So why did these pockets of residents decide that Halloween could proceed?

It may have had something to do with the social capital built up by ward politics. Westville and East Rock residents are very likely to vote, with our wards regularly having among the highest turnouts in local elections. And New Haveners vote every two years, so active voters know each other, and mobilize quickly on social issues. Surely, too, the sense of safety conferred by white and middle-class privilege makes parents in these neighborhoods feel more impervious to downed limbs or wires — as we feel more impervious to many of life’s dangers. Everything, from bad weather to the mayhem of All Hallow’s Eve, is less worrisome when you have more money and privilege.

And then there was the simple fact of Facebook. The trick-or-treating families organized their small-time resistance on the web, which was possible because we all had smartphones, speedy internet and, in some cases, a laptop or desktop computer on each floor. And while other communities have social media and phones, their friendship networks don’t always overlap with mine; we live in segregated virtual worlds, and messages from my world don’t always reach theirs (and vice versa).

So I think that what some of our neighbors were trying to say, in their inchoate, sometimes sputtering way, was that insisting on a tiny island of trick-or-treating in a city without it was just recapitulating the privilege that our neighborhoods had every day of the year: we get better houses, better schools, and — guess what? — we get Halloween, too.

I accept that point, more than I was willing to at the time. But I am still glad that we forged ahead, in part because Halloween is, as it happens, the most integrated night of the year on our street. As on other middle-class residential streets in other largely poor cities, Halloween brings carloads of children from other parts of the city. These children and their parents are as friendly as the neighborhood faces I know well. True, some of them are teenagers who barely bother to put together costumes — but that’s true of teenagers on Halloween everywhere. In general, I love the new faces, the hubbub, the noise.

In Westville, there’s a special twist, as we also get an influx of upper-class white kids from Woodbridge, the suburb to our west, whose widely spaced streets and busy arterial roads, lacking sidewalks, make trick-or-treating difficult. Black or white, urban or suburban, they come to our street.

So four years ago we dressed up our children as ghosts and Harrys and Hermiones and Princess Ariels and Transformers and enacted the annual pageant. It wasn’t as populated as it is most years; many parents never got the memo that Halloween was on, or they chose to honor the mayor’s edict. But about half the neighbors answered their doors and gave out candy, and two days after Sandy it seemed we had something to smile about.

And those who stayed home? They paid an unfortunate, unforeseen price: the following week, on the night of Halloween’s rescheduling, snow fell and sidewalks iced over, making trick-or-treating impossible. It was a sad irony, but probably lost on the children themselves, and soon to be forgotten by those young enough to cherish this anarchic holiday most.