11/03/2009

Halloween and the end of US dominion

The arrival at my home on Saturday night of only one miserable trio of trick-or-treaters is a compelling indictment of the contemporary American way of life. A barometer, falling, of our standing in the world. I don't want to make too much of it, but the "financial crisis" might easily have been predicted by an astute analyst sitting through any recent long and lonely Halloween evening in my living room.

It isn't that there is anything to fear out on the local streets to account for the dismal turnout. The crack wars ended more than a decade ago; for most of this millenium the nearby blocks have been filled with the sounds of young pioneers, hammering and sawing and renovating Red Hook into its current state of eminently trendy desirability. My once edgy neighborhood has been conclusively gentrified. On days other than Halloween, I am known to gripe and moan that one can scarcely walk down the sidewalks any more, so clogged are they with strollers. In a few brief years this formerly marginal stretch of industrial waterfront has become as Park Slope, the Upper West Side, or any of the other notorious baby-making neighborhoods of New York City. There are, in short, an abundant supply of toddlers, and grinning, fawning parents eager to accompany them as they trick and treat, holding their moist, plump little hands while escorting them about the neighborhood.



But it is well-known that the Halloween pickings here are comparatively slim. The buildings are widely spaced, and there is still the occasional vacant lot. There are even one or two uninhabited shells, undoubtedly haunted. The stoops are steep, the doorbells ersatz and erratically positioned. On many blocks residences are mixed in with anonymous businesses that operate behind unwelcoming steel doors.

Contrast this with the uniform brownstone rows of Park Slope, where dozens of affluent households may be visited on any given stretch of street, and one will quickly appreciate that children there enjoy what economists call a "comparative market advantage." Here in Red Hook the aspiring pre-pubescent candy-collector must wander past an apartment building, cross in front of a vacant lot, and pass a small factory or sweatshop before finally collecting hard-won treats from one or two strange and isolated houses. Not so in Park Slope, just across the Gowanus canal. It is the neighborhood of choice in which to harvest the low-hanging fruit of the treat orgy, a place in which nobody poor or dangerous or threatening could possibly afford to live.

If you lived here in Red Hook, you might do the same as the local folks, which is to exploit this inefficiency in the market. In other words, pack your ten-year old in the station wagon and drive him or her the mile-and-a-half up the hill to the Slope, to knock on the doors of complete strangers who are not neighbors. It is more secure, the bag is filled easily and quickly. The parent spends less time, and the child is more richly rewarded. In investment terms going to Park Slope is a low-risk strategy with a market-beating rate of return. But at what cost?


 Unexploited resource

It isn't that I feel lonely, or neglected, although those emotions are close to the ones I felt in the moment, as I puttered about the kitchen, cooking, a lonely and hopeful wooden bowl full of candies placed on a chair near the front door. Ultimately I don't particularly mind that I myself did so little business. After all, I will be subsisting on those undistributed sweets for weeks to come. But viewed from two quite different perspectives, last night's pathetic showing can only be seen as another powerful indicator of the decline of United States hegemony, an explanation for the falling dollar and the surging deficit. In it are manifested, on the one hand, our sense of entitlement, and on the other, a grievous lack of initiative.

The origins of the trick-or-treat tradition are murky, but clearly it was once a pagan ritual involving a symbolic extortion and redistribution of wealth. Treats were doled out in order to purchase protection against unspecified tricks. As late as the 1970s in central New Jersey this contract was understood to mean that in return for handing out candy a homeowner would be exempted from having his aluminum siding pelted with eggs. Such notions may persist to this very day in some suburban enclaves.

If this ritual once delivered a social good it was surely that one had an opportunity to better know the neighborhood, to meet and greet one's neighbors, admiring their children and exalting the creativity that went into their costumes, irrespective of their wealth or social standing. All this has now been swallowed up in a tidal wave of consumerism. Everyone from the children to the candy companies and the costumer licensees of the latest Hollywood entertainments now look on Halloween as a fundamental cornerstone of the commercial calendar. There is no earning of treats with implied threats of violence, no messing about chatting with the neighbors on the stoop; a sackful of confections is simply an inevitable and predetermined reward waiting at the end of October. Whether it comes from working one's way through one's own neighborhood or targeting a reliable and high-density alien zone seems not to matter. From the parents' perspective, taking a drive out of the neighborhood is the fastest way to fulfill the child's expectations.



Our society feels there is nothing wrong with this strategy, because we have come to take the full bag of candy for granted. The social lubricative advantage of the original ritual has been lost; the only thing remaining of importance is what ends up the sack. In broader economic terms the meteoric rise of outsourcing, and the desperate promotion by our government of favorable "free trade" policies in the neo-liberal age, are obvious parallels. Both the exported labor, sent chasing the lowest possible wage, and the tariff-free importation of the goods thereby produced, amount to nothing more than an effort to keep our candy bag topped up to the brim. We seem to feel we deserve a certain standard, although we are no longer the ones struggling for it.

Viewed another way, where are those children willing to trample all over the others in their mad rush to get at the sweets? Where are the contenders? I have a whole bowl full of uncollected candy sitting over here. Where are the kids who went to Park Slope first, racked up, came home, dropped off the loot, and then headed right back out for more? Where are the envelope-pushers of trick-or-treating? Where are the teenagers who are perhaps just a bit too old and really ought to know better? Where are the late-comers who ring the doorbell just after you've gone up to bed, willing to offend in order to collect just one more candy bar? Where are the innovators, offering their leaf-raking services in return for an extra Snickers? How about a little competitive spirit?

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

What a dismal reason for a brilliant analysis, your scorned bowl of sweets! Next time I'll send "Otto the expatriate" to plunder your ressources - promised! Love, Marei

Anonymous said...

maybe if you had carved your pumpkin and lit it with a candle, and perhaps had better treats than ROOTBEER BARRELS! you would have had more visitors. just saying.

They say it's a cold world said...

Listen here, Anonymous@08:58, Rootbeer barrels are delicious, and what's more, as is plain to see from the accompanying photograph, I also had abundant butterscotch yumminess, atomic fireballs, lemon sours, etc. A cornucopia of smorgasbords! Maybe you are right about the pumpkin, but I'm telling you, the streets around here were desolate.

Real estate in GTA said...

Hi. I have to agree that year from year there is less and less trick-or-treaters. I was thinking about this paradox many times. On the one hand, I think that children nowadays grow up faster than it was before. I think that this happens because of the age of computers and internet. And there might be also reason that crisis influence also Halloween. But on the other hand, if families have less money for candies, then more children should trick-or-treat in order to get some candies.

Regards,
Julie

Anonymous said...

butterscotch, atomic fireballs, lemon sours, and rootbeer barrels together sound even worse than rootbeer barrels alone.

Ms Tate said...

I haven't seen butterscotches in a bowl since my last visit to the rheumatologist.

They say it's a cold world said...

Alright, Ms. Tate and Anon@11:54 and all the rest of you haters out there, talking smack about my candy selecting skills. The thing is this: it's not as if word got around that there was nothing to be had at my place except root beer barrels. There weren't enough people through the spot even to pass the word around. I could have been serving giant slabs of homemade baklava or lint balls coated with coal dust or fajitas for all that it matters. Argue with the irrefutable logic of my thesis in your next comment, not my personal taste in treats.

Anonymous said...

SO YOU ADMIT IT! Your entire Halloween was counting on the deterrence of trick-or-treaters in order to hoard the candy, guilt-free, all for yourself. Otherwise there may have been more consideration of the most TASTY and POPULAR Halloween candies, i.e. anything with chocolate and peanut butter.

They say it's a cold world said...

Piffle. I selected treats I consider delicious and desirable examples of the sorts of things I would hope to find in my bag at the end of a long evening of ambitious and aggressive trick-or-treating. Whether or not others share my tastes is irrelevant. The point is that nobody came. The block was as a graveyard, not a child to be seen. The one group that did clamber up my stoop didn't even make it downstairs to ring the bell of the garden apartment, underlining the basic premise of my post, which is that we have become complacent and ambition-free. Ashley, who lives downstairs, and who told me that, as she put it, she is "all about handing out free candy," didn't have a single customer all evening. I don't know if she was giving away Mars bars or lasagna, but nobody came around to see. Please try and stay on topic, people.

Anonymous said...

If I was walking down your street and saw your neighbors house, fully decorated with blinky witches and fully lit pumpkins aglow, and then I saw your house, with a pumpkin on the porch which could just as easily be compost as it could be a holiday decoration, which would doorbell would i ring? I might just skip the climb of your stoop and move on down the block. You are not giving credit to the trained eye of the tricker-treater, who often equates an abundance of Halloween decor, with an excellent assortment of candies, and sometimes spooky music or some scary re-enactment complete with peeled grape eyeballs, and a surprise spook from the older brother hiding in the hot-tub. I can recall the best blocks in the neighborhood, consistently year after year, as well as the houses to avoid, and not because they were haunted. Maybe you have neglected to build a Halloween fan-base over the years, but rest assured there are simple and effective ways to transform your house on your block into a grubby treat-grabbing hotspot. Why complain about the lack of Halloween spirit when you yourself have made minimal effort? You may have avoided an egg-pelting by providing SOMETHING sweet for the children to nibble on, but where is the passion in your own Halloween which you proclaim is so sorely underrepresented in this country today?

They say it's a cold world said...

This most recent comment is a perfect example of what I'm talking about. We are suppose to entice children to come to our homes? Of course not. The trained eye of the trick-or-treater got in a car and went to a neighborhood with easier pickings. I put out an organic, locally grown Added Value pumpkin and left my door open, invitingly. But the neighborhood was empty. Now, just like Rudy Giuliani and Hallmark cards inc., Anon@12:56 wants me to rush off to K-mart and buy a bunch of plastic glow-in-the dark plastic made-in-China crap--"blinky witches" indeed--to convince little children that it is worth their time to climb up my steps? If that is "passion for Halloween" I'd rather be the grinch.

Betty said...

This mother of three and grandmother of almost 8 is known for loquaciousness, but for you I would offer but one word of advice for next year:
CHOCOLATE

Betty said...

Since my attempt at avoiding unnecessary words and simply advising "chocolate" did not seem on the subject to the gracious author, possibly a more verbose explanation would be appropriate. Please do not underestimate the communication among today's youngsters. Our 3rd grade nephew's son (the son of your 2nd cousin) has restrictions on texting in school because of overuse. Halfway through the evening, our visitors not only knew we had chocolate, they knew if they said thank you without adult prompting, their treat was doubled. Even though facing reproof for not being on the subject, I would recommend next year "chocolate."